Andrew Swift takes a walk through the lonely plains of Wiltshire
Although this walk is not that long, and lies through a well-heeled part of Wiltshire, it is surprisingly challenging. Apart from a steep climb at the start and an even steeper descent at the end, it traverses a lost and lonely plateau, with views to the Westbury White Horse, some 15 miles to the south. This is a land of elusive manor houses, tiny hamlets, dry-stone walls, little-walked footpaths, overgrown stiles and tracks through fields of barley. En route, you also encounter a lost Roman road, the spot where a famous explorer met an untimely end and a medieval pilgrim’s chapel which became the lair of an 18th-century highwayman.
- To get to the starting point, head east from Bristol along the A420 or M4, before turning south along the A46 towards Bath. Instead of heading into Bath, carry on down the dual carriageway and continue along the A4. After three miles, when you come to Box, take the right-hand lane for the A365. After another 300m, park on the right, cross to the left-hand pavement and continue along the road (ST827682). After passing an old turnpike house on the corner of The Ley, carry on for 125m before turning right up a drive to the hamlet of Washwell. After 200m, when the drive curves left, follow a waymark sign straight on up a narrow track. Follow it as it winds between buildings, before climbing steps to a well. Bear left and almost immediately right up a steep track. Carry on in the same direction and turn left along a lane at the top (ST826677).
- After 300m, you come to a T junction, with the site of Longsplatt Quarry, open between 1890 and 1920, ahead. Turn left past former quarrymen’s cottages, and, after passing a row of bungalows, turn right along a byway. At the road, cross and turn left for 50m, before turning right along a footpath (ST828672).
- At the end of the field, carry straight on, bearing to the right of the hedge ahead. After 150m, the track curves right alongside the hedgerow, before bearing left through a metal arch to cross the course of the Roman Road from Londinium to Aquae Sulis (Bath) (ST828666). Head to the left of the hedge ahead, and after 150m follow the track as it bears right and then left to continue in the same direction. At the end of the field, turn right through a gap in the hedge, take the track on the left and cross a stile to carry on with a hedge on your left (ST828660).
- After 300m, follow the hedge as it curves left. At the end of the field, head along an overgrown track, cross a footbridge and go through a kissing gate (KG). Head over to a stile, and, after crossing it, turn left along a lane (ST830654).
- After 300m, you can glimpse, through a gate on the left, the entrance to South Wraxall Manor, dating from the 15th century and, according to legend, the first place Sir Walter Raleigh smoked tobacco in England. It is now owned by John Taylor of Duran Duran.
- At the main road, cross and go through a gate. Carry on beside a hedge, cross a stile at the end and go through a gate to the right of the pylon ahead (ST843658). A little further on, turn right along a farm track. After going through another gate, you pass Stonar School, which occupies a house built around 1778, whose castellated bays can be seen behind the outbuildings on your right.
- When the drive swings right, follow a track straight on through a gateway (ST850656) and turn left. After going through two squeeze stiles, follow a faint track across a field. Go through another squeeze stile and carry on alongside the hedge on your left. At the end of the field, negotiate an overgrown track in the corner and cross a stile (ST850662). Carry on for a few metres before bearing right alongside a ditch and carrying straight on through another field. Cross a stile by a metal gate and carry on with Cottles Wood on your right. At the end of the field, after crossing the course of the Roman Road again, go through a small metal handgate (ST848667) and carry straight on through a rough field.
- At the main road, cross a slab stile on the opposite side of the road a few metres along to the right. Head for a stile in the opposite hedgerow, cross it and turn left. At the end, cross a lane to continue along a rough track between cottages (ST846673).
- Carry on across a field and turn left along a lane. After 100m, just past Chapel Cottage, turn left up steps by a parking area, go through a handgate and head across a field. After 150m, cross a slab stile ahead and, before carrying on, divert left for 250m to find a memorial to the African explorer John Hanning Speke, who died here ‘by the accidental explosion of his gun’ on 15 September 1864 (ST843674). He had come down to take part in a debate in Bath and was out with a shooting party when he attempted to cross the adjacent stile without breaking his gun.
- Retrace your steps and carry on alongside a fence, before crossing two stiles to emerge on a lane, with the old Bell Inn opposite (ST840678). Turn left, cross the main road – with care – and look back at the old inn. At the far end is a medieval chapel which, in the mid-18th century, was the lair of a notorious highwayman called John Poulter.
- Bear left along the verge for a few metres, turn right across the grass and go through a handgate beside the gates of Hazelbury Manor. As you walk along the drive, the manor, parts of which date from the 14th century, appears ahead.
- After passing the gateposts at the end, turn left, go along the track (ignoring a bridleway branching left downhill) and go through a squeeze stile beside a gate (ST834682). As you follow a track between fences, you pass an artificial mound on the right, raised in the 1980s in homage to the prehistoric monuments so prominent in Wiltshire.
- After crossing a stile, turn left, then right at a T junction and left across another stile. After crossing the next stile, steps mark the start of a precipitous descent. At the bottom, carry straight on across a stile, head along a track, cross another stile and bear right. After crossing a slab stile, carry on across a brook and follow the track as it curves up through a wild meadow. After emerging opposite the entrance to Washwell, turn right to return to the starting point.
Walk length: 7 miles
Time: 3 hours
Map: OS Explorer 156
Extra info: One steep descent, over 20 stiles, several overgrown paths and tracks through fields of crops. Hazelbury Manor Gardens are open on Wednesday 13 September (11am – 3pm)