The River Wylye
By Steve Dewey
In this post I'm going to take you on a photographic trip along the Wylye valley. To do this we're going to stop at road bridges or public crossings across the Wylye, from Kingston Deverill to where it joins the Nadder at Wilton. There are of course many other footbridges, but these are mostly on private land. The Wylye is, of course, not hidden but, like me, you might have crossed many of these bridges over the years without stopping to admire the views up and down stream.
The Wylye begins in the south-west of Wiltshire, near the village of Kingston Deverill, and heads east towards Salisbury. The river is shallow and clear for much of its run. The Wylye cuts through the chalk downs of Wiltshire towards Wilton and as it does so it winds its way through the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This AONB stretches across the south west of Wiltshire and is one of the largest and most rural of the AONBs in England and Wales. It covers nearly 400 square miles of chalkland and ancient woodland, downs and plains.
Note: For the sake of brevity, and safety, a couple of bridges have been omitted, although I note their whereabouts.
The Wylye rises about 2.25 miles/3.6 kilometres west of Kingston Deverill, perhaps somewhere after Rodmead farm, perhaps near Maiden Bradley, perhaps near Kilmington, perhaps beneath the slopes of the Long Knoll.
The ridge above Kilmington, which runs from Penselwood to Horningsham and includes Gare Hill, appears to be a watershed with many springs along it. The Wylye, the Brue, the Stour, and the Frome all rise somewhere to the east or west of this ridge.
The OS map shows the Wylye flowing through Kilmington. Where the Wylye rises and where it issues is undoubtedly determined by the weather and the season, dry or wet. Still, by the time it reaches Kingston Deverill, in that short few miles, it has already become a river full enough to warrant a stone bridge rather than a ford.
The name Wylye (which, for readers not from these parts, is pronounced why-lee) is, as noted in The Place Names of Wiltshire, of 'uncertain etymology'. The authors of that book suggest it might mean tricky stream, but also note the word has no connection to the adjective wily. The Wylye gives its name to the county, and perhaps to the local inhabitants under the Saxons. Again, in The Placenames of Wiltshire we read that the tribal name of the people who lived around the Wylye in the ninth century were called 'the Wilsætan, or dwellers by the Wylye.' The authors go on to suggest that Wiltshire, as an administrative unit, existed within what would be its medieval boundaries by the end of the eighth century.
It is possible that the first bridge to cross the Wylye is at Kilmington, but the current COVID-19 restrictions have limited my travel. If there is a bridge there, it will have to wait for another, less restricted time.
So, we head east along the Wylye seeking the first bridge. The first bridge is at Kingston Deverill, which is the first of the four Deverills heading east. And now there is some confusion, for which river flows under this bridge? It seems the headwaters of the Wylye once had another name, the Deverill. There are two competing ideas about the derivation of this name. Etymologists suggest that the name could be Celtic, similar to Welsh dwfr idl, 'the river of the fertile upland region', or that it could be British dubroialon, 'fertile land on the stream'.
There is another tradition, however, a more folksy tradition, that suggests the name is derived from 'diving rill', because the stream first starts as an underground watercourse before becoming a stream above ground. The third song of Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion (1612) declares that the Wylye rises in Selwood Forest, and brings up:
…Diver in her traine Which, when the envious soile would from her course restraine, A mile creeps under earth…
However, the diving rill seems unlikely to me. Rill is not really a Wiltshire word.
Kingston Deverill was once the King's farm (tun) on the Deverill. It is the only Deverill to have been royal property, having been taken into the Crown's possession after the Norman Conquest.
At Kingston Deverill, the river is crossed three times. The second bridge overlooks the gardens that butt up against the river. The old school sits next to it.
The third crossing of the Wylye, or the Deverill, is a ford. It's a long ford, and quite deep in places, so not easily traversed by vehicle. (In fact, I once fell off my trail bike trying to get through it.) Best to walk across the footbridge.
