The Lavingtons and the Wessex Ridgeway
Updated: Mar 16
Meteorogically speaking Spring had sprung. But waking early on a March morning the sight that greeted me as I opened the curtains was one of falling snow and fields of white fluffy down. This was not on the agenda when my neighbour and regular walking buddy Stu and I had planned this walk a week before hand. But as rough tough outdoor types we had both experienced a lot worse and we determined to go ahead with the walk. After all, how bad could it be? The answer was – very!
This is another walk I’d wanted to do for a very long time. Whilst the villages of West Lavington and Market Lavington are well known to many as they barrel through in their cars, I wanted to explore some of the many footpaths and bridleways that not only connected the two villages one to another but also led their inhabitants out onto Salisbury Plain over hundreds of years if not longer. This was never intended to be a detailed exploration of the two villages – each is worthy of its own blog as they both contain many fine and historic buildings. I wanted to explore their setting, the landscape in which they sit.
It is possible to begin this circular/figure of eight walk in any number of places. If you are arriving by car (as we did) parking is easier in Market Lavington but I wanted to end the walk descending from the heights of Salisbury Plain into West Lavington so we looked for a parking place close to All Saints Church (as I’ve said in previous blogs, when looking for a parking place I normally start with the church). The church sits on an island circled by narrow roads (one of which is the A360), but next to the Manor House you will find a large extension to the graveyard next to which is a small layby big enough for four or five cars, if parked considerately.
From the parking place we headed back along the lane in the direction of the church which was framed by a thatched wall to our left.
As we planned to finish the walk later in the day with a visit to the church we continued past this turn for a short distance to the curiously named Rickbarton. Sounding like a 1950s American detective it is a narrow lane that descends steeply to the A360, with views to the heights of Salisbury Plain and the strip lynchets on Rams Cliff beyond. At the bottom the lane crosses Bulkington Brook, which counter intuitively flows north, rising as it does from the springs in The Warren wood to the south west of the village. I say counter intuitively as not far away the Till rises and flows south.
The route crosses the busy A360 near a spot that will be well known to anyone that has driven this stretch of the A360. One hundred metres away the road narrows alarmingly to wind its way between ancient properties with All Saints Church looking down from above. This frequently becomes a choke point as large lorries, buses and coaches try to squeeze through, there being room for only one in each direction. There are some beautiful old buildings here and I always feel sorry for them as I wonder how many times they have been struck by passing vehicles. I once nearly ran down an ex-MP for Devizes at this spot who stepped into the road in front of me without looking as I cycled past. Somehow it was my fault!
The road where we crossed is slightly wider and in front of us was a little green overlooked by Dial House, a handsome early 18th century house with a sun dial over its front door. A little further north West Lavington was, on 26 April 1689, devastated by a fire that destroyed many of the old buildings. Whilst not on our itinerary today it is worth taking a stroll along the main street to see some of the buildings that survived, one of which has two fire hooks mounted on the facia used to drag thatch down from the roof in order to create a break to the spreading flames. We however continued straight ahead climbing the lane past Dial House on our left.
I must have driven along the A360 many hundreds of times over the years and I always wondered what was up here. I had no idea there were so many tracks, lanes and houses dotted on the slopes of the steep hillside leading up to the Plain. At the junction with Stibb Hill is a little white thatched cottage perched on the corner whilst a little further along the lane to the right is Stibb Hill House, once a row of four cottages built for the poor of the village. Returning from a quick look at Stibb Hill House to the white cottage on the junction we turned right and continued to climb up.
Next we turned left to follow the contours of the hill in a northerly direction towards Periwinkle Pond. To our right the steep slopes cradle the impressive series of strip lynchets we’d seen from the hillside opposite earlier. Whether these are man made or soil creep I’m not sure but Periwinkle Pond seems to be a dew pond so man may have had a hand in this. As we made our way along this track towards Market Lavington the weather took a turn for the worse. The forecast suggested the day would dry and the snow begin to melt but on these exposed slopes the sleety snow was being driven into our face. Swathed in various layers of protection we trudged head down along what was becoming an increasingly muddy track.
Cold and wet it wasn’t too long before we reached the edge of Market Lavington, as we looked across to St Mary’s Church below. Joining White Street we came to a junction of tracks and roads with pretty cottages and the substantial Knapp House clustered around it. Heading towards the village centre just past Knapp House, which was undergoing some fairly major repairs, we came to a ford on our left. Here we met a very helpful lady who explained that the ford was called The Broadwell and that horse riders often use it to wash off their horses after riding on the Plain.
The little stream is Semington Brook which rises near here and flows all the way to join the River Avon at Whaddon. Stretches of this section are home to brown trout. Stu later established that there was once a forge here (which has been replaced by the adjacent house called The Old Forge) and that there were two dipping ponds and pumps here used to bond different metals in the blacksmiths shop. The stream wends its way beside a path and alongside cottages,on a lane called The Muddle, that I never knew existed.
