Berkshire walk - East Isley and the Berkshire Downs
PUBLISHED: 09:37 03 February 2015 | UPDATED: 15:03 05 October 2017
© Steve Davison
Head to East Ilsley for a breath of fresh air whilst enjoying views across the rolling Berkshire Downs that lie within the picturesque North Wessex Downs area of outstanding natural beauty; Steve Davison leads the way
Our walk this month is based around East Ilsley, tucked in the rolling Berkshire Downs just to the east of the busy A34. The village, once famed for its sheep fairs, had been an important trading centre since the thirteenth century and East Ilsley’s Fair was established through a charter granted by Henry III; a second Royal Charter was granted by James I in 1620. The last fair was held in 1934, although the village has recently started holding an annual Sheep Fair which, this year, will be held on the 7th June 2015.
Beside the parking area at the start of the walk is a small memorial stone and plaque that commemorates the sheep fairs. There’s also an old milestone from the days of the Newbury to Oxford turnpike road (a forerunner of today’s A34) that ran through the village. The milestone, dated 1776, mentions that its 9 miles to Newbury, 11 to Abingdon and 17 to Oxford.
From the High Street the walk heads along Broad Street home to The Hall and Kennet House, two impressive early eighteenth-century houses, before turning left down to the picturesque duck pond. A short detour up Church Street leads to St Mary’s Church. The church, which dates from the 12th century, is claimed to have one of the finest peals of eight bells in Berkshire. The church’s original clock, which had no face and only rang on the hour, was reputedly made by a local blacksmith in 1627 and is now housed in the Museum of History and Science in Oxford.
The walk then heads along tracks and rises up over East Ilsley Down to meet the Ridgeway; this long distance national trail follows tracks that have been used for millennia from near Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns. It’s at this point that you have to decide whether to opt for the shorter 3.5 mile walk or continue with the longer, 6 mile walk.
The longer walk heads north across Compton Down – views include the Chilterns and the twin, tree-crowned, tops of the Wittenham Clumps – and then crosses the former Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway. The line opened in the 1880’s and the station at nearby Compton became an important centre for the transportation of sheep to and from East Ilsley; the line closed in 1960’s.
After re-crossing the railway, the walk follows the Ridgeway back up Compton Down to meet up with the shorter walk from where it’s a gentle walk following gallops back to East Ilsley.
• Population: Approx 500
• OS Grid Reference: SU492811
• Most famous for: Once the second largest sheep market after Smithfield; racehorse training
• Landmarks: Picturesque duck pond, St Mary’s Church
• Start/finish: roadside parking along the High Street (one way system) in East Ilsley just off the A34 to the north of Newbury; grid ref SU492811
• Map: OS Explorer 170
• Distance: 6 miles (9.7km) or 3.5 miles (5.4km)
• Terrain: no gates or stiles, some ups and downs, tracks, lanes and roads
• Time: 2.75 or 1.5 hours (excluding stops)
• Refreshments: East Ilsley – The Swan (01635 281238) and The Crown and Horns (01635 281545)
1 (SU492811) – From the roadside parking area (just south of The Swan and The Crown and Horns beside the small memorial stone and milestone on the east side of the road) head up the High Street for a short way. Turn left along Broad Street passing Kennet House (left) and The Hall (right) to a junction; 100m up Church Hill to the right is St Mary’s Church. Turn down to the left and just before the pond turn right along Haydon Lane. At its end keep ahead along the track for 800m to a track junction. Turn left and soon cross straight over the road.
2 (SU503810) – Follow the track opposite up East Ilsley Down. At the four-way junction keep ahead (second left) along the enclosed grassy track to reach the Ridgeway (concrete track); here the short and long walks go separate ways.
• Short Walk: turn left along the Ridgeway to Point 4.
• Longer Walk: cross straight over the Ridgeway and follow the track down Compton Downs, passing horse gallops and enjoying the views that stretch out across the rolling landscape. Pass a small barn and continue along the track to cross a bridge over the disused railway.
3 (SU510832) – At the T-junction beside a cottage turn right and follow the concrete track for three quarters of a mile, passing a large barn on the way. At the end of the concrete track dogleg right and keep ahead along the grassy track with trees on the left to a path junction at the end of the trees. Turn right along a path following the field edge on the right to rejoin the Ridgeway. Turn right along the track soon re-crossing the railway via another bridge. Continue uphill to a crossing concrete track and turn right, soon passing the junction where the two walks split, to reach a belt of trees on the left.
4 (SU506822) – Both walks: from the trees – where the concrete tracks ends – follow the Ridgeway north-westwards for 400m keeping to the track as it curves left and then turn left along a byway (track). Follow the track gently downhill with a gallop on the right. At the road (Cow Lane) turn right (take care as there is no pavement for a while). Keep right at the first junction (pond to the left) and at the next junction, beside The Crown and Horns, turn left up the High Street with The Swan on the right back to the start.h further courses organised for 24 February, 26 March and others to follow in the summer.