Published: 9:15 AM 3/9/2012
By Nigel Vile
Heading down the A36 towards Longleat, passing motorists cannot but fail to be struck by a remarkable hillock alongside the Warminster bypass.
Although little more than 800 feet in height, the isolated setting of Cley Hill amid relatively flat agricultural land gives this chalk knoll a prominence that belies its size. Atop the hill are the remains of a Bronze Age hillfort that encloses two round barrows.
The defensive potential of this site is clear, with open views extending towards the Mendips in the west, the Cotswolds to the north and Salisbury Plain and the Wessex Downs to the south and east respectively.
Although set in splendid rural isolation, Cley Hill was not always a lonely spot. For more than 40 years, this lofty hilltop was a meeting place for UFO spotters, all drawn by talk of lights, flying objects and what have been described as 'other unidentifiable oddities'.
Some experts have gone as far as to describe the nearby town of Warminster as Britain's UFO capital on account of a phenomena first encountered in the mid-1960s that became known as the 'Warminster Thing'. Strange noises were heard in the skies above the town, and an equally strange shimmering light was observed in the vicinity.
More recently, a report in the local press recorded the experiences of a number of people who witnessed a UFO in the skies in June 2001.
A slow-moving bright light was spotted at Semington which was buzzed by an aircraft. Later, a number of people in Trowbridge saw an object comprised of three lights in a triangular formation heading west towards Warminster.
As one critic noted, however, considering the proximity of the military training area on Salisbury Plain, was it not more likely that the UFOs people have been seeing during the last 50 years or so are more attributable to military activity rather than visits by alien life forms?
Secluded tracks and byways, each with a different perspective on Cley Hill, bring the walk to the village of Corsley with its fine grouping of St Margaret's Church and the adjoining Manor Farmhouse. Pevsner noted that 'the church is aisleless and the chancel was apparently never built'. Sir John Thynne built the original farmhouse alongside the church in the 1550s.
It was evidently a small affair constructed at the same time as Thynne was remodelling nearby Longleat House. He also lived here for five years after Longleat was damaged by fire in 1567. Part of his building survives in today's farmhouse. To quote Pevsner once again "It is of brick, with four cross-gables and mullioned and transomed windows of three and four lights, and is nothing very special".
Fieldpaths lead on to neighbouring Corsley Heath, a fairly non-descript sort of place lying alongside the A362. Here we find the Royal Oak, the only watering hole along the way and, with close on two miles to journey's end, why not stop and rest awhile? But beware of the ghost … In the middle ages the holy men of Longleat Friary, where they offered food and lodgings to any traveller, owned the Inn.
One of the friars that worked there was far from honest, and would ply visitors with ale before searching their belongings, looking for money or valuables. He stole money that was meant to be used in the running of the building by the friary and was chained up alive in the cellar and left there to die … and haunts the inn to this day.
As the walk turns off of the A362, there is a modest looking building bearing the legend 'Corsley Reading Room 1892'. Reading rooms, a social movement of the 19th-century, were set up mainly by the clergy and gentry to entertain and educate working men and boys, and especially to provide an alternative to establishments such as the Royal Oak.
Some 168 reading rooms alone were set up in Wiltshire, each one documented in a recently published book by Ivor Slocombe entitled Wiltshire Village Reading Rooms. These days, the remaining reading rooms function as either village halls or public libraries, but the buildings still stand as evidence of an invaluable working class initiative.
Health and safety: take great care on the busy 75 yards of the A362 towards journey's end. Also, a tree has fallen on to the sunken track just beyond the A362.
There is just over two feet of clearance if you can stoop low enough to crawl underneath, or a scramble up the bank will enable you to climb around this obstacle.
This 57 year-old took it in his stride but less athletic readers might choose to give this walk a miss.