The beautiful landscape and attractions of the North Wessex Downs
PUBLISHED: 11:55 25 July 2014 | UPDATED: 11:55 25 July 2014
The ancient landscape and some more modern attractions of the North Wessex Downs truly deserve to be celebrated, says Rose Somerset
One of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in England, the North Wessex Downs was designated an Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB) in 1972, giving it the same legal protection as National Parks. It is the largest AONB in southern England, stretching from Devizes to Reading and from Swindon to Basingstoke, encompassing well known features such as Avebury, Uffington White Horse, The Ridgeway National Trail and Watership Down.
It is an intimate landscape of quiet river valleys and sparkling chalk streams, heathland, pretty villages and ancient woodland, as well as one of wide, open spaces on the exhilarating high chalk of the Berkshire, Lambourn, Marlborough, North Hampshire and Oxfordshire Downs. Here, rolling wheat and barley fields meet chalk grassland under huge skies with panoramic views.
This stunning landscape has always had a strong connection with people, who have left their marks for more than 5,000 years; not just in the evidence of stone circles, barrows, hill forts and chalk horses, but in the way its specialist wild flowers and evocative farmland birds have evolved with our ways of living in this landscape.
Just four miles from Hungerford, Walbury Hill is something of a well-kept secret, but at 297m (just 3m short, it was once considered a mountain) it offers one of the best views of the North Wessex Downs. The highest point in Berkshire, the highest chalk hill in England (and probably the world) on a good day it gives spectacular views over seven counties.
This is a dramatic, richly sensuous landscape with characteristic high rounded summits, long, whaleback curves and steep escarpments that drop down through hanging woods into dry valleys and hidden combes – classic North Wessex Downs country. Here, a collision of ancient geography means this collection of hills faces to all points of the compass.
The steep, sheep-grazed slopes of chalk grassland have been called the ‘European equivalent of the rainforest’ and are one of the most biologically important and diverse habitats. A square metre can contain 30-40 different plant species and in summer keen eyes will spot small and Devil’s-bit scabious, bird’s-foot-trefoil, kidney vetch, rare orchids and other wonderfully named plants such as fairy flax, chalk milkwort, Lady’s bedstraw and the lovely nodding flowers of harebells. Insects abound and you may spot adonis and large blue butterflies, marsh or even dark green fritillary, silver spotted skipper and chalkhill blue as well as mining and cuckoo bees and the brown-banded carder bee.
It is an exciting place to watch birds and for good reason: Kirby Farm and the shooting estate that encompasses this range of hills is owned by Mrs Astor and managed carefully for its wildlife by gamekeeper James Sadler and Estate Manager Philip Arkel. The Estate was Highly Commended last year at the prestigious Purdey Game and Conservation Awards for its efforts to conserve and protect farmland birds and raptors, and for engaging the public in walks and talks about the Estate.
Up here, you can be eye level with a hovering kestrel, or even look down on red kite, buzzard or raven. On warm days these birds can form big turning ‘chimneys’ on the thermals off the escarpments, often numbering 30 or more outside the breeding season. The acrobatic, sociable and vocal ravens are as large as buzzards – watch for their aerial antics and listen for their distinctive ‘cronking’ calls. The quintessential song of skylarks pour down from the sky as the males rise almost vertically to a height of 80-100m before parachuting back down.
Look for movement in hedgerows, gorse and woodland margins and you might spot linnets, chaffinches and yellowhammers flitting about for food for their young. Listen for a variety of warblers like chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap and lesser whitethroat. If you’re lucky you may even catch the iconic call of the cuckoo, the increasingly rare call of the grey partridge, or the looping, bubbling song of lapwing.
On late summer evenings you may spot herds of fallow deer, roe deer with fawns at foot, brown hares, or a darting stoat, weasel or polecat. Look too, for the chalk excavations of badger setts below the woods.
Ghosts of the past
The Test Way and Wayfarers Walk run along the top of the ridgeway and at the summit, a chalk and flint track cuts through the centre of the atmospheric Iron Age Hill Fort of Walbury Camp with its steep earth banks. On mistier days it is easy to imagine those who hand built this fortification around 600BC. Pottery discovered here from that time is in Newbury Museum and the burial mounds of early Neolithic people are evident here in the round and long barrows nearby.
