The Lambourn Valley & The Wessex Downs

 Link to GPX File of the Route

This ride takes you from Newbury into the green valley of the River Lambourn, a classic chalk stream, which starts near Lambourn village and joins the Kennet in Newbury. At Great Shefford it turns north and climbs towards the open, arable, upland of the North Wessex Downs. You then have a 7 mile roller coaster ride along the hilltops with great views, before returning downhill back to Newbury, passing through villages set in the more wooded terrain of the lower lower eastern slopes.

This peaceful countryside has been settled for millennia and vestiges of the inhabitants and their farming, from the bronze age through medieval times to the Victorians, can still be found. It is all on roads which, outside of busy Newbury, are small and quiet.

Highlights are:

  • The watermills and (probably!) medieval water meadows of the Lambourn, a classic chalk country stream. Creating and maintaining these is more complicated than you might imagine.

  • The exhilarating ride over the hilltops which have been farmed since the stone age, with the unique features of chalk landscapes such as the dry valleys and open grasslands

  • A wonderful variety of English vernacular buildings going back over 600 years.

  • One of the best cafes on any of my routes, the ‘Community Cafe’ at Hampstead Norreys

  • Plus the usual bunch of oddities.

If you are interested, you can find a lot of general information on what has shaped this landscape from pre-history to the present day, elsewhere on this blog. Check this page: Link  Other Stuff

Route Tips

If your app provides notes on the road surfaces etc. keep in mind that they are automatically generated and only as good as the underlying mapping. The road surfaces on this trip are OK but watch out for any potholes of you are hurtling down the slopes! 

Zooming Out

Most of the bedrock hereabouts is chalk, which comes to the surface near the scarp, Chalk is porous so you won’t see many rivers on the high ground. The empty valleys that you can see there, were cut by streams during the ice ages, when the ground was frozen so the water couldn’t percolate away.

Sometimes you also get winterbournes which are streams that only usually flow in winter. Springs appear when the water table coincides with the surface so, in a dry summer, when the level of water table falls they only appear lower down the valley. There is one, conveniently called the Winterbourne, flowing into the Lambourn at Bagnor, just outside Newbury.

Even though the soils on the higher ground are thin, much of it is now devoted to growing crops such as wheat, barley and rape. In the past, even in the Stone Age, you would have seen more livestock and in particular sheep. The banked enclosures are a legacy of their occupation and although we call them hillforts, many of the smaller ones in particular might have simply been seasonal settlements. Maybe the weather was wetter then, but now the opportunities for grazing are limited by a lack of water and trees don’t tend to thrive on the alkaline, chalky soils.

Further down the dip slope, the soils, while still thin, cover flinty clay, which adds bit of acid to the mix and suits them better. In the early stone age, there was probably a lot more woodland but much of this was cleared by early farmers, exposing the soils to erosion and degradation. The original and probably thin tree cover here would have been among the earliest to be cleared in England. Later, it might have been scrubland.

Sheep farming in particular continued throughout, until the need for more food during the World Wars led to a conversion of a lot of land to arable use. The grassy character of some of the grazing is, Since the myxomatosis outbreak some fifty years ago, some of it is now reverting to scrub. On the hillside, the area around Hampstead Norreys is blessed with both water and fertile, non-acid soils. If it looks prosperous that is because it is and always been! Lots of Roman litter has been found around here.

Moving down the slope, the valleys provided shelter and access to fresh water. (You can sink a well on the hills, but it isn’t easy). Around the rivers, the alluvial and gravely soils and gravels are quite fertile so this was where settlement has been concentrated since Roman times, although they did have a Temple and graveyard on Roden Down, north of Compton.

A.  Newbury 

Heading north from the station, you cross the Kennet on the Town Bridge. Built in the 1770’s, it is the oldest of several in Newbury. When the river was canalised a few years later, there was no room for a towpath so the draw horses were released and a line used to pull the barge through. You can still see the grooves in the stonework caused by the lines under the bridge.

This takes you onto Northbrook Street which is semi-pedestrianised. Then you navigate your departure from the town through Speen.

