First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The thatched and red-tiled roofs of Vernham Dean lie low in a billowing landscape of green and white, the slopes of the cornfields, pastures and copses chequerboarded with chalky patches of clay soil newly ploughed for seeding with pheasant-friendly plants.
We were heading up and away onto the roof of this hidden corner of the Hampshire/Wiltshire border. If it weren’t such a dreadful cliché, ‘best-kept secret’ would fit this secluded notch of countryside very well. The chalk is cut by dry valleys that swing and curve as though modelled by a sculptor. You rarely see anyone along the flinty old tracks crisscrossing the downs, or on the paths that plunge down slopes too steep ever to have been touched by arable farming.
At the rim of Conholt Hill we paused to look down along the sinuous valley that leads to lonely Hippenscombe Farm. Then we descended the narrow path into Conholt Bottom down a slope spattered with yellow rattle, horseshoe vetch, fat seedheads of cowslip, and the pink busby-shaped flowers of common spotted orchid.
During the ‘Swing Riots’ of 1830, a mob of three hundred poverty-stricken farm labourers, hungry and angry, marched to Hippenscombe Farm on 22 November. They were intent on smashing Farmer Fulbrook’s thrashing machine, one of the new labour-saving agricultural inventions that were putting such men out of work. Twenty of them broke into the barricaded house, and someone stole a tea caddy and a tablecloth.
When they were caught, the ringleaders were sentenced to transportation for life to New South Wales. They were lucky to escape with their necks intact, and some of them made good Down Under, once their crimes had been expiated.
From Hippenscombe and its hoarsely barking dogs we climbed again to the hilltops where the folded landscape wheeled off in green clefts to all quarters. On Fosbury Camp hill fort we saw no-one as we circled round the great Neolithic enclosure inside its Iron Age ramparts. Bumble bees investigated the velvety purple heads of musk thistle, and a kestrel hung dark and intent, head down in the wind.
We passed a giant old beech tree clamped by bulbous roots to the ramparts, and went bowling downhill toward the roofs of Vernham Dean, huddled under a racing grey sky in their hollow under the steep green downs.
Start: George Inn, Vernham Dean, near Andover, Hants SP11 0JY (OS ref SU 341566)
Getting there: A343 north from Andover; at Hurstbourne Tarrant, left to Ibthorpe, Upton and Vernham Dean.
Walk (6¼ miles, field paths, OS Explorer 131): From George Inn, right along road. In 200m, left (fingerpost) up flinty lane. In 150m, right (339564, ‘footpath’) up edge of Boats Copse. In ½ mile at top of slope, right (331558, ‘footpath’) into trees. Follow arrows through trees, out onto hillside; up hedge for 400m to road (327554).
Right; in 100m sharp right; in 100m, left (stile), slanting down hillside to valley bottom (321558). Left along road for ¾ mile to Hippenscombe Farm. Through road gate (311561); in 20m, right by cottage on farmyard road between barns. In 150m fork right beside last shed (breeze block) on flint track. In 100m keep ahead (ignore left fork). In 750m, at crossing at top of slope (309569), right on flint track to Fosbury Farm (314571).
Cross drive in front of gates; onward into woods for 800m to stile onto Knolls Down (320566). Bear right to trees; left (anticlockwise) round ramparts of Fosbury Camp hill fort. Just past giant beech tree, right at rampart gap (322565, pond on left) down field slope with trees on left for ⅔ mile to road at Woodside Cottages (332565). Right; in 30m, left (‘footpath’, kissing gate). At far end of field (kissing gate), right along road. In 300m, at entrance to Vernham Dean, fork left (338566) to George Inn.
Lunch: George Inn, Vernham Dean (01264-737279, thegeorgeatvernhamdean.co.uk) – excellent, unpretentious village pub.
Accommodation: Hatchet Inn, Lower Chute SP11 9DX (01264-730229, thehatchetinn.com) – 4 miles