I read about William Beckford's extraordinary doomed Gothic palace years ago and it all came back to me when we were doing the Wessex Ridgeway recently and passing through this area. Beckford inherited a large fortune and hired the architect James Wyatt to build for him a Gothic mansion, partly in the style of a ruined abbey, with a huge tower. Including the spire, the tower was intended to be 450 ft high (50 ft higher than Salisbury Cathedral).
Beckford moved in in 1807, although the house (Fonthill Abbey) was then unfinished. He lived there as a recluse until 1823 when, having run out of money, he sold the house to a gunpowder millionaire and moved to Bath where he started building an Italianate tower on Lansdown Hill, now known as Beckford's Tower. In 1825, the tower of Fonthill Abbey collapsed in a storm, destroying most of the house with it, the result of both poor design and poor workmanship.
The Fonthill Estate continues to thrive however. We started our walk in Fonthill Bishop, one of the estate villages. Our first step was to see the extraordinary Palladian style gateway (picture above). It was attributed (in 1823) to Inigo Jones (1573-1652) which would mean that it long precedes the Beckford era.
Back in the village, we passed the church and former school ...
... and admired this picturesque group of estate cottages ...
... to begin the clockwise, circular walk at the courtyard containing the Estate offices and follow a bridleway uphill. Our starting point was at 12 o'clock on the slightly flatttened circle. After a length of woodland on our left and open fields on the right, the view on the left opened up to reveal a long valley heading back down to the Fonthill Lake, of which more later.
An unusual sign then warned of a badger sett, although it seemed pretty innocuous. The path curved along the edge of Little Ridge Wood with wonderful displays of bluebells (it seems to have been an especially good year - we saw loads in Devon a week or two ago). The ground was on a slight upwards slope which created a great sense of density.
We lost our way slightly in the woods, but successfully regained the path on the other side and followed field-edge paths which gave us a glimpse of the current, fairly ordinary, Fonthill House, which incorporates some remains of Fonthill Abbey. Frustratingly, you can't really see anything.
There were some nice trees in the parkland, however.
The field paths led us to 6 o'clock, the bottom of the Fonthill Lake. The lake is fed by a stream at the north end and dammed at the south. We were struck by the blueish colour of the water.
An interesting information panel reveals that in the 1820s there was a six storey woollen mill here, driven by three water wheels, with an adjacent five storey weaving factory. When the estate changed hands in 1830 (presumably connected with the destruction of the house described above) the new owner had the buildings demolished. The dam now provides hydro-electric power.
We headed uphill to cross Hindon Lane by the excellent Beckford Arms pub. Opposite is a pretty thatched gate lodge.
We followed a track and then field paths to reach the village of Fonthill Gifford, said to be Norman in origin.
We walked through the village and headed north towards Berwick St Leonard. At the hamlet of Greenwich we saw wild garlic on a massive scale.
Berwick St Leonard was a surprise. It has a fine Georgian mansion, now apartments ...
... and a very lovely Norman church.
However, it is entirely surrounded by intense estate activity. Small business units in a former stables area, estate cottages, farming, a hubbbub of activity. It remained only to walk across three fields to emerge by the church in Fonthill Bishop.
Conditions: quite warm, but mostly cloudy, with a threat of rain, which happily didn't quite materialise.
Distance: 6 miles.
From: Discover the Nadder Valley
Map: Explorer 143 (Warminster & Trowbridge).
Rating: four stars. Most enjoyable.