Town Bridge, Newbury

B. Speen 

Speen was on the  old Roman Road 'Ermine Street' whicb became the coaching route from Bristol to London. For a long time it was lined with hostelries and even a theatre. The most famous Inn was the George and Pelican , which reputedly had stabling for 300 horses. Nelson was a frequent visitor when visiting his Father in Bath. I can't have been cheap, a rhyme of the time read:

The famous inn at Speenhamland, 

That stands below the hill, 

May well be called the 'Pelican'  

From its enormous bill.  

It closed after the railways ended the era of the stage coach, and its site is now occupied by an estate agent; Jackson-Stops & Staff. What an ignominious end!

The social historians among you might also know Speen as the origin of the ‘Speenhamland’ system. The magistrates, meeting in the George & Pelican, This was a change to the Poor Laws during the Napoleonic Wars, which played a part in the history of the Welfare State. 

The idea was that, when bread prices rose, the Parish would top-up the assistance offered to the poor. This caught on elsewhere particularly after the Swing Riots which I covered in my notes on Greenham Common route. Sadly it was later abandoned, partly because unscrupulous employers started paying their labourers less, on the basis that the Parish would make up the deficit and keep them from starving.

A Diversion ? 

If you like old castles and have an interest in the Civil War in particular, your map will direct you to the substantial ruins of Donnington Castle about a mile north of Speen. More information here: Link  Donnington Castle

C. The Lambourn Valley

After you go under the Newbury By Pass, you head up along the Lambourn Valley.

The River Lambourn is a tributary of the River Kennet which it joins to the East of Newbury. The valley was settled from the Stone Ages onwards, but while this has left plenty of meat for the archaeologists to chew on, there is little that can be seen from the saddle!

It is a classic lowland chalk river and the valley has a lot of water meadows, many of which are no longer used, together with woodland and soggy pastures. You can find Trout and Grayling in the river and, if you are a twitcher which I am not, kingfishers, water rails and green sandpipers. These water meadows probably go back to medieval times when they were valued for rich grazing. There is more to maintaining them than you might think. Complicated drainage arrangements prevented them entirely flooding or drying out and it is the labour involved that often leads to their abandonment. 

The stream also powered several water mills. At Bagnor, the Mill is now a theatre. There is another at Weston and another in Boxford, just off the route and worth a quick detour.

You turn away from the river at Great Shefford but beyond that it is a classic chalk ‘winterbourne’ i.e. it only flows when the water table is higher in the colder months.

Looking sideways and up the valley sides, the arable landscape is relatively featureless, having been enclosed and then ‘rationalised’ from the early 1800’s onwards. In truth, this isn’t the greatest farming country. The soil on chalk is usually thin, stony and alkaline. Most of the settlement seems to have been in the hamlets with open fields on the hillsides and common grazing in the lower meadows.

The oldest buildings you see are frequently timber framed. From the 1700’s onwards brick became more popular, and was sometimes combined with flint. This is easily found thereabouts and very durable, but fiddly to build with and the irregular shape of the stones means a lot of bedding mortar is needed. You might also see some ‘chalk cob’ which is a compot of chalk, gravel, straw, clay and just about anything else that can be found and often then covered with a lime plaster. To my mind it looks like hundred year old rice pudding.

Chalk Cob

There used to be a railway line, running on the south side of the river as far as Boxford and then on the north side to Great Shefford and on to Lambourn. It closed in 1973. Plenty of the cuttings, bridges and embankments remain.

D. Welford

About a mile up the hill on you right from Welford, is a former RAF base that is now one of America’s biggest munitions dumps in Europe. There might be anything up to a million tons of explosives there. (Amusingly, if you travel east between junctions 13 and 14 of the M4 you will see an exit marked ‘Works Unit Only’. Now you know what works they are talking about! Just don’t tell Vlad).

Welford village is small. There is a manor built in the 1600’s whose current claim to fame is as a location for the ‘Great British Bake Off’. 

Bake Off at Welford Manor

E. Great Shefford

You head up and away from the Lambourn Valley here and after two miles turn right towards Farnborough. If you feel the need, Butts Brewery is about half way to the turn off. They specialise in organic ales.

F.  The Lambourn Downs

For more on the how this downland landscape changed and developed over time, see my post here: Enter the Flintstones   They were quite well-populated from very early times, when extensive tree clearance in the Stone and Bronze ages probably lead to the depletion of the soils. 

