Calleva and the Devil's Highway
GPX File of Route : Calleva
This is a tour of the Berkshire countryside which starts from Theale Station and ends up at Twyford Station, further down the line to Paddington. It links places in the valleys of the Kennet, Loddon and Blackwater but a major focus is the visit to Roman Silchester. It starts off on the towpath of the canalised River Kennet (NCR 4) but after that follows minor roads through green, rolling mixed farming country to Aldermaston, Silchester and eastwards. The exception being a rather tedious stretch through Winnersh on the home straight.
The standout attraction is Roman Silchester. In my ‘umble opinion only Hadrian’s wall rivals the scale of these visible remains in the UK.
The bucolic Kennet towpath.
The Duke of Wellington’s Estate at Stratfield Saye, you need to pay to get in.
A rather good Nature Reserve & Cafe at Dinton Pastures
The odd oddity.
On the debit side, you probably get too close and personal with the unattractive Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston and I believe the old RAF Bomb Dump is next to the route, so don’t throw your fag ends over the fence.
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 towpath is usually in decent condition (I tried it last in Feb 2023) but if the weather or your bike discourage you from going off-road at all, or you want to extend or shorten the ride, a modest extension would be to substitute the attractive lanes to the North of the Canal. And if you don’t want to end up at Twyford, just before you reach Winnersh Station, a cycle route takes you into the centre of Reading.
Over the last 50m years, when sea levels have risen, the Thames Valley has been inundated. As a result the area is mostly covered by a thick layer of the ‘London Clay’, silts and sand which was subsequently sliced and diced by the rivers and generally eroded.
In the past the area would have been quite wooded. The land between the Kennet and Silchester still is, although much of it is now planted with conifers. Many of the farms were formed after piecemeal clearance dating back to medieval times. As a result, in contrast to the clay vales in particular, the layout owes less to Enclosures and more to happenstance. So the roads are winding and the fields irregular and, if you are not a farmer, all the better for it.
In layout terms, the main impact on what would otherwise have been ‘ancient’ countryside at least, is probably the more recent extension of the settlements owing to its proximity to Reading, particularly noticeable on the home straight, and the impact of the sprawling AWE. As countryside goes, it is quite densely populated.
Theale has always been a handy location. Originally it was the junction of the Kennet Valley and a route along the Pang Valley that the Romans used, linking the Goring Gap to Silchester. As you would expect they dropped the odd fag packet and set of keys to be picked up by archaeologists later. If you want to know more about Theale, go to my Greenham & The Kennet route notes. Link : Greenham Gravel
The River Kennet was made navigable between Reading and Newbury and opened as the Kennet Navigation in 1723. This stretch is partly river and partly canal and you will be using the towpath for a few miles.
B. Aldermaston Wharf
The small wharf at Aldermaston was enough to ensure that, when the waterway was made entirely navigable at the start of the 1800’s, local trade grew at an impressive rate with agricultural products shipping out and manufactures, fuel and food coming in, all helped by proximity to the railway. Strange’s Brewery, on the south side of the lock must have helped! That lasted until 1952. Now, what trade there is, is mostly visitors.
If you put a foot wrong in Aldermaston, they can accommodate you. There is a cute little gaol at the back of the Hinds Head pub in the middle of the village. Apparently it hasn’t been used for 160 years and its last inhabitant burnt to death. damage elsewhere.
And at that time they had their own witch too! Maria Hale used to sit outside the pubs, picking up gossip. She could do so discreetly by appearing as a hare. That fooled folks, to the extent that someone shot it. Apparently Maria walked with a limp thereafter. Hale, whose powers flourished in the 1850s & 60s, was said to turn herself into a large brown hare and sit outside the pub to learn all the local gossip. Once the hare was shot at by the local gamekeeper who wounded it in the leg.
On the way out of the village you