The Barrow Downs
This is ‘figure of eight’ tour of the Western end of the Wessex Downs and includes famous neolithic sites. It starts from Hungerford on the River Kennet and heads over the interfluve between that and the River Lambourn before heading up the chalk hills towards the scarp. South of the Lambourn, the landscape is more wooded and mixed farming predominates. North of it there are open vistas; the few trees you see were probably planted as windbreaks. Going right back to the Neolithic, this used to be sheep country. In King Alfred’s time it was ‘West Wales’. Now, the dominant land use now is probably race horse training gallops. Most of the route is on minor roads with several long but not steep climbs. The exception is where it follows the Ridgeway along the hilltops so there is the alternative of a lower route which avoids the Ridgeway but is longer.
Hungerford. Charles II effectively negotiated his surrender of England to Prince William of Orange in the Bear Pub. Port Down is a landscape archaeologist’s dream.
The Dry Valleys. Unique to chalk hills.
The Gallops above Lambourn
The Ridgeway : Ride the oldest road in England.
Waylands Smithy: Release your inner Flintstone! A Neolithic Tomb you can go into. And come out of.
Uffington White Horse: Best seen from the valley route.
Seven Barrows. There are actually more then 40.
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. At the point near the scarp where the road north intersects with the Ridgeway, the mapped route uses the latter. I tried the rough stone surface of the Ridgeway once, on a titanium road bike. It was not difficult, but the going was slow and tiring. I thought that the reward of brilliant views and a visit to Waylands Smithy and the hillfort was adequate reward. You might not. In which case you can descend to follow a road below the hills before suffering the steep climb back up near Kingston Lisle. At least that way you get a decent view of the Uffington White Horse!
The poet Edward Thomas (the bloke who wrote ‘Adlestrop’) wrote about the Lambourn Downs that “there is something oceanic in their magnitude, their solitude... flowing on and on”. That would have been in the early 1900’s, but they haven’t changed that much since.
Geologically, this is the limit of the London Basin and as I am sure you know, the Downs are all chalk, albeit covered by clay in the valleys. All the classic features of chalk downland are here. You will see many 'dry' valleys. Chalk is usually both porous and permeable so in normal circumstances water sinks through it easily when where there is no covering of clay. But valleys would be cut by streams in the ice ages when the ground was frozen. When the world warmed up, these vanished. A great example is the Manger, next to the White Horse, which you can only really see if you take the lower route. Apparently this is where the White Horse goes to feed! Note the fluted sides of the dry valley. This is caused by the ice penetrating the chalk, freezing and fracturing the chalk to the extent that it comes adrift and slumps down the hillside.
Sometimes you also get winterbournes. These are streams that only appear in winter. They emerge as springs when and where the water table coincides with the surface. In a dry summer, the level of that water table falls, for instance in a dry summer, that upper reaches of the spring dries up and it re-appears lower down the valley. One flows into the Lambourn at Bagnor, just outside Newbury. It is conveniently called the Winterbourne.
Evidence suggests that these downs have been open for a very long time. There is some debate about whether they were ever covered in trees, but it is generally agreed that what cover there was, seems to have been cleared early in the Stone Age. From then on, the Downs probably had more of a scrub covering. The spring turf and cropped grass seen nowadays might be relatively recent and a product of close grazing, not least by rabbits. In any event, the light, thin and well drained soils on the chalk seem to lend themselves to wheat and barley.
The hills have always been well used, witness the cornucopia of pre-Roman remains, but they have never been densely populated. Even though the climate might have been wetter at times, in chalk country the lack of water is invariably a major deterrent, so most of the settlement was in the valleys.
The Gallops which are now a dominant feature of the area, can be traced back to the 1700’s and are now second only to Newmarket as a place to train racehorses.
A pleasant place with a long history and stuffed with quotidian eccentricities.
The name might have come from a Danish warlord called Hingwar who it is claimed drowned there in 869 A.D. I am not convinced, but the character is real enough. Also known as Ivar the Boneless, he was lauded in the Sagas but dammed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for having tied King Edmund the Martyr (as in ‘Bury Saint Edmunds’) to a tree and used him for archery practice after he was captured and refused to renounce Christ.
|King Eddie cops it.
Being conveniently placed on routes east & west, Hungerford attracted many visitors. Mainly armed.
In 1688 William of Orange, later William III, landed at Brixham in Devon, and travelled with his army towards London, hoping to gather support for his cause along the way. King James II sent commissioners to meet him at the Bear Inn at Hungerford. Maybe he didn’t realise it was a Greene King pub. Anyway, plans were made for the throne of England to pass to William.
