Updated: Feb 20
I’ve been planning to write this blog for a while but an article in this morning’s Guardian (23 January 2021) prompted me to bring it forward. This is a little bit history, a little bit natural history, a little bit environmental and a little bit click bait photography!
Chalk streams are a feature of the Wiltshire and Dorset landscapes, although not uniquely so. They can also be found in Kent for example. Many are archetypal winterbournes in that traditionally they are dry in the summer months and rise in the winter. The number of villages with the word “Winterbourne” in their name will not have escaped the Wiltshire traveller.
For many years there has been a debate as to why the dry periods seem to be getting longer. There are suggestions of over-abstraction of ground water by water companies and farmers, or whether it is a result of climate change. But at this time year the chalk aquifers are full and the once dry grassy hollows are again running with crystal clear water. Some of our chalk streams of course run all year round and are rich with wildlife supporting water voles, trout, may flies and even (as was seen recently in footage taken in Salisbury) otters. Salisbury is of course famous for being the meeting place of five chalk streams – the Nadder, Ebble, Wylye, Bourne and Avon. If you have read my blog entitled ‘Eden’s Last Post’ you’ll have seen my photograph of Norrington Manor which was taken whilst standing in the dry bed of the Ebble.
At the heart of South Wiltshire’s chalk uplands is the 300 square mile plateau of Salisbury Plain, the largest remaining area of calcareous grassland in north west Europe. Here can be found the little River Till, although its status of “river” seems a little overstated (unlike its brethren in Lincolnshire and Northumberland). I have a close and intimate relationship with the Wiltshire Till as it runs through my garden! The stream rises in Tilshead and flows south and south-east through Shrewton, Winterbourne Stoke (where it crosses beneath the A303), and Berwick St James before joining the Wylye River near Stapleford. It is a SSSI and passes through conservation areas in Shrewton and Winterbourne Stoke.
Apparently as recently as the early 20th century the Till in Shrewton was known as “the Waterlake”. I’m not sure of the derivation of that name but following a particularly wet autumn in 1840 followed by heavy snow in January 1841 and subsequent thaw accompanied by more heavy rain, on 16 January 1841 there was a catastrophic flood. Many buildings were destroyed in the village and three people died as the waters rose to 7 or 8 feet above the river level. There are several little terraces around the area known as Flood Cottages, including those next door to me.
Since that dreadful day in 1841 the river has flooded on many occasions. Most winters it bursts its shallow banks and floods the fields between Tilshead and Shrewton. I can recall more than once the little lane between Orcheston and Shrewton in front of Appleford School being covered by a foot of water. And beyond, between Shrewton and Winterbourne Stoke, the meadows are frequently beneath several inches or more of water as they are now. Here it becomes a haven for birdlife. I’ve spent many happy hours watching Canada geese, egrets, grey heron, teal, and mallard as well as kingfisher, spotted and green woodpeckers, kestrel, buzzards and red kite. I’ve seen a guy hunting with a peregrine falcon here and watched as a weasel searched for birds’ eggs.
Whilst the flooding may be a nuisance for some, in the past it was something to be valued and even engineered. Between Shrewton and Winterbourne Stoke there are the remains of two sluices. In his magnificent book A Shepherd’s Life, W H Hudson wrote beautifully about the sluice men whose skills were greatly valued by farming folk. Hudson describes the work of the sluice man on this particular stretch of Till in the late 18th/early 19th centuries who knew exactly when to open and close the sluices to allow the fields to be flooded. This part of Wiltshire was once extensively grazed by Wiltshire Horn, a breed of self shedding sheep that requires no shearing. It was not reared for its wool or its meat but for its abilities as a fertilising machine! The sheep would graze the meadows hereabouts leaving piles of nutritious fertiliser as they went. The fields were then flooded and eventually drained to allow the growth of rich chalk grassland for cows to graze. Cows still graze these meadows but sadly the Wiltshire Horn and the sluices have gone. For now anyway!
However, Wiltshire Horn sheep appear to be making something of a comeback. I read recently that Springbottom Farm in the Woodford Valley has bought six Wiltshire Horn. Meanwhile, since first publishing this blog someone has brought my attention to the small herd of Wiltshire Horn in the heart of Winterbourne Stoke. They can be seen clearly from the A303. On the Parsonage Down Nature Reserve (where I’m a volunteer and which extends over 630 acres across the heights above and to the west of the Till) we switched our entire herd over to Exlana, a breed developed from the genetics of the Wiltshire Horn. I continue to make a nuisance of myself lobbying for the introduction of pure-bred Wiltshire Horn on the Reserve to accompany our herd of wonderful English Longhorn cattle!
Even further back than the 18th and 19th centuries described by W H Hudson in such detail the Till valley featured in the history of the area. To the west of Tilshead, on the heights above the Till Valley, lie three Neolithic long barrows - Tilshead Lodge, White Barrow and Old Ditch Barrow (the largest on Salisbury Plain). They are clearly focused on the valley and it may have been that during the 4th millennium BC the water table was higher so that streams would have flowed in the re-entrants that separate the three mounds suggesting that they were positioned with respect to the springline.
