This week’s blog is not focused on ghosts, although it’s about Wiltshire so there is of course some spookiness, and all the locations hold great mystery and history. It is more about the beauty of Wiltshire, this most wonderful county some of us are lucky enough to call home.
Still largely rural, Wiltshire is an ancient and magical place. While nowhere in England can now be classed as truly remote, due to the amount of us living here, there are still a few hidden away spots, a little way off the beaten track. It is Glyn Coy, writer and photographer, creator of the blog and podcast, Hidden Wiltshire, whose mission it is to show us a side of Wiltshire, the hidden gems, that perhaps not everyone is aware of.
I came across Glyn when writing a blog about Swallowhead Spring when he kindly allowed me to use a couple of his wonderful photos for the article. It was from here I discovered his most fantastic work. His love of these lands shine through and his drone photography is technically excellent (not that I really know what I am talking about, but you can just see it is)!
I wanted to promote Glyn’s work, which includes blog posts, guided walks, a podcast and shop with prints and books for sale. Asking him to create a blog for Weird Wiltshire seemed like the perfect solution so we came up with the idea of Glyn’s top ten list of favourite hidden Wiltshire places.
If you love Wiltshire or just want to see more of this magical place, have a look at Hidden Wiltshire here.
Hidden Wiltshire’s Top Ten Secret Spots
When starting up Hidden Wiltshire, my goal was to focus on the less well-known parts of the county, uncovering its richness and beauty and sharing it with fellow travellers. It was about the hidden places, often known only to locals but mostly not on the usual tourist trails. It encouraged me to go out exploring and in all the time I have been doing it I have met many wonderful people, and some have even joined me on the quest, writing about their own versions of Hidden Wiltshire.
What follows is my current top ten recommended places to visit. They are in no particular order and with around 150 places to choose from the website it was not an easy list to compile.
Robin Hood’s Bower
An ancient earthwork enclosure, deep inside Southleigh Wood near Crockerton, the Bower is a mysterious place. It is distinctive from the surrounding woodland due to the copse of Monkey Puzzle trees that is enclosed within it. Their sinister, needle like branches conspire to keep out the light so it is dark and atmospheric inside. It is thought by many to be the home of Iley Oak, where in May 878, King Alfred and his army rested the night before the Battle of Ethundun, where the Viking army of Guthrum was defeated. In later years it became a meeting place for the non-conformists of Crockerton. When I visited there were signs of modern day rituals. Small stones arranged in a circular shape above an ancient oak tree stump. Another circle made from twisted wicker. It had an eerie atmosphere and I resolved never to return here during the hours of darkness.
This early medieval earthwork once stretched from Savernake Forest to Bristol. It is post Roman although the origins of it are lost to time. The remaining eastern dyke runs from over thirteen miles from Morgan’s Hill all the way to Marlborough, across the Pewsey Downs and through West Wood. Walking the section across the slopes of Milk Hill exposes the scale of it. The remaining bank and ditch are enormous, and its construction must have been a kingdom wide effort. It could have been a defensive line, marking out the border between Wessex and Mercia. Named after the Saxon god Woden, this wonderful earthwork snakes across the landscape like a deep scar.
Visible from the Wansdyke and for many miles around is this magnificent tree clump. Shaped around an undulation on top of Morgan’s Hill, the knoll is clothed in beech trees. Many Wiltshire locals call these familiar types of tree clumps “Hedgehogs”, and they act like a visual anchor in the landscape. Going inside Furze Knoll is quite surprising. On the outside it looks uniform, but inside the ground is steep and undulating. It has a strange atmosphere at dusk. I remember once recording a podcast in there and we got spooked and bid a hasty retreat.
Marked on the modern maps in the corner of Vernditch Chase, much has already been written about Kitt’s Grave. Rumours abound on the identity of Kitt, ranging from him being a highwayman to a gipsy woman who drowned herself in a well. But the grave is placed at a cross-roads which also a boundary between the parishes of Bowerchalke and Ebbesbourne Wake. It is also the meeting point of three counties, Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire. At one point it was traditional for suicides to be buried at cross-roads. Perhaps the tale about the woman in the well is authentic? But what I do know is that despite being marked on the map, I have never been able to find the grave. Asking others who have tried, I’ve yet to find anyone who has found Kitt’s actual grave. Nearby Marleycombe Hill is also worth a visit for the views.
Wiltshire has over fifty Iron Age hillforts, and Battlesbury is one of my favourites. The ramparts fully encircle the perimeter of the hill and are enormous. Overlooking the town of Warminster, the hillfort occupies a prominent place at the edge of Salisbury Plain, overlooking the Wylye valley with views across to the Deverills in one direction and Great Ridge in another. Outside of the main camp, an Iron Age settlement has been discovered, and nearby slopes have prominent lynchets. It is part of an ancient landscape, with two other contemporary hillforts in view – Cley Hill and Scratchbury Camp. I often wonder if they were parts of the same tribe, dominating the high points in the local landscape or were they competing settlements, retreating to the hillforts for protection from each other.
