Wiltshire is awash with ‘regular’ greenlanes as well as unsealed roads with ‘permissive’ access. Neil Watterson finds out more
Most greenlaners I know rate Wiltshire as England’s greenlaning capital. Not only are there shedloads of unsealed roads, but it’s a county steeped in history, so there’s plenty to see to make up a long weekend. No wonder Russians make the long trip there for just the weekend…
And, for greenlaners, things have just got better. A seven-year project has just finished waymarking a network of ‘permissive’ byways across Salisbury Plain – green roads you’re allowed to explore that aren’t shown on OS maps – and I’ve come to meet up with Dale Wyatt, the driving force behind it.
Dale is the Green Lane Association’s (GLASS) president and magazine editor and, up until recently, he was the Wiltshire rep. ‘I decided to pass on the baton now the project is completed,’ he says.
I’ve been greenlaning with Dale before and he’s normally in his Bowler 100 – but it’s currently in bits, so today he’s in the passenger seat of Paul Woodward’s fabulous Ninety.
We’ve met up just north of Marlborough and grabbed a coffee in the layby. There are loads of byways in this neck of the woods, but many have seasonal restrictions on them over winter, so we’re heading south.
And the first green road of the day isn’t a byway at all; it’s a permissive road running through Savernake Forest. Grand Avenue is a three-mile-long straight road that ultimately leads to Tottenham House, a grade I listed stately home, built in 1820.
‘It’s closed one day a year to prevent it gaining rights by default,’ explains Dale over the CB. ‘Lots of locals use it – and I’ll often cut through on the way home from the plain.’
With a 15mph speed limit it’s not a rat-run, just a gentle drive through the trees; and we turn off along one of the side roads to have a look at the monument erected by Thomas Bruce Earl of Ailesbury in 1781 at SU 229648, from where you can just make out the house in the distance. Having been sold by the Earl of Cardigan in 2014, plans are being made to turn the house it into a hotel.
We jump back in the Land Rovers – I’m driving our 2007 TDV6 Discovery 3 commercial – and head through Burbage, its main street lined by pretty thatched cottages. We pick up our first byway from a layby on the A338.
This takes us down towards the Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) and, after a very brief road tarmac section, we’re on to another byway on military land. Strange shapes loom in the woodland beside the lane and after a
‘The first green road of the day isn’t a byway at all; it’s a permissive road running through Savernake Forest’
while I realise they’re vehicles and tents, covered in camo netting to soften the edges. I look ahead and spot a soldier on guard. He nods in acknowledgement as we drive by.
Having spoken to military personnel over the years, they like civilians to be around while they are training – because that’s what it’s like in the real world. But they don’t like us getting in the way of it. So, there’s no problem with us driving through on the unsealed rights of way, in the same way as there wouldn’t be if we were on a tarmac road. But we mustn’t leave it.
That’s one of the problems facing the training area. Bikes and 4x4s and leave the roads and drive through woodland – places that the military use for camping. To the drivers and riders it’s just ‘a
bit of fun’, but it gets in the way of training – but as I’m about to find out, there is so much you can drive legally, why do you even need to go off-piste?
We reach the A342 at a tank crossing. Ahead of us lies a stone track, but there are no rights of way indicated on the map. This is the first of our ‘permissive byways’.
‘SPTA byelaws state you can drive the stone tracks, but we’ve helped clarify it by creating Permissive Byways where footpaths and bridleways run along them,’ explains Dale, ‘plus we’ve added other permissive routes to help make the network more logical.’
The permissive byway sign pointing along the track is one that Dale and his team have installed, so you know you can drive it.
‘Some areas have signs up saying, “No civilian vehicles”, which means exactly what it says – you can’t drive it. And you must always give way to military traffic on the stone roads,’ he continues. Other advice, like keeping group numbers down are included in the SPTA Greenlaning Good Practice Guide available here: tinyurl.com/sptagreenlaning.
We briefly join a byway before turning off along another stone track towards Baden Clump and then along a bridleway towards Baden Down Farm. ‘The bridleway is still signposted,’ says Dale, ‘but the permissive byway sign is above it, so you can drive it.’
After a bit of tarmac work we’re back on the plain. ‘We’re going to have a look at one of the byways,’ Dale tells me. ‘My good friend, the sadly departed Steve Gunning, plotted the route of the byway when GPS was in its infancy. But when you see the route on the ground, it’s fairly clear that what’s shown on the map isn’t the original road.’
He’s right. We drive along the line of the byway, the GPS marks on our Memory Map apps showing that the lightly rutted route is spot-on. But the surface isn’t right. We reach a junction with another track.
‘See the road here?’ asks Dale. ‘This is more what we would expect to see. Villagers would come out and help remove the flint from the fields to make up the tracks, making it easier to farm – while also building a road. The children were involved too – they were given small hammers to break the stones up, and so the road was made. The track we’ve just driven on doesn’t have any surface – it’s just mud.’
