This blog has become something of a labour of love, albeit a challenging one. It also became somewhat of a saga. Chute Causeway, close to the Hampshire border, has long held a fascination for me. A mixture of romanticism and intrigue attracted me to its name, together with a distant memory of a long day’s bike ride from Shrewton.
On 6 April 2021 I found myself back on Chute Causeway after a gap of many years. I can’t remember why I went. I was driving up the steep narrow lane that is Conholt Hill from Vernham Dean heading to the Causeway when I glanced to my right. In an instant the view took me aback. I slammed on the brakes and stopped dead, blocking the road. Thankfully there were no other vehicles around. The landscape before me was simply breath taking. It seemed somehow familiar. Far below me a lane snaked its way through the sinuous curves of a combe and disappeared on its journey to some unseen destination. A timeless scene. A rural idyll. I leapt from the car, the engine still running, and took a single photograph on my phone from the side of the road. This was my introduction to what I later discovered to be Hippenscombe.
Later that day I posted the photograph on the Hidden Wiltshire Facebook page. Glyn Coy responded with an image of the 1937 painting by Eric Ravilious entitled “The Causeway”. My photograph was taken from almost exactly the same spot where Ravilious created his painting 84 years earlier. The only difference was that he had painted it from a position just above the road so that the road appears in the foreground of his painting. Other than that the combe itself was almost unchanged. The field boundaries and woodlands were in their exact same places. I realised that I had seen the painting before and that perhaps it had remained in my subconscious until that fateful day in April 2021.
Fast forward to later in 2021 and a conversation Glyn and I had with David Dawson at Wiltshire Museum. He asked us if we could put together a walk for the Museum taking in Tidcombe Long Barrow, Hippenscombe and the Devil’s Waistcoat. Ever since that conversation I’ve been on a quest to create a route of an acceptable length with places to park. This turned out to be more difficult than I thought!
At the time of writing this I’ve been back to this area five times and in all weathers. My trusted walking buddy Stu joined me on three occasions. The first time I returned on a scouting expedition and it snowed, although sadly not enough to settle (I’d love to see Chute Causeway and Hippenscombe under a blanket of snow). I took some photographs in bitterly cold conditions and departed. The next time Stu and I did a short walk starting from Tidcombe Church up to the open access area of Tidcombe Down and Wexcombe Down above Tidcombe to the west. We wanted to check that we could reach the bridleway to the west of the Downs. (It was blocked by a fence line through which we could only pass by cutting the string that held a Wiltshire gate in place – we replaced it having passed through.) On the third occasion Stu and I trialled the walk that I’m about to describe. But it was a cold grey day and the photographs were dull and flat, so I returned twice more in better light to re-shoot the photographs. The photographs here are from several visits.
Before we start the walk, a disclaimer. This route is not the finished article. I’m sure there are some minor improvements that could be made but I think it’s best for the visitor to decide these for themselves. Think of this as more of a guide to the area.
The walk Stu and I did began at the tiny village of Tidcombe. We parked by a wall opposite the church but there’s only room for three or four cars here if parked carefully. I’ve parked here on four occasions now and there has only ever been space for one or two cars as the local residents (of whom there are few) also park here.
Tidcombe is little more than a hamlet at the end of a narrow lane. It contains several large houses including The Manor House which faces the church porch across a field. The manor’s history can be traced back to at least the 8th century AD and at one time was held by the Seymour family, relatives of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour. The Manor House was built in 1742, possibly by John Tanner, but a short history of the house inside the church states that it was commissioned by Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset. Over the years the house was owned variously by the Rendall, Tanner and Hayward families, all of whom are commemorated in the church.
The church itself, St Michael’s, was certainly standing in the 12th century. There’s a lot more detail about the village and the church, together with several photographs, in my post in the Hidden Wiltshire Facebook Group dated 21 November 2021. As I said in that post the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described the church as “humble”. That it may be but it’s a wonderfully peaceful place and well worth a visit. So much so that Andrew Rumsey, the Bishop of Ramsbury, performed some of his songs and read from his book there on Christmas Eve 2021. His photographs of the light pouring through the stained glass windows into the churchyard are stunning.
