‘Cranborne Ox Droves’ – walk, Wiltshire Downs

A few weeks ago I was inspired by seeing a forty year old film made by the legend who was Jack Hargreaves about the area southwest of Salisbury (starts 4 minutes in), to take a look as there are some decent length walks in downland country surrounding the chalk stream fed Ebble River Valley which is lined with small villages and hamlets, cottages, churches and pubs dressed in limestone and flint. It looked stunning (or did in 1983) with classic ridges and views, wide spaces, prehistoric features and the ancient ox droves themselves running east-west along the top of the hills to the north and south of the valley which connect the the Cranborne Chase, Shaftesbury and Salisbury.

So I was walked 14 miles of the north drove but found it a little underwhelming. As well as the evidence of weighty farm traffic and agri detritus, there was litter and occasional fly tipping among the tall hedged edges that formed a dismal tunnel, the drove heading arrow straight between. It just seemed unloved. But as I walked westward, the walk improved immeasurably, the views opening up, the walking perfect on a chalky, grassy drove and the five miles before reaching Berwick St John (where I caught the bus to Salisbury the 29 route – reliable and regular in the afternoon after a little refreshment in the Talbot pub) were a joy. At the same time my eye was drawn to the ridge above the Ebble river to the south on which a second parallel ox drove tracks the skyline. Tantalising. Subsequent research suggested this the better, more scenic drove with better walking.

So I met up at 8.30 am with my friend Dom at the Fox and Goose pub in Coombe Bissett (they allowed us to park all day as we were going to have a late lunch there on our return) in order to get the 29 bus to our start point in Berwick St John (bus stop in a laybay on the Stratford Tony Road, the turning to the west 100m north of the pub), from where we would climb 350 feet up to the ridge then walk 9 miles of the drove, then back down to track the Ebble for a mile or so back to the pub (map at the foot). Just less than 13 miles in total.

The 29 bus passes through some stunning little settlements. It’s a community bus so takes its time, meandering the minor roads between manor house, farms and small cottages through villages with fabulous names like Broadchalke, Bowerchalke and Ebbesbourne Wake, there because of the crystal clear chalk stream that nourishes the valley as it runs east to join the Avon below Salisbury. Our jump off point in Berwick St John is another delightful setting with a pub, the Talbot, the ridge to the South filling the view as we made our way on paths across farmland towards the ridge. On reflection, I think we would have been better walking back through the village and taking the path south to the east, around Winklebury Hill and prehistoric enclosure (map below). Our route relied on a small footpath that we couldn’t find so we had to traverse a fence where a tree had collapsed on it. Annoying. But soon enough we were on the ridge approaching the ox drove which is marked on the map as the ‘Cranborne Droves Way’ (CDW).

The view West from Winklebury Hill above Berwick St John

The weather was dank but the going was easy on the drove, the route of which is known to be prehistoric, it forming a small part of the Great Chalk Way: the Wessex Ridgeway, Cranborne Droves Way, Sarsen Way, Ridgeway, Icknield Way and Peddars Way, part of this East West route linking Dorset and Norfolk for milennia.

It’s not easy to get lost on this walk once on the drove. Head East and keep your map to hand. I use the OS app on my phone. In places the drove joins sections of minor road but primarily its a track with the occasional deep rutted puddles the width of the path. We went after a few days of rain so these were rather full and not always easy to avoid. As the morning wore on the weather just improved and by noon it was warm, the sun positively beamed. From the log we were sat on for lunch we saw hare and a herd of deer perhaps thirty strong, the soundtrack; birdlife claiming space and mates, Skylarks the constant. The downland favourites were present – Sloe, Holly, Hazel, Yew, travellers joy, snow drops, celandines, primroses and stately Beech trees forming cool grey avenues and stark rounded copses between the bald flint and chalk speckled fields. Nearly Spring but not quite.

The drove is wide and ideal for a proper chat as you eat up the miles with views to the left and right

The scenery improves as you walk east with excellent views of the Dorset hills to the South beyond the woods of the Cranborne Chase while to the North the valley opens up as it widens. At the 8.75 mile mark the walk leaves the drove to head northeast into the valley, gently descending along green roads and long obliterated Roman road across farmland following the CDW.

Coming off the drove towards the valley bottom

At about the 10.3 mile mark the walk, still on the CDW, heads east down a grassy incline towards some old flint farm buildings then turns North into a stretch of wooded path then East through fields and houses before reaching Stratford Tony where you can really appreciate the River’s beauty at a small ford and bridge. From here the route leaves the CDW and heads up a private farm road (it isn’t, the public footpath is marked on the gate) East along the valley with the river to your left until it reaches Coombe Bissett and the warmth of the Fox and Goose, its excellent menu and Butcombe on tap.

The River Ebble at Stratford Tony and green lane

We really enjoyed this walk. Being mostly along the ridge it was easy going and excellent for for a chat along the route. The real joy is that you can come off the route at any point and head into the valley to catch the 29 bus back to Salisbury or your start point. My first trip here was by train from London to Salisbury then the 29 from central Salisbury. It’s easy to do. The added joy are the many lanes and tracks into the valley as these are clearly less used, less busy and those we saw quite beautiful. It’s on these valley sides that I think you get a real sense of place pondering the Prehistoric, Roman and Saxon history of the area under a blue sky, breathing England’s cleanest air (it’s true!) the wide valley before you in true Wessex glory. It is one to revisit and modify as the weather improves. Thank you Ebble Valley.

Just under 13 miles, suggested route at the start as a dashed rule. Pubs in Coombe Bissett, Bishopstone, Broad Chalke, Ebbesbourne Wake, Alvediston and Berwick St John, all served by the 29 bus.


4 thoughts on “‘Cranborne Ox Droves’ – walk, Wiltshire Downs

  1. Thank you for your superb story. I am blessed to live in this area and your writings are so accurate. I have to say to include the Peddars way that I have also ridden may be pushing it a bit but I have myself tried to link the ways up on horseback. Keep us informed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much – I put this stuff down more for myself but am keen whenever I can to encourage people into the country – ideally using public transport. All the very best.


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