I know not the traditions of others; yet in our family, Sunday has always been a day for a walk into the countryside. We have needed no closed church when nature is always open to all. We have followed no passage or hymn; except the old footpaths and the sound of birdsong, babbling streams and the wind in the trees.
Thus having walked in the Deverill valley the Sunday before; where we looked westwards towards the rolling green hills around Stourhead and Mere in Wiltshire. The idea came to walk into that landscape as if it were the same journey. Broken only by a week of necessary work and toil; are minds were afresh as we walked away from the car in a fresh English spring breeze.
So parking on the slopes of Whitesheet Hill in a car park at the end of a modern tarmac lane but still on the ancient long distance ‘Harrow Way’; we were soon in the wonderful wilds of Wiltshire once more.
Parking for the motor vehicle
We parked just below Whitesheet Hill; in a small car park. Coming from Frome; we turned off just after the Red Lion pub. Yet this walk can be started from the town of Mere. Here is a Google map link to the car park:
The ‘Harrow Way’
To make this a circular walk; we would pass over the fields below and to the west of Whitesheet Hill to Mere. Then climb Whitesheet Hill from the southern end and walk the windswept ridge to return back to the car. So we set off from the car across lush green fields on a well worn trail. The wide open fields let a spring wind blow into our faces and we struggled like the hedgerows full of new growth to stay upright. Climbing into a copse, a memorial to the crew of a war time air crash hereabouts; made me appreciate my freedom all the more. I thought how lucky I am to live in a land so free; a freedom that should be cherished everyday and never taken for granted.
Descending from the copse we turned off to the left and into open farmland. Yet looking north as we turned off; an ancient avenue made me think of all those who had passed before me on the ancient Harrow Way.
The Harrow Way or Hard Way or Heargway is an ancient route that dates to 600BC. It runs: from Seaton in Devon then travels north and east; passing Stonehenge; going above Winchester; through Farnham; yet far below London; close to Canterbury and then south to the coast at Dover.
Possibly arising from the trade of tin in Devon and Cornwall; it is thought to be one of the oldest roads in Britain. Often sticking to higher ground and hard rocky areas to avoid flooded valley floors; it must surely have been a fire starter to Britain’s great trading history. Walking on a short section in Wiltshire; I let my mind wander and imagine all those who had passed before me on this great road.
The green green grass home
We passed some sheep and donkeys grazing peacefully in the fields and then through the farmyard of Search Farm. Take care here; as the few signposts here point north towards Stourhead and not south to Mere. Rounding a copse on a muddy lane; the houses and hedges suddenly disappeared and we walked out into lush green fields. This years crop was struggling to break through the surface of the loamy soil in these parts but also struggling to stand strong against a ever strengthening wind. What a wonder nature truly is; with the changing of the seasons and the new years growth? As we strolled out over the fields; we could clearly see our objective Mere Castle. With the Union Jack on its flagpole, the approach made me think of days of old; when knights were bold. We crossed over a drawbridge that protected us from the dangers of the fast cars on the A303 trunk road; then started climbing this nature made castle that rises up from the flat valley floor.
A chalk ridge named locally as Long Hill seems like an island in the grassy green sea of fields that surround it. So it seemed as natural a place to build a castle as any other; when the Richard the Earl of Cornwall arrived in 1253. Gouging a deep ditch in this long ridge; he built a respectable castle with at least six towers to keep out both family and foe. Subsequent political battles; saw the lead from the roof taken to build Portchester Castle and the stonework rolled down the hill to build the old town of Mere. The local reverend made some excavations in the late 19th century; yet all that can be seen now are earthworks. As we visited on a cold March day; what was most impressive were the wild swathes of Primrose and Violet flowers. Which I hope will survive for a lot longer than any cold castle wall.
Resting on a seat to take in the views and our packed lunch; we set off for the return leg. Clearly visible from the castle hilltop; was a chalky path that led up to the higher Whitesheet Hill.
The climb to Whitesheet Hill
Taking care on the steep descent from the earthworks of Mere Castle; we stopped and admired the blanket of Primrose, Violets and Buttercups. Sidestepping to increase traction; we slowly descended to a well worn track and walked out on to a quiet lane. Turning left, we crossed the A303 trunk road once more. Then after a hundred metres or so, we turned right up a gravel track by two semi-detached cottages.
Leaving the valley floor and the shelter of a few trees; we soon left the road and calm air. The track turned left and out into wide open downland as the wind speed grew with each metre of ascent. Being well dressed for this bracing spring weather, I did not feel cold; yet the wind made it harder to climb than the gradient itself!
Yet the long lush grass on the chalky soil made every step easy; as we headed on up into the wind and the hills of Whitesheet Down. Stopping to admire the unexplainable views south and west towards the great house of Stourhead, its gardens and Alfred’s Tower; we were in awe and completely relaxed as we enjoyed the simple pleasure of being in nature of our home lands.
After a short while; the gradient slowly eased as we reached the ridge of Whitesheet Hill. Yet the wind blew stronger still; so we were happy to almost at journeys end. Passing through a lush green meadow and a modern reservoir; we arrived at the earthworks of Whitesheet Hill. Here you can find a Neolithic enclosure dating from 3,000 BC, as well as Bronze age barrows and a Iron Age hill fort!
Furthermore, this windswept and desolate spot was the scene of a grisly murder in the year of 1557. The local Lord Stourton; imprisoned and tortured to death a former farmhand with the help of two servants. The Lord was subsequently hung by silk cord in Salisbury yet his two servants were ‘hung in chains’ for their loyalty. A salutary tale if any about how loyalties can truly stop you being able to relax and enjoy this one precious life.
Anyhow, we were: windswept but warm and tired but full of happy memories of the beautiful views and exercise we enjoyed on this walk. On a calm day, or a warm sunny summers day; this five mile walk is well within the capabilities of most folk. Come and see for yourself; the wild Wiltshire landscape on Whitesheet Hill.
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