The Great Ridge forms a backbone of chalk above the river valleys of the Wylye, to the north, and the Nadder, to the south. The top of the ridge is capped with clay-with-flints (Grinsell 1957: 12), and then a fine silt, possibly a loess (Rackham 1976: 6). Rackham also suggests that there may be a perched water table leading to springs on the ridge itself (Rackham 1976: 7).

The amount of woodland on the Ridge has varied, although Rackham cites the presence of a wide range of woodland flora as evidence that there has been a persistent core of woodland (Rackham 1976 : 13).

Figure 1: Approximate area of native woodland on the Ridge over the last 2500 years. Source: Rackham 1976 Figure 2

According to data from the Wiltshire SMR, the evidence for activity in the Neolithic includes a cluster of long barrows near the parish boundaries around Sherrington  and a series of findspots.

The use of the ridge for burial activity seems to have continued into the Early Bronze Age, with several clusters of round barrows in the area (Howarth 2009 : 129).

A study of the SMR mapping shows that most of the visible area of the ridge is covered with field systems. Most of these have no direct dating evidence. It is not always possible to distinguish between LBA, IA and RB field system based on morphology alone (Bradley & Yates 2007), but field systems start to appear in Wessex in the mid to late Bronze Age (Field 2008 :202) as land-use intensifies and previously open land becomes enclosed (Serjeantson 2007: 80). However, some of the field systems here appear to overlie Iron Age activity e.g. over the ditch of Grovely Castle (NMR SU 03 NW 21), and therefore post-date it, suggesting a definition in the Iron Age or Romano-British period.

Grovely Castle (NMR SU 03 NW 21) presents as a univallate hillfort, with an unfinished ‘lumpy’ rampart to the south-west, possibly betraying construction technique (Corney 2006 :136) and reminiscent of the unfinished hillfort at Ladle Hill (Piggott 1931). From pottery buried in the ramparts, an ‘Iron Age A’ date is given (1978: 26), which would appear to be early (Hawkes 1959).

Settlement on the ridge reaches its maximum during the late Iron Age into the Romano-British period, with a complex of nucleated settlements developing (Corney 1989 :116): Stockton Earthworks, Hanging Langford Camp, Ebsbury (Grovely Earthworks) and Hamshill Ditches. There may be earlier, unenclosed, settlement but as Thomas (1997 :212) points out, this is less archaeologically visible. Smith notes in particular an absence of evidence for MIA on the ridge (1978: 27). He does indicate that there may be MIA down in the valley, based on pits and linears on aerial photographs (ibid: 28) and suggests that this abandoning of the ridge-top may be due to the exhaustion of the soils by EIA exploitation (ibid: 29).

Figure 2: Romano-British earthworks on the Ridge. Source: Rackham 1976 Figure 5

Ebsbury, Stockton Earthworks, Hanging Langford Camp and Hamshill Ditches are all of a type of site classified by Corney as a ‘multiple ditch system’ (Corney 1989: 116-118). In the case of Ebsbury the ditch system was perhaps slighted by later use, as a Romano-British settlement grew up further downslope (Crawford & Keiller 1928 : 120). Stockton and Hanging Langford are linked to Grim’s Ditch by linears (Corney 1989: 116) and from OS mapping, there is the beginning of a spur that may have lead down to Hamshill Ditches.

Figure 3: The Landscape around Ebsbury. Source: Smith 1978 Figure 16

Smith’s somewhat artistic interpretation of the earthworks at Ebsbury (Figure 3) gives an idea of the site as a complex and ties in Grovely Castle via a linear. Only detailed survey would prove the accuracy of this interpretation, but it may not be far wrong in spirit. There is certainly evidence for occupation within the wooded area, as areas of nettles indicate phosphates in the soil, generally caused by human activity (Rackham, 2000 :109).


Both Hamshill Ditches and Hanging Langford Camp are associated with banjo enclosures. The banjo at Church End Ring  is considerably larger than the two at Hamshill (D. J. Bonney & C. N. Moore 1967 :120 ) but is not immediately surrounded by additional earthworks as at Hamshill. In this respect, Hamshill resembles the Gussage Hill Complex in Dorset, with two pairs of banjo enclosures and an enclosing loop.

The hillfort known as Bilbury Rings has a linear, possibly of a later date than the hillfort, extending to Hanging Langford Camp from the hillfort (NMR SU 03 NW 10). As Roman material has been found in Bilbury Rings (Bowen 1961: 33) this might be related to the use in the Roman period.


Figure 4: The complex of Iron Age earthworks on Gussage Hill, overlying the line of the Cursus. Source Barrett et. al. 1991 Fig. 6.3

As with the multiple-ditch systems on the Ridge, the Gussage Hill site dates from the Iron Age and into the Romano-British period (Barrett et al. 1991 : 236).  These systems are considered to share characteristics with Oppida: activities are divided into certain areas within the enclosed space (Oswald 2011: 5), rather than being a hierarchical division of people (Davis 2008 :39), but do not exhibit the degree of urbanisation that defines the Oppida in Gaul (Henderson 2007 :264). Corney (1989: 116-120) suggests that these sites represent Durotrigan influence in the region, and Eagles points out that the placename Teffont means the spring by the boundary and has a Latin root, suggesting a boundary dating from that time in the region (Eagles 2004 :236).

