Deep in the ancient woods of Grovely are three huge beech trees, which are said to mark the burial sites of women who were killed for 'witchcraft' in the 18th century. Decorated with emblems, gifts and other assorted offerings, a visit to these trees combines local folklore with a peaceful walk in the woods.
Grovely Woods is one of the largest woodlands in Wiltshire, standing on a chalk ridge near the River Wylye. It has a long history going back to the Iron Age, with both Iron Age and Roman artefacts found in the area, as well as settlements and hillforts nearby.
A long Roman road runs through the woods, flanked by an avenue of beech trees and ferns, creating an atmospheric landscape for a peaceful walk.
The woods were used during World War II, mainly as a storage place for bombs and ordinance, and there are concrete bunkers throughout the woods. Read about how to find one of the war bunkers >>
There are several stories connected to these woods. One is that of the Burcombe Woodsman, either a poacher who was hanged from a tree as punishment for his illegal deeds, or a local artist who was accidentally shot in the woods during a deer cull. Whoever he was, the paranormalists who believe in such things, claim that he emerges from the forest with the crack of a twig.
The second story is that of the witches. In 1737 there was a lethal outbreak of smallpox in the town of Wilton, killing over 130 locals. Four newcomers to the town were blamed for this contagion - the Handsel sisters who were originally from Denmark. Accused of witchcraft without any form of trial, they were taken to the woods and bludgeoned to death, their heads caved in with farming implements. They were buried apart from each other, so that they couldn't conspire against their killers after death.
Four thick, gnarly beech trees appeared over their graves, whether deliberately planted or mysteriously growing is still a matter of conjecture. One of the trees has since blown down in high winds, but there are still three remaining, and they are well worth a visit. All three really stand out against their surroundings, with huge, thick trunks, knobbled branches and dark canopies. They are very distinctive amongst the tall, thin pine trees which surround them.
There is one which has far more decoration than the others, with ribbons, plastic jewellry, ornaments, plastic flowers, food wrappers, keyrings: all manner of decorations either hanging from branches, pushed into the hollows of the trunk or lying around its base. Logs were arranged in a circle, with other logs there for people to sit on, in fact one time I was there, there were people having a picnic under the tree.
The other two trees have less colourful offerings, with more natural items from the forest; ferns, woven twigs and stones. One of the trees is covered with a thick green moss, surrounded by an enclosure made of branches and twigs, with a small entranceway. I do not know the significance of this, but it clearly means something to modern day pagans.
I far preferred the other two trees, finding them more natural and in keeping with the woodland around them. With no lurid trinkets, and away from other visitors who only seem to look at the first tree, they feel more secluded and peaceful, and a fitting memorial to the sisters who were treated so badly.
All of them however are fascinating in their different ways, and it is a truly lovely place to walk.
There are several blogs written by supernatural investigators who have said that they felt a presence, or touches, or heard noises, some even saying they have seen spirits there. I have never sensed such things on my many walks there and have found nothing at all creepy or sinister about the woods.
How to get to the Witches Trees of Grovely Woods
You can enter the woods through several different ways, but the quickest way to get to the Witches Trees is by The Hollows in Wilton. (what3words: bookmark.infuses.couches)
If you are driving, do not park in the residents' spaces, you should be able to find free parking in the laybys.
If using public transport, the R3 bus from Salisbury will get you the closest to The Hollows.
From the Hollows, head north, walking up the wooded path until you pass a farmhouse on your left.
At this point, (what3words: rocker.inch.recorders) the road forks.
Take the right fork, which will take you through a hedge lined path amongst open fields, bringing you to the start of the beech lined Roman road.
Walk some way down the Roman road - it is lovely, whatever the season.
Leave the Roman road by turning left, at what3words: scouted.skippers.bonus and you will find the first tree.
The other two are close by - I will leave you to explore and find them for yourself, as half the fun is looking for the trees which stand out from the rest.
Our Salisbury City Guide has plenty of information on places to visit, locally owned places to stay, eat and shop, day trips you can take, sporting activities on offer and plenty more.