You might expect that if Hungerford wanted to actively commemorate something, it would have been this critical juncture in the ‘Glorious Revolution’. But no! At a feast called Hocktide, long forgotten in most places, they recall the defeat of Ivar by the Saxons. It must have morphed over the centuries but as it stands selected locals known as the ‘Tutti Men’, equipped with poles with flowers, go through the streets collecting kisses from the ladies and receiving oranges in return. Then follows the normal boozing, dancing and whatnot. From the photos that I have seen of recent celebrations, it might well be the same blokes doing the rounds.
|Tutti Men 1947
The Town’s taste for arcana doesn’t stop there. For centuries the town has been organised around a commoners court headed by a Constable assisted by those Tutti Men, a Port-Reeve, Bailiffs, Overseers of Port Down i.e. the Common), the Keepers of the Keys of the Common Coffer, two 'Testers' of Ale (I want that job”) ), and the Bellman. Sadly there seems to be no more use for the tasters of Flesh and Fish and the Searchers and Sealers of Leather.
The setting helps. It scarcely gets a mention on the Domesday Book, but developed several hundred years later and since then has kept much of medieval street plan. Houses along the High Street occupy long and narrow strips of land running perpendicular to the street called ‘Burgage Plots’. It looks quite dramatic from the air.
B. Lambourn Valley
The River Lambourn is a tributary of the River Kennet which it joins to the East of Newbury. The route follows its upper reaches where the river is a ‘Winterbourne’, It often only flows in the cooler months when the underlying water table is higher. You will notice that a lot of the small valleys feeding into it are also dry. (Further downstream, where the flow is permanent, the valley is more fecund with water meadows). You can find a bit more on the unique chalk hill landscapes generally on my blog post: (Link) Chalk Landscapes Post
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.
|Upper Lambourn Valley in Spring
Notwithstanding it has been farmed for a very long time. Aerial photos and other clues reveal the bumps and patterns in the fields that are the tell-tale signs of extensive field systems from Roman times, long-deserted hamlets and the terraced ‘strip lynchets’ of medieval farming. Little of all this can be seen from the bike though.
The oldest buildings you see are frequently timber framed. From the 1700’s onwards, brick became more popular. Sometimes it was combined with flint which is easily found hereabouts. This is 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’, a kind of local builders bubble & squeak, often covered with a lime plaster.
There used to be a railway line from Newbury to Lambourn, running on the north side of the river The route is clear on the OS Map. It closed in 1973. Plenty of the cuttings, bridges and embankments remain.
Lambourn is a lively little place with a small but perfectly formed market under the Market Cross (where else!) on Fridays. It has been a local centre for quite some time, witness the church in the town centre, which dates back to the 1100’s.
For a long time, it’s claim to fame has been as a centre for training race horses, an activity that stretches back to aristocratic landowners in the 1700’s who were nuts about racing and hunting. Now, there are over thirty training bases and studs. Take a look at the strange shapes across the hills on the OS Map. At first glance it looks as if the crop-circle aliens have been having some fun. In fact these are the ‘gallops’, making the most of the springy downland turf. Together they are only second to Newmarket, with hundreds of horses and many miles of track of all types.
|An unfortunate error?
Lambourn has an online museum. Nice idea and very well put-together. I wish more places would do that. It would make researching these routes so much easier. You can find it at (link) Lambourn Virtual Museum
D. Ashdown House
This was built in 1662 and was the ‘seat’ of Earl Craven and his descendants who rank highly among the aristocrats mentioned in the Lambourn checkpoint note. By the time of the 4th Earl, the ‘estate’ comprised an area a hundred times the size of Hyde Park, spread over 3 counties.
The House is now owned by the National Trust and although it is tenanted, you can visit it. I believe that Pete Townshend of The Who was the occupier at one stage. One current occupier is apparently the ghost of the old Earl who roams the place mourning Elizabeth Stuart, the ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia, to whom he was devoted. Note the style of the building. Dutch? That is where she ended up in exile. There is a great blog post on the history of the house here. It isn't one of mine! (Link) Ashdown House
E. Route Options for Your Tour of the Stone Age
The mapped route takes you east along the Ridgeway Path, sometimes known as the Old Road, a prehistoric track that runs across the high chalk ridges of Southern England. This is about 3.5 bumpy miles off road but perfectly feasible on a sturdy bike with strong tyres.
The sights to see are the White Horse, Wayland’s Smithy, both of which are unique, and the Hill Fort named Uffington Castle. All are described in summary detail below. You can see and visit the latter two from the path but the 380’ long White Horse is hidden from view by the slope.
Alternatively you can descend the hill into Ashbury and then turn right on the B4507. This way, you get a ride on tarmac and a great view of the White Horse. The downside is that it adds about 2 miles to the route and involves a steep climb back up the scarp just south of Kingston Lisle.
|Ridgeway Path near Uffington Castle
If you follow the Ridgeway, you will soon pass Wayland’s Smithy. He was the Saxon God of Metal Working. Needless to say, this wasn’t a smithy, let alone his. It is a 5500 year old i.e. early stone age long-barrow tomb. It is free (but a bit spooky) to poke around inside.
