First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Squirrels had been harvesting the green hazelnuts along Woodlands Lane; the split shells went crunching under our boots as we set out from Berwick St John on a cloudy morning. Beyond the gabled old house of Woodlands there was a bit of a pull up the breast of the hill, and then the exhilaration of a good old step-out along one of the ancient ridgeways that ride the nape of these south Wiltshire downs. Jane, a South Downs girl born and bred, strode out with a big smile on her face, delighting in the poppies along the cornfield headlands, the nodding harebells and powder-blue buttons of scabious in the trackway verges, and the sense of being high up among the swooping hills of proper chalk-and-flint country.
Steep hill slopes whose sheep-nibbled turf had never been disturbed by any plough plunged away to flat and sinuous valley bottoms, where the pale coffee colour of the newly harrowed earth lay streaked with darker chocolate, sign of watercourses still active under the soil. It was like walking on a relief map, a fabulous one. Full of exultation, we came down through Norrington Farm to reach Alvediston’s little Church of St Mary, where a group of recondite ramblers on a church crawl were discoursing in the churchyard.
Blink and you’ll miss Alvediston. The thatched Crown Inn stood locked up tight, in a state of suspended animation between owners. Walking on, we found sparrowhawks clattering from the ash trees in Elcombe Hollow, fat sheep cropping the vale under Pincombe Down, and wonderful views along the sweep of the north-facing hills.
The Ox Drove is another ancient trackway of the Wiltshire Downs, broad and tree-lined between wide grazing verges, a drove road and pedlar’s highway since time out of mind. We followed it along the crest of the downs as cloud thickened in the north, looking out to the mounded ramparts of Winkelbury hillfort. The golden coffin buried at the summit, the lucky thorn tree that grows there, the devil who grants wishes to those who march round the hill while cursing and swearing … All yarns the drovers swapped and the pedlars spun to drive away the demons of the old hard roads across the downs.
Start & finish: Talbot Inn, Berwick St John, Wiltshire SP7 0HA (OS ref ST 947223)
Getting there: Berwick St John is signed off A30, 3½ miles east of Shaftesbury
Walk (8 miles, moderate grade, OS Explorer 118): Leaving Talbot Inn, round right bend; up Church Street. Round left bend by Old Rectory; in 20 yd, right (946224) along Woodlands Lane. Just past Woodlands House (951232), track splits 3 ways. Ignore yellow arrow; take middle way, diagonally left uphill for 600 yd. Through gate in fence (948237; blue arrow/BA); aim half left across down to gate in far left corner (BA). On through next wooden gate; follow path to turn right along stony trackway (948245). In 1 mile, right (961248) down green path to Norrington Farm. Ahead through farmyard; past last barn, left (967238) over stiles through 4 fields to road (976238 – St Mary’s Church opposite). Right to T-junction in Alvediston (976234 – Crown Inn opposite). Right; in 50 yd, left (‘Elcombe Farm’). Follow road, then track up Elcombe Hollow for 1¼ miles to Bigley Barn (977216). Right along Ox Drove trackway for 1½ miles. 250 yd before road, right (954208) along path for 1¼ miles below Winkelbury hillfort to road (953223); left to Berwick St John,
NB – Online map, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
Lunch: Talbot Inn, Berwick St John (01747-828222); Crown Inn, Alvediston (NB closed at time of writing).