The borderlands, Shire Rack and Jack the Ripper
If you hear the word borderland, you probably think of the area of land that demarcates where one country ends and another one starts. The boundaries themselves being man made fallacies that allows leaders to enact control on the land and the peoples contained within it. Frontiers may exist because of natural barriers such as a river or mountain range or are built to keep at bay hostile forces. These dividing lines often change with the political will and might of the day, yet many remain from ancient times. Sadly, in some cases borders serve to alienate minorities and separate families and yet they are everywhere and the British Isles are no exception. From our national borders to parish boundaries, it is difficult to imagine life without them, and there is little doubt that our lives would be very different if they did not exist. Yet despite these boundaries being pretty much an arbitrary manmade construct there is no doubt that borderlands and their inhabitants have a unique quality of their own. These areas of Wiltshire are no exception, and I find this quality magical and magnetic, but maybe in some cases they can forge a darker side of our nature to any particularly susceptible individuals.
Having grown up in a village that bordered four counties there is little wonder that I have an affinity for these areas. The sense of belonging and yet not belonging has been with me all of my life and I seem to seek it in the landscapes that I visit. The disconnect from the central hub allowing a certain way of being that differs from the mainstream is something I have kinship with. I certainly feel this otherness of place most keenly when I visit the Cranborne Chase border area of Wiltshire around the Shire Rack.
The Shire Rack is an ancient path that runs for approximately 5 miles along the boundary of Wiltshire and Dorset. The origin of the name “Rack” is uncertain, one theory is that it might be an old word for a mountain path, this would seem possible as the track does follow the undulations of Cranborne Chase and doesn’t seem to flinch from including the steep inclines. However, classing it as a mountain path in the true sense of the meaning might be stretching things a little. Nevertheless, it is a lovely area, and I always look forward to our visit to this ancient and wild space.
Parking the car at Garston Wood, often our visits have taken us along the border path and into Chase Woods before crossing into Dorset and heading back. More recently, for Hidden Wiltshire, we have decided to venture north from the “Rack” and into a bleaker more remote area of Wiltshire. I visited this area in March when the weather was dull and the wind howling and again recently in May when the weather was dull and the wind howling. This is a blog about these visits.
The weather has been atrocious so far this year and many hopes of getting out into the lovely Wiltshire countryside have been dashed by the forecast of heavy rain. Adding to my frustrations in the one lovely week we had in late February I was laid up with a migraine so, by the time I felt able to venture out, the leaden skies had reappeared. Undeterred I decided to head out to the Shire Rack and found the walk to be lovely and remote. So, I vowed to return to the area in spring when I knew the bluebells would be in flower. As it turns out the weather thwarted me again but with the promise of sunshine we returned.
As we arrived, I was disappointed that the gods had not received the memo from the Met Office for there to be sunshine. Furthermore, as we got out of the car and felt the cold blast of air, I wondered if it really was May, was it possible I could have stepped back in time to March and in some weird Groundhog Day moment be reliving my past? I was momentarily considering why of all days I would be reliving this one in particular, when I noticed the bluebells and wild garlic and realised, perhaps to some relief, that we were still in the present day.
Donning our waterproof socks and walking boots we felt we were as prepared as we could be for the inevitable puddles and mud and headed off. Skirting the edge of Garston Wood, we soon found the Shire Rack and turned westward towards Chase Woods. From the yellow archangel to the Butcher’s Broom, there is evidence all along the path that this is an ancient woodland area. There are also a number of veteran and noteworthy trees including Ash and Whitebeam to be spotted along the way. The butchers broom always intrigues me as I don’t recall seeing it in my “native” eastern counties. It apparently is so called as its foliage was used to scrub butcher’s blocks, its antibacterial properties adding an extra benefit to the process. The leaves aren’t true leaves but are more akin to flattened branches these having somewhat sharp spines on the end, something that I have learned to try and avoid if I find them in my path. Nevertheless, with its red berries and glistening dark green foliage, it is an attractive plant especially in winter and I am always pleased to come across it.
For a short way the footpath skirts the northern edge of Garston Wood. Its tall contorted trees that loomed as eerie spectres in winter had taken on a more benign air with their fresh flush of leaves and the spring flowers covering their roots. The smell of the garlic was almost overwhelming here and the path so much muddier than on my last visit that I almost wished I was back in March, but at least the weather was turning a little warmer.
