Walks with Andrew Swift: The Old Roads of White Sheet Hill

Andrew Swift walks in a figure of eight, following ancient trackways, prehistoric earthworks and panoramic views and encountering disused chalk quarries in the hillside, which are a rich natural habitat for wildlife.

Most people head for Stourhead to walk through the gardens laid out by Henry Hoare in the mid 18th-century. This month’s figure-of-eight walk, however, although it passes within 150m of Stourhead House, goes in search of landscape features that are considerably older, following ancient trackways around White Sheet Hill and exploring prehistoric earthworks on the hill’s summit, with skylarks trilling above and panoramic views over the plains of south-west Wiltshire.

To get to White Sheet Hill, head south from Bath along the A36. After 11 miles, at the second roundabout, turn right to follow the A361 for another 4.5 miles, before turning left at the Blatchbridge Roundabout along the B3092 (signposted to Maiden Bradley). Carry on through Maiden Bradley and after 7.5 miles (shortly after passing a turning to Kilmington on the right) take a left turn along an un-signposted lane beside a closed pub. Continue along it for two-thirds of a mile before pulling into a car parking area on the right (ST 797350; BA12 6RP). From here, there is a superb view southward over Blackmore Vale, with the conical hump of Zeals Knoll in the middle distance.

At the far end of the car park, turn right to head west along a track called The Drove, along which sheep or cattle were once driven to distant markets or moved between summer and winter pastures.

The Drove leads to a prominent clump of beeches into which a Dakota, which had just taken off from RAF Zeals, plunged on an afternoon of low cloud in February 1945. A memorial to the 21 men who died lies amid the beeches (ST 791347).

On the far side of the beech clump, The Drove drops down to continue along down a broad, beech-lined green lane. When you reach a busy road, cross with care to Drove Lodge, turn left along the verge for a few metres and follow a track into woodland. When you come to a stile, cross it and head west across a field towards Stourhead House.

After 200m, just past an old oak, when you come to a track, turn right along it (ST 779343). Continue in the same direction when you come to a rough drive, go through two gates at the end and cross a stile in the hedge on the other side of the lane.

Above: Looking south from the edge of the escarpment
Above: Looking out from the viewing point

Carry on, heading for a metal drinking trough on the far side of a thistly field, and just beyond it cross a couple of stiles. Carry straight on with a hedge on your right. At the end, cross another stile, head down rough steps and turn right along an overgrown holloway (ST779354).

Known as Long Lane, this byway was once part of the main road from London to Exeter. It must already have been an important highway by the end of the 7th century when Wessex was divided into counties, for it formed part of the boundary between Somerset and Wiltshire. In AD 878, legend has it that King Alfred came this way after mustering his forces a few miles to the west and marching to meet and vanquish the Danes at the Battle of Ethandun. The road continued to mark the border between the two counties until boundary changes in 1896.

After 700m, when you come to the main road, cross with care to head up the lane you drove along earlier. The closed pub on the corner was the Red Lion, which failed to reopen after the 2021 lockdown, since when its closure has assumed an ominously permanent look. As it was not only an ancient hostelry but also one of Wiltshire’s most resolutely traditional pubs, it can only be hoped that appearances are deceptive and its revival is imminent.

When you reach the car park, carry on uphill as tarmac gives way to gravel. After 350m, proof that you are still on the old road to the west comes in the form of a milestone informing you that it’s 23 miles to Sarum (Salisbury) (ST 800352). It was erected in 1750, but only a few years later a new road was built to the south through the town of Mere, which subsequently became an important staging post, with several inns, while the road over White Sheet began its slow decline.

A little further on, after the old road swings south-eastward, if you look to the left you should be able to make out the ramparts of a neolithic camp. Looking ahead, over to the right, is the unmistakable outline of a Bronze Age barrow. This whole area is extraordinarily rich in ancient sites, which suggests that the road you are walking along is thousands rather than hundreds of years old.

A few metres further on, look out for a stile on the right with an information board beside it, describing aspects of White Sheet Hill’s history (ST 803350). Cross the stile, carry on in the same direction and after 450m climb up to a trig point on the ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort – 245m above sea level. From here, bear right to follow a rough track through the hillfort, until, after crossing the final rampart, with the vale spread out beneath you, and the land shelving steeply away, the rough track veers right.

Above: Milestone on Whitsheet Hill: 23 miles to Sarum

As you head north along the edge of the escarpment, the views are sublime, and after about 500m, as the escarpment curves westward and starts to drop down, you should be able to make out The Drove and its clump of beeches straight ahead. On your right, disused chalk quarries, scooped out of the hillside, are now a rich natural habitat, where rare butterflies such as the Chalkhill and Adonis Blue, which breed exclusively on Horseshoe Vetch, have been seen. At one point, with the path along the edge of the escarpment blocked by vegetation, you need to divert into the quarries before rejoining the path a little further down and continuing down to a stile which leads back into the car park.

Fact File

  • Length of Walk: 5 miles
  • Approximate time: 3–4 hours
  • Level of challenge: Some rough and steep sections, with seven stiles
  • Map: OS Explorer 142 & 143
  • Facilities: No facilities en route. Walking Wiltshire downland in high summer is thirsty work, and carrying a supply of water for yourself and any dogs you take along is essential

Many more walks can be found in Andrew Swift’s Country Walks from Bath, published by Akeman Press; akemanpress.com.