The source of the River Wylye lies about two miles west of Kingston Deverill. It flows north to Westminster before turning southeast and making its way to Wilton. That early part of the river flows through a most beautiful valley with high chalk downs on either side, and picturesque villages all carrying the Deverill name. Kingston Deverill, Monkton Deverill, Brixton Deverill, Hill Deverill and Longbridge Deverill. This quiet valley has some interesting walks, with many rights of way leading up into the hills. Not many visit this area though, so you can walk miles without seeing another soul.
There is much ancient history here, with Neolithic long barrows, Bronze Age bowl barrows and some interesting Roman finds. The Kingston Deverill hoard is a five piece vessel hoard, now housed in Salisbury Museum. As recently as 2015 an enormous Roman villa was discovered in the grounds of a house in Brixton Deverill. While running some electric cables to an outbuilding, they dug up a mosaic. It led to a full archaeological survey of the grounds. Who knows what other treasures are waiting to be found in the Deverills? One thing that isn’t so ancient is the stone circle on Summerslade Down. It was atually built in the 1990’s for a music festival.
While I was already a few years into the Hidden Wiltshire project, I got a letter from local artist David Alderslade asking me if I had ever been to Folly Wood. This piqued my interest, so fellow Hidden Wiltshire write Paul Timlett set off a few days later to do some exploring.
What we found was the most extraordinary hollow-way in Wiltshire. A deeply sunken lane with trees lining the tops of the banks, their roots trailed down the sides, gnarled and twisted like some kind of gothic horror. By the side of one set of roots, and quite a scramble up a steep bank there was a cave.
We later discovered that Folly Wood used to be home to Folly House, owned by one Seymour Wroughton. In 1789, a local tale says that he drove his coach and horses down the hollow-way when drunk and became a cropper. It overturned and he broke his neck. It is said that the sunken lane is haunted by his spirit, and a ghostly headless horseman still drives a coach and horses down the gorge.
The rather manicured land that forms part of the Fonthill Estate includes a pleasant man-made lake. Both sides of the lake offer some interesting walks following established rights of way. Some intriguing stone grottos and the Hidden Wiltshire website has a six mile circular route description which I highly recommend.
The lake was created in the 18th Century by Alderman William Beckford who was twice Lord Mayor of London and tremendously wealthy. His wealth was problematic though, as it was built upon sugar plantations in Jamaica with 3,000 slaves. He left the wealth to his young son, also called William who seemed to make it his life’s mission to spend as much money as possible, building up a huge art collection which was housed in the enormous folly of Fonthill Abbey. The Abbey had an enormous tower, three hundred feet tall, which eventually collapsed. He later sold up and moved to Bath, building Beckford’s Tower in the Lansdowne part of the city. It still stands today and houses what remains of his art collection (but is currently closed for refurbishment).
Here at Hidden Wiltshire, we did a podcast about Fonthill. We talked a lot about the eccentricities of Beckford, including his gold suited doorman and the huge twelve foot high wall built around the estate to keep people out.
This quiet, small Wiltshire town flies under the radar. Yet its history is extraordinary and rich. For starters, it is the burial place of the first King of England, Aethelstan. It was also home to Saint Aldhelm, who was Abbot of the Abbey that still stands prominently at the top of the hill on which the town is built. The hill itself used to be an Iron Age hillfort, but it is the medieval period when the towns prominence was at its height.
Other notable former residents included Eilmer the flying monk, who crafted wings and jumped off the top of the Abbey. While he did fly for about two hundred metres. He broke his legs on landing and was lame for the rest of his life. More recently, the Abbey House used to be home to the naked gardeners, Ian and Barbara Pollard. But my favourite former residents have to be the Tamworth Two, Butch and Sundance. They were a pair of pigs who legged it while being offloaded into a Malmesbury abattoir and went on the run for a week. After being captured, they lived out their days in an animal sanctuary. The town is a lovely place to visit. There is a very nice circular walk around it, following stream, rivers and over water meadows.
Go to Bratton Camp on a weekend and you will see the car park is busy, full of people visiting the famous Westbury White Horse and taking a walk around the hillfort. This is the very edge of Salisbury Plain, where there are steep hill marking the end of the escarpment.
The next hill along from Bratton Camp is Picquet Hill. On a weekend stroll up there you might get it to yourself. It is one of Wiltshire’s hidden gems and is quite an extraordinary example of a periglacial landscape. Vast valleys have been cut and shaped out of the chalk escarpment, giving rise to stunning spots such as Luccombe Bottom, a natural amphitheatre seemingly scooped out of the side of Picquet Hill by a giant spoon. At the bottom of Luccombe is a set of springs that once gushed six feet into the air. While they are not quite as dramatic today, they do still gush gallons of water out to form the Stradbrook.
That concludes Glyn’s list of favourite hidden spots and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope you did too. I also now have a few more locations I need to get out and visit! There are so many. There are of course many more places to discover. If you head over to Hidden Wiltshire, that’s exactly what you will find. If you love Wiltshire or just enjoyed Glyn’s work, have a look at Hidden Wiltshire here.
Don’t forget, I’m always on the look out for spooky stories from Wiltshire and beyond. If you have a tale you would like to share I’d love to hear from you. Contact me via Twitter (or X as we are supposed to call it now) or here.
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Stay spooky everyone!