Coombe Bissett Project

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Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund

Download our project leaflet here

Coombe Bissett Down nature reserve is a 70.6 hectares chalk downland valley south west of Salisbury. 

The Coombe Bissett Down Project (CBDP) is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The three year project has involved an initial land purchase that has doubled the size of the original reserve, and the start of a programme of work to revert one of the newly purchased arable fields back to species-rich chalk downland. A key objective of the project is an enhanced visitor experience, with new opportunities for people to enjoy and learn about this spectacular site. Visitors will be able to follow the new signs, and waymarked routes around the reserve and enjoy the views from a series of new benches.

In addition we have a programme of events that will take place throughout the year, from lambing sessions to art classes, Walking for Health to searches for shieldbugs.

From May to September there are wildflowers to be found, from cowslip and harebells to kidney vetch and Devils-bit scabious. These attract lots of butterflies including adonis blue and dingy skipper. Yellowhammer, skylarks and whitethroat can be heard singing from scrub or overhead and kestrels hover over small mammals below. Take a look at our seasonal spotters sheets to see which species you can find; Spring/Summer, Autumn/Winter.

People have also had a close relationship with this site for many years. There have been artefacts from the Neolithic Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman period on Coombe and the surrounding downs. Steep slopes on the site are patterned by medieval terraces called strip lynchetts which were used for grazing. We have a flock of hardy Herdwick sheep and light footed Dexter cattle that crop the grass, maintaining the chalk downland habitat as a part of the reversion process. Why not try writing your own haiku poem to show us what the reserve means to you?

Photograph of sheep at coombe bissett down

Visitors can come here to enjoy the sweeping views, bask in the beauty of nature and the sound of birdsong. To keep our birds happily singing we ask that dogs are kept on leads and any waste is cleared up. There are many lovely walks of varying difficulty around the site.

With the new NLHF supported project visitors have now got the opportunity to get more involved with the nature they come here to enjoy, this can be through surveying, our training and event days or volunteering in a number of roles. This large site couldn’t be maintained without a wonderful team of volunteers, please take a look at our volunteering page for more opportunities.

To keep updated with improvements to the reserve and to join our official Friends of Coombe Bissett Down group, email us at [email protected] 

Image of walking trails on a map of coombe bissett down nature reserve

 

Have you ever wondered what where you live, work or walk looked like over half a century ago? 

Our Community Engagement Assistant, Xander King, spoke to his grandfather, Roger Maidment, about his time working in Coombe Bissett in the 1950s and '60s and gives us here a flavour of village at that time.

 

Roger leaves school aged 15 in 1950 to commence work for a building firm in the village. He works there until 1969, leaving only for two years to complete his National Service duties. Roger is involved in some important moments that created the village we see today, including the construction of the village shop and the installation of mains water to domestic properties. 

There are fewer houses than you would see today; some large houses scattered around, belonging to landowners and local businessmen, and amongst those are the occasional row of workers' cottages built onto dirt floors with no running water. 

Opposite the Fox and Goose pub is a mill with a large barn, where wagons pulled by horses reverse in to deliver grain and collect flour. Next to the mill, you can cross over a brick bridge which will bring you to a detached farm house which belonged to the Kents, who distribute cattle feed throughout the local area. 

Farm workers at Coombe Bissett. Images courtesy of the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading archive. 

Walking along Blandford Road a bit further, you see a church in front of you and just along from it is Church Farm. Passing briefly by the graveyard, you can see some ornate Roma graves, hinting at the rich nomadic history of the Wiltshire chalk. If you head towards Homington, you will pass the row of workers' cottages and the smallholding site where, in the modern day, the village shop sits.

Passing a few more large houses, one belonging to the local brewers, Anchor Brewery, and one to the brother-in-law of Lord Langford, there is then a narrow lane called Shepherd’s Lane. This is where Roger’s boss and the local builder live, though Roger's boss is currently planning to build a luxurious Portland stone home on the corner by the chapel. Turning a sharp left down towards the river you see a bungalow and then a small footpath that will take you to Homington House, owned by the Radnors, and to the watercress beds that are farmed on the River Ebble.

Above: Chalke Valley watercress bed at the nearby Broadchalke. Image courtesy of The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading archive. 

When you go back on yourself and head towards the modern-day nature reserve and the farm, passing the chapel on your way, there is another large house that belongs to a talented local architect.

Reaching the nature reserve, you gaze out at the distinct Wiltshire landscape, with its managed hedgerows and a duller green than it is today (as the land has not yet been improved through the addition of nutrients). The Blandford Road stretches out before you and whilst is not busy, there are a few cars, the occasional horse-drawn cart and cyclists making their way to or from Salisbury. You may see children scrabbling on the downland in search of large chunks of chalk. These are used to polish up the tiles around a black stove for a clean, contrasting aesthetic. 

There is a strong Roma community in Wiltshire after the Second World War, and from the location of the current reserve car park, you look out and see a small Romani camp upon the edge of the opposite valley. A family stand by the side of the Blandford Road, waiting to cross over to the toilets that service their camp. Local workers trade with the Roma people, selling them rabbit skins for a sixpence a dozen, and purchasing hand-carved clothes pegs in return. 

Handmade clothes-pegs from the early 1940s. Peg makers, Avebury, Wiltshire c.1958.  

   Images courtesy of The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading. 

The downlands on the Coombe Bissett side of the valley only feature grazing sheep, but as you look across Blandford Road, the land is farmed intensively by National By-Products for pork. The wildlife of Coombe Bissett has also changed over the years. If venture into Coombe Bissett in the 1950s you may see wild grey partridge, curlews, corncrakes and lapwings. Swarms of butterflies fill the air in the spring and summer, and cover the downlands on which sheep graze. Through the centre of the village runs the River Ebble, with a pebble bottom and crystal-clear water that you can drink. The wealthy landowners go shooting for snipe and woodcock, and the farmworkers regularly eat hare or eel for dinner. 

Grey partridge. Image credit: David Tipling. Lapwing. Image credit: Gillian Day. 

 

Roger remembers his time in Coombe Bissett very fondly and will happily talk about it at great length. His traditional Wiltshire accent seems to get stronger the longer he talks about it! He suggests that we should take a drive together and see what the village is like now and how the nature reserve has changed things - I definitely agree.  

If you would like to share your stories and photographs of life in Coombe Bissett please contact [email protected]

To learn more about rural life we would recommend visiting The Museum of English Rural Life, and in particular, their ‘Our Country Lives’ exhibit. For further information please visit https://merl.reading.ac.uk/

Find out more about our volunteering opportunities at Coombe Bissett Down here.