A quick perusal of the OS Map reveals that this is no ordinary downland landscape. The hills to the East look like the crop-circle aliens had a field day. These are the race horse ‘gallops’. Most are some distance to the West of this route but there are several to the North of the road after you pass Farnborough. Frankly, they look more impressive on the map! This are the biggest training facilities outside Newmarket with hundreds of horses and many miles of track of all types.

The Work of Aliens

There are several villages on this part of the route, none particularly noteworthy. The poet John Betjeman lived in the rectory at Farnborough and is remembered in a window in the Church.  

West and East Isley are candidates for the location of the Battle of Ashdown where, in January 871 AD, King Aethelred and his younger brother, the future King Alfred, managed a home win over a Danish Army. We have more detail on the fight than the exact location. The chroniclers give Alfred a lot of the credit but it sounds as if the late arrival of Aethelred tipped the balance. Apparently he didn’t want to curtail his praying, an excuse for tardiness which you might think merited a raised eyebrow from our Alf. For all you gamers out there, I gather than the battle featured in Assassins Creed Valhalla.

Assassins Creed Valhalla

G. Compton

Compton is more substantial and has been settled for a very long time. As you head south from there after about a mile you pass under Cow Down where there is an old hill fort and apparently traces of ancient field systems. (I couldn’t see them!). A lot of Roman detritus has been found as well. The thin soils might not have discouraged the ancient farmers too much, they were at least easier to plough.

Much later, the area provided temporary camps for both sides in the Civil War, with Charles ! staying in the village. I do wonder why these armies through the ages, chose to congregate on a windy hillside not overly blessed with water sources.

Compton Railway Station 

The village was also on a railway line, joining Didcot and Newbury. I never cease to be amazed by the sheer extent of the late Victorian railway system but in this case feel rather sorry for the old tank engines, having to climb Blewbury Down. The line was closed in 1962 but some of the station buildings are still there and easy enough to find on the East side of the village. (It is on a footpath). From here, we shadow the route of the old railway back towards Newbury. 

H. Hampstead Norreys

Coming off the hills, the soils as the thin, calcareous soils are increasing replaced by more more gravel, sand and loam; as you can see from the farming.

You have to try the Community Shop in the village. Owned by the residents, it has got to be the poshest of the type I have ever seen. Seating inside and outside and good food. Fancy a Wild Boar and Stilton burger? Apparently they have ‘plastic free champion status’ and a refill milk machine but, honestly, I was more impressed with the range of booze & cake.

You will also see signs for the Living Rainforest. This isn’t too beguiling, being a glasshouse with tropical plants & birds and whatnot and aimed at kids.

The town used to have an RAF base, home to Wellington Bombers in WW2. But it is is difficult to see the little that’s left of this unless you want to divert from the route from the route, past the Rainforest and then left to Haw Farm. But, for all of you Biggles fans, I gather they still fly a Tiger Moth from there sometimes.

The Haw Farm Tiger Moth 
I. Hermitage

The name is more alluring than the reality. This appears to be an upmarket suburb of Newbury! Maybe it wasn’t when D H Lawrence lived here in Chapel Lane Cottage in Chapel Lane. I haven’t looked for it. Again, the area has been a settlement for a long time, with Roman remains and an Iron Age hill fort (Grimsby Castle) in the woods to the south. A short diversion will allow you to cycle through if you wish; but our route here continues following the old railway line into Newbury.

An Epilogue 

Upper Lambourne :  John Betjeman 

 Up the ash tree climbs the ivy,

Up the ivy climbs the sun,

With a twenty-thousand pattering,

Has a valley breeze begun,

Feathery ash, neglected elder,

Shift the shade and make it run -

Shift the shade toward the nettles,

And the nettles set it free,

To streak the stained Carrara headstone,

Where, in nineteen-twenty-three,

He who trained a hundred winners,

Paid the Final Entrance Fee.

Leathery limbs of Upper Lambourne,

Leathery skin from sun and wind,

Leathery breeches, spreading stables,

Shining saddles left behind -

To the down the string of horses

Moving out of sight and mind.

Feathery ash in leathery Lambourne

Waves above the sarsen stone,

And Edwardian plantations

So coniferously moan

As to make the swelling downland,

Far surrounding, seem their own.


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