At the bottom of White Street we had one of life’s little encounters that I so relish on these walks. On the corner of White Street and the main road through Market Lavington is the carefully named St. Arbucks Café and Community Hub.
Despite being provisioned with coffee and food we were cold and wet so decided it would be remiss of us not go in. And we were so glad we did. Apart from the magnificent coffee and cake we appear to have walked onto the set of a TV comedy. There were only two occupants – a chap behind the counter who I assume was the manager (think his name was Barry) and a customer seated at a table in the window who appeared to have been there for some time! The banter was first class and as we joined in I felt like we had known them for years. It was hysterical. We were then joined by a lady from the WI and the banter ramped up still further. Do yourself a favour. If you’re passing this way, find time to stop at the café. You’ll find a link to their website in this blog. I was astonished when Barry (?) said they will have been there for 10 years in May 2023, untroubled by interfering American lawyers. But there are plenty of other names they could adopt if they are. Cakes R Us anybody?
Wrapping ourselves up from the cold again we crossed the road hoping to visit Market Lavington Museum. I’ve heard great things about it and their archives were of great use when I wrote the Folly Wood blog. The lady in the café told us that, being a Wednesday, the Museum would be open. It was but not until 2:00pm which was far too long to wait. Optimistically we planned to return when we finished the walk, hoping to make it back before it closed at 4:30. Fools! The Museum occupies what I understand was the Old Schoolmaster’s House next to the churchyard and behind the old school. Meanwhile in true Hidden Wiltshire fashion we decided to visit the church. Which was locked.
Re-crossing the road we found our way to a footpath that followed two sides of Lavington School’s sports field on our way to our next way point at Mill Farm. The beautiful manor farm is in a tranquil setting overlooking a stream and the way on was up the long drive leading down to the house, with the village recreation ground on the right. I’d lost my normally reliable bearings at this point and was slightly surprised when we emerged onto the A360 through West Lavington again, opposite the used car lot. Crossing here we followed the road opposite into a small housing estate to reach the end of the cul-de-sac by the fence surrounding Dauntsey’s School playing fields. The school occupies some 100 acres. Stu and I mused how, having both attended state schools, our schools once had playing fields like this, now sadly sold off for “development”.
Following the fence line to the left at the end we turned right and continued to follow it heading south-west along what was now the Wessex Ridgeway. The path here was becoming very muddy as the snow turned to slush. Reaching a wood we came to a junction. Here you can decide to cut a significant chunk off the walk and turn left to take you up to the transmitter and over the hill towards Warren Farm and The Warren before turning back towards All Saints Church. However we turned right continuing to follow the Wessex Ridgeway down a well made up byway along the edge of the wood. The Ridgeway makes a sharp left at a pedestrian and farm gate where again you have two choices. Straight ahead through the farm gate the bridleway climbs up through the wood which has over the passage of time become a deep holloway.
We forked slightly to the left and climbed steeply across Strawberry Hill to the left of the wood where footprints through the snow suggested someone else had taken the same route. The pedestrian gate leads you to this route so we assumed it was an accepted right of way. But both routes converge at the top of the hill by Bolter’s Barn which, in the wind and driven snow, provided a sheltered spot for lunch.
Fed and watered, and feeling slightly warmed, we struck out on what proved to be a fairly brutal leg of the journey. We were heading out onto Salisbury Plain eventually reaching a height of about 200 metres/600 feet. As we waded through deep snow, still following the Wessex Ridgeway, with little or no shelter the wind was driving sleety snow into our faces. This was beginning to feel positively arctic but worse was to come. I’ve walked this way in warm pleasant Summer sunshine and the landscape is delightful with great sweeping vistas all around as far as Roundway Hill, Furze Knoll and Cherhill Monument in the north. There are deep combes and little copses dotted everywhere. Today it looked very different, albeit every bit as striking. The Ridgeway turned left and dropped steeply into a gully, precarious in the deep snow. Before we descended we took a moment to look out across the Great Cheverell Hill SSSI, only noticing the deer far below in the valley bottom when I edited my photograph two days later.
Slipping and sliding our way down the gully (a stick or walking pole would have been handy here) we reached a copse at the bottom containing the ruins of a building. After this spot we left the well surfaced track which climbed to the right and followed along the valley bottom to our left towards woods at the end of the valley. As we made progress along the bottom on the slopes of the hill in the distance above us to our left we saw a guy walking two very large dogs. They were off the lead (there is frequently livestock grazing here) tearing around the hillside. As they did so we saw two roe deer break cover and flee across the bottom of the slope. We knew immediately what would follow. The dogs spotted the deer and raced down the hill to chase them. Their owner made a half-hearted attempt to recall them, tooting on his little whistle. The dogs were totally out of control and sped away after the deer. Luckily the deer made good their escape as we had no doubt what their fate would have been. One dog returned to its owner but the other was going berserk. It headed our way and at that moment we wished we had brought heavy sticks with us. We would have had no qualms about using them. But at the last moment it changed direction and eventually returned to its owner. By this time the other was on a lead. This is how livestock are so often killed.
