In recent years the name of the Chalke Valley has become synonymous with a truly magnificent History Festival, attracting people from across the country and abroad. The Festival itself is a huge attraction for Slow Travellers, but so too is the stunning Wiltshire valley in which it is set.
Here we take a look at the pretty villages of the Chalke Valley; their history, their scenery, their churches and all they have to offer. The Valley is a great area for walking and cycling – there are many footpaths with stunning views and the roads are mostly traffic-free. It is relatively unknown, has unspoilt countryside and is well worth a visit.
The history of the Chalke Valley
The River Chalke itself is a very short river, a tributary of the River Ebble. It rises at Mead End near Bowerchalke and flows just 1.2 miles to join the Ebble at Mount Sorrel, just upstream of Broad Chalke. It’s a typical chalk stream, noted particularly for its brown trout.
The Chalke Valley stretches from Salisbury to Shaftesbury and includes much of the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with many picturesque villages along both the Chalke and the Ebble. The Ebble rises at Alvediston, joins the Avon at Bodenham and is one of the Fiver Rivers that meet at Salisbury.
There have been archaeological finds of flint tools, pottery, bones and metal objects across the Valley, showing evidence of occupation from the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman period. There are also remains of earthworks, barrows and field systems – it is an area rich in early history.
An Anglo-Saxon charter names some of the villages and shows clearly that there were thriving communities here before the arrival of the Norman invaders. The Domesday Book in 1086 divided the Chalke Valley into eight manors and records the change of ownership from Saxon to Norman lords.
By 1536 ownership of “Chalke” had passed to William Herbert, who later became the 1st Earl of Pembroke. His heirs remained lords here until after World War I.
The progress of the Reformation is reflected in the changes shown in the Valley churches. Bullet holes in the West door of Bishopstone Church also indicate that the Valley was affected by the Civil War. War Memorials along the Valley illustrate the sacrifice of men and women of this area in the two world wars.
A visit to these villages also brings awareness of the timelessness of these places. The countryside and fields are much as they were in early times with delightful cottages lining the lanes, and very little in the way of ugly modern buildings.
Alvediston’s prehistory is found in three Bronze Age barrows on Trow Down. By Saxon times Alvediston was part of the land in the possession of the nuns of Wilton, granted to them in 995. The Church of St. Mary was probably founded in the 12th century with the chancel dating from the 13th and the transepts from the 14th century. However, it was extensively rebuilt in the 17th century and then altered again by T. H. Wyatt in the 19th century. The font is believed to be 12th century.
The churchyard has the tomb of Sir Antony Eden, Prime Minister from 1955 – 57. Nearby is Alvediston Manor, a Queen Anne house, his home from 1968 until his death in 1977. The village has a very attractive 15th century thatched pub, The Crown, which also offers three rooms for B and B accommodation.
A large hoard of bronze jewellery which included a bronze torc and sixteen bracelets was discovered here in 2012, showing evidence of the early occupation of this area.
A Saxon burial site with a high status Saxon ring was discovered on Barrow Hill and suggests that the Saxons inhabited this valley from early on in their migration.
The village name is believed to come from firstly its location so close to the mouth of the River Ebble, and secondly from a family association with Hereward the Wake, the Saxon noble who resisted the rule of William the Conqueror in the Fens from 1070 – 1071. Hereward the Wake’s coat of arms can be seen on the church tower.
The church of St. John the Baptist was built in the 12th century. The area was devastated by the arrival of the Black Death in the 14th century but by the 15th century had recovered sufficiently to build the church tower, probably from the profits of the local wool industry.
The village did not escape the tensions that came with the Agricultural Revolution – in 1792 2187 acres of land were enclosed, causing great hardship to local people, and 1836 the villagers smashed the threshing machine belonging to the farmer John Rebbeck.
Very little remains of the original 14th century church. The font is Norman and the church tower is 15th century but many changes were made in Victorian times.
Ebbesbourne Wake has a traditional country pub – The Horseshoe Inn. It has one room for accommodation and also boasts a large pretty garden with a fish pond and extensive flower borders. It features regularly in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide and was voted country pub of the year for the Salisbury area inn 2019.
The earliest known sign of habitation is the bowl barrow on Marleycombe Down, probably built in the Neolithic or Bronze Age. Two hoards of gold and silver coins have been found, used by the Durotiges, a Celtic tribe who lived here before the Roman occupation. In the 20th century Bowerchalke was home to both Siegfried Sassoon, the First World War poet, and Dr. James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis and inventor of the electron capture detector.