From our parking place we headed a few metres due south along the lane where, on the outside of and below the bend a footpath crosses a stile and heads across the fields. At the bend do not turn right along the metalled lane unless you intend to do this walk in reverse when we’ll come down that lane at the end of the walk. Once over the stile we passed a poorly restored dew pond, and headed up towards a small wood in the direction of Tidcombe long barrow. It’s a stiff climb up the hill with fine views to the right of a little combe with its prehistoric earthworks. But you soon reach Tidcombe long barrow, which sits beside Chute Causeway around 700m from the village.
Tidcombe long barrow is a substantial Neolithic burial mound 54m long, 24m wide, varying in height between 3m and 4m. The chamber was plundered by local villagers in 1750 and consequently appears as a hollowed area containing four large sarsen blocks. If memory serves correctly I believe there may be some finds from the barrow in Wiltshire Museum. Meanwhile the whole area here is a mass of earthworks, with the ditches close to the barrow likely to have been from the excavation of material for the mound around 3500-4500 years ago. Other earthworks are evidence of ancient field systems.
From the long barrow we crossed to the other side of the Roman road that is Chute Causeway and followed the bridleway with Maccombe Down to our left, bounded on two sides by earthworks. The earthworks are really extensive here.
We followed this bridleway for around 1.5 kms. It is deeply rutted and very muddy in places from the farm vehicles and horse riders that use it. As you follow the stretch after Down Barn in the clump of trees to the right, where what looks like a water tank has been installed up a tree, a combe called The Slay sweeps away to your right and down in the valley can be seen the farm buildings that comprise the hamlet of Hippenscombe.
Shortly we came to a junction of rights of way. A crossroads. To the left a bridleway comes up from Oxenwood, and nearby Fosbury House. The house is owned by the Guinness family and achieved a degree of notoriety in 2005 when Robert Hesketh, son of Colonel Roger Fleetwood-Hesketh, Conservative MP for Southport, died from "a cocktail of alcohol, heroin and cocaine" at an 18th birthday party there. Straight ahead at the crossroads lies Fosbury Farm where at another junction a path swings right through Oakhill Wood to Knolls Down where you will find the magnificent Fosbury Camp hill fort. (I noticed that before reaching Fosbury Farm to the left of the bridleway is a wood called Coneygre Copse. Just above the River Till outside Winterbourne Stoke is a collection of tumuli called The Coniger. I wonder if the two names share the same derivation?) For the purposes of this walk the route takes the turning on the right downhill to Hippenscombe. However, before doing so, Stu and I couldn’t resist the temptation to visit the hill fort by crossing the southern flanks of Haydown Hill.
Fosbury Camp is a substantial Iron Age bivallate hill fort covering some 26 acres. It’s thought that man may have been present here in Neolithic if not Mesolithic times. There are two natural ponds inside, apparently purposely bound by the earthworks, which would have provided a source of water for people and animals. The two banks and ditches are particularly striking on the southern side of the camp, as are the views down into Hippenscombe Bottom and across to Chute Causeway. According to The Modern Antiquarian “During one of the later outbreaks of plague in the 1660s, the Rector of nearby Vernham Dene, convinced all the villagers suffering from plague to leave and set up camp on this nearby hill. He convinced them he would bring supplies to them. However, once they had gone he 'forgot' about them, and their makeshift camp starved to death. His ghost is now said to walk towards the top of the hill, always fading from view just before he arrives at the former campsite”. I’m glad I didn’t know this when I found myself alone in the dark there earlier this week when I returned to take photographs!
If you take the diversion to Fosbury Camp (which I thoroughly recommend) be sure to have a look at the multiple pits in the field on Haydown Hill just above the aforementioned crossroads. The Modern Antiquarian suggests these pits may have been part of “a vast storage network of sustainable produce, be it grain, fruit or other food items”.
Back at the crossroads the bridleway drops down to farm buildings at the hamlet of Hippenscombe itself. We made our way here past the barns to the lane that I mentioned in the introduction to this blog.
The whole of the 1,500 acre Hippenscombe Estate is now a large shooting estate owned by a Swedish company. This is game bird shooting on an industrial scale and the entire area is dedicated to the shoot. I wonder whether it was this way in Ravilious’ day? However, there are long established rights of way across the estate, albeit not always well-maintained, and there are a few open access areas. We saw the gamekeeper a couple of times and he was always friendly, giving us a cheerful wave.
