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Hidden in the depths of the Wiltshire countryside, on the edge of the small town of Wilton, you’ll discover the ancient, ethereal Grovely Woods. Inhabited since the Iron Age, the woods are a mixture of managed evergreen and deciduous woodland, rich in flora and fauna. Today it is a part of Lord Pembroke’s Wilton Estate.

Cutting straight through the towering, beautiful trees is a Roman road that has been there for over 7000 years. Timeworn paths, trodden down over the centuries, criss-cross the Roman road. The evidence of times gone by are scattered throughout the trees and undergrowth. Prehistoric Grim’s Ditches, earthworks and tumulus lay in and around the woodland. If you explore carefully, you’ll find abandoned houses and second world war bunkers hidden away. Grovely Woods has quite the history. You’ll not be surprised to find the woodlands are rather creepy at certain times of the day. Spooky tales abound.

The Four Witches

Of all the legends associated with the woods, the most famous is that of the Four Witches. Let’s head back to 1737. Smallpox swept through the village of Wilton, killing 132 people. There were four Danish sisters living near Wilton by the name of Handsel.

A local researcher with an interest in some of our Wiltshire legends, David Morgan, got in touch just recently. He has provided a few extra titbits of information. David’s impression is that the sisters didn’t live in Wilton but together in a cottage somewhere nearby, possibly along the road from Wilton to Great Wishford. 

He also said, ‘Red-haired folk in the Deverills were referred to as ‘Daners’, so clearly there were little enclaves of Danes or their descendants in South Wiltshire.  They could even have been related to the sisters. This, to me, roots the legend in some sort of contemporary fact. There were Danes around.’

Following the devastating outbreak of smallpox, the villagers decided, in their ignorance, it was down to the Handsel sisters. Labelled as witches, they laid the blame on them. The poor sisters were dragged from their homes into the woods before being violently bludgeoned to death. Following these most brutal murders, the sisters were buried apart. If they were separated, it was thought they would not be able to conspire from the grave to bring about more misfortunes for the villagers.

Legend has it, four beech trees were planted to mark each of the graves, or they mysteriously grew up on each spot a sister was buried in. Three of the majestic yet gnarly trees still grow in the woods today. The fourth tree fell down at some point and it’s now just a pile of logs. One of the trees has become something of an altar to the poor Handsel sisters. Visitors leave little trinkets and presents, bits of thread or twine and talismans. They are attached to the branches and hidden in hollows. Another tree has been adorned with little gifts from nature; rocks, flowers, feathers and, in the autumn, pumpkins. Each tree is surrounded by a log circle, said to keep visitors safe from dark forces if you step within them.

Over the years, sightings of the sisters have occurred near this area. Figures have been witnessed leaning on trees. There are reports of women’s voices being heard and a feeling of the sisters drawing close to you, if you ask them to do so.

The Facts

As part of David’s research he was looking for any historical facts to support the legend.

I’ve searched the International Genealogical Index (IGI) and can find no ‘Handsell’ in Wiltshire in the early 1700s though there was a smallpox epidemic. I haven’t seen the Wilton church registers but if the sisters kept themselves remote from the village, why would they figure in them?

There is clearly a hidden history of these Danish immigrants being resented by the locals.  What is very interesting and which nobody has spotted, is that the Witchcraft Act of 1735 abolished death as a punishment for witchcraft. So in 1732, the villagers may have lynched the sisters but still just inside the time when it was considered okay to kill witches.

As David points out, by digging or scanning the ground beneath the fourth tree that has fallen, it might be possible to find out if indeed there is a skeleton buried there.

The Burcombe Woodsman

Another ghostly being said to lurk in Grovely Woods is that of the Burcombe Woodsman. Two stories recount the possible reason for his death. One tale says the woodsman was caught poaching in the woods. He was hung from a tree for his crimes. Another story reports he was, in fact, a watercolour artist sat painting in the woods. A deer hunt took place and the woodsman (or artist) was mistaken for an animal and shot by accident, resulting in his death. It is said his presence still stalks through the trees. Visitors are alerted to the woodsman’s presence by the sound of cracking twigs before his shadowy figure is spotted. Is he still looking for illegal prey or perhaps the perfect place to paint?

The Roman Soldiers

A common phenomenon said to be heard on the Roman road is the sound of marching soldiers. This is an audible phenomenon as there are no reports of any sightings. It’s thought to be residual energy. Having said that, the woods were used to store ammunition during WW2 and there are several abandoned bunkers hidden in the undergrowth. Could the sound of marching possibly be related to the British and American soldiers based in and around the area? The use of the woods during the war is the reason the road is tarmacked. Pretty rare for a Roman road running through a wood!

Dorset Paranormal Investigations Bunker Experience

DPI got in touch with me. They have been up to Grovely a couple of times to investigate and caught some interesting phenomena in one of the bunkers. Intelligent responses, noises and some footsteps. I thought I’d include it here in case you want to have a watch.

