Updated: Jul 8, 2021
Whilst not unique to Wiltshire, clumps are something that many of us envisage when we think of the county’s landscape. Otherwise known as copses, these clumps often comprise of beech trees and can be seen throughout the county standing proud, commanding all they survey. Usually the clumps consist of a small number of trees which makes them stand out against the skyline. They are a photographer’s dream, especially against a dramatic storm laden sky or backlit by the setting or rising sun. Often these stands of trees are of a greater number and constitute small woods that flow from the summit of a hill and down the along a ridge, looking like the mane of some giant horse.
Some of our clumps have become places of ceremony and it’s not unusual to find offerings hanging from the trees. Anyone who has listened to Podcast 8 which featured Furze Knoll will know that these ceremonies and offerings can be of a more sinister nature. And it’s not just humans who find these places attractive. It’s not unusual to find owls, buzzards and crows in or above the trees. They are perhaps less frequented by smaller birds who prefer a corridor that enables them to flit from the protection of one hiding place to another. But larger birds that feel bold enough to fly across the open spaces to the summit of a distant and remote clump of trees have no such inhibitions.
According to the Wessex Silvicultural Group “Historical evidence suggests that beech was uncommon as a natural species in Wiltshire and that the majority of the clumps and roundells of beech on the downs today were artificially established in the 19th century.” Many were planted for shelter which for some of them may explain the proximity to old trackways. But many were planted more for their visual effect on the landscape. Sadly a lot of the beechwoods have reached maturity and are declining in health with landowners reluctant to go to the expense of maintaining or replacing them. And it was sad to read recently in Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful book “The Wild Places” that climate change means around 80-85% of our beech trees will disappear from southern England by as soon as 2050 as they move north with the isobars, preferring a slightly cooler climate. Already many of our beeches have the appearance of trees hundreds of years older than their true age.
But as photographers who can resist the sight of a beech clump standing majestically on the crown of distant hill? In no particular order we’ve included a few of our favourites in this blog.
Since it’s already been mentioned we’ll start here with two photographs taken in very different conditions. One with the clump bathed in golden light and the other with the trees partially obscured by low, thick cloud, the rooks adding a sinister note to the scene. Furze Knoll lies to the north of Devizes and its position to the west of the A361 between Devizes and Avebury means it’s visible to, but probably unnoticed by, the countless drivers who hurtle past it every day. Lying next to Morgan’s Hill with its unmistakeable twin aerials the knoll and its beechwood are visible from huge distances across the Wiltshire landscape. But there is something slightly uneasy about this wood and to be alone there of an evening can be an unnerving experience.
Like so much of Wiltshire this landscape was of much importance to prehistoric man. Wansdyke passes around 100 metres to the north. Tumuli and enclosures litter the countryside to the east and of course the line of the strategically important Roman road now followed by the Wessex Ridgeway passes to the north on the other side of Morgan’s Hill.
This little beech clump is slightly different in that it sits more on a gradually rising slope than a promontory. Being close to the MOD training village of Copehill Down on Salisbury Plain between Shrewton and Tilshead, it’s mostly ignored although maybe it’s used as a navigation point by the RAF who have a dropping zone nearby?
On the 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey Map the clump is marked merely by a single tree symbol surrounded by a tiny blotch of green. But its position in the vast openness of chalk grassland is sufficiently elevated for it to be visible for great distances across the Plains in all directions. In inclement weather it can be a wild, unforgiving place being exposed to all the elements can throw at it. It’s not unusual to find owls and buzzards here. In mid-winter the icy blast of a strong northerly wind can make it feel arctic, especially in driven snow.
Old King Barrows
This simple clump consists only of four trees, but crucially they stand guard around a Bronze Age round barrow in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. This barrow is older than the more frequented New King Barrows to the south. Thankfully it appears to command less attention than its neighbours, and of course the Stones themselves. These four trees frequently keep their vigil alone, passed only by the occasional walker approaching from Countess Road to the north of Amesbury. Most walkers pass them by to the west and head straight for the newer barrow group or plough the path between Stonehenge itself and New King Barrows.
