- County: Wiltshire
- Area: Savernake Forest, near Marlborough
- Distance: 11.5 Miles (with optional extensions, or short cuts)
- Time: 5hrs 30 (this included lots of photo stops, and a picnic stop)
- Refreshments: Pub and Shop in Great Bedwyn, but none on the route
Savernake Forest is a great place to go for a walk if you are wanting to seek some shade or wanting somewhere with a mystical adventure feel to it. You can park in the forest itself, which will lend itself to a shorter walk. However, I parked in Great Bedwyn, and did a lovely circular walk. Only the first part of this wasn’t in the shade, so if it’s a hot day I suggest you start in the morning before it’s too hot.
I like this walk as it takes you through some of the more remote areas of the forest. Although you are still likely to see someone else at some point. There were a few privately owned cars with those people that like to go for a ‘little drive’ and not get out into the fresh air. However, it’s not as busy as a more commercial wood.
It’s easy ground and not muddy so walking trainers would be fine. Although it was after a long dry spell that I did it. Shorts will be also fine. Although do be aware that ticks are present in the forest, and the removal of two tiny ticks was needed! I did come across lots of other nicer and more interesting insects, so keep your eyes peeled! It is suitable for dogs as any of the stiles I came across were optional, with gates that would open.
History of Savernake
To fully appreciate Savernake Forest, you need to know a bit of history about it. It is the only privately-owned ancient forest in Britain (the rest are owned by the crown). The forest has to shut once a year to prevent its paths entering the public domain by common law. I believe this is always the first working day of the New Year. Savernake is the remnant of a 390km² forest owned by the Normans since 1066, and it is still with the same family. It still covers a huge 18km² (4500 acres). So as you can see there is lots to explore just within the forest itself!
Due to its impressive age, there are lots of interesting and even famous trees within the forest. It is said that there is nowhere else in Europe where you can see so many grand old veterans, with it thought to have about 100 significant trees present. You can do a walk just visiting each of the well-known trees. Click on the link if you want to learn more about all of the named trees – http://www.wiltshirewalks.co.uk/tree_desc.html! Savernake Forest is currently leased to the Forestry Commission. However, you will see no forestry work during your walk. It is also a ‘dry’ forest with no streams to cross – the only bit of water is the occasional pond. To learn a bit more about the history have a read of this article: https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/wiltshire/countryside/savernake-forest.htm
I mainly followed the route described on Fancy Free Walks – with a few diversions to see some of the magnificent oak trees in the forest. The walk starts from Great Bedwyn (there are lots of spaces to park on the road), a beautiful little village, of which I will tell you more later. I suggest parking near the Three Tuns Pub as this is the end of the village you will walk from.
The first part of the walk is on the road down Brown’s Lane. This is a quiet lane and I didn’t come across any cars. You will then walk across some fields into Chisbury wood. Chisbury is tiny and you will soon exit into a pasture, which is part of Chisbury Lane Dairy Farm. If you want to read how they maximise their milk yields, then have a read of this article: https://www.fwi.co.uk/livestock/dairy/top-milk-yields-from-grass-possible-farm-walk-hears). You can cut across this field diagonally to reach the stile (I used the big metal gate 30m up, which you can easily open). There were some young cows in this pasture – thankfully fenced off to one area of the field, but walking by them seemed to stir their curiosity, and I managed to feed the braver ones some grass, and get some cute photos!
After turning left out of the field, further down the lane you will pass a lovely thatched longhouse called Buckwood – the epitome of an English Thatch. It is here I reached Bedwyn Common, which it is said once used to be part of Savernake Forest. I can see how it would have been, as I passed through mainly wooded areas until I had reached the end of the common. Here you will cross over a road, and very quickly be able to see and walk to the edge of the eastern side of Savernake Forest.
Entering Savernake and King of Limbs
You would not guess that you were about to join a well-known forest – with the entrance from this direction being fairly well hidden, even a little overgrown. This is a lovely desolate part of Savernake Forest, and definitely has the feeling of exploration to it as you walk deeper into the trees. Forests can be one of the hardest places to navigate in, with all their extra ‘paths’ and flattening of undergrowth from animal walkways. It is this first part where you will need to be careful with the navigation.
If you are following the Fancy Free Walk, then I strongly suggest you take a very slight detour on part 2 of leg 2, to see the suitably named King Of Limbs Oak Tree. Just before the T-junction turn left down a path. Within about 20m you will reach the grand King of Limbs, or Limbo as I called him. This was one of my favourite trees in the forest. Its dramatic profile was crying out to be explored by climbing on its great limbs, and I couldn’t resist!
