The River Wylye

Updated: May 1

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 beginning

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.

Kingston Deverill

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…

The first bridge at Kingston Deverill

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 reaches 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.