Before you all head to your OS maps to find the location of the Selwood Triangle I can tell you that it doesn’t exist, well at least, not in the physical sense. For me, the Selwood Triangle is akin to the more well-known Triangle around Bermuda. It is a place where mysterious forces are afoot. These forces beguile the unwary traveller and lure them away from their intended paths into the deep woods that exist in the area that radiates from the village of Stourton to the Somerset border. I have found that as soon as I enter this place I succumb immediately to the Triangle’s effects as whenever I visit I soon lose my sense of direction and find myself to be completely lost heading along delightful tracks that are taking me far away from my defined route. In the past, I admit, I have spent some time going around in circles before I have been able to untangle myself from the Triangle’s grip and finally locate my position. I wonder if this hasn't always been part of the very nature of the place. For this is the area that was once part of the ancient forest of Selwood, an area of legend. King Alfred and his troops stayed here before encountering the Danes at Ethanđun. Was he aware of a supernatural force that might exist in this place and used the forest to protect himself and his troops? Fanciful I know, but whenever I visit I certainly do have a sense of the sorcery of the place and although now armed to the teeth with compasses, GPS devices and maps, believe it or not, we still get lost and our recent visit to the area was no exception. Our intention was to visit a motte and bailey near the River Stour and then onto Gasper Mill but it seems that the forces of nature and this magical place had other ideas.
Ever since visiting Sherrington, where it is believed its motte could have originally been a prehistoric monumental mound like that of Silbury Hill, I have tried to see if this could be a possibility for other mottes in Wiltshire and one in particular caught my attention. That of the motte and bailey right on the border with Somerset and by the River Stour. My reasoning was that with the river close by and the many springs in the area it could have been a revered area of the ancients. Indeed, the number of pen pits in the location do show that man has inhabited and used this area since early times. So the other day we decided to take a trip to the place and investigate this further.
Parking in the National Trust’s carpark for Stourhead (£4 per day for non-members) we checked our OS maps app and paper copy and headed south, our initial aim being to follow the footpath to Bonham, but as usual distracted by styles and sheep in a field we almost immediately deviated from our intended path. Entering a wooded area, we realised our mistake but as there were styles, other walkers and purple way markers showing us the route we continued on following the path through the woods. Besides the area was lovely to walk through, the tall trees offering wonderful dappled shade, the place already enchanting us. However, this was not for long and we were soon able to tear ourselves away from the forest's grips and exiting the woods we made our way past Bonham Farm.
Bonham is the place where the Stourton family, the former owners of the area that is now the Stourhead Estate, made their home after selling the land to the Hoares. As I took a picture of the gate, I considered the history and fate of this family. They had given their name to the village and had owned much of the land in this area. However, their history is troubled, the 8th baron had taken the law into his own hands and ordered his men to commit murder over a land dispute. He was found guilty, sentenced and hung in the market place in Salisbury, another nobleman to be executed in this location, perhaps he too haunts the market place along with the headless Buckingham. Further down the family line, the 10th baron was imprisoned in the Tower of London as it was believed he was involved in the gunpowder plot. Nothing was proved and he was released. So, it is assumed that he was imprisoned merely because of his Catholicism. Eventually, due to debt the Stourtons sold the manor to the Hoares and moved to Bonham. The family today retain the title of baron and add to their name the titles of Lord Mowbray and Baron Seagrave. I believe their seat is now in Yorkshire.
Having spent a little time at Bonham we continued on and started along the Stour Valley Way towards our objective of the motte and bailey. Initially, we were a little disappointed at the path as it was lined on both sides with tall hedges robbing us of the views we knew where there. However, we soon entered a field where we could see wonderful if slightly hazy views of White Sheet Hill with its earthworks and what I think must have been the picturesque Zeals Knoll.