Figure 5: Stockton Earthworks, Romano-British Downland Village. Source: Smith 1978 Figure 15

It has been suggested that the area of the Nadder valley may have been a border between Iron Age tribes: the Dobunni and the Durotriges (McOmish et al. 2002 : 3) and possibly the Atrebates (Cunliffe 2005: 222; Corney 1989 :120) and Belgae (Draper 2009: 28). However, Moore (2011) asserts that the concept of a ‘tribe’ may be inappropriate, and therefore the idea of a border between territories is not applicable. This said, an interface between peoples may be one of the reasons for the density and complexity of settlement on the ridge (Corney 1989 :118).

The Roman road, Margary 45b (Musty et al. 1958: 30), cuts through Grovely wood running along the ridge, from the Mendips to Old Sarum and was probably used to transport lead from the mines in the Mendips (Powell 1906 :282). As these mines were in operation from 49AD (Bonney 1972: 179), this suggests an early date for this road.

This road provides relative dating for the other large linear feature on the ridge: Grim’s Ditch. Grim’s Ditch has been filled in to allow the Roman road to cross (Bonney 1972 :180) and for the places where the Roman road is cut by the ditch, Caceres (2003) suggests that the ditch may have been later recut. That is not to say that the entirety of Grim’s Ditch is of one date; Rackham certainly considers that the continuation of Grim’s Ditch by Stockton woods is a later addition as the bank changes side of the ditch (Rackham 1976 : 16).

Figure 6: Grim’s Ditch and associated features. Source: Rackham 1976 Figure 4

This feature is mentioned in Anglo-Saxon boundary charters of the 10th Century (Hooke 1994 : 92) and the name Grim indicates a boundary (Semple 1998 :116) although this was not necessarily its earlier use (Sauer 2005 :59), despite forming manorial boundaries in the medieval period (Eagles 1994 : 25). It has been suggested that Grim’s Ditch may have been the earliest ‘ridgeway’ road across the ridge, and that the Roman road formalised this (Cochrane 1972: 10; Smith 1978: 33; Baggs et al. 1995;) .

From the 5th Century, activity on the ridge declines and Rackham states that the ridge was uninhabited (Rackham 2000 :289). When activity does appear in the historical record, it is of settlement in the valley bottoms, with many of the villages having Saxon origins e.g. Baverstock known as Babbanstoc in 968 (Wilts. SMR SU 03 SW 400). The Domesday listing for Grauelinges is just that the King’s foresters hold 1½ hides there (Thorn 1979: record 67/99). Smith (1978: 1) points out, however, that any early settlement in the valleys would be obscured. Smith (Smith 1978 :45) gives the agricultural strength of the ridge as a reason that Wilton came to such prominance in the early Medieval period, and Lewis postulates that the pattern of settlement on the chalk in the Medieval period may have been determined by Roman times (Lewis 1994 : 188) but perhaps this is more generally true for areas where it can be proved that manors succeed Roman villa sites.

Figure 7: General topography of the woods on the Grovely Ridge. Many small groves and plantations are omitted. Dotted lines show parishes. Source: Rackham 1976 Figure 1

Grovely Wood District was extra-parochial (Rackham 1976 : 3), as shown in Figure 15 above, and the resources of the woodland shared in common. A charter of 994AD gives indirect evidence for the open-field system being in operation by that date as it refers to five hides with no fixed boundary (Hooke 1994 : 92). When Grovely was later declared subject to Forest law, some time after the arrival of the Norman invaders (Richardson 2003: 17), these common rights were still claimed, especially by the men of Great Wishford parish, who had the right to pasture in the Forest (Baggs et al. 1995).

The woodland itself was divided into copses with the practice of subinfeudation allowing tenants to effectively sublet land from the lord (Rackham 2000 :100) . Evidence for coppicing in Grovely exists from 1330-32 (Bond 1994 :129) and the different regimes in each copse are still detectable. Figure 8 shows the copses as they were in 1589, around the time Grovely was disafforested (Bond 1994 :132).

Figure 8: Copses and earthworks in Grovely and Ridgeley. This is an attempted reconstruction of the copse boundaries chiefly from the 1589 Pembroke Map. Source: Rackham 1976 Fig. 6


Although much has been made of the harshness of Forest Law, in reality the Forest Courts were a source of income (Richardson 2003: 22) and the ability of the King to bestow valuable, hereditary (Crittall 1959), posts to manage the Forest was an important social factor (Rackham 2003 :185).

Figure 9: Medieval Forests and Chases. Source: Bond 1994 Fig 6.1

Figure 9 shows the approximate extent of Royal Forests and chases in the Medieval period, and it can be seen that Grovely is a tiny fraction of that Forest land. The designation of Grovely Forest has probably protected the area from agricultural encroachment (Bond 1994 :132) even in desperate times when medieval lynchets appear on steep slopes (Hare 1994: 162).


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    Rosie Bond commented

    Thanks so much for putting all this together ! I love living near these beautiful woods & it makes my walks all the more fascinating.

    December 7, 2017 at 7:57 am

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