Andrew Swift walks from the picturesque village of Biddestone, taking in ducks, pigs, a ruined fulling mill, a church once sacked by Parliamentary soldiers, packhorse trails, hidden valleys and dark woods.
FACT FILE Starting point: The Green, Biddestone (ST844736: SN14 7DG) Length of walk: 8 miles Approximate time: 4 hours Pubs: White Horse, Biddestone SN14 7DG; White Hart, Ford SN14 8RP Public toilets: Church Road, Biddestone Map: OS Explorer 142 & 143 Level of challenge: Mostly on quiet lanes or well-maintained footpaths, although with one rough and muddy stretch and a short section along a busy lane. Map: OS Explorer 156
Biddestone is one of the most picturesque villages in Wiltshire, yet, despite being only a couple of miles from Castle Combe, gets only a fraction of its visitors. Much of it is ranged around one of the finest greens in England, where a reedy pond, loud with ducks, is overlooked by a 17th-century farmhouse with a gazebo perched on its garden wall. Nestling alongside it is the resolutely traditional White Horse, while, on the far side of the green, grand houses are set back between rows of cottages, all built – and tiled – with local stone.
Biddestone is also the starting point for an exploration of one of the most glorious – and at times strangest – parts of Wiltshire, where packhorse trails wind along hidden valleys and climb through dark woods.
To get to the starting point, head east from Bath along the A4 for 10 miles, and, after passing Pickwick, turn left at traffic lights following a sign for Biddestone. When you reach the village, there should be parking just past the White Horse on the Green (although not on the grass) (ST844736: SN14 7DG). If there isn’t, carry on and turn left into Church Road.
The walk starts by heading along Church Road, where the Church of St Nicholas boasts a remarkable medieval bell turret. Inside, the church is a delight, low-roofed, with box pews and a gallery. Carry on along The Butts, where the run of splendid buildings continues with 18th-century Mountjoy Farm and thatched cottages.
When the road swings left to Hartham, carry straight on along Weavern Lane, with blackberries ripening in the hedgerows and a rich variety of plants in the verges.
After 1100m, as the land starts dropping gently downhill, the views ahead, down the By Brook Valley to Bath, open up. After another 750m, when the lane divides, take the left fork to carry straight on (ST849718). Go through a gate as the lane, growing ever rougher, continues downhill for 225m, before coming to another fork, just before some impressive log piles.
Turn left to head steeply downhill, continuing over a cross track and heading into woodland. At the bottom, carry on along the bridleway, ignoring a footpath on the left. Soon the track starts curving uphill, its high banks indicating that it was once a packhorse trail.
When it meets another track by a large stone, turn right downhill (ST844715). After 125m, cross another track and carry straight on through a gate to emerge into a glorious hidden valley. After another 300m, when you come to a couple of gates – a farm gate and a handgate – in the valley bottom, don’t go through either but turn right alongside the fence to follow an almost imperceptible track which becomes clearer as it enters the woods (ST842717).
This narrow, rutted bridleway – which appears on old maps as a wide packhorse trail – climbs to a gate leading back onto Weavern Lane, along which you turn left. In contrast to the section you walked along earlier, the next 1300m is heavily rutted and notoriously muddy, even in the dry season.
Eventually, however, after passing a farm turning on the right, tarmac returns. Another 250m further on, when a lane swings in from the right, carry straight on, and, after 300m, turn down a byway on the left (ST843737).
This leads through Chapps Mill, originally a fulling mill, which was converted to produce paper in 1790, and, apart from a hiatus between 1805 and 1827, continued to do so until 1994. Some of the buildings are now home to a variety of studios and workshops, but parts of the site remain derelict.
Follow byway signs to the right and then left through the site, and, on leaving it, turn right, following a Heritage Trail waymark. Turn right at a T junction, cross the By Brook and turn left.
This is the village of Slaughterford, so called, it was once believed, because King Alfred scored a victory over Danish forces here. Today, however, its name is thought to have had a less violent genesis, as ‘sloe-tree ford’.
After 75m, when the lane swings right. carry straight on along a footpath into Rag Mill Wood. To the left of the path is a dried-up leat, leading to the ruins of Rag Mill. This was a fulling mill until 1890, when it was converted to process rags for paper-making at Chapps Mill. It was demolished in 1964, although the remains of an overshot waterwheel and a boiler can still be seen in the undergrowth. Just before you come to a sty housing the pigs which now roam the site, look to your right to see the chimney of Slaughterford Brewery across the field. It closed in 1939.
Continue over a footbridge, carry straight on through a field with the brook on your right and follow another footbridge across Slaughterford Gate (ST837738). Bear left across a field, cross a stile at the end, carry on through two more fields, cross another footbridge and head for a gate by the houses ahead.
Go through the gate and turn right along a busy lane for 250m, before turning right past the White Hart Inn (ST841748). After crossing a bridge, turn right along a single track lane with no passing places, leading steeply uphill through dense woods. Although this high-banked packhorse trail has been tarmacked, no other concessions have been made to modern transport, and, not surprisingly, few vehicles use it. If you should encounter one, however, you will need to lean into the bank to let it pass.
After 500m, the lane emerges from the woods and starts dropping downhill – heading towards the brewery chimney. At the end, follow steps up to the stile straight ahead (ST839741). Head diagonally across a field to the left of the churchyard wall and go through a gate into the churchyard.
The stark simplicity of St Nicholas’s church is explained by a plaque which records that, after having lain in ruins for about 200 years, it was rebuilt in 1823. It doesn’t tell you that it was in ruins after being sacked by Parliamentary soldiers in 1649, or that, until it was rebuilt, parishioners had to worship at Biddestone, where the gallery was built to segregate them from the rest of the congregation.
Leaving the church, continue across the field, go through a gate and – after a quick look to the left to see some of the most picturesquely situated cottages in Wiltshire – turn right. After passing the Old Brewery – its chimney largely hidden at the back of older buildings – carry on uphill as the lane swings right past a phone box. Continue straight on past the stile you crossed earlier, beyond which lies Manor Farm, built in 1753, but with a medieval barn to the north.
Carry on along the lane – ignoring two side lanes branching off to the left – and, after 2500m you will reach the outskirts of Biddestone. When you come to a T junction, turn right – by the evocatively named Old Cider House – to follow Cuttle Lane back to the starting point.
Many more walks can be found in Andrew Swift’s Country Walks from Bath, published by Akeman Press; akemanpress.com.