From the farm buildings we took the bridleway due south steeply uphill past Cleves Copse to join Chute Causeway.
This diversion was necessary in order to reach our next target – the Devil’s Waistcoat. At the top of the hill we turned right to walk along the Roman road along which we walked for about 750m. All along the Causeway can be seen disused pits. These would have provided the material for the construction of the road by the Romans. At the junction of the road that comes up from Chute on the left is a traditional finger post which has Anton Post written on it. Next to it is a yellow grit bin. If you look to the right of and behind the bin, about 25m away you will see a disused pit. In it lies a sarsen stone.
Much has been written about this stone and there has been a lot of debate about what it is. Much of this area was part of what was the Hundred of Kinwardstone, one of the largest Hundreds in Wiltshire. Tradition has it that each Hundred had a meeting place that was marked by a stone. It was suggested that this stone was the Hundred stone for Kinwardstone so for many it became known as the Kinward Stone or Kenwood Stone. However, this is highly unlikely as it lies close to the boundary of the Kinwoodstone Hundred – why would they meet there and not somewhere more central? David Dawson at Wiltshire Museum asked a group of experts to investigate this and they concluded that the Kinwardstone Hundred stone was actually at Burbage. Other stories handed down over the centuries claim that this stone, which would be best known by its alternative name of the Devil’s Waistcoat, was actually lifted from a field in nearby Chute and brought to the spot where it now lies. Whatever its provenance, go and have a look at it. You will find a series of wavy lines marked on it, best seen on a sunny day when the shadows show the detail of the carvings. It has long been a matter of debate between geologists and antiquarians as to whether these carvings are natural or man-made. I know what I think!
From the Devil’s Waistcoat we continued along Chute Causeway for about 300m, passing multiple pits and accompanied by Grim’s Ditch to our right, until we reached a small stile over the fence. Our objective was to drop down again into Hippenscombe Bottom. There are the occasional footpath signs but the route has been disturbed and fence lines changed. We found ourselves on the edge of a huge open field beyond which was the lane that winds its way along the Bottom. The field had been ploughed and sown with a crop. There was a small footpath sign pointing straight across the field back in the direction of the farm buildings in the hamlet where we had been earlier. We had no hesitation in tramping across this field and I assume that walkers will be left to reclaim the path as the crop grows. The field was marked all over with shooting stations for the guns so is well trodden.
Once back on the well surfaced lane we turned left along it heading north west as it gradually climbed Hippenscombe Bottom. The bridleway skirts Scotsoor Plantation and rejoins Chute Causeway where more earthworks could be seen in the field on the other side of the road. There are two routes through Scotspoor Plantation but we took the one that kept to the east of the wood swinging to the north. Once on the Roman road again we walked along it for about 200m until we came to a bridleway on our left which headed first north west and then north. This bridleway was once again heavily rutted and muddy, making for very slow progress. A better route might be the other bridleway along the southern edge of Scotspoor Plantation which joins Chute Causeway at Scot’s Poor (marked by a couple of houses) itself. From here, a footpath heads north west between Scotspoor Wood (not Scotspoor Plantation) and Picked Plantation running parallel to the bridleway we took which lay to the east. Both routes end up at a T-junction with the same bridleway where you head east in the direction of Tidcombe. This alternative route is the one shown in the route map, not the route we took.
It’s worth pausing at the junction of the bridleway from Chute Causeway and the bridleway down into Tidcombe (this is around 500m east of where the alternative route via the footpath from Scot’s Poor joins the Tidcombe bridleway) to look to the right at the earthworks that snake their way across the fields towards Tidcombe long barrow, hidden behind the small wood to the south east. The views down the small combe towards the village and far beyond into Berkshire are worth savouring as you near the end of what will have been a long day in this beautiful and historic part of Wiltshire.
The route shown in the map shows the alternative option around Scotspoor Plantation, and is 7.2 miles (11.6 kms). By using this route you open up the possibility of starting and finishing the walk at Scot's Poor where there is more room to park, using the verge on the byway that leads to Gammon's Farm. I'm told that walkers do use the wide verges here to park. However, bear in mind it's probably best to do this in dry, warm weather to avoid chewing up the grass verge.