Instant guide to dates etc. In the neolithic, pale skinned farmers from Europe appear to have replaced the older, darker skinned hunter-gatherer populations of Southern England. They cut a lot of trees down, left lots of these tombs and later got around to building the circles at Avebury and Stonehenge, maybe around 4500 years ago, although it is quite likely that both sites had already been special for a long time.
Throughout the period and especially later on, this was a populated area and if you could visit the level of sophistication and availability of goods traded over long distance might have astonished you.
For more on the how this downland landscape changed and developed over time, see my post here: Enter the Flintstones
If you follow the alternative low route, make the short detour into into Ashbury, a lovely little village and, if you are an olde worlde building nut like me, pure porn. The Manor House is as good an example of a preserved medieval manor as you will find anywhere.
In any event, the route continues east, signposted Wantage. After about two miles you will get a good view of the Uffington White Horse. It looks like a modern design but it is in fact the oldest chalk ‘White Horse’ in Britain. Ideas about its antiquity have changed but the latest research I could find suggests 2500-3500 years old. In most cases these chalk figures are made by simply scraping the turn of the chalk. In this case, trenches have been dug and maintained since. Was it just stone age graffiti or something more?
|The Uffington White Horse
For more on chalk figures generally, see my blog post (Link) Chalk Hill Figures
The hill forts like Uffington came later, mainly in the Iron Age and following the migration of people sometimes and inaccurately referred to as Celts. It is about 1.5 miles further along the Ridgeway and is a double walled hill fort, probably built around 2800 years old but sitting on top of an earlier, Bronze Age predecessor. It isn’t clear what it was used for. Some signs of occupation have been found, but no trace of buildings or indication that it was ever actively used for defence. There are similar hill forts elsewhere along the Ridgeway; this one comes with better views than many!
|Trig Point, Uffington Castle Rampart on the Right
As you return off the ridge and down the dip slope to you pass a lot more of the horse gallops and also a lot more stone age tomb mounds or Tumuli. The latter in particular are grassy bumps and not that easy to spot . If you have an OS map, you can place them using that. In the vicinity of the usefully named 'Seven Barrows House'.
There are in reality over forty barrows. This whole area inspired J R R Tolkein's 'Lord of the Rings' where the low hills of the Barrow Downs, just to the east of the Shire, were the final resting place for the men of the north, until spirits called Barrow-wights came to spoil their peace and later trapped Frodo and his mates.
H & I
If you are using the maps, these are not proper waypoints but insertions that the apps seem to like to make when the gpx routes are created. But if you are interested the road off onto at Waypoint I is 'Dark Lane' where you cannot usually see, on your left behind the hedge, Denford Park.
This has an amusingly typical 'Country Manor' history. It was once the home of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who accompanied Scott's disastrous polar expedition but, luckily for him, was not one of the Fatal Four. As if that wasn't enough, he was packed of to World War One on his return, when he wrote 'The Worst Journey in the World'.
You can bump into Garrard again on the Lilley Bottom Route. He is buried in St Helen's Church in Wheathampstead where there is a fine statue of him.
The Manor then passed to an order of French nuns, an American Airborne Division, a Catholic girls school, a college for nannies and finally a Saudi Arabian Royal who uses it as a stud. For horses.
J. Ermin Street & The Kennet
For the next few miles, you are on what was once Ermin Street, a Roman road linking Silchester (south of Reading) and Cirencester. You return to Hungerford by a slightly different route, for a while following Gipsy Lane, which some 500 years ago was apparently a popular option on the London – Bristol route. That seems hard to believe now! Take care crossing its later replacement, the A4, as you head south.
You cross the River Kennet in both its natural and canalised versions just east of where it is joined by the River Dun. This canal opened in 1723 to make the River Kennet navigable. (The genuine canal runs west of Newbury). It wasn’t heavily used after the Great Western Railway opened later in the 1800’s.
|Dun Mill Lock
K. Hungerford Common
This is a classic ‘Common’, dating back to the time of Edward III at least. (He applied boot to bucket in 1377). It is still used by both Commoners and farmers, with the latter buying their grazing rights from the Town & Manor.
|Road across Hungerford Common
Around this area you might also see the remains of the WW2 anti-tank defences. These were part of a wider strategy to place pillboxes, gun emplacements and tank blocks around rivers, canals and railways, to restrain German armoured columns. If you are returning to the station you might also notice some pock mark patterns in the road surface. These were the holes dug for ‘hedgehog’ tank obstacles, a strategy used only recently in Ukraine.
861. Less than ten years after the inception of the so-called ‘Buggery Act’, Walter Hungerford, the owner