By Steve Dewey
Because I have a brother in Westbury, and I used to live in Marlborough, one of the interesting ways back and forth between our houses was to use the Ridgeway around the northern downs of Salisbury Plain. To get to the Ridgeway from Westbury, I would sometimes go to Tinhead, and then drive up Salisbury Hollow and follow the byway that leads to New Zealand Camp, where the road then turns and heads down to Gore Cross to meet the Ridgeway there.
I usually made the journey equipped with camera and lenses – just in case – and on one of these trips noticed a milestone at the top of Salisbury Hollow.
The next time I drove back from my brother's house, I looked for other milestones. I found another on the byway, above Coulston. It was particularly interesting, as it was inscribed Sarum 18, Bath 18 – it was exactly half-way between the two towns.
The fact that the road had milestones intrigued me. Although some roads did have milestones before the turnpike improvements, a turnpike road almost invariably had milestones. So was this a turnpike road? I did a bit of searching around the Web, and finally checked out the online version of the Victoria County History for Coulston (which can be found at https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol8/pp234-239). Here I found that that road wasn't in fact a turnpike road, but was called in the text the old slow coach road. I rather liked the name.
I also checked online maps. These indicated that there should be another milestone a mile further on near New Zealand camp. On my next trip, I looked for it, but couldn't find it. I knew the road then carried on over the danger areas around Imber, and I wouldn't be able to look for other milestones in that area.
However, I had seen from the maps that the road headed down to Serrington, near Stapleford, on the A36, and that the road still existed as a byway.
I resolved that I would take my little off-roader up the byway when the opportunity arose. One sunny summer evening, after a trip to Langford Lakes, I headed from Serrington towards Tilshead, enjoying the countryside, and looking for milestones and the route of the road, and taking photographs. However, as I've started this essay at Tinhead, I'll resume heading south-east.
As I previously noted, after New Zealand camp, the road heads into the danger area. If you follow the road on the map, though, you'll meet the Chitterne/Tilshead road at Breach Hill cottages (which no longer exist).
A little way over this "crossroads" is another milestone, Bath 23, Sarum 13. It's hidden under a tree, which should stop Army vehicles crashing into it.
If you find this milestone and look back north-ish, it's rather obvious where the old road used to go - although the current byway now follows the line used by the military.
The road then goes down past the "German Village" on Copehill Down, across the Chitterne/Shrewton Road, and then on towards Yarnbury Castle. It's a bit of a maze of byways and military routes around these parts, all chalky, all looking alike, so be careful if you try navigating them!
Yarnbury Castle seems to have once been an important hub. A track diverges from the old slow coach road here and heads towards Warminster via Chitterne, meeting the current road at the top of the hill out of Chitterne to Shrewton.
When you cross the A303, look to your left to see the enormous and rather impressive milestone (shown on the map above as Bath 27, Sarum 19):
Look to your right for the impressive view that you don't really notice when you drive down the A303 and concentrate on the nasty hill down to Deptford...
From here you look across the Wylye valley, over the villages of Wylye and the Langfords, towards Wylye Down, Stockton and Grovely woods, on the downs that follow the south side of the river.
Now you begin to head down from the high Plain to the valley, heading south-east to Serrington (Stapleford), where the byway turns off the A36 just a little way up from the garage. Before you get there though, you'll find this little stone, marking the limit of the turnpike trust's interest:
Having reached the A36, you might think that the old coach road follows the current A36 down to Wilton and into Salisbury. However, the old slow coach road heads directly out of Serrington, climbing back up onto the hills and avoiding the valley bottom.
Chain Drove heads towards the current A360 and… well, where does it go? If you look at the Andrews and Dury map of 1773 you can see: a milestone on Chain Drove (with the mileages marked the wrong way round, you'll note); the junction of the drove with the A360; a fork off the A360, a road opposite that heads to the Woodfords; and a whole bunch of tracks (there seemed to be many more tracks in the late 1700s than there were when the OS mapping happened).
The puzzle is this - was the old coach road simply that, a coach road along high dry ground from Salisbury to Bath with a route out of town on the modern A360, or, as hinted by the old map, an older road from Old Sarum, crossing the Avon at the Woodfords?
And what of the other end, where we began this journey, at Tinhead? How did the old slow coach road reach Bath? The Victoria County History for Edington (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol8/pp239-250) notes that the road headed towards Steeple Ashton. From there, we can assume it headed towards West Ashton crossroads and down into Trowbridge. However, the Victoria County History for both Bradford and Trowbridge is vague on routes that the old coach road might have taken; there was no direct coach, apparently, from Bradford to London at the time of the old slow coach road, while there are coaches in 1791 from Trowbridge to London. So the north-west of Tinhead is another puzzle somebody might have an answer to.