Having calmed our anger we began the climb along the Ridgeway up to the ridge above us. A clear track on a dry day it was now a snow filled depression. It was very hard going and by the time we reached the ridge line we were pretty cooked as the skies turned black and threatening!
Here the Ridgeway turns left and shortly meets the Imber Range Perimeter Path by New Zealand Farm Camp. Whilst the Ridgeway followed the line of the perimeter path north west we turned left and east to follow the metalled road on the long walk all the way eventually to the A360 at Gore Cross. The wind along this ridge was now at its strongest. The sleet had turned to rain which was blasting straight into our face. Neither of us had put on our waterproof trousers which were languishing uselessly in our rucksacks. Top halves dry, our legs were soaked. To make matters worse my standing around to take photographs had allowed body temperatures to drop dramatically. It’s not anything either of us haven’t experienced before but things were starting to get serious. So I packed up my camera, zipped all four top layers up to my chin and pulled the hood of both my down jacket and my waterproof over my beanie hat before picking up the pace along the road in an effort to generate some heat.
A couple of kilometres along the road, and now feeling a lot warmer, we forked left along the byway shortly before Highland Cottages heading north-east across White Hill towards The Warren and West Lavington.
The photograph below is of Highland Cottages that I took at the end of 2022. After posting this on my Instagram feed I was contacted by a local farmer who told me his grandmother had once lived there. He said it was in fact a pair of cottages. His grandmother moved away when she got married in around 1935 to live in one of the cottages at nearby Gore Cross. But as a little girl his grandmother would walk to school down this very byway, through The Warren and then on through West Lavington. A cold lonely walk at times for a little girl. I wonder if the cottages were requisitioned at the same time as the village of Imber, not so very far away, in 1943?
The byway is now deeply rutted by off-road vehicles and on this, as on many other days from previous experience, extremely muddy . In places you have to climb up to the left or right of the track as it is impassable. Into the woods (The Warren) at the bottom the surface improves slightly but is still very muddy.
We took to the bank above the track again for a few moments to avoid the quagmire until we came to a crossroads of rights of way. Joining from the left is the short cut from Stawberry Hill I mentioned earlier. To the right the route of the byway takes you down into The Warren, across the springs where Bulkington Brook rises and on to join the A360 between West Lavington and Tilshead. We had intended to take this diversion to visit the Robbers’ Stone which sits beside the road near Gore Cross. But we were cold, tired and wet, and since the Robbers’ Stone is located on the verge precariously close to the road we decided it was too dangerous to visit on this occasion. So, from the crossroad of tracks, we continued straight ahead past some superbly located cottages on the track to our right until we arrive back at the top of Rickbarton.
We had one last goal before calling an end to our adventure. We wanted to visit All Saints Church. As I mentioned before, from its triangular shaped island it is surrounded by beautiful old buildings (including the Manor House) and this part of the churchyard contains many substantial rectangular tombs. But, you guessed it, the church itself was locked. Come on Lavingtons – you can do better than this!
So we crossed the footbridge 10 feet above one of the lanes into the more substantial of the graveyards. I knew that an ancestor of someone I worked with decades ago (an Oram) was buried here, my ex-colleague being Irish. I didn’t find that grave but I did find a Colonel Tony Tremlett. My family tree shows some Tremletts from the days when spelling was more fluid. So who knows?
Returning to the car, I noticed a freshly dug grave by the gate that was being dug when we arrived many hours ago. It dawned on me that there had been a hearse outside St Mary’s Church in Market Lavington when we visited earlier. I wondered about that. And as we changed out of our wet boots by the car a young Ukrainian woman with two children walked past and I wondered about the graves being dug in her country too.
The walk was about 13 kms (8 miles) in all. The shortcut would just about half that distance if you didn’t want to venture up onto the Plain. That’s maybe an extension that should reserved for a fine day. But equally the shorter walk would allow more time to visit the Robbers’ Stone (see this link to the very good West Lavington website The Robbers' Stone ) or to explore one or both the villages further. But Stu and I were glad of the challenge in what turned out to be unexpectedly extreme conditions. I’ll always remind him of what he said as we fought our way up the steep snow covered slope on the Wessex Ridgeway towards the junction with the Imber Range Perimeter Path. “I like this.” That’s as excited as Stu gets.