Crockmere Oak and The Gallops
Crockmere Oak was the next named tree I came across on the route. And although it is about 500 years old, for me, it didn’t stand out, and limbo still had the edge of being my favourite. I expected the Grand Avenue, with it being the longest avenue in Britain to be quite impressive, but unfortunately it was just a dusty forest road, with cars parked on it. However, The Gallops which I went down after passing over the Grand Avenue was beautiful. The beeches and great oaks towering above and giving dappled shade was much appreciated! I found a handmade swing attached to an old oak tree, that I just had to have a go on! Upon reaching the Eight Walks Dial, I was at the very heart of the forest, and had lots of options – 8 in fact! – for where to go next.
Big Belly Oak
I went down Sawpit Drive. It is during this leg (Leg 3 part 1) of the Fancy Free Walks that I took another diversion. I couldn’t do a walk in Savernake Forest without seeing its most famous tree – The Big Belly Oak. Big Belly is notoriously difficult to find but having done a bit of Google research before I left, I vaguely knew where to find it. Therefore, instead of avoiding the grass path straight ahead, I continued up this until I reached a fence, where I then turned right. After following some slightly flattened undergrowth I came across a stile in the fence. There right next to the A346 (careful if you have a dog or small children) was the very aptly named Big Belly Oak. Big Belly Oak has a girth of 35ft and is the oldest tree in the forest, at about 1100 years old.
There is a local legend that you can summon the devil by dancing 12 times anticlockwise around the tree – oh and you have to do it naked! It was named as one of the top 50 Great British Trees to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Not only this, but it has also been shortlisted previously as England’s Tree of the Year by the Woodland Trust. Unfortunately, it’s now fitted with a metal corset to prevent it splitting in half. However, it still manages to produce new leaves every year – it’s not giving up without a fight that’s for sure! Despite its impressive haggard ancient feel, Limbo still came out top as my favourite tree. Nevertheless, it is worth making a detour to Big Belly, even if only to say you have seen one of the UK’s most famous trees! Be aware this is where two baby ticks were picked up!
Cluster Oak and Legends
Backtracking back onto the original route I passed another famous oak, Cluster Oak. This is a slow-growing oak and was planted in 1796. I then reached a very mystical part of the forest, where larches lean over the path, mixed with bizarrely shaped oaks. It is thought that the forest might be haunted, and I can see why. There are certainly some areas that have a dark eerie feel to them. However, I didn’t see the headless woman riding a white horse, or come across any witches’ covens, and the only eerie sounds I heard were the creaking of tree branches. Nevertheless, I did have a gentleman who stopped as I passed saying that from a distance he thought I was a horse coming down the avenue – read into that as you wish!
Exiting Savernake Forest
As you exit the forest, look out for the rat-proof barn on the right. I learnt that these barns are built on what are called saddle stones, to prevent vermin and water seepage – as they say, every day is a learning day! (If you would like to read more about saddle stones, or perhaps want to keep vermin from entering your shed, then I suggest you have a read of this, it may just be the answer you were looking for; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Staddle_stones!).
After passing through the tiny hamlet of Durley, I entered the estate of Tottenham House. It was nice to get back out into full daylight, and it was time to dispatch the two ticks. So stopping for a break under a tree in one of their lovely fields was a must. I can also recommend here as a picnic stop! I got a glimpse of Tottenham House, which was built in the 1820s, and is currently under renovation. Seeing the white sheeting up around it certainly stirred my curiosity, and I recommend having a read about it – https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5857371/Rundown-12M-country-estate-dating-900-years-one-worlds-finest-mansions.html
Visiting St Katharine’s church with its flint construction, which is on the route, provides a nice contrast to the natural beauty of the forest and fields. If you can, it is worth poking your head in to look at the impressive interior; unfortunately, at the time of writing, it was closed due to the pandemic. After a few more woodland tracks and crossing over some pastures, you will reach the starting point of Great Bedwyn.
Great Bedywn was an important medieval market town and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. A notice board in the village details its great history. If you still feel like walking a little further, then the Kennett and Avon Canal is on the edge of the village, and provides a nice easy stroll. However, talking from experience, I don’t suggest adding this on if it is a scorching day! The sun and heat really do beat down on you on this path!
Thankfully there is a little village shop. So, before the drive home, energy levels were restored with an ice-cream!
So go and visit this enchanting forest. Appreciate the majestic trees, the mystical air and the history and legends that come with a walk in Savernake.