First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
It was cool and misty across the Wiltshire downs. I hung over the twin bridges at Great Bedwyn, first watching the train rattle away towards Newbury, then admiring the slender curves of the Kennet & Avon Canal.
The lacy stonework of the church tower rose among autumn trees – crimson, gold, lemon yellow, scarlet. Beyond the bridge lay narrowboats with cosily smoking chimneys, a wintering community of water gypsies that looked almost as settled as the village itself.
The towpath of the Kennet & Avon led south. The canal lay as still as a pond, its grey-brown water disturbed only by the gentle pat and ripple of falling willow leaves. A milky sheen glinted on chalky fields newly sown with spring wheat. Beside Lock 61 a tremendous grunting came from a pig palace of straw bales, where a massive ginger sow luxuriated in the mud.
The tall chimney of Crofton pumping station loomed ahead, softened by mist. Built in 1812 to pump water to the adjacent summit ponds of the Kennet & Avon, nowadays its preserved Boulton & Watt steam engine, a mighty monster, is the oldest working beam engine in the world.
Here I turned aside along the canal reservoir of Wilton Water, a rushy lake winding under willows. A young heron, disturbed at my approach, took off from its fishing stance and flapped away like an animated umbrella.
Above the brick-and-timber village of Wilton, larks sang over Dodsdown. The path led across a rain-pearled beet field into the neighbouring woods of Wilton Brail and Bedwyn Brail, deer parks in the long ago. An eerie half-light lingered among the enormous storm-shattered carcases of fallen beech trees. Long tailed tits passed in a twittering flock. Sweet chestnut husks littered the path, neatly split into quarters and robbed of their contents by squirrels.
At the summit of Bedwyn Brail I sat on a bench looking across the golden woods. Just southward along the ridge lay the earthworks of a grand mansion planned, but never completed, by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and lord of Wolf Hall. At one time Seymour flew high as Lord Protector to his nephew, young Edward VI. But his flight ended in 1552, crashing Icarus-like to earth at the execution block.
When the foundations of Bedwyn Brail house were excavated a few years ago, the brick-built water system installed in 1549 by the royal Sergeant Plumber was found to be still working perfectly.
Start: Bedwyn railway station, Great Bedwyn, SN8 3PB (OS ref SU 280645)
Getting there: Train to Great Bedwyn; bus 22 (Marlborough-Hungerford)
Road – Great Bedwyn is signed from Froxfield on A4 east of Hungerford (M4, Jct 14).
Walk (6½ miles, easy, OS Explorer 157): South for 1¾ miles along Kennet & Avon Canal towpath. Opposite Crofton Lock pumping station, left (262623, ‘Wilton Windmill’); footpath to road in Wilton (267616). Left past Swan Inn (‘Great Bedwyn’); opposite Tidcombe turning, left (270617), ‘Crofton’ fingerpost). In 100m, right; follow yellow arrows into Wilton Brail wood (271622) and on. In ¾ mile cross road (278627); on into Bedwyn Brail wood. At benches on ridge (284625), left and follow ‘Great Bedwyn’ and ‘footpath’ for nearly 1 mile to north edge of wood (283638). Cross field to far right corner (281641, yellow arrows); right down path to road (281649); left to station.
Accommodation: Pelican Inn, Bath Road, Froxfield, Marlborough SN8 3JY (01488-682479, pelicaninn.co.uk)