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Grovely Wood from Great Wishford

Learn all about Wiltshire's oldest surviving custom on this peaceful walk through ancient Grovely Wood.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 370ft (113m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Woodland paths and downland tracks

Landscape Chalk downland, wooded hillside and lush water-meadow

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 130 Salisbury & Stonehenge

Start/finish SU 080353

Dog friendliness Can be off lead through Grovely Wood

Parking Roadside parking in South Street, Great Wishford

Public toilets None on route

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1 Return along South Street to the church and turn left at the T-junction. Walk past the Royal Oak. Go under the railway bridge and immediately turn right along the waymarked bridle path beside a cemetery. Ascend the track to a gate.

2 Walk along the left-hand field edge to a gate, then bear right around the top of the field making for the gate that leads into woodland. Turn immediately left along the woodland track. Turn left at the next T-junction and walk down the well-defined track (permissive bridle path) to another T-junction. Turn right up the metalled lane.

3 At a major junction, turn sharp left on to a gravel track. Follow it left, pass beside a metal barrier and join a metalled track running down a broad beech avenue (First Broad Drive) along the course of a Roman road, or Lead Road, which traversed Wessex from the lead mines of the Mendips in Somerset to join other ancient routes at Old Sarum, such as the Harrow Way to Kent. You are now walking through Grovely Wood, a fine stretch of woodland that was once a royal hunting forest and which, together with the New Forest and Cranborne Chase, formed a very significant preserve.

4 After a mile (1.6km), at a crossing of public bridle paths, turn left and keep to the main track downhill through the woodland, ignoring all cross paths and forks. Emerge from Grovely Wood and follow the track downhill towards Great Wishford. Pass beneath the railway line to the lane. Turn left, then fork right along South Street.

Great Wishford is the most southerly of a delightful series of villages that nestle in the valley of the River Wylye, which gives its name to Wilton and therefore also to the county of Wiltshire. Our knowledge of the village pre-dates the Norman conquest in 1066, the written name changing over the years from Wicheford or Witford to Willesford Magna in the mid-16th century and by the early 17th century it was known as Wishford Magna. Many of the village houses are constructed of Chilmark stone, quarried over the hill in the next valley. Some are interlaced with flint, others are thatched and many are steeply roofed and date from 1628.

Mention the village of Great Wishford and most Wiltshire people will immediately associate it with one date in the calendar - 29th May. This is Oak Apple Day, when the only ancient custom still taking place in the county is enacted by the villagers. On this day they commemorate their victory over the local landowner, the Earl of Pembroke, who in creating Wilton Park closed the east-west road, south of the River Nadder, thus interfering with their ancient rights - from a charter granted in 1603 - to cut and gather timber in the nearby Grovely Wood.

Celebrations begin at dawn when the young people of the village wake each household in turn by banging tin pans and shouting 'Grovely, Grovely, Grovely and All Grovely'. Armed with billhooks and accompanied by traditional musicians they walk up Grovely Lane into the woods, where they cut green branches for their houses and an oak bough which is decked with ribbons and hung from the church tower. Villagers dressed in period costume and led by the parish rector then go on to Salisbury Cathedral where further celebrations, in the form of dancing on the cathedral green and a procession to the high altar, culminate in the villagers loudly proclaiming their rights and chanting 'Grovely! Grovely! and All Grovely! Unity is strength'.

These unusual village celebrations are not a merely modern revival of a long-lost tradition but actually seem to date back to a pagan and primitive period when tree worship was connected with May Day celebrations. In understanding how these ancient rights, customs and traditions have survived in Great Wishford it is interesting to note that the village has been in the ownership of just three families over the last seven centuries.

An unusual feature in the village are the stone inscriptions that can be found in the east wall of the churchyard. These tablets record the price of bread in the village since the Napoleonic Wars. In 1801 is was 3s 10d a gallon, in 1904 only 10d and by 1920 it had risen to 2s 8d. The 'Gall' measures are a reminder of the days when bread was sold in semi-liquid form as dough for home baking.

Where to eat and drink

Local ales and traditional pub meals, including a Sunday carvery, are served in the creeper-clad Royal Oak in Great Wishford. Alternatively, try the Swan Inn at Stoford or the Pelican Inn at Stapleford, both offer pub food and have riverside gardens.

While you're there

Nearby Wilton, the former capital of Saxon Wessex, offers plenty of interest. Wilton House, home to the Earls of Pembroke, is a splendid 17th-century mansion boasting a famous art collection, fine furniture and 21 acres (8.5ha) of landscaped parkland. Take a tour around the Wilton Carpet Factory and learn about carpet making based on 300 years of tradition. Explore the town's museum and, if time allows, visit the impressive Italian-style Church of St Mary and St Nicholas.

What to look for

Spend time in the Church of St Giles in Great Wishford. Note the tombs of two old village families the Bonhams and Grobhams, and the parish fire engine, one of the earliest fire engines ever built. Made entirely of wood by Richard Newsham in 1728, it could provide 65 gallons (295 litres) of water and cost the churchwardens £33 3s 0d. Surprisingly, it was last used as recently as 1970 to fight a blaze in the village.

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