We were staying at our Mum & Dad's in Chippenham for the Mother's Day weekend, and on the Saturday we decided to pop out and bag the Wiltshire top. Our Mum (who has still been to no tops) was going to come with us. Having felt the icy wind she decided to back out & instead go to a nearby garden centre and daffodil farm with our Dad whilst we "bagged" it. This did at least mean that we would get a lift there and back, but if it hadn't been Mothers Day weekend I think a few "quitter" catcalls may have been in order!
Although it was sunny in the morning, the forecast was for wintry showers (another reason for our mum deciding to choose a warm garden centre over exposed downs). It had been bizarre weather of late - my native Wycombe had seen snowfall for thirteen consecutive days, but never accumulating to more than 3 inches before melting again. In the circumstances our Mum wanted to drop us off at the car park near the crest of the hill so that we could just make it a very short walk. We felt this was no way to treat one of the magnificent North Wessex Downs, and insisted on being dropped off at the church at Stanton St Bernard, at the foot of the down.
The first part of the walk was pretty inauspicious - the footpath out of the village led us along the bed of a muddy stream, and looked more like an access path for the neighbouring houses than a public right of way. Soon, however, we emerged onto a minor road and beheld the full majesty of Milk Hill and Tan Hill, with the wonderful bare folds in the hillside linking them together. On one flank of Milk Hill was carved the Pewsey White Horse - so grubby as to be almost indistinguishable. Having grown up in Chippenham I may be biased, but I still feel that the unregarded Cherhill horse is actually better than its more famous brethren.
The other thing we beheld was the full strength of the icy wind, which we'd been protected from until now. We immediately pulled on all the clothes we had available and began to ascend the lower slopes of the hill, initially on a path across open farmland. This was pure evil - wet and slippery yet clinging soil, ensuring that you took two steps forward and one slide back (or sideways) whilst doubling the weight of your boots. It seemed to take forever to cover just half a mile or so and left us with aching hips and calves.
Fortunately salvation was in sight as we entered the open access grasslands on the southern slope of the hill. The path actually runs around a flank of the hill until, reaching a fence, it turns and heads straight up the western flank of the hill. By the time you reach the top, panting slightly, you are standing above an impressively deep valley with suicidal sledging slopes, and looking at grand views across to Tan Hill and Rybury iron-age fort. The reason why sledging came to mind was because there was snow at the top of the hill - admittedly only remnants of it in sheltered pockets, but snow nevertheless - effectively our first snow-capped peak! This was just a taster for what was to come….
To our right there was an odd-looking mound capped with what looked strangely like a belisha beacon. On closer inspection it turned out to be an odd-looking mound capped with what looked strangely like a belisha beacon! We assumed it must have been some sort of aircraft warning light. From here there were stunning views to the south, to Stanton St Bernard and beyond (to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear).
Returning to the path, we followed it around the head of the deep valley. The highest point of the Milk Hill (and therefore Wiltshire) was in the plateau-like field to our right. Reaching the end of the field we found that the farmer had granted permissive access to the field - for the local hangliding club at least - instructing people to climb over at the north-west corner fence post. We assumed that if the farmer allowed hangliders to operate here, he wouldn't mind careful walkers making their way across the field. The actual county top is pretty nondescript compared to the hill itself - just an unmarked spot in the middle of the field. The views aren't a patch on the edge of the escarpment, and frankly we felt that the belisha beacon made for a better "top"!
As if in vengeance for these unfaithful thoughts, grey clouds poured over the horizon, and the weather suddenly attacked us with unexpected vehemence. We were pelted with high-speed pellets of frozen snow that stung our faces and made it difficult to see (because you didn't want to open your eyes. We hurried on downwards towards the Wansdyke, an old Saxon boundary ditch and embankments, where we met a walker with the whitest coat we'd ever seen - she should have been doing Daz commercials!
The Wansdyke is very impressive over the North Wessex Downs - from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the bounding embankments can be 10 feet. It certainly made an ideal place to shelter from the wind whilst eating some chocolate - we stopped in it at the lowest point of the ridge connecting Milk Hill to its neighbour, Tan Hill. As we watched, the snowflakes got bigger and softer, looking much more like the sort of stuff that settles. Looking out from the escarpment, waves of snow were blowing off the top of the hill, looking like thick smoke drifting across the valley beneath.
Having boosted our energy levels somewhat, we headed on our way, following the Wansdyke up Tan Hill. The wind and snow had decreased somewhat, and for the first time views opened to the north as well as south. We could see all the way across to the Cherhill monument, and also to the radio masts on Morgan's Hill where we had done a "practise" walk shortly before starting the county tops last summer. Unfortunately these views to the north also meant we could see what was about to hit us - thick black cloud was racing towards us.
We were about halfway up the gentle slope of Tan Hill when it hit us - winds approaching gale force and more stinging icy snow - but this time far heavier than we had encountered before. Visibility was down to just a few dozen yards at one point - it was approaching the infamous "whiteout". It also settled very quickly, covering the grass in just a few minutes and Jim in just a few more. Jim knelt to the ground, bum facing into the wind and head tucked down to his knees, saying the snow was stinging his face too much and he didn't want to go any further. I tried to persuade him to put his hood up but he protested that he would look like a nobbin. After I pointed out that there was no-one around to see anyway, he submitted to my idea and we proceeded on up the hill.
Eventually we turned off the Wansdyke onto a path that we were lucky to spot - snow had completely covered the path signs on a fence post. The snow and winds now subsided and we started to laugh at the sheep. Every sheep had snow settled all over whichever side had been facing the wind - one particularly amusing one had a bright white snow-covered bottom!
The Tan Hill trig point looked dark and ominous set against the tumultuous sky (why oh why couldn't the OS have distinguished Milk Hill with this feature!), but as we started to descend the other side of Tan Hill the sun came out. By the time we started to climb the Rybury there was a clear blue sky and it was warm enough for us to start stripping off layers!
The Rybury is a bijou hill sporting the "lumps and bumps" of an old iron age hill fort. Whilst descending from Tan Hill we had a good view of the overall oval shape of the fort, and now we were within it there seem to be far more bumps than were normal for a hill fort - it was rather impressive. We saw a large-ish square hole, which we imagined could have been the foundations of a building - it would have been nice to have had some interpretative signs there. There were superb views across to Milk Hill, and with the steep sides you could see this would have made an excellent defensive location.
We descended from the Rybury on a permissive path leading east to a farm track, where some farm workers discussing tractors greeted us with a cheery wave. The muddy track lead us back to our start point at Stanton St Bernard, and we were hastened on our way be yet another icy snowstorm - we'd certainly had a good variety of weather!
It had been a superb walk, and despite (or maybe because of) the snow
had reinforced my love of the North Wessex Downs. Our Mum, who had been
caught by the snow whilst picking daffodils, wouldn't believe how much
we had enjoyed it, and said she was glad she hadn't come. But for me this
was one of the best county tops we've yet done.