A PERFECT 10?

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In between our walk in Bradford on Avon and the following Sunday, I may have gotten a little overambitious. I thought it was time we looked beyond our charity shop guide to other walks in Wiltshire, and between Amazon and Waterstones I managed to put together a small collection of books with local walks. I even found one specifically for Chippenham, and that’s the one we decided to browse through when deciding on our next outing.

At 6 miles or more, most of the walks were outside our comfort zone, but the description of one sounded ideal: 3 miles, meadows filled with  wildflowers, even a spot of archaeology with a Neolithic long barrow. Our decision made, we headed out to the nearby village of Biddestone to begin.

Biddestone is a picture-perfect Cotswold village, yet despite only being ten minutes from home, we had never visited. Houses made from Cotswold stone, a pond complete with sleeping ducks, well-kept war memorial, and central pub completed the scene. It was looking to be a very promising walk as we headed through the village, enjoying a late dawn chorus from the sparrows and swallows.

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The first field was fine and rather unremarkable. The second took us into a farmer’s junkyard, which was slightly more unusual, but all still seemed par for the course for a country walk. Then we started to run into problems.

We were warned in the new guide that wellies would be needed except in drought conditions; it hadn’t rained for several weeks, so we assumed that qualified. It did not. We hit an area where it was clear that cows had passed through many times previously, their hooves churning up the path and creating deep grooves where water sat undisturbed. It looked like we would have to go straight through this area, and whether we could do so without losing a shoe or sinking in mud up to our shins wasn’t certain.

Fortunately we realised we had misinterpreted the guide (or perhaps the instructions were just a bit off), and we headed in a different direction. There was then another false start of climbing back and forth over fences before we finally settled on what we thought could only be the right path. After all, it was the only one left.

This track was waist high with nettles and brambles, and thistle plants as tall as me. The first five, ten minutes weren’t a problem; we had passed through quite overgrown areas on other walks and they usually petered out or served to connect to more straightforward routes. There were perfectly clear fields on either side of the no-man’s-land we were now walking through. This path was going to lead us to one of them … right? Another five minutes and it began to seem not. Five more minutes and we were starting to get concerned: there was no end in sight to the undergrowth (overgrowth?) nor was it possible to easily cross into the neighbouring field.

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This is a normal overgrown field; I have no problems going across it. I was too busy navigating the bridleway from hell to actually take pictures of it, but here’s my husband’s view …

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Making matters worse, holes and a rutted gully were present but invisible beneath the plants, and it began to dawn on me that we could easily twist an ankle, or worse, if we weren’t careful. This then reminded me of a work colleague who broke his arm while climbing over a stile during a country walk, and I began to seriously wonder how we would handle an emergency while in what was more or less the middle of nowhere.

But even more pressing were the insects and sharp, stinging plants that we were wading through. This strip of land was probably purposefully left untouched by the farmer to encourage wildlife, and insects of all types buzzed or fluttered about. Bramble thorns worked their way through jeans, and nettles constantly threatened my bare arms.

Thirty or more minutes later and we had probably only made it a quarter of a mile. We had a decision to make: to continue ahead or turn back. We decided to go just a bit further. Sure enough, we came to an area where it was possible to approach the barbed wire fence separating us from the perfectly mown field. My husband was able to step over this, barely*; I was not. So he went to scout further along the margins … to find a gate just a minute ahead that I could walk through.

Before setting out that morning, I had finally remembered to download an app to record our route, timing, and mileage, and now it revealed that it had taken us nearly an hour to go one mile. But now in the open, we could pick up our pace while following the guide to the promised vistas. For example, the hedges were beginning to flower and were alive with butterflies, far more than we had seen on previous walks.

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As we worked our way to Lanhill, the elevation increased and we had splendid views over the surrounding countryside and, as mentioned in the guide, we also came across a Neolithic long barrow. As a recovering archaeologist, I insisted on a “quick” diversion to check it out. This took us over what is perhaps the most rickety bridge in Wiltshire: you had to step down into the bridge to cross it, and it wobbled from side to side if you put any weight on the railings. Still, it was nice to see a more or less undisturbed barrow in the landscape, even if what looked like a five minute detour turned into twenty.

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On our return, we caught sight of a buzzard in the distance at its plucking post, a fence post that it used as a base to remove the feathers from its prey before taking back to the nest. We also came across puddles of feathers from other birds as we worked our way back to the main trail, indicating that this area was incredibly rich in wildlife if it could support such an active raptor and its family.

As we were nearing what we thought was the home stretch, we realised that the guide wanted to take us down the same overgrown path as before, calling it a bridleway. Which it may have been at one point, or perhaps was more accessible in the winter, but at the height of summer, without a
machete (or at least long sleeves), it was almost impassable.

It looked like we were stuck: we could try venturing back down the path to find the gate we originally passed through, although how far that would be was anyone’s guess, or we could try to find a more direct route into a clear field. Once again, it came down to crossing a barbed wire fence*. Or, to be more precise, I had to climb a tree to then drop down to the other side of a barbed wire fence. Did I mention that we picked this route because we
thought it was well within our comfort zone?

Long story made marginally shorter: we made it back to Biddestone and treated ourselves to breakfast at our favourite farmshop, feeling like we had conquered Everest rather than made a three-mile trek. After our first walk around the village of Holt, I suggested that my husband come up with a rating system so we could compare the different routes we go on. Looking at features such as wildlife, local interest, and danger, he has been rating them on a scale of 1-10. This one scored highly in all categories.

* I do not recommend doing this if you’re on your own country walks—and I certainly would like to avoid it in the future—as barbed wire is usually there for a reason, but I think we would still be fighting our way through vegetation otherwise.

Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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