Forest and Downs

avebury-winter-solsticeThe historic town of Marlborough lies in the Kennet Valley, within the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. To the north and west are the high chalk hills of the Marlborough Downs rising to over 500 feet, with the Ridgeway, a long distance path, running close to the northern edge. On the scarp face of the Downs figures of White Horses have been cut into the hillside exposing the chalk rock.

On the Downs there is evidence of human habitation from earliest times. Windmill Hill, near Avebury, is the largest known causewayed enclosure in England and dates from about 3,300 BC. The impressive Neolithic stone circle of Avebury of 2,700 BC predates Stonehenge by about 500 years.

The 17th century antiquarians John Aubrey and William Stukeley are responsible for initiating modern study of the Avebury monument. The detailed plan of the position of the stones, drawn by Aubrey, has proved invaluable for later archaeologists, for it contained reference to many standing stones that would soon after be destroyed by local people.

Many of the large stones at Avebury, like those at Stonehenge, are very hard sandstone, called “Sarsens”.  These Sarsen stones are found scattered over the Marlborough Downs and are locally known as “Grey Wethers”, as from a distance they looked like sheep; ‘Wethers’ being the Old English word for sheep. Fyfeld Down is famous for its Grey Wethers and a walk to the Devil’s Den (Dolman) takes in beautiful countryside.  Another impressive group of stones can be seen in Lockeridge Dene to the west of Marlborough. The AONB website www.northwessexdowns.org.uk has a new list of walks. The ten easy routes can be reached by bus from the North Wiltshire and Swindon area and take in spectacular landscapes.

Close to Avebury is the West Kennett Long Barrow, signposted off the A4, and Silbury Hill clearly visible from the road; both of which are well worth a visit, although climbing Silbury Hill is not permitted. It continues to be a tantalizing mystery as it is not a burial mound like the many small round Bronze Age barrows in the Marlborough area, but is the largest earthwork in Europe.

The Wansdyke is a long deep linear earthwork to the west and south of Marlborough.  A spectacular section at Walkers Hill, above the Vale of Pewsey, can be accessed by a short walk from the car park on the Lockeridge to Alton Barnes road. Today many visitors come in the summer to view the phenomena of “crop circles” which appear on farmland around Marlborough and regular updates are made on www.temporarytemples.co.uk/ Please always seek permission from landowners before accessing them and abide by the Crop Circle Code of Conduct.

William the Conqueror made Savernake Forest a Royal Forest and it was much more extensive in those days, including West Woods to the west of Marlborough. The Royal Forest was administered by a series of hereditary Wardens, frstly by the Esturmys, with this Office passing by marriage to the Seymours. The Seymours lived at Wulfhall on the southern edge of the forest and it was the home of Jane Seymour, who in 1536 married Henry VIII. Jane died soon after giving birth to their son Edward, the future Edward VI.  The present Wardens are the Brudenell-Bruce family who can trace their ancestry back to the Conquest.

One of the oldest trees in the forest is the Big Bellied Oak beside A346, south of Marlborough and Cadley. There are many other old and named trees in Savernake; guides and books can be found locally in the High Street. Savernake Forest with its beech, oak, ash and chestnut trees makes a wonderful backdrop to the picnic, barbeque and camping sites which are popular with visitors throughout the year. To book a site ring 0845 130 8224 or go to www.campingintheforest.co.uk

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