Marleycombe Down, Knowle Down and Woodminton Down, known jointly as Bowerchalke Downs, are chalk grasslands along the entire southern outlook of the village. They are designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest with many species of plants, insects and butterflies.
The Church of Holy Trinity dates from the 13th century, with the porch and tower added in the 15th century. The church was restored and enlarged in the Victorian era. The Ten Commandments, which had become prominent in churches following the Protestant Reformation, were removed from the walls and written on boards instead.
Sir William Golding, the author and Nobel Prize Winner, lived in Bowerchalke with his wife Ann for many years. They are both buried in the churchyard. The churchyard also has a Commonwealth War Grave for 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Butler, who lived nearby at Rookhay Farm, a member of the Royal Flying Corps, killed on duty in April 1918 aged 20.
Excavations on Fifield Bavant Down revealed more than 160 storage pits used in the Iron Age to store harvested crops for the years ahead.
The discovery of British and Roman objects, pottery and coins in the same area show that interaction was happening locally. The village was deserted after the Black Death and it is still a tiny hamlet.
It has the smallest church in Wiltshire and reputedly the second smallest in England. The delightful church of St. Martin of Tours dates from the 13th century and the flint and stone walls are almost entirely original, as are the stone cross on the east gable and the lancet window at the north end of the chancel. The turret was added in the early 20th century. It is set up above the valley and has magnificent views across the countryside.
Broad Chalke is the largest of the Chalke Valley villages, incorporating the hamlets of Knapp, Mount Sorrel and Stoke Farthing, and hosts the Sports Centre for the Valley. It also has an award winning community local stores, situated in the United Reform Church, which includes a Post Office and coffee shop.
It is here that the Chalke Valley History Festival is held in June, a hugely popular attraction. The Gurston Down Motorsport speed hill climb course is held at Gurston Farm and attracts hundreds of visitors every year.
The village is famous for its watercress beds, situated on a natural spring that rises in the Valley. Rain falling on the hills higher up the valley filters down through the Chalke hills, picking up natural minerals on its way. The watercress is cut daily and sent to London restaurants and markets as well as being available to all through the means of an outdoor fridge and an honesty box set into the wall.
Broad Chalke church was begun in the 13th century but clearly there was worship here before, as parts of a Saxon Preaching Cross have been discovered and are on display inside the church. The chancel has some graphic carvings – a devil, a “Speak No Evil” and an angel playing a stringed instrument among them. More building took place in the 14th century when the lower stages of the tower and the porch were built.
The porch has a fine barrel vault roof and was originally in two storeys. A spiral staircase leads tantalisingly up to what was the priest’s room, now locked. The priest’s desk, pulpit and pews date from the 17th century and are fine examples of wood carving from the post-Reformation period. In the mid 17th century repairs had to be undertaken - John Aubrey in his Natural History of Wiltshire says, “In 1659 Sir John Penruddock and I made ourselves churchwardens, or else the fair church had fallen”.
The churchyard has the tombs of the Reverend Rowland Williams, one of the most influential theologians of the 19th century, Christopher Wood, a celebrated artist of the early 20th century and Sir Cecil Beaton, photographer, diarist, painter, interior, stage and costume designer who lived in nearby Reddish House. The War Memorial stands opposite the Lych Gate, and the small garden area surrounding it was redeveloped for the Millennium.
Bishopstone consists of 6 hamlets – Croucheston, Faulston, Netton, Flamstone, Throope and Bishopstone. Grim’s Ditch, a territorial earthwork built by Iron Age people around 300 BC forms the southern boundary of the village. In the late Middle Ages the hamlets belonged to the Bishop of Winchester which is where the village derives its name.
The bubbling River Ebble runs through the hamlets, dividing into smaller steams through lakes, around islands and throughout old mills before it becomes one river again as it leaves the village.
The parish church of St John the Baptist was built between the 13th and 15th centuries, with some restoration carried out in the 19th.
The drama of the Civil War 1642 - 1651 can be witnessed in the bullet holes seen by the West door of the church. Exactly who fired them and for what purpose is unclear. It is known that the rector, John Earle, refused to cease officiating in the church when ordered to do so by Cromwell’s soldiers. Were the shots fired to intimidate him?
Another account suggests that a man was shot here during the Civil War, but the circumstances are unknown.
There are many interesting features, monuments and furnishings inside. The chancel has medieval bosses and corbels with carved flowers, leaves and figures. Some of the figures are crouching as if under the weight of the 14th century vaulted arches of the roof. The chancel also has a medieval triple sedilia, with seats for the priest, deacon and sub-deacon. The North transept has the Founders’ Tomb from the 14th century extending across the whole of the end wall with a richly decorated arch and etched decorations a