It is thought that at this ford two Roman roads crossed the Wylye. According to the Wiltshire Community History Web site, one was the ancient lead road from Portchester to the Mendip Hills (via Winchester and Salisbury), while the other headed north from Poole, presumably towards Bath. The two roads joined at the boundary between Monkton and Kingston Deverill. The road from Poole, however, seems speculative; according to the Ordnance survey map of Roman Britain, once the route at a point east of Shaftesbury, its route north of there is only a possibility. Perhaps it never reached this ford. The same can be said of the road to the Mendips; its route is also speculative after Pertwood.
However old the ford is, in spring and summer, with green trees arching over it and reflecting in the slow river, it is a lovely spot.
The next bridge downstream on the diving rill, the wriggling Wylye, the (perhaps) Roman-forded stream, is Brixton Deverill. We have skipped through Monkton Deverill (the monk's farm) as there is no crossing of the river there.
The etymology of Brixton is the farm or settlement of Brihtric. This is one possible site where King Alfred gathered his army before the battle at Edington (Ethandune) – the other possibility being Penselwood.
It is suggested that this is the earliest inhabited site along the Deverill. On the downs above the village, to the south-east, is evidence of the Roman road heading towards Monkton Deverill, and ultimately, perhaps, to the ford at Kingston Deverill.
At the bridge here, the river can be seen meandering along the edges of well-kept gardens.
Longbridge Deverill - first bridge
At Longbridge Deverill there are two bridges. At least this Deverill is named after a bridge. The Domesday book shows all the Deverills as being named Deveral. By 1239, Longbridge Deverill is distinguished from the others as Peverel Longpunt.
Longbridge Deverill has two bridges. Which one of the two was the long bridge? I suspect the upstream one, the bridge the modern A350 crosses, the main road to Poole on the south coast. The road has long been important and might once have been either the southern continuation of the Ridgeway, or a loop or branch off it.
Longbridge Deverill - second bridge
The second bridge in Longbridge Deverill carries the Heytesbury to Bruton turnpike road across the river. East is Sutton Veny, west is Maiden Bradley. It is difficult to work out the age of bridges. One wonders how old the bridges along the Wylye are, and how they can be dated. When was the first bridge built here or there, of what material? Was it always bridged in stone, or did a wooden bridge first exist? Is the bridge we see a replacement, and if so, is it the first, second or third replacement?
We do know that the second Longbridge Deverill bridge is a replacement; a new bridge was built in the 1940s, as indicated by an inscription on the bridge.
Job's Mill, Crockerton
The river runs east of Crockerton, and winds towards Warminster. The next road crossing is at Job's Mill, on Five Ash Lane between Crockerton Green and Sutton Veny.
Job's Mill was known in the 19th Century as Sutton Veny Mill. It had been informally known as Job's Mill, since the eighteenth century, because the tenants Job Lewis and his son, also called Job, became the tenants of the mill. After 1963, when it became the home of Lord Bath, the name Job's Mill replaced the older name.
Job's Mill is an impressive, stately, building and its water management is very structured. After passing through the mill, the tail race of the mill stream runs for a length – the length of a large, well-kept lawn – underground. The river itself tumbles most elegantly from the head race down a stepped stone weir.
Near Warminster and Bore Hill farm, under the A36 Bypass
The next bridge across the Wylye is one of the newest bridges. Built in 1988 to carry the Warminster bypass, this bridge passes high across the river. The river here runs through trees at the edge of Southleigh Wood. The day I took this photo, the area was lush with spring green and yellows. It is a very bosky stretch of the Wylye.
The Wylye now skirts along the south edge of Warminster. Warminster itself stands on much higher ground than the river, but the hamlets of Henford's Marsh and Boreham are touched by its waters. At Henford's Marsh, a way crosses the river. Was this way ever a road? Was this a road crossing? Certainly, in the days before the combustion engine, horses could have crossed here, and possibly carts. However, as the name Henford's Marsh suggests the land around the river was marshy and, perhaps, most certainly in winter, too claggy for anything but a walker over a footbridge.
