How do you come across a place? Sometimes it emerges from out of the routine of life – a journey by car, a move for work, somewhere to walk the dog. Other times the encounter springs from relationships – being introduced to a patch of downland by family, a riverside picnic with friends. Then there are the places you seek out – googling somewhere for a holiday, leafing through a book of local walks. And lastly are the places you just stumble across, a reference in a book, an overheard conversation. Those, being unsought and unexpected, are often the most satisfying.
Grovely Wood, which occupies a ridge a few miles from Salisbury, is one such place. One of my research strategies is just to plunge into a DEFRA online map of common land and try and find interesting spots to visit. Grovely Wood is a long splodge on the map, over 1,100 acres. It’s not in an area I’ve been especially interested in, and I’d not come across mention of it in any of my research, but it’s close to the A303, one of the South West’s main arterial roads, and not so far from my in-laws, so each time I scrolled past it, I wondered about it. And there’s not much about it online: just a brief description on a couple of sites which tells you little more than you’d know by looking at an OS map. It has an abundance of earthworks, including Grim’s Ditch, is bisected by a Roman road, and has had a fair amount of its interior enclosed and given over to agriculture, and that’s pretty much it. At first glance.
But research closer, and stories start to emerge. A fair few google hits for Grovely are for four sacred and ancient beeches, sites of neo-pagan pilgrimage and bedecked with dream catchers, ribbons, even a Minion key-ring and a Birra Moretti offering. The story goes that the beeches mark the graves of the Danish Handsel sisters, murdered in the wood by a mob for bringing smallpox to the nearby village of Wilton by means of witchcraft in 1737. And the Handsel sisters, who’ve been seen from time to time, aren’t alone in their haunting, for they’re joined by the Burcombe Woodman, a presence who met an untimely end either by hanging or shooting.
Grovely is, however, best known for a still-active folk tradition known as Oak Apple Day in another nearby village, Great Wishford. It appears in Roger Deakin’s Wildwood – A Journey Through Trees so I’m guessing a fair few people have visited because of that. Not I, however, as I’m now reading the book because of going to Grovely, not the other way around.
Every 29th of May (aside from that of 2020’s year of plague, as with so many otherwise unbroken folk traditions), the villagers arise before dawn to a din of music and banging and head up to Grovely to gather boughs of gall-studded oak. The best of these, judged by the Oak Apple Club, is set up at the village church, to ensure the fertility of villagers married there, while the rest are taken for domestic adornments. This completed, the village head for Salisbury Cathedral (they are supposed to dance there but it’s much easier in a coach with a good stereo) with a banner declaring ‘Grovely! Grovely! Grovely! And all is Grovely!’ with the Old Labour epithet ‘Unity is Strength’ beneath it. Four women, dressed in costumes from the early c.19th, dance outside the cathedral to music from a squeezebox within a square of oak boughs, before everyone goes in to declare what it says on the banner to the bishop – minus the Old Labour epithet. Then back to the village to eat and drink at the local pub which is, of course, The Royal Oak.
Oak Apple Day is multi-layered, to put it mildly. As a fertility rite, it’s incontrovertibly pre-Christian, but the date itself commemorates the birthday of Charles II and dates to the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the oak representing the Shropshire tree in which the hunted monarch hid from Cavaliers. This iteration of Oak Apple Day was once celebrated widely throughout England and Great Wishford joins Northampton, Worcester and the Royal Hospital Chelsea, home of the Chelsea Pensioners, in hanging on to it; perhaps this is down to Great Wishford being on the Monarch’s Way, which (roughly) traces Charles’ route as he fled to Shoreham in West Sussex and thence to France.
A further layer is traceable to the Earl of Pembroke’s 1809 attempt to enclose Grovely for hunting through an act of parliament. Prior to that, and going back to at least the c.13th, the residents of Great Wishford had rights of common to use Grovely for pasture and gather wood – dead wood and wood felled from Grim’s Ditch throughout the year, as well as boughs and one load felled annually between Mayday and Whitsun. The people of Great Wishford protested and when four women broke the enclosure in 1825 and gathered wood, they were imprisoned – only to be released; it is these four women who are remembered at Salisbury. The villagers kept up their protests throughout the c.19th, the Oak Apple Club being formed in 1892 under the rallying cry ‘Unity is Strength’, and matters rumbled on into the early c.20th. However, things must have calmed down by the time of Grovely’s 1975 common land registration as the one-page documentation registers objections from neither landowner nor commoners. The people of Great Wishford still have their rights of estovers – though just dead wood and oak boughs these days.
