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Taking a walk down by the canal around Hamstead Marshall

PUBLISHED: 11:08 19 June 2014 | UPDATED: 11:08 19 June 2014

The route crosses the River Kennet at the end of the walk © Steve Davison

The route crosses the River Kennet at the end of the walk © Steve Davison

© Steve Davison

Steve Davison leads the way on an easy 4½ mile walk exploring the area around Hamstead Marshall in West Berkshire on the edge of the North Wessex Downs

Hamstead Marshall

Population: Approx 270

OS grid ref: SU 4165.

Most famous for: Medieval heritage including three motte-and-bailey castle sites (on private land); cottages dating from 16th century, listed buildings and gate piers.

Landmarks: Dogs Trust; White Hart Inn; St Mary’s Church

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Walk Summary

Start/finish: limited roadside parking beside the Kennet and Avon Canal at Hamstead Lock, ¾ mile south off the A4 to the west of Newbury; grid ref SU423670

Map: OS Explorer 158

Distance: 4½ miles (7.2km)

Terrain: stiles and gates, easy climbs, paths, tracks and country lanes

Time: 2¼ hours (excluding stops)

Refreshments: Hamstead Marshall – The White Hart Inn (01488 657485)

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The first part of the walk this month heads west alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal that opened in 1810. On the way there are a few old Second World War pillboxes that once formed part of Britain’s defences against a possible German invasion. In addition to the main coastal defences, a series of barriers, known as General Headquarters Anti-Tank Lines or ‘GHQ Stop Lines’, were devised. These utilised both existing natural obstacles such as rivers and marshland and also man-made ones including canals and railway embankments, supplemented by a range of pillboxes, gun emplacements, anti-tank ditches, and other obstacles. The Kennet and Avon Canal became GHQ Stop Line Blue stretching from Semington near Bradford-on-Avon to Theale, just west of Reading. Fortunately, the defences were never put to the test.

After crossing the canal at Shepherd’s Bridge the route heads across open fields to reach Hamstead Marshall, home to The White Hart Inn, Elm Farm Organic Research Centre and a Dogs Trust home for dogs; the original part of the village lies to the north close to the banks of the River Kennet. The village dates back to at least Saxon times, although the first written evidence appears in the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was held by a Norman called Hugolin the Steersman. Hamstead’s importance started to grow in the early twelfth century when it became the seat of John Marshal (d.1165) who was given the hereditary title of Earl Marshal, one of the King’s important military officers.

The manor passed through a succession of owners and in the early seventeenth century the manor was acquired by the Craven family. In 1661 the 1st Earl of Craven commissioned the Dutch architect, Sir Balthazar Gerbier, to design and build a grand mansion. Unfortunately the house was short lived as it was burnt to the ground in 1718 and never rebuilt, all that remains of the once vast mansion are eight pairs of elaborate gateposts standing in the open fields. The adjacent St Mary’s Church, parts of which date from the twelfth century, with later medieval additions and a fine red-brick Berkshire tower added around 1622, houses a memorial to the architect.

From the church it’s a short walk back to the start.

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1 (SU423670) – From Hamstead Lock head west along the Kennet and Avon Canal towpath towards Kintbury for just over 1½ miles passing Copse Lock and Dreweat’s Lock. On reaching Shepherd’s Bridge turn left across the canal. Here the path splits, take the left fork over the stile and head up Irish Hill keeping close to the right-hand field edge. Cross the stile at the top and continue along the track to a cross junction. Keep ahead to enter a field and continue is the same direction down across the field passing a tree mid-field. Cross the stile and go through the trees to a road.

2 (SU403665) – Continue straight on along Old Lane and where this bends to the right go over a stile on the left. Follow the waymarked path across the fields ignoring crossing tracks to reach a stile at the corner of a wood. Keep ahead across the next field aiming just left of the house to reach a stile. Turn right along the lane to a T-junction and then left following the road through Hamstead Marshall for 300m – there is no pavement, so please take care while following the road – to reach a track on the left opposite the Elm Farm Organic Research Centre; 50m further on is The White Hart Inn.

3 (SU413654) – Turn left on the track (bridleway), soon passing between farm buildings. Keep ahead for 650m between the fields and go through the gate next to seat. Cross over Park Lane and follow the signed path up the bank to go through a kissing gate. Go up across the field heading northwards, go through another gate and follow a grassy track; on the right is a fence and then an earth ditch and bank referred to as a Park Pale – the remains of a medieval deer-park boundary.

4 (SU418663) – On drawing level with the trees on the right, bear half-left and head northwards across the field aiming for the church. On the way passing two pairs of gate-piers, all that remains of Hamstead’s once grand mansion. Cross a stile and pass another pair of gate-piers to reach a footpath sign in front of the churchyard wall; to visit St Mary’s Church go through the gate in the brick wall and retrace steps back to footpath sign. Stand facing the church and turn right (east) along the track, later bearing down to the left. Turn left along the driveway and leave through a kissing gate before turning right along the road past Hamstead Mill and cross the bridge over the picturesque River Kennet back to the start.

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More Information

To find out more about Steve, including information on his walking guides and recent book about the North Wessex Downs, visit: www.steve-davison.co.uk

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Find out more about Hamstead Marshall

This is a small village with a fascinating story, reflecting much of England’s history from the arrival of the Romans to the modern day conflicts of rural life and development. Penelope Stokes has written an excellent book, ‘Craven Cottage the history of Hamstead Marshall’, recording life there across the centuries. See www.hamsteadmarshall.net/history/cc.pdf

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About The White Hart

The 16th century White Hart is the perfect watering hole with a fine selection of drinks including local guest ales from the likes of West Berkshire Brewery.

The food choice is excellent, with light bites from sandwiches and snacks up to classic dishes. As we have a nautical touch this month, Friday is a good day to visit when The White Hart offers ‘Catch of the Day’ specials featuring the freshest fish and treats like moules and frites.

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