The Wylye at Boreham is bridged twice by the Sutton Veny road, once for the river, and once for the mill stream There has been a mill here since at least the Domesday Book. The current mill is a rather impressive brick building of 1886.
Between Heytesbury and Sutton Veny
In the shadow of the Warminster bypass, the Heytesbury to Bruton road again crosses the Wylye, having crossed it at Longbridge Deverill second bridge a few miles back downstream.
The river then goes under the bypass again on its journey towards Wilton. This bridge is far too close to the Warminster bypass to risk taking a photograph from, and there is no footpath by the river. Hereabouts, the Wylye leaves West Wiltshire and heads into countryside that somehow feels a little different to that it has left.
Heytesbury to Tytherington
The river now runs along the south of Heytesbury. The first bridge is on the road from Heytesbury to Tytherington. Here, the river runs along the back of gardens. Willows hang over the river, yellow in spring.
Heytesbury – Heytesbury Mill
A lot of water management once took place around Heytesbury – channels diverted water from the Wylye to the meadows, and to a mill stream for Heytesbury Mill. Many of the watercourses were crossed by fords as late as the early 20th century. Now, many of those water courses are dry, including the mill race. The bridge that crosses the river here is a modern concrete affair (and is interesting because of that).
The next bridge is that which takes the road from Upton Lovell across the river. The bridge is one of the few named bridges along the length of the river; it is named Suffers Bridge. This sounds like a personal name rather than a condition, perhaps the landowner who built the bridge. Next to the bridge is a willow. This lovely willow is best seen in early spring, before the other trees come into leaf and crowd around it. Arriving at this bridge at the time of year at which this photograph was taken was a highlight in this photographic journey. The tree can be spectacular in the right light.
When Codford had a station, the station was closer to Boyton than it was to Codford St Peter. There is a bridge on the road from the station to the Boyton. The road is called Station Road. Where it makes a junction with the Wylye Road, the elaborate gates of Boyton Manor sit opposite. As interesting as those gates are, and that manor is, this is a story about views from bridges. So, next is the view downstream from the bridge on Station Road.
Codford St Mary
The road from Codford St Mary to Stockton is the next to cross the river. The river has since Boreham been winding some way to the south of the intervening villages, but here the river has turned slightly north to kiss the very edge of Codford St Mary.
Here, the Wylye meets the Chitterne Brook which flows into the river just upstream of this bridge.
Wylye A303 Road bridge (under)
The village of Wylye sits on the Wylye, some way downstream, closer to its end than its beginning. The A303 once headed through Wylye. The village is small and pretty. The traffic flow is weird, and always has been – even the Andrews and Dury map of 1773 shows what was to become the A303 drifting out of the village to the south-west through kinks and turns. After the railway line between Warminster and Salisbury was built in the late 1800s, the road was kinked even more sharply to cross a bridge. The A303 no longer goes through the village of Wylye. The old A303 is too narrow and kinky for modern traffic. The dual carriageway, built in the 1970s, crosses the river on a wide concrete structure. It is too dangerous to stand on the bridge above, so here is a view from beneath.
Wylye old bridge
The bridge that carries the old A303 across the Wylye is hemmed in by trees, affording in summer only glimpses up and down river. However, down river is a rather lovely mill.
There is a lot of information in the Victoria County History about the road here. It forded the Wylye to the east of the mill as late as 1742, while the bridge from which this photo was taken was built in 1773 (possibly when the road was turnpiked).
The Wylye wiggles on its way to next bisect Hanging Langford and Steeple Langford, where it passes beneath a bridge on the road between both villages. One wonders where the "long ford", after which the villages were named, was. Perhaps it was where this bridge crosses the river. The valley here in the 19th century was a mess of culverts, leats and streams to feed the meadows. Now, the Wylye flows under the bridge and water from it fills the lakes that were once gravel pits and are now a nature reserve. Do not bathe in the pool, though many do.
