First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The first knockings of autumn were making themselves heard in the whistle of cold wind and rustle of falling leaves along the Wylye valley.
From the creeper-hung Royal Oak at Great Wishford we followed a flinty track up a downland spine between stubble fields, the view opening out over the steep scrubby slopes and curving valley of Penning Bottom. Tiny green and orange crab apples, as hard as marbles, lay across the path, and the banks of the sunken lane were scarred with pale grey chalky spoil and showers of white flints kicked out by burrowing rabbits.
Ahead on the ridge lay the long dark bar of Grovely Wood. Great Wishford’s relationship with this ancient piece of forest is long-standing. The village enjoys the right every 29 May, Oak Apple Day, to gather wood from Grovely, a custom that can only be upheld through a ritual entry of the villagers into Salisbury Cathedral for the purpose of shouting ‘Grovely, Grovely, Grovely … and all Grovely!’
Grovely is a beautiful wood of sweet chestnut, hazel, oak and handsome specimen conifers. Fine old beech trees, well spaced, form glades where little else grows, and there was a cool and solemn atmosphere as we traversed these green, cathedral-like spaces.
Two ancient ways twist through Grovely Wood – a ridgeway that might have been used as a thoroughfare for as long as 7,000 years, and Grim’s Ditch, a defensive earthwork built by Iron Age Britons. Norsemen, coming across the earthwork nearly 1,000 years after its creation, named it after Grimr, their conception of the Devil.
At a place where ancient ridgeway and demonic ditch entwined, we left Grovely Wood and descended into a valley of billowing ploughland, where yet another of Wiltshire’s ancient tracks, the Ox Drove, ran a snaking course. A much-weathered milestone in the verge bore witness to the importance of this old byway to riders and coach travellers of bygone days. We puzzled out its eroded lettering: ‘VI Miles from Sarum – 1759.’
We found a path between fences where stonechats perched, wheezing ‘wheesh-chat! wheesh-chat!’ Their dark heads and white canonical collars gave them a rather severe air, offset by their cheerful buff waistcoats.
Back through the murmuring trees of Grovely Wood, and down a long flint track towards Great Wishford, its thatched roofs and chequered flint-and-freestone walls cradled in a tree smother of red, gold and green.
Start: Royal Oak PH, Great Wishford, Salisbury SP2 0PD (OS ref SU 078355)
Getting there: Bus 2A (Devizes-Salisbury)
Great Wishford is signed from A36 (Salisbury-Warminster) at Stoford
Walk (6½ miles; easy, downland and woodland tracks; OS Explorer 130): From Royal Oak, under railway; right up track (‘Public Bridleway’). In ½ mile at gate (070353), ahead along fence. In ½ mile enter wood (062351), bear left along inner edge, follow track for ¾ mile to road (055344). Right; in ½ mile at edge of wood, fork left (048341, No Through Road, Monarch’s Way, blue arrow). In ½ mile at Grovely Farm, left (044335); fork immediately right along wood edge. In 600m leave trees (046329), ahead to valley bottom; left (047327) along Ox Drove track. In ⅔ mile at junction, left (057324, ‘Restricted Byway’); in 20m, left at milestone for 2½ miles – up fenced path, through Grovely Wood, down to Great Wishford. Under railway (080351), left; right down South Street to church (081355); left to Royal Oak.
Lunch: Royal Oak PH, Great Wishford (01722-790613, royaloakgreatwishford.com) – open all day, Thursday-Sunday
Accommodation: The Old Post House, Great Wishford SP2 0NN (01722-790211, theoldposthouse.co.uk) – cosy B&B, Covid compliant