That’s why, where there’s a discrepancy such as this, the waymarkers point along the line of the most likely route, rather than the line that’s shown on the map – it’s much better to drive a route that’s sustainable, than to simply follow your GPS.
Red flags are flying
Rejoining the stone track, we criss-cross the mapped line of the byway and pass a busy dog-walker – she has about 10 pooches with her – before crossing to the Tidworth side of the training area. I’ve driven this area fairly recently in the Autumn Leaves competition (see p186), but because the red flags are flying we stay outside the danger area.
More byways take us under the A303 and between Amesbury and Boscombe Down airfield, with a milestone at the end of one indicating that the byway was once a significant road in the area.
Crossing the River Avon at Upper Woodford, we make our way to Berwick St James and take a byway to join the fast-moving A303 for a short section. ‘We need to cross the A303 and the gap in the central reservation isn’t that big – give us a couple of minutes before you follow us,’ advises Dale.
The A303 from the east is single-lane and an articulated lorry lumbers into view. Even if we wanted to go sooner, we couldn’t – we have to wait for all the traffic that has built up behind it to pass. We get to the gap, wait for the traffic to clear, then cross.
The byway that runs past Yarnbury Castle is a series of peaks and troughs, with the latter often filled with water; but it’s dry today. One of the byways is closed, so we follow the detour via more permissive byways and rejoin the route. German Village, a training centre on Copehill Down, sits directly ahead of us.
‘They would like to move the byway away from the north of the German Village,’ Dale tells me. ‘It gets very close in places, but the nearest hard track isn’t close enough to alter it – it would have to be stopped up and a new one dedicated.’ Having driven the byway before, I know how bad it can get when the ground is wet – there’s one hole that has swallowed several Land Rovers.
As we arrive at the road leading to the village a military convoy is heading out. We let them go and follow along the stone road until we reach a byway and break off. Paul is fine with the 255/85 R16 tyres on his Defender, but I’m running low-profile tyres on the Discovery and the flint in the sides of the ruts would rip the paint off the rims, so I have to straddle them, crashing down with a thump as I have to drop in towards the end. I had forgotten to raise the suspension first…
A stone road takes us down the hill and gives us a clear view of where you can, and can’t, drive. The road continues up the hill and is crossed by another, but an unsigned pair of lines also spurs from the junction. ‘You can drive the ones that are clearly roads,’ Dale explains, ‘but that other track is off limits to civilian vehicles – we’ve no right to be there.’ It is clear enough, but the police and military safety marshals still catch drivers and riders where they shouldn’t be.
More stone roads and a byway take us into Chitterne and we’ve a long slog on the road around Warminster for our final section of the trip. ‘Unfortunately, there are no vehicular rights on the southern section of the Imber Ranges,’ Dale tells me over the CB. ‘I’ve been in there waymarking the perimeter bridle path and the scenery is fantastic.’
As we reach Upton Scudamore, we turn off the A350 and head along what’s shown as a bridleway on the OS maps. The clearly signed permissive byway takes us right round the top of the ranges. Some parts are tarmac, others are stone, but they follow the boundary of the Imber Ranges most of the way.
Crossing the A360 at Gore Cross, we join the Northern Transit around Westdown Artillery Range. Occasional ‘whumps’ echo as shells are fired into the range. Red flags are flying, so the roads crossing the range are closed, but there’s one final section Dale wants to show me. A byway follows the Northern Transit, but there’s also a track beside the edge of the danger area. This also now signed permissive byway, allowing riders and drivers to continue round without sticking to the stone track.
Dropping off the plain and back to the Avon Valley near Upavon, we’ve circumnavigated Salisbury Plain, much of it off-tarmac. Dale and Paul say farewell and head off. I start to plan my route home, then notice the permissive byway sign across the road.
Time for one more lane? Oh, go on then – if you insist…
‘There’s a discrepancy. The track we’ve just driven on doesn’t have any surface – it’s just mud’
Following a Permissive Byway across Figheldean Down [Lane 6] UK ADVENTURE GREENLANES YOU CAN DRIVE – IN ANY LAND ROVER! Easy-to-follow routes Detailed OS maps and grid refs Overall ratings:– taking into account length, driveability, scenery, terrain and local interest
Chalky soil is clear to see at Crow Down [Lane 2] Grid ref SU 216574
‘What – salad cream? With bacon? Seriously?’
Dale and Paul with one of the signs they installed
Grassy ‘byway’ probably doesn’t follow the original route [Lane 6] How to make a Land Rover suddenly look very small
Red flag means Watterson is driving – take cover [Lane 7] Grid ref SU 216471 Watty presents a cake to Dale for his fourth birthday
The only water of the trip, near Yanbury Castle [Lane 18] Grid ref SU 034409
A Ninety and some defenders