North Wessex Downs Area of
Outstanding Natural Beauty
The beauty of the Marlborough area’s countryside is clear to visitors and residents alike – so it is not too surprising to discover that Marlborough lies at the heart of the western section of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or AONB.
An AONB is officially designated solely for the quality of the area’s landscape. There are 37 AONBs in England covering fifteen per cent of the land.
They are officially recognised for a single, straightforward purpose: to conserve and enhance their natural beauty – which includes their landform and geology, their plants and animals, their landscape features and their rich history of human settlement over the centuries.
In area, the North Wessex Downs AONB is equivalent to a small county. It nudges up to the edge of several large and medium sized towns: Basingstoke, Newbury, Reading, Didcot, Swindon, Calne, Devizes and Andover.
“Marlborough”, Henry Oliver, Director of the North Wessex Downs AONB, told Marlborough News Online, “is one of the gems of the North Wessex Downs.”
“This 700-square mile sweep of country was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty 40 years ago to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the chalk downland, vales and villages between Devizes and the Thames.”
"Larger towns like Swindon and Newbury were understandably not included in the AONB which exists to protect rural landscape. But the smaller, historic settlements of Marlborough, Hungerford and Pewsey are very important landmarks within the area."
And as Henry Oliver acknowledges, Marlborough makes a good centre point for tourists and visitors: “Marlborough is surrounded by gorgeous walking and cycling country. There is so much to explore in the Marlborough Downs, Savernake Forest and West Woods.”
“Marlborough is also a good starting point for visiting the stunning 5,000-year-old landscapes of Avebury and Silbury Hill.”
The North Wessex Downs AONB is shaped a bit like a very fat ‘C’. At the north-west point of the ‘C’ the River Thames runs south through the Goring Gap. At the south-west point of the ‘C’ lies Watership Down – home to Richard Adams’ famous rabbit families.
In the fat, easterly bit of the ‘C’ lies the Marlborough area. And it’s here you will find one of the country’s richest array of Neolithic monuments and remains.
There are two Bronze Age mounds: Silbury Hill is the largest prehistoric artificial mound in Europe. Recent research has proved that the mound in the (private) grounds of Marlborough College is from the same era as Silbury and is now known as ‘Silbury’s little sister’. If Silbury had its henge at Avebury and the Marden mound (now vanished) had its henge, could there the henge for Marlborough’s mound be lying hidden under Marlborough High Street?
Besides Silbury and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Avebury, the area has a rich list of Neolithic remains: West Kennet Long Barrow, the causewayed enclosure of Windmill Hill, Knap Hill, and ancient forts from the massive site at Barbury to the lesser one at Martinsell Hill south of Marlborough.
There are two major waterways running through the centre of the AONB – the River Kennet and the Kennet and Avon Canal. The River is a much-cherished chalk stream that attracts fishermen, nature lovers and is looked after by volunteer conservationists of Action for the River Kennet (ARK).
The Canal is an engineering masterpiece 87 miles long built between 1794 and 1810 to link the Bristol Avon and the Thames at Reading. The canal is now looked after by a charity – the Canal and River Trust.
The closest the canal runs to Marlborough is the wharf at Pewsey and the locks at Wootton Rivers. A little further away, at Devizes there are the 27 locks of the Caen Hill ‘staircase’ which raise the canal 237 feet over two miles.
One of the canal’s most important attractions is the pumping station at Crofton where some of the oldest steam engines pumped water 400 feet up to the canal from the River Kennet.
The area is served by mainline rail links and the M4 motorway which both snake their way through the countryside largely hidden from view. There’s a very much older route-way through the AONB: the Ridgway’s 85 miles have been walked and ridden along for at least 5,000 years.
It is thought the Ridgway was part of a route that connected the Dorset coast to the Norfolk coast. Today it is well used by locals and visitors for long hikes or short walks with plenty of wildlife to watch for along the way – not to mention the wonderful views.
The AONB organisation encourages and supports conservation schemes such as the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area (north of Marlborough) and the current initiative to bring the stone curlew back into the area.
Within the North Wessex Downs AONB there are 66 Sites of Special Scientific Interest – among them is the ancient royal hunting forest of Savernake which includes some of the country’s finest and oldest oak trees.
Visitors should not forget that one of the AONB’s main industries is agriculture – and the chalk down land and valleys give a variety of farming and a patchwork of fields that add much to its beauty.
Local AONB partnerships, led by local authorities and including a large number of interested organisations, are dedicated to the conservation of these nationally important areas. They also work to strengthen local rural economies in a sensitive and sustainable way.
One of its key areas of influence is its attention to planning applications – especially for the larger housing developments that can blight a view across the landscape or obtrude onto important sites within the AONB.
AONB staff teams are funded mainly by local authorities and the government’s Countryside Agency and are based locally to co-ordinate and deliver action on the ground.
The AONB provides a useful glossary of words you will find in local guide books and histories of the area:
Barrow/Long Barrow: A prehistoric earth mound, built up over a burial site. The earliest versions, dating back as far as 5,000 BC were elongated – ‘long barrows’. From 4,000 BC to about 10AD circular barrows were also built.
Causeway enclosures: A type of large prehistoric earthwork common to the early Neolithic period. They are often on hilltop sites and comprise a roughly circular ditch, segmented by several causeways which cross it. Within the ditch is a central area used for burials and cremations, usually covered beneath a barrow.
Chalk Downlands: A downland is an undulating upland area of open chalk often covered by short-cropped grass. This confusing word – where ‘down’ now means ‘up’ – is derived from the old English word ‘dun’ meaning a hill.
Drovers’ routes: National routes once used to take animals to markets which were often hundreds of miles away.
Henge: A Neolithic monument surrounded by a bank and ditch and encompassing a circle of stones. Their exact purpose is unknown, but they probably served a ceremonial purpose.
Wessex was the kingdom of the West Saxons established in Hampshire in the early 6th century and gradually extended by conquest to include much of southern England. The name was revived in the 19th century by the writer Thomas Hardy to cover the south-western counties of England in which he set his novels.