Again, sitting on the Plain with little protection from the elements, this can seem a wild and lonely place in Winter despite its proximity to large centres of population. It is very photogenic, with the trees silhouetted as they are against the sweeping skies.
Oliver’s Castle is actually an Iron Age hillfort with a connection to the English Civil War. The Battle of Roundway Down was fought in this area on 13th July 1643, where many Parliamentarians mistakenly rode their galloping horses off the edge of the hill to certain doom below.
Today, the hill is an imposing sight for many miles around, and the small number of trees on the summit have a commanding prominence, asserting themselves over the surrounding landscape. The trees are more spread out than many other clumps but they stand with distinction, making their presence felt.
This unassuming little clump of beech trees attracts the eye from miles around. As listeners to Podcast 4 will know this place is home to the ashes of a loyal farmworker who laboured on Lower Pertwood Farm for many years. It sits alone on the slope of Summerslade Down to the south of the River Wylye above the village of Brixton Deverill. During a recent Wiltshire Museum Walk we were able to admire this clump from distant Littlecombe Hill above Sutton Veny. But head over the hill to the west of Summerslade Down and it becomes invisible. It feels as though this collection of beeches was meant to be admired from Brixton Deverill over which it looks with a seeming fondness. As we’ve said before, the black and white photograph with sheep sheltering beneath the trees from the blistering heat of an unusually hot Spring day could so easily have been a scene from Crete.
The clump on Tinhead Hill is one of the markers in the landscape you can use to find your bearings as it is visible from many of the towns and villages below. Some people liken it to a hedgehog, as in the distance the trees resemble the bristles of one of these nocturnal creatures.
The trees actually sit on top of a Neolithic long barrow in the middle of an arable field which is actively farmed. The barrow was excavated in 1864 but was found to have been already disturbed, although human remains were found. It has been much disturbed by ploughing. So whilst it is not possible to walk up to or over the barrow, its size and shape mean that it can be appreciated from afar. The character of this clump changes with the seasons, as in the summer the leafy trees complement the nearby crops. In Winter, the leafless trees match the barren empty field around it.
This is probably one of the most iconic of Wiltshire beech clumps. A whale’s back of a hill with a copse perched on top, its perfection is let down only by the smaller trees that crowd in around the beeches. Viewed from any of the hills to the north such as Knap Hill, Walker’s Hill and Oare Hill, Woodborough Hill’s summit is of sufficient height to project the beech trees above the horizon formed by the bulk of Salisbury Plain to the south. The trees can therefore be silhouetted by the careful photographer against the most dramatic of skies. From the south the hill is, if anything, more striking. It seems to stand alone in its landscape as you approach from the village that shares its name.
Sadly the hill is surrounded almost entirely by private land reserved for the shoot. It can be approached by a single path alone that leads from the canal to its south, a quagmire in winter months. Its slopes bear the pervasive, threatening “Private” signs. You may approach and leave only by the path. This is a hill best admired from afar.
The Charlton Clumps
The Chalton Clumps are a group of clumps that stand on the northern ridge of the central Salisbury Plain. The clumps lie to north of the Ridgeway. Beyond them, the ridge falls away down Wilsford Hill and Cleeve Hill to the village of Charlton, after which the clumps are named. The Ordnance Survey map of 1901 shows nine clumps, but the majority of these are actually south of the Ridgeway in the combes where they are not so noticeable, and most have now been absorbed into larger plantations. The four that remain, however, are nicely placed. Two of them have the sky behind, while the two others are close to the Ridgeway and can be photographed alone, with the skyline copses behind them, or looking along the Ridgeway and the ruts that lead the eye.
Like all the clumps discussed above the Charlton Clumps are a never-ending source of photographic delight as they change with the weather, the season and the light. The clumps themselves are on private land, but you can find a variety of vantage points from the Ridgeway, and from the byways and bridleways all about.