At the end of Garston Wood, we took the right fork of the path and continued along the Shire Rack, the bluebells and wild garlic still lining the narrow footpath. As we walked, we passed the earthworks of an Iron Age Hillfort known as Mistleberry. The hillfort is horseshoe shaped and therefore believed to have been unfinished. Its presence by the Shire Rack suggests the area could have been viewed as a boundary to defend long before the existence of counties. The fort’s banks are just visible from the footpath and there is a somewhat lost and forlorn feel to the area. I think of the reasons why it wasn’t completed and this notion allows my mind to wander. Was this remote area in no need for a defence? Were the peoples too wild and unruly? Or were there other forces at play, forces that are unseen but felt? Perhaps these forces over the years had some influence on some of the inhabitants? Certainly one might have led a double life. I do not linger here, and we move on into an area of the path with woodland on both sides. In March I had been delighted to see a Marsh Tit here. As with many species the numbers of this little bird have sadly been declining so it is great to know that the habitat in this location still keeps the population going.
Continuing on the Shire Rack, we descended fairly steeply to Shermel Gate where we left the boundary path and started out on the byway up towards the Ox Drove taking the left path and avoiding the drive up to West Chase Farm. The woodland and the bluebells gave way, for a brief period, to pastureland and cowslips. Sheep were grazing in the field to the right and all seemed well and peaceful. However, as we walked, it did cross my mind that if I been taking this path in the mid 1800s would I have come across someone who might later become Jack the Ripper? Had growing up in this remote and at that time difficult place been the catalyst to unhinge a young man’s mind? Of course the true identity of Jack the Ripper was never solved but one person who was accused at the time was William Thick. Thick had been born in Bowerchalke but had later moved to West Chase Farm where he had worked there. However, in the mid 1800s life was difficult for those employed on the land and he gave up his life in the country to join the Metropolitan Police Force. It must have been quite a shock to move from this remote area to the East End of London and so could this have been too much for the young man? During his time at the Met, and because he lived close to the area of the murders, Thick would find himself embroiled in the dreadful cases of Jack the Ripper. He even arrested a suspect who would later be proven innocent. Could that arrest have been a smoke screen diverting attention away from the true perpetuator? With time going by and no further arrests, in some quarters suspicion did fall on Thick but there was no evidence to point to him. Could he have been Jack the Ripper? Who knows, but it is a strange thought that this remote area of Wiltshire would have a link to such heinous crimes.
Pushing these thoughts aside we continued on and into Chase Woods where the going was difficult in places due to the high volumes of mud and water. I peered into some of the puddles always hopeful that I might find fairy shrimp. Alas this time all I noticed was a submerged spider and a glowworm that I rescued from a watery death. Walking on we enjoyed the sounds of the many birds in the woods and the myriad of fairy ink caps growing on an old tree trunk.There is such a wonderful diversity of wildlife to see deep in the Wiltshire countryside. On leaving the woods we stated to climb more steeply up to the Ox Drove the views opening out all around us. This always seems like a long stretch of the walk, so we are always glad to see Bigley Barn as this marks the spot where the track meets the Ox Drove. Bigley Barn itself is a curious red brick building. It is possible that it was formerly an inn used by drovers but now seems to be part of a farm dwelling. Opposite the barn was a lovely family of a ewe and her two relatively new born lambs. One of which was more curious than the other and stopped a moment to allow me too take a photograph.
Once out on the Ox Drove, although the views into Wiltshire were as misty as they were in March there was no mistaking their wild beauty. Red Kites were circling and once again the notion of this being a wild frontier land was difficult to dispel. We took a short detour down the route to Alvediston to get a better look at Wermere, before continuing eastward on the Ox Drove. Wermere is a dew pond that is believed to have been in existence since Saxon times, it is difficult to tell if any water remains in it today
Our walk along the Ox Drove was very pleasant. It is wide enough here to avoid most of the muddy undulations left by the motorised vehicles and you can imagine the drovers taking their livestock to market along this route. Here there are tumuli and a cross dyke, again reminding us of the links to the past. Beyond these we took the first footpath off to the right and headed towards Dank Wood Corner, the name conjuring up an image of something cold and dark but instead the beautiful Beech trees and flowers of Stonedown Wood uplifted our spirits, and we continued along the perimeter of the woods for a short while before heading eastward towards Middle Chase Farm.
Once again the farm here is as remote as is West Chase Farm. The buildings are impressive, but as we continued, we noticed that there were witches marks on some of the plaster on the outside. Once again I was reminded that perhaps all was not always at ease with this place, however now with the sun finally starting to appear we felt nothing other than the joy of respectfully walking along the footpath through the fields of ewes with their lambs and watching them play.
Finally, we arrived back at the Shire Rack and retraced our steps to the car, all in all we had walked just over six miles.
For details on ancient and veteran trees see https://ati.woodlandtrust.org.uk/what-we-record-and-why/what-we-record/veteran-trees/
More about William Thick can be found at https://www.casebook.org/dissertations/ws-thick.html