But, of course, when it comes to land, nothing ever stays as it is. Central to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000 making all registered commons fully accessible to the public, something which has remained contentious. Great Wishford’s Conservative MP, Robert Kay, argued against this in the case of Grovely, rather thinly speaking of protecting the villagers’ ancient rights, but rather more full-blooded in his assertion of the landowners’ rights to keep out the general public. The bill went through, but like the 1965 Commons Registration Act, remains a rather blunt instrument for something so locally idiosyncratic as common land.
My visit to Grovely was extraordinary. Roger Deakin might have spent the eve of Oak Apple Day swinging beneath one of its beeches, but he didn’t seem to have had half the potter that I did. And there was much to be fascinated by. Given the information I’d gleaned, I’d already decided to make a film about Grovely during the first year of my PhD, so perhaps my attention was more attenuated than usual, but maybe the woods really are that rich. I parked at Grovely’s one, modest car park, reachable from Great Wishford, and up to the ridge through mixed woodland, with plenty of evidence of commercial conifer forestry. On a chilly Monday in late November, there weren’t many people about – just a few dog walkers, a runner, someone out riding their horse – but I can’t imagine it’s ever terribly busy.
I reached the Roman Road which links Old Sarum with the Mendips and headed northwest. This half of Grovely has been managed for years by Forestry England and much of it is dominated by plantation woodland; what other woodland remains isn’t terribly old either, although here and there are very old trees indeed. As Forestry England are changing course from ecological scourge to environmental custodian, they are now restoring much of this to native woodland – slowly, slowly as is the nature of forestry.
Beside the long straight track is a bunker from World War II; the RAF stored munitions both here and in nearby Chilmark, using Grovely’s woodland as a cover from prying Luftwaffe eyes for the bombs and shells which were stacked here, and the hundreds of huts and bunkers used to store more volatile munitions.
I was surprised to find the bunker both in very good condition and easily accessible. It’s a little unsettling, as bunkers generally are, but lacks the stench of piss and cheap alcohol I’m accustomed to in more built-up areas. I particularly liked looking up through its old access hole at the last of the autumn colours, framed by concrete as if it were some forgotten public art installation. I’m fascinated with any military connections with a common, as they’re quite a defining characteristic, so it was almost like being on familiar ground.
The track did get a bit boring after a while, so I was looking forward to heading back along Grim’s Ditch once I’d reached the Western extent of the common as it reaches the road to Wylye. There are a lot of Grim’s Ditches and Grim’s Dykes around southeastern England, dating to the middle Iron Age, and most likely taking their names from an Anglo-Saxon alternative for Odin. No one really knows what they were for.
Grovely’s ditch is a scheduled Ancient Monument which threads through the length of the wood from its eastern end, following the Roman road for a stretch and wiggling around it for many miles to another vestige of ancient hunting forest, Great Ridge. It is, however, exactly as it sounds: a ditch, rarely more than a couple of feet deep. Maybe others can get excited about ditches, but I’m not among their number. And I wasn’t even walking in the ditch, not for most of its length. I found the whole thing frustrating: just one long ditch about which no one really knows anything, off there somewhere in the woods. It’s not even especially grim.
I did, however, have the unnerving feeling of being watched, though whether by the Burcombe Woodman or one or two of the Handsell sisters, I couldn’t say. I was much more taken with an abandoned cattle-shed, site of what seemed like generations of teenage parties. With a deeply secluded spot like that, I could see why they might leave the bunker alone.
I gave up after re-joining the also-underwhelming Roman road and made for the southern end of the wood, hoping for better. Passing one of the large agricultural enclosures, I came across a very informal picnic spot, with a sign proclaiming Ava Rest. This, it turns out, is the work of the woodman working the eastern end of the wood, whose name is Jerry Faithful – really, it is.
