First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Early mist was sifting away from the Wiltshire downs as we laced our boots on Ham village green. Snowdrops showered the banks of the lanes with white, and wild garlic and celandines were peeping out.
The sun swept up the last of the mist, diffusing a clear light over the hills. A heavy distant thumping, like giants of the upper air pushing their wardrobes around, came from Salisbury Plain where big guns were firing.
Larks sang over the big prairie fields of winter wheat as we started up the steep path to the top of the downs. A raven went tumbling in a barrel roll to impress its mate below. Up on the height of Inkpen Hill a thirty-mile view showed the sheep-nibbled downs and rolling arable fields of the Wiltshire/Berkshire border, patterned this way and that by the plough.
A sunken lane ran east just below the ridge, an ancient trackway sheltered by the lie of the land. Ploughed fields rose to the crest. A pair of partridges went skimming low across the dark furrows, their short wings downcurved for maximum gliding power.
Ahead we caught a glimpse of the ominous T-bar of Combe Gibbet, especially built in 1676 so that the hanged bodies of murderers George Broomham and Dorothy Newman could be displayed as an awful warning to the world at large.
We slanted steeply back down the slope towards a round spinney of dark green conifers set in the pale chalky ploughlands 400 feet below. A prospect that might have been placed specifically for the palette of Eric Ravilious.
Down in the green lane through the fields we found a squirrel skull by the path, as thin and white as paper, its two outsize incisors bright orange. Hips and haws in the hedges were still plump, and we puzzled how they could have evaded the hungry birds of winter.
From Inkpen village Bitham Lane ran west, a flinty holloway in a tunnel of trees. Just before turning off it for Ham, a glimpse to the north showed the handsome country house of Mount Prosperous set in parkland where white horses grazed under a cedar.
Here in the early 1700s Jethro Tull came to live and farm, and it was in these fields that he experimented with a brainchild of his, the horse-drawn seed drill. Tull and his inventions soon ushered in the great agricultural movement that saw muscle power replaced by machinery on the farms, a first seismic shock of the Industrial Revolution that would soon shake the whole world.
How hard is it? 6 miles; easy; one short, steep climb
Start: Crown & Anchor, Ham, Marlborough SN8 3RB (OS ref SU 331630)
Getting there: Bus 20 (Hungerford-Marlborough)
Road – Ham is signed off A338 (Hungerford-Marlborough)
Walk (OS Explorer 158): South along road (‘Buttermere, Andover’). In 500m opposite Manor Farm, left (332625, ‘Mid Wilts Way’/MWW on pole). In ½ mile, right across field (339626, MWW). At foot of down, left on track (340622). In 200m, right (342622), gate, MWW), half left up steep path to gate (344620). Half left to ridge track (346619). Left. In ¾ mile at ring of 6 beech trees, just before dip with fingerpost, left (358621, stile, arrow). 50m past Wigmoreash Pond, left (359622) steeply downhill. Gate at bottom (357623); path north for 1 mile to road (356638). Right; in 250m, left at Inkpen Church fingerpost (357639) past Bitham Farmhouse. On along byway. In 1½ miles, opposite Mount Prosperous gates and drive on right, left (334641) across fields for ⅔ mile to road (333632). Right into Ham.
Lunch/accommodation: Crown & Anchor, Ham (01488-503040, crownandanchorham.co.uk)
Info: Hungerford TIC (01488-692419)