A more ‘modern’, ghostly monument marks the spot of a local, melancholy tale from nearly 350 years ago on the neighbouring hill. In 1676, two lovers, George Broomham from Combe and Dorothy Newman from Inkpen, would meet on the hill that rises between these two villages. But George was married and his wife, Martha, and son, Robert, discovered the lovers together on the hill – and paid the ultimate price. Stories repeated down the years tell different versions of how Martha and Robert were murdered (a poisoned ham? drowned in a dewpond?) but the most popular version is that they were brutally killed by the lovers in a crime of passion witnessed by mute villager ‘Mad Thomas’, who ran to Inkpen to convey what he had seen.
The two were tried, found guilty and hanged in Winchester and their bodies brought home and laid out in a barn at the The Crown and Garter Pub. A double gibbet was erected upon the long barrow on the border between the parishes, and the bodies hung there as a grim deterrent. They would have been visible for miles.
The story was the subject of John Schlesinger’s first black and white film, shot on location in Inkpen in 1948, casting locals as extras and starring a young Robert Hardy as Mad Thomas.
The gibbet that stands there today, made from local oak, follows a tradition of replacing this rather grisly, but well-loved landmark that was used just once.
But sit beneath it on a summer evening as the ravens swoop past, with the harebells, and all the little villages, farms and the wooded Kennet valley at your feet and it is hard to imagine the ‘unquiet slumbers’ of its ghosts, or a more benign, peaceful spot. Lie back in the soft grass and you may be tempted to stay till the stars come out in these big, dark night skies. You’ll not regret it.
To get to Walbury Hill:
Follow the signs to Inkpen and then Combe from Hungerford Common or Kintbury. There are car parks either side of the hill. Alternatively, park at The Swan Inn (from Hungerford) or The Crown and Garter (from Kintbury) where you can walk up to the ridge and return for lunch.
Treats at every turn
As you drive back down from Walbury Hill, picturesque Kintbury is regarded as one of the most beautiful villages in England. Located beside the Kennet and Avon canal, one of the few remaining horse-drawn barges can be seen at weekends during the summer pulled by Shire Cross horses. The village was likely first inhabited in the middle stone age, with evidence of Saxon and Roman settlements.
If you’d like to relax and unwind on a leisurely horse drawn barge journey through the Berkshire Countryside contact Traditional Horse Boat Experience www.kennet-horse-boat.co.uk.
Stop for a pint at The Swan Inn, Inkpen where the publican brews his own beer and rears his own beef. The owners farm 25 acres and have a microbrewery, they sell the organic beef and beer through the farm shop and you can sample both on the menu in the pub and restaurant.
Why not try the local cider brewed at Ciderniks in Kintbury? The cider is made with pure apple juice from local apples and so the mix of apples produces a distinctive taste each year.
Nearby Hungerford is famous for its antique shops and independent retailers. Just five minutes from the centre you can take a stroll or have a picnic on Freeman’s Marsh or the ancient Hungerford Common.
Why not look up at the landscape whilst cruising along the peaceful Kennet and Avon Canal on one of The Bruce Trust’s specially-designed, wide-beam canal boats?
The extra width provides excellent manoeuvrability for wheelchair users and they all have special built-in facilities for the disabled or elderly. To find out more call Rebecca Bruce on 01264 356451
Or indulge yourself at Cakes by Cocochoux, nestled in the picturesque village of Kintbury. They make beautifully hand-crafted cakes for special events. Relax with one of their sumptuous homemade cakes at their unique cake cafe. To find out more visit www.cocochoux.co.uk or call 01488 658717.
For those who would like to try something adventurous; perhaps chalk stream fishing, helicopter flights or even a morning on the gallops in the Lambourn valley, Fields of Fun (www.fieldsoffun.co.uk) offers luxury bespoke countryside breaks, events and activity days to the West Berkshire countryside.
Find out more at the area at www.northwessexdowns.org.uk.