From there we emerged onto a road and headed straight on to rejoin the Stour Valley Way at Harcourt Farm. This was our first encounter with a difficulty in finding the footpath. We noticed a gate and a path with a hedge initially on either side. It was where we thought the footpath should be but there were no way markers and looking ahead the path appeared to peter out. Believing the route to be correct, we opened the gate to try and continue on our way. All of a sudden a couple of dogs appeared and started barking at us profusely, no doubt believing they were defending their property. They were behind the hedge but as I looked forward I could see that this soon gave way to a broken area of wire fencing and that the dogs could easily get over this fence should they wish to. Not being certain if we were trespassing and contemplating a retreat I waited a few moments before attempting to continue forward. Luckily, the owner of the dogs came out and put them out of the way before returning to talk to us. She confirmed that we were on the Stour Valley Way and apologised about the fact that the field had not been cut, but it had been too wet to bring in the hay. Appreciating her help and sympathising with the situation concerning the weather and hay making we continued on our way not really knowing if we were sticking to the correct route but following the OS map and hoping for the best.
After Harcourt Farm the footpath again became clearer, and we continued on to our first glimpse of the River Stour. Here we were surprised to find that the river was already quite fast flowing despite its source being only a mile or so away and it being heavily dammed to form the lakes at Stourhead. We stayed for a short time observing the river and the sunlight reflecting off the ripples and particles in the water. Having spent much time recently observing the River Bourne with its clear waters the brown colour of the Stour seemed quite a contrast. I came to the conclusion that the reason for the colour was possibly attributable to its source being in greensand rather than chalk. As I watched mesmerised by the water I felt sure that this place would have once been held sacred and my assumption that the nearby motte could be a monumental mound built by the ancients was still a possibility. We therefore headed on towards the man made hill. Here we found a variance with the OS map. The 1:25 000 clearly shows a path that curves around the earthworks whereas we couldn’t find this path from the south side at all. However, it was clear that a path existed closer to the waters edge. We had no choice but to take this path, never really seeing much of either the motte or bailey, which was a disappointment. Eventually, we joined up with the designated path and noticed a sign indicating that we had indeed followed the footpath but this was not the one indicated on the OS map. Although the original path did exist on this side of the motte and bailey it wasn’t clear if walking along it was now permitted and so we continued on our way still holding dear the thought that a monumental mound existed just out of our line of sight and this was indeed a sacred place, despite the difficulties negotiating the footpaths.
As we walked, we noticed some early fungal fruiting bodies on a tree stump and a burdock plant with a nearby damselfly all adding to the charm of the location. Seeing the burdock reminded me of the walks I took with my parents when I was a child, sometimes as a treat we would have dandelion and burdock pop. With these reminisces still in my head and philosophical discussions on how it was that dandelion and burdock were ever made into a drink we absent mindedly crossed the Stour once again and made our way up a hill towards our next destination of Gasper. We had planned to take the clearly marked Mill Lane (track) up to the hamlet and then head back to Stourton via the Iron Bridge. However, as we walked along a track we found ourselves again heading in the wrong direction and back towards the way that we had already been! Were the fairies of the place having fun with us again? We retraced our steps but could not find the track, so by now feeling tired and a little hungry we decided that we would break the spell that was over us and rather than risk finding that the other footpaths did not exist or had changed beyond recognition we would called it quits and head back to Stourton along the road. This wasn’t as awful as it sounds as the road is very quiet and flanked by beautiful woodland and interest along the way. Soon we reached our destination the Spread Eagle Inn at Stourton where we gratefully sat down and enjoyed a very nice lunch.
After lunch we spent a little time looking around the 13th century church of St Peter where there is a tomb to the 5th Baron Stourton and memorials to many of the Hoare family, although there doesn't appear to be one to Richard Colt Hoare famed, amongst other things, for his archeology and excavations of many Wiltshire barrows. He does however have a memorial in Salisbury Cathedral.
All in all an enjoyable if slightly frustrating walk. Once again the enchantment of the Selwood Triangle led me astray, but on consultation with the Wiltshire Council website it seems that the Mill Lane (track) does no longer exist and it wasn’t just being hidden from us via some enchantment. This forms many questions in my mind about visiting unfamiliar locations, the use of OS maps and the concern about the erosion of our rights of way. However, in this walk we also used two paths that were way marked but are not specifically on the OS map, so I have no doubt that as with roads the footpaths are evolving but unlike roads the status and rights of way might not have evolved with them. That said, I thoroughly recommend walking in this area. You might succumb to the beauty and mystery of the place and feel you are lost but it is well worth it and the Triangle never keeps you lost for long.
I supply a map of the walk we undertook and the area giving the locations mentioned.