On the east facing slopes of the Till Valley just north of Winterbourne Stoke and adjacent to Parsonage Down you will find on the map the word “tumuli” and the name "The Coniger". The tumili referred to is a round barrow cemetery that includes eight bowl barrows, three disc barrows, two pond barrows and a saucer barrow. The Coniger is a later earthwork enclosure which encloses a number of the barrows. It's possible this enclosure was constructed around the barrows in order to use them as a rabbit warren, an important component in a medieval and post-medieval agricultural economy. The barrows have revealed evidence of burials (cremations and inhumations) and a variety of grave goods including bronze daggers, pottery and clay beads. Later artefacts such as a Saxon iron knife and Roman pottery (of which I found a sizeable sherd) have been discovered here.
Throughout its short journey the Till is a ribbon of beauty and interest. Whilst I’ve explored its length as far as Berwick St James on many occasions, I’ve yet to walk the stretch from there to Stapleford. It’s only a short stretch and sadly, like 97% of the waterways in England, most of the river is on private, inaccessible land. But a bridleway runs along part of the valley side to the west. A full day’s walk out and back from where I live when the days are a little longer.
Some weeks after writing this original blog I returned to the area in order to follow the final stretch of the Till, or at least as close as I could get to it, from Berwick St James to Stapleford. In the process I discovered something that I didn't know, but probably should have done having lived nearby for 26 years! It was certainly something well hidden.
After walking from Shrewton along the Till Valley to Foredown Barn to the north-east of Winterbourne Stoke we continued south-east and crossed the A303 at Winterbourne Stoke Hill. From here we continued due south along the ridge road above first Winterbourne Stoke then Berwick St James before dropping down the track that crosses Chain Hill towards the village of Stapleford. The views from this ridge all the way from the A303 until Chain Hill are simply immense and on this freezing cold day, with a little snow still lying on the ground, we had the track to ourselves.
Once in Stapleford we headed for the place that I had only recently discovered - Stapleford Castle. I'm almost ashamed to say that after all these years I never knew this location existed, despite having driven and cycled through Stapleford hundreds of times.
Stapleford Castle was a medieval ringwork and bailey castle probably built of timber. Nothing remains of the castle but the earthworks and ditches. It is completely hidden from view to the north-west of the village by a stand of trees. Sadly, like so many of our ancient monuments, it is inaccessible being on private land behind, funnily enough, Castle Cottage. It seems that this is the preserve of pheasants destined for the guns as there are bird feeders everywhere. But the earthworks are just visible from the nearby right of way despite rising to nearly 6 metres above the bottom of the surrounding ditch. Apparently within the enclosure there are what are thought to be the remains of internal buildings. Quoting from Historic England "To the N and W of the ringwork are the remains of an angular enclosure bounded by a bank which measures up to 2m high and an associated external ditch up to 1.7m deep. The date and function of this enclosure is uncertain but it may form part of a manorial complex." My photograph of the farm and the trees hiding the castle was taken whilst standing on the described bank to the west. You can just make out the earthworks of the castle itself on the edge of the trees by the field boundary.
Some time in the late 15th/early 16th century the manor passed to John Seymour, the father of Henry VIII's third wife Jane Seymour. Wouldn't it be nice to imagine that Henry VIII may have popped down to visit the in-laws once in a while? Somehow I doubt it. The land remained in the ownership of the Seymour family until the 1940s.
With a long walk back to Shrewton ahead of us we did not spend any more time in Stapleford, although the beautiful thatched cottages by the church are definitely worth seeing, albeit not hidden!
The bridleway to the west of the Till back towards Berwick St James is at first some distance from the river. But just before Berwick St James the two converge and the last short stretch of the track runs alongside the river. As I took the following photograph, standing close to the edge of the crystal clear waters of this chalk stream, a trout jumped and took a fly just below me.
Shortly afterwards we arrived in Berwick St James where the river runs beneath the road. A conveniently placed bench sits by the river here, a suitable resting place in warmer weather but not in today's icy wind. My walking buddy Stu said that years ago people used to fly fish in the river at this spot. On the other side of the road the view from the bridge looks north as the Till heads between old stone walls towards the mill and its weir.
A little further along the street through the village we finally left the Till crossing the road to return to Shrewton via Yarnbury Castle. Despite these strange times with the country in lockdown it was great to see that the farm shop was still open. Not expecting this we had no money with us but next time we'll be sure to buy our lunch here. From previous experience this is a fantastic little shop, especially if you like pies! And in more normal times we can also hope that the village pub, The Boot, will once again be open after its long period of closure having changed hands.
For the sake of completeness I've included two final photographs as we headed west alongside the farm shop out of Berwick St James and up Langford Waie before joining what was once the ancient trackway between Bath and Old Sarum past Yarbury Castle hill fort. The photograph of the milestone on this ancient track (one of several) will hopefully act as a segue to many a blog about the ancient trackways that criss cross our part of the world.