Updated: Dec 22, 2020
By Paul Timlett
On Thursday 6 February I woke to a thick fog. I hadn’t planned to go out photographing this day but it was too good an opportunity to miss. The perfect weather for taking woodland photographs. Since we had nothing in the diary I asked the current Mrs Timlett if she fancied a walk. “OK”, she said, “I’ll make us some lunch”. “Oh, we won’t need that” says I “we won’t be out that long”. The current Mrs Timlett dutifully ignored me and put together a little picnic whilst I made a flask of coffee, which is of course all I would need. I was forced to eat my words, along with my sandwich, during the course of the day.
Glyn Coy has long had Great Ridge on the Hidden Wiltshire hit list. It’s not far from me and the one thing it has is a lot of trees. I envisaged a woodland playground where I would be spoiled for moody misty shots. I planned this visit as a reconnaissance for a solo trip another day when I would spend a long day shooting images for Hidden Wiltshire and putting together a blog. I wouldn’t put anybody else through the agony of watching me spend an eternity waiting for the right light and shuffling my tripod around to get the best composition. This being a short walk I grabbed my trusty little Fuji X-Pro2 and one lens.
We headed to Sherrington in the Wylye Valley and took the road by the railway bridge that heads up to Stockton Down. I knew there was a place to park at the end of the road next to Stony Hill before it turns into the track up to Great Ridge.
My plans for moody shots of trees and valleys shrouded in mist quickly evaporated. When we arrived the mist was already lifting to reveal a glorious sunny but cold day. I grabbed a couple of early images of the remains of the mist which I’ve shared here.
As we climbed the track through woodland to the ridge in the early stages of the walk we stopped to listen to the most unusual and distinctive birdsong, one I’d never heard before. Trying to locate the source was a challenge in the wood until it began to sound from above our heads. An almost mournful, piping sound. And there, above us, was the most brilliant red breasted bird with a coal black cap. I’d no idea what it was. We watched it for a short while before it moved on. This was an adult male bullfinch in what seemed to be full mating plumage. Surely he was too early but he wouldn’t be the first to be ready at this time of year. A few weeks ago we’d seen a young male great bustard with signs of whiskers displaying to a few disinterested females on Salisbury Plain.
As we reached the ridge line and turned right at the delightfully named Snail-creep Hanging
to head west along the broad track that is Great Ridge, I decided that I’d write a blog of this visit and take some photographs to record and share the route. I looked at the OS map and plotted a route. At this point the current Mrs Timlett asked how far it was. I hadn’t really thought about it. When I’m walking alone I never really worry about the distance. If I’m still walking in darkness, so be it. But we were both shod in wellies so I needed to show a bit of consideration. So I shrugged and said “Not far”. Oops.
Here Great Ridge follows the line of an old Roman road that once brought lead from the Mendips to Old Sarum. The woodland here is known as Great Ridge Wood, or formerly Chicklade Wood. It features in one of my favourite books, W. H. Hudson's A Shepherd's Life (1910), in which he reports that in the 19th century the old people of Fonthill Bishop and other villages were allowed to take from it as much dead wood as they could find.
This part of Great Ridge is owned by Fonthill Estate. They exploit the timber as well as running shoots and hunts. There are a lot of signs up here, although sadly not many directional signs for walkers and riders. But what is helpful is the emergency stations showing a grid reference. I guess if you’re cutting timber and lop off a leg with a chain saw it’s helpful to know where you are. So at grid reference 932360 you will find the shed in the photograph with wood cuts scattered all around as well as what looked several huge barbecues. I can only assume that wood cuts are burned here but I’m unsure why. Charcoal? At this point we continued westerly as the broad track designed for machinery turns into a narrow grass track through the trees, quickly arriving at little Point Pond. Apparently 350 metres north east of here there is an ancient earth enclosure but we did not visit it as it appears to be deep in the woodland.
There are many tracks heading in all directions here, only some of which are marked on the OS map. The ground is also boggy in places so we were glad of our wellies. I was planning to provide detailed instructions of our route through the woods as we attempted to follow the bridleway. We were aiming to head north towards Corton at the junction with another bridleway somewhere in the wood but we somehow deviated from the bridleway that purports to follow Great Ridge. So using my OS Maps phone app, which precisely located us in real time, we found our own way along paths through the woods to another emergency station at grid reference 921363. This was where we picked up the initially very boggy bridleway north to Corton.
