Updated: Apr 10, 2021
Over the years I have driven past the delightful Fonthill Lake but never stopped to take a closer look, so I resolved recently to rectify this and take a walk around the whole Fonthill Estate.
The Fonthill Estate is some 9,000 acres in size and has been owned by the Morrison family since 1830. They have cultivated deep links with the county of Wiltshire in that time. Over the years a few Morrisons were Members of Parliament, and John Morrison, former MP for Salisbury was the last commoner to be given a hereditary peerage in 1983 as the first Baron Margadale. The estate is owned by the current Baron Margadale, Alastair Morrison.
In my first encounter with this place, I was deeply impressed with how well the land appears to be managed. The rights of way across it are maintained to a high standard, with signs and gates in excellent condition. Where tributary paths veer off, they are clearly marked as private so you know exactly where you stand. And there are enough rights of way to get you into and around the estate comfortably.
When I looked at the map I noticed a structure called Fonthill Abbey, and this proved to be an interesting story in itself. A previous landowner called William Beckford commissioned it to be built in woodland in 1796. It took many years to complete and instead of housing monks it housed his collection of furniture and antiquities - a true folly ! It was an imposing sight with an enormous tower but sadly it was not built well and eventually collapsed and was abandoned in 1825.
In trying to find a route to take I stumbled upon this excellent 6 mile circuit on the Visit Wiltshire website. You can download and print a pdf file at this link with a map to take you around: Fonthill Estate Walk. This blog merely describes my own journey around the route, punctuated with photographs.
To begin I parked near the south end of the lake, close to the Beckford Arms on Hindon Lane. Just after the pub is a public footpath that takes you close to the Holy Trinity Church, before pushing on towards the edge of Fonthill Abbey Wood.
This route skirts around the wood and eventually offers some delightful views of the village of Fonthill Gifford. Situated at the end of a road to nowhere, it was joyfully free of traffic. Standing at the top of the village and looking beyond, I could see the busy A303 in the distance, with lorries and cars making their way further West. They could be seen but not heard thankfully.
As I walked through the village I passed the Village Hut. Most villages have halls, but this one appears to have repurposed an Armstrong hut from World War One. While it looks rickety, it is perfectly functional and available for hire.
At the end of the village I passed a red telephone box and stood facing what was called Stop Farm. Curiously, it looked like the main building had been chopped in half.
Turning left at the farm onto the main road and I made my way up to a lane leading to the hamlet of Greenwich. I then headed north into some trees called The Terraces, along a very steep path which got the lungs working hard.
Once out of the wooded area I was on a flat plateau, where I could see the A303 getting closer - but still couldn't hear it.
Heading down the field I could see the small village of Berwick St Leonard.
Crossing the road I headed into the hamlet to take a look at the 12th Century St Leonard's Church. There were many signs welcoming me in so I duly obliged. Now maintained by the Church Conservation Trust it was a lovely little church.
Leaving Berwick, I followed a right of way to Fonthill Bishop and ended up in the churchyard of All Saints Church. A sign by the front door demanded that walkers do not clean their boots on the mat. Signs like this do not provide a warm welcome to travellers. I wonder what Jesus would make of it?
Just beyond the church was a welcome bench in the village centre, with an attractive bus stop on the other side of the road. As I drank the coffee from my flask, I flirted with idea of catching a bus back to my car but in the end decided to soldier on.
From here, I walked through the courtyard of the Fonthill Estate Office and followed a bridleway up past Fonthill Clump and had a nice walk to meet the eastern end of Little Ridge Wood (presumably Great Ridge Wood's smaller sibling?). At various points here you are quite high up and can glance backwards to snatch views of the north end of the lake. At one point I caught a glimpse across to Chilmark, where its church steeple was clearly visible.
Upon exiting the wood I found myself in a tiny village called Ridge. It was like going back in time. If the cars could have been removed from the road, I could easily imagine being in the mid 1700's. From here I followed the narrow road down until I reached the gates of Fonthill House. It was gated and clearly private, but a side gate offered me a route to follow the right of way as walkers are welcome to traverse the drive - cars are not (unless you are Baron Margadale or on official business).
From here it was a nice amble downhill all the way to the south end of the lake. At one point as I walked through the edge of a field I glanced across to the other side to see a symmetrical woodland that my map called "The Bushes". The views around here were really interesting and stretched far and wide.
As I traversed the end of the lake and made my way back to the car I felt glad that I had found a new place.
I could imagine this walk being wonderful on a warm summers day when the crops are ripe, the woods are green with leaves, the skies are endless and the walk is stretched out over a whole day - allowing you the luxury of not rushing, just pottering through the villages. Stopping to look at things. Maybe chat to the odd villager along the way. This is real Hidden Wiltshire.