Ava Rest, beloved of Wilton’s community Facebook group, is at the entrance to Jerry’s woodyard, a similarly informal arrangement of trailers, tarps, baskets, willow fencing, an old tractor with a sign saying ‘Members Only’ guarding a little covered area with clean, neatly hung cutlery and mugs. I got every excited, at this point not knowing that the people of Great Wishford aren’t allowed to cut wood, imagining this to be some kind of continuation into the c.21st of ancient rights of common.
Nevertheless, Ava Rest and the woodyard are a portal between worlds. The ruthlessly managed Foresty England section, with its unexciting Roman road and dull Iron Age ditch, gives way to much older beech woods and more sinewy tracks; there’s a feeling of antiquity and deep time here, of disorder and magic.
After a little while, I came across a derelict pair of cottages, their roofs long since caved in, their interiors slowly filling with brick as entropy sets in. Had the afternoon not been quite so golden, it would probably have been an unsettling place to linger, but I enjoyed lingering here.
I walked on to Grovely Farm, and along a winding track which seemed to have been planted up with yews as it skirted more ancient ditches, finally spitting me back on the Roman road, at this point a wide avenue lined with towering beeches, a far cry from Forestry England’s sad little track.
Given that this stretch of the road, known as First Broad Drive, runs between the Earl of Pembroke’s seat at Wilton House (most recently seen in Bridgerton, but also in countless period dramas, including three Austens, and a recent Tomb Raider film) and Grovely Lodge, I can only imagine that the beeches were planted to attract the gentry’s appreciation. This also makes me think the yews along the other track date from the same period. The same period as the 1809 Enclosure Act? It would make sense. Kick out all the plebs and get on with some hardcore gardening.
I walked down the avenue for a while, but with the sun now sinking, I wanted to see from the edge of Grovely across the cleared downland out over the Wylye Valley. Grovely’s ridge might make it stand apart from its landscape, but Grovely wasn’t always thus, and is a vestige of the Royal Forest of Grovely which extended over much of the area – a hunting forest in the original sense of that word.
Here is one thing that makes this common of great interest to me. There aren’t that many patches of royal forest which have remained both wooded and common land – even Epping Forest isn’t legally a common at all – and it’s perhaps in still having active commoners, even if only ceremonially. I’d hoped to look down on Great Wishford, but that was hidden from view. I did, however, find myself looking down on South Newton, the next village along the valley.
I’d expected to follow another winding track to take me back to the car but got confused by a sign and found myself back on First Broad Drive. Walking along, I spotted a couple of impressively old beech trees in the ever-diminishing light, then glimpsed ribbons in amongst their branches, and knew I must have arrived at the resting place of the Handsel sisters. I’d written off trying to find these, so can’t help but wonder if a draft of water from Glastonbury’s Chalice Well the previous evening had guided me to get so productively lost.
The trees are impressive and it seems that from time to time, someone prunes off the tattiest of the ribbons – similar trees elsewhere become so clogged up with decaying plastic fabric and keyrings, that they look like they’re the victims of a perverse form of fly-tipping. Someone has helpfully put a plastic box for the offerings for the sake of the wildlife, though it seems largely to be used as a rubbish bin. I did, however, find a rusty USB stick – I wonder what on earth was on it. Spells? Songs? Cat pics?
I also wonder for how long people have been visiting these trees – if this is a neo-pagan thing, or if it’s been going on for longer. As a site of contemporary pilgrimage, it also suggests alternative uses of common land as open access beyond those prescribed in the healthy-body-healthy-mind concept of amenity. It’s also interesting to note that the current mania for hanging things on trees so often takes place on common land – at Southborough Common, Runnymede and Durdham Downs. Perhaps it’s that sense that the land belongs to all of us – even though it doesn’t at all.
I headed back to the car through the gathering gloom and have been boring on about Grovely ever since. In fact, I’ve written more words about this one place than in many other entries about a group of commons. Grovely Wood is a deeply fascinating common, about which much remains a mystery; it has rarely been investigated archaeologically and it’s considered there is likely to be a great deal yet to be discovered. Not a populous spot – though I suspect rather busier over a summer weekend – it’s both beautiful and prosaic. It’s also entirely uncurated – beyond the occasional footpath or bridleway marker, you are entirely left to form your own impressions of the place, and any information you will need to seek out or make up for yourself.
And that makes it perfect material for a film.