As we headed north along the new bridleway we could see several white vans that had used one of the many broad tracks up to Great Ridge. We assumed they were forest workers but we soon heard the sound of dogs and hunting horns. We had seen the shadowy form of a deer earlier as it crossed a narrow path ahead of us and assumed this was their hapless victim.
We eventually emerged from Great Ridge Wood to the most magnificent vista north across the Wylye Valley towards Heytesbury in the far distance, as can be seen in the photograph.
We had been walking for around two hours and it being around 1:00 we decided it was time for the lunch that I was so determined would not be required. I could have stayed here for hours taking in the views and the changing light caused by the clouds scudding across the sky. Like so much of Wiltshire the countryside here is formed by the lucrative game shoots, with much of the cover fenced off to the public along with the pens for rearing the birds. I’ve seen members of shoots helicoptered in near here so it’s obviously big business. I don’t necessarily like it but if it enables the big estates to otherwise preserve the countryside who am I to judge? Horse riding is clearly popular here as well as there are warning signs about badger setts and several holes were marked with sticks to prevent horses breaking a leg.
Another feature of the countryside here is the proliferation of bottoms! Of course you knew that these are the dry valleys that cut into the hills. There are several in this part of Wiltshire and I’ve included photographs of those we encountered, including Well Bottom and Long Bottom which we crossed as we followed the bridleway north.
Shortly after the photograph of the current Mrs Timlett looking wistfully at Whatcomb Bottom we came across another small bird with a red breast and black cap singing above our heads in a hawthorn bush. This time the colours were more muted and its bill more slender. This turned out to be a stone chat. Not a bird that I recall having seen before. A few hundred metres beyond this we stood and watched as an enormous red kite circled gracefully before perching at the top of a spindly hawthorn totally unsuited to the task of bearing such a burden.
Around 2.5 miles after leaving Great Ridge Wood, and almost upon reaching the minor road that winds its way along the Wylye Valley, we turned right north-eastwards along a short stretch of footpath. It was at this point that my travelling companion began to question my remarks about a short walk. I knew there was going to be trouble ahead. The views from this path back up towards Great Ridge were glorious as the sun began to dip.
The path soon met up with the aforementioned road and we turned right again, this time climbing south-east on the Wessex Ridgeway just outside Corton. The way was now straight ahead almost back to the car which I realised was still several miles away. I decided to keep this fact to myself!
As you first turn onto the Wessex Ridgeway at Corton and begin to climb, to your left you will see a long barrow with a classic Wiltshire Clump planted on it. As the sun passed in and out of cloud I couldn’t resist a photograph. Off to the right in the photo is Knook Camp. The Modern Antiquarian describes Corton Long Barrow as “A neolithic long barrow on the West Wiltshire Downs. 19th century excavations revealed eight skeletons and two cremation burials in an urn.”
After a while this track joins a metalled farm road. The questions about how far we had left to walk were coming thick and fast, and the choice of footwear was starting to seem unwise. I replied that I thought it was another a mile or so. After a mile or so I replied that it may be a couple of miles more. I was accused of having lied!! To be fair this part of the walk along the road was a bit of a trudge relieved only by the views east and north-east across the Wylye Valley and of several fine Wiltshire farm houses. Having crested the hill the way divides on Boyton Down. The road turned east but we continued south-east along the edge of a field towards another bottom – Park Bottom. We crossed a field warning us of the presence of a bull but thankfully he was nowhere to be seen.
Finally, after passing a disused chalk pit and a view south-west over Sherrington Down and of Great Ridge beyond, we reached the road where we had parked. From here it was just 10 minutes back to the car.
What I envisaged as a short walk had turned into a five hour, 10 mile hike! I say 10 miles but I’m neither sure nor care. It had been a magnificent walk in a small area of Wiltshire near to where I live but which I had not previously explored. My wife and I both have the same health apps on our phones. They both said that we had walked over 22,000 steps but hers claimed it was over 10 miles whilst it seemed I had only walked just over seven. I knew it was just a short walk, but I did sleep well that night.
All images copyright of Paul Timlett