The Wylye, flowing slowly, cleanly and shallowly over chalk, is a fisherman's river. Trout, grayling and pike can be caught here. The rights to fishing are, of course, zealously controlled. Don't go wading just anywhere and waving your rod around.
At Stoford, the road to Great Wishford crosses the river. Or is it, at Great Wishford, the road to Stoford crosses the river? The bridge is the Stoford bridge, and it is closer to Stoford. Both villages have "ford" in their name, and this crossing place seems the most obvious location for a ford. Stoford from stony ford, Wishford from the witch elm and ford. Who knows how water management has reshaped the river and streams; perhaps Wishford had its own ford. Or perhaps, having crossed the stony ford, you passed the witch elm on the other side, on the way to the next village.
Whichever way you look at it though, it is an impressive bridge.
Wilton - North Street Bridges
Wilton is another place whose name is based on the river; in this case, the tun, or farmstead on the Wylye. The fortunes of the town have risen and fallen; it was famous as an ecclesiastical centre and market town during the Middle Ages, but the rise of Salisbury after the 13th century, and the demise of Wilton Abbey, led to the decay of the town during the 16th century. However, the growth of weaving, felting, and particularly carpet making after the 17th century led to a rise in the town's fortunes again. The demand for water by the various industries, old and new, led to much water management, such that the town is built around mill streams and leats, as well as the courses of the Wylye and the Nadder.
There are at least five bridges across the Wylye in the town, three of which are on North Street. The first bridge goes over a mill race or leat. The second bridge, the Cross Bridge as it is named on the old Ordnance Survey map, spans two channels of the river.
The third bridge on North Street is called Burdens Ball Bridge. Here the river flows under the bridge towards the famous carpet factory. When you reach the end of North Street, you meet the A36 to Warminster. Behind the houses on the opposite side of the road is an area called Burden's Ball, including Burden's Ball Farm and Fair Field. The area is associated with the family of Robert Burden (from 1263). It is thought that Ball described a boundary mark.
Wilton - Minster Street Bridges
The bridges on Minster Street are called – unimaginatively, perhaps – First Bridge (south) and Second Bridge (north). The First Bridge crosses a channel of the Wylye that passed under the first bridge on North Street and headed towards the old felt mill. This channel passes under a wall and into the grounds of Wilton House. This channel never re-joins the main river; these Wylye waters are the first to meet to Nadder.
The main course of the river passes beneath the Second Bridge on Minster Street.
Like the channel to the south, the channel that flows under this bridge continues under a wall to the grounds of Wilton House. Unlike that channel, the main course of the river continues as the Wylye a little longer, enabling us to discover the view from one more bridge.
Quidhampton – The Last Two Bridges
Just before the Wylye finally joins the Nadder there are two more bridges. The river leaves the grounds of Wilton House, flowing east. However, while still in the grounds of the house the Wylye is tapped one final time for a mill stream. This mill stream exits under the wall and the road to power what was once a corn mill. The mill is on the outskirts of Quidhampton, a name that derives from roots in dung and farmstead, suggesting not a crappy farm, but one that had good manure.
The second bridge, the more southerly bridge on the Netherhampton road, carries the way over the main course of the Wylye. This is what I would deem the last bridge over the Wylye itself, and it is here our journey ends. A few yards downstream, the Wylye's journey also ends, as it flows into the Nadder.
We had a few lovely trips along the Wylye valley taking these photos. We've seen the valley in spring, summer and autumn, we’ve seen meadows and valleys, been surrounded by trees and fields, and heard the sound of water and of birds. We've enjoyed looking at maps and books as we researched the bridges and roads, the names and the places. The walkers among you will be pleased to know that some stretches of the river have paths beside or near them. For example, there are paths from Wylye to Fisherton De La Mere, from Codford St Mary to Sherrington, and around Knook and Heytesbury. Have a look at the Wiltshire Council Rights of Way Explorer to find paths by the river.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names, Eilert Ekwall
The Place-names of Wiltshire, Gover, J E B Gover, Allen Mawer, and F M Stenton
All images are copyright of Steve Dewey