Walking the Roman Road

Since I love to walk with my dogs and it’s pretty near where I live, I have visited Grovely many, many times. There is undoubtedly a sense of foreboding in these woods, especially when the evening gloaming descends. During the first Covid lockdown, my friend and I walked to Grovely Woods one evening. We managed to get a bit lost (as usual) but eventually, we ended up on the Roman road. It was pretty deserted at that time of the evening but we found pockets of the wood where we felt someone or something following behind us. It was certainly an eerie feeling. I try to be pragmatic about any possible ghostly activity. However, while walking, my friend and I would both notice how we’d be happily walking along, enjoying the beauty of the woods when suddenly the bird song would cease. The strange feeling of being followed or watched would come over us both. I know it caused me to turn around several times. The hairs on the back of my neck would rise and the both of us would find we were speeding up our walking pace. Then, all of a sudden, the feeling would disappear, the bird song would restart and a sense of lightness would return. This happened on a couple of occasions. Both my friend and I agreed we weren’t massively keen on Grovely that late in the evening.

A psychic friend of ours, who keeps quiet about her gift, feels there is a sinister presence in pockets of the woods. She refuses to go up there now, despite living nearby.

Grovely Woods Phenomena

Coughing, distant voices and drumming sounds have all been heard in the woods. Lights have been seen moving through the trees. There are no roads or houses nearby, which could explain the lights as car headlights. 

Reports of being followed and footsteps seem to be a reoccurring theme for visitors walking on the Roman road. Some folk have suggested feeling an elemental type of presence in the woods.

Abi’s Personal Story

Abi happened to come across Weird Wiltshire and got in touch with me with her own personal Grovely Woods ghost story. She is from the Salisbury area and in September 2010 Abi and nine of her friends headed to Grovely Woods to spend the night camping in the woods. It’s a night they will never forget…

“We were a group of irresponsible, reckless 15 to 16 year olds who lied to our parents in order to camp in the woods for the night. We weren’t vandals but we did some fairly typical stupid teen shit that I cringe at now!

Anyway, we walked for miles and miles into the woods around the Wilton area, in the late afternoon/early evening. We didn’t really have smartphones or Google maps back then but I would say it took us over an hour to find a spot to ‘camp’ for the night. I use the term camp loosely – it was just a small camp fire and one two-man tent between all of us. We were truly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by woodland. We didn’t see a single soul on our walk there.

Fast forward much later in the evening and it was all fairly innocent. Hyperactive dancing, singing and messing around. Burning stuff in the campfire, with a few WKDs. I have never been much of a drinker so did not really drink anything, likewise with some of the group who also did not drink a lot. By midnight to 1am, we all quietened down – some fell asleep around the fire, whilst four of us crammed into the tent to try and sleep.

I’m not entirely sure if I was asleep or the sound woke me up, but at around 2am we could hear singing in the distance. An unaccompanied, distinctly feminine and beautiful voice singing at the top of their lungs. I remember us in the tent poking our heads out, and a few outside the tent were also awake and listening – all of us silent, in shock I think. A few slept through it, but we were all visibly accounted for. None of us were pulling a prank. It was chilling. It was pitch black, the fire was still going so we could see a short radius around us, and there was absolutely nothing in sight. Just this singing. No car sounds, no lights, no explanation. Eventually, it stopped, and we resorted to spending the rest of the night joking with each other about banshees and ghosts but I truly think, deep down, we were all really frightened and shocked.

In the years after, our friendship group splintered off as we went to different colleges and people moved on. The few that I kept in touch with remembered the incident like I did.

I guess I’ve been looking for a rational explanation. My number one is it could’ve been a car playing the radio loudly but we weren’t near any roads, car parks, footpaths or really anywhere a car could get close to. There was also no music, just a single voice, singing in the near distance. It also wasn’t super far away, I’d say a few metres from the sight of the trees lit up by the fire. So, I don’t know what it could have been! I’m aware of the witches of Grovely, that would be my personal explanation, but I really don’t know! I like to think I’m fairly rational, quite evidence based and not overly spiritual, but this experience has absolutely flummoxed me.”

I asked Abi if she knew about the Grovely Woods ghost stories at the time and she said she only found out about them a few years later.

We chatted about the possibility of the singing coming from somewhere else. But, we both agreed these woods are pretty remote when you get walking off the Roman road. There are no other roads. No houses. No cars. I asked Abi about the song she heard and this is what she said:

“I don’t remember the song. It wasn’t anything recognisable at the time (and I’ve always been very musical and went on to study music for a while afterwards). When I’ve told the story the few times since, or discussed it with the friends that were there, I would describe it as operatic, but not opera. Almost classical style vocals? I wish I could remember more. I don’t think it lasted very long, at the time it would’ve felt like ages but it couldn’t have been more than a minute or two at most. I feel like if it were more, one of us would’ve tried to record it, and it’s a shame we didn’t. It was definitely spooky, but we just laughed it off – I don’t think it hit me quite how unique and strange the whole experience was until years after, when I could actually tell my mum and sisters about it and where we’d been!”

The Twilight Shadows Paranormal Group have been to Grovely many times and the female members of the group always feel a strong female energy in the woods. I can’t help but feel the sisters may have pulled close to the fire and the group of teenagers to protect them somehow. It’s certainly a very strange but very special experience they had up there

Whatever is going on in Grovely Woods, it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the magnificent and ancient trees. My advice is, should you visit Wiltshire, go and visit. Find the Four Sisters, bring them only light and love and maybe take a little offering. Just don’t leave it too late in the day!

Have you been to Grovely Woods and had a strange experience? Or do you a have a another ghostly tale from elsewhere that you would be willing to share?

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