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Combe Gibbet's Grisly Tale

Climb to Berkshire's windswept high ground, the scene of a 17th-century double murder.

Distance 7 miles (11.3km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 560ft (171m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Woodland paths, field and downland tracks, some road and stretch of Wayfarer's Walk, 5 stiles

Landscape Gentle farmland, steep scarp of Inkpen Hill and lofty heights of Wessex downs

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 158 Newbury & Hungerford

Start/finish SU 379615

Dog friendliness Signs at intervals request dogs on leads

Parking Small car park to east of Walbury Hill. Parking also available to patrons of The Swan Inn near point 4.

Public toilets None on route

Notes To tackle Walbury Hill earlier in the walk, start the route at The Swan Inn (Lower Green, near point 4) and join the directions at Weavers Lane (heading towards St Michael's church).

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1 Cross the road to a gate and go down the field towards the corner of a wood on the right. Edge round it and head for a curtain of trees ahead. Follow the path as it veers to the left of the woodland, making for a gate in the fence. Walk down the lane to the second bridleway on your left. Follow it between fields, sweeping right to Highwood Farm.

2 Join a concrete track and follow it to the road. Turn left, keep left at the next junction and pass St Laurence's Church. Pass West Woodhay House and a turning for Kintbury and follow the road round a left bend. Turn right 80yds (73m) beyond it and continue to Prosser's Farm. Keep ahead at the road, cross over and follow the track to a thatched cottage. Keep right at the first fork and then turn left when you get to the second.

3 Follow the woodland trail to a junction of paths by a stone and swing left. Keep to the path, skirting the woodland. Emerge from the trees, pass several houses and turn right at the first kissing gate. Follow the winding path across the field to a kissing gate. Cross the road to a lane and follow it down beside a gate and round to the right. Make for a gate on the left, pass a tennis court and walk ahead along the edge of a lawn to a kissing gate by an oak tree. Cross the field to another, keep left at the road towards Manor Farm and cross a stile in front of you at the bend.

4 Veer left after a few paces to a gate. Follow a path between a hedge and fence, go through two kissing gates and follow a section of boardwalk. Look for a tree house on the right, pass alongside a beech hedge and follow a drive to the road. Bear left to a stile and follow the fence. Cross into the next field, towards Inkpen church and a stile. Turn right, down to the junction, bear left, pass the Inkpen village sign and swing left to follow a waymarked track. Continue to the next waymark and then keep a line of trees and bushes on the right before heading out across open fields. Make for the next waymark and keep ahead between the trees.

5 The path climbs gradually to reach a stile. Aim diagonally left, ascending steeply now towards a cleft in the ridge of Inkpen Hill. At the summit, look for a gate in the field boundary and keep the fence on your right. Make for a gate ahead and turn left to join a byway. Follow the track to Combe Gibbet and cross two stiles at either end of it. Continue down the track to the road, cross over and follow the Wayfarer's Walk. Keep on the main track, back to the car park.

Stand at the foot of Inkpen Hill on a bleak winter's afternoon and look for the outline of Combe Gibbet, just visible against the darkening sky. This has to be one of the wildest, most dramatic scenes in southern England. These lonely Wessex downs have a timeless quality to them and nowhere is this more apparent than here at Inkpen Hill.

The gibbet doesn't look much close up - but one has stood here for more than 325 years. The original gibbet was erected in 1676 following the conviction of a local labourer George Broomham and his mistress Dorothy Newman. The pair fell in love but their plans to be together were complicated by Broomham's wife Martha and his young son Robert.

The couple resorted to drastic measures to get rid of the boy and his mother - lying in wait for them on the crest of the hill. Eventually, Martha and Robert appeared on the scene, out for a walk on the downs. Broomham and Newman sprang an ambush, clubbing them to death with cudgels. It was a most vicious double murder - savage and utterly pointless.

Thankfully, the pair were caught and appeared at Winchester Assizes in February 1676. Found guilty, it was decreed that they should be 'hanged in chaynes near the place of the murder'. The execution took place in March that year and it is said that the bodies could be seen hanging from several counties. Vandalism and the elements call for a new gibbet every so often, but successive structures over the years have ensured that the memory of that dreadful, needless incident is kept alive.

Not surprisingly, the events of that winter so long ago became the subject of a film, made in the late 1940s. Written and directed by Alan Cooke and John Schlesinger, who was then making his debut as a film director, The Black Legend captures the sense of isolation conveyed by this part of Berkshire. Local people were cast in the film which portrayed very effectively the horror of murder and violence in the midst of the English countryside.

What to look for

Walbury Hill at 974ft (297m), just before the end of the walk, is the highest point in the county. Covering about |82 acres (33ha), it is also the largest Iron-Age fort in Berkshire. The gap in the south east corner of the fort is thought to be one of the original entrances. The small rounded mounds within the site are rabbit warrens constructed towards the end of the 19th century. Close to Combe Gibbet is a plaque commemorating the 9th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment who trained here for the assault into occupied France in 1944.

While you're there

Stop to look at St Laurence's Church at West Woodhay. The church was built in 1883 and incorporates local flint and Bath stone in its construction. Relics from earlier churches on this site remain, among them some tiles that are preserved in the bell tower. The delightful garden next to the church was established by Mr Johnny Henderson of nearby West Woodhay House, in memory of his wife Sarah, whose tragic death at the age of 47 was the result of a riding accident.

Where to eat and drink

The Swan at Lower Green is one of West Berkshire's most popular pubs offering well-presented dishes. Next door is a shop selling organic produce where you can stock up before leaving. The Crown and Garter at Inkpen Common is also popular and serves a good range of food and drink. Reputedly, this is where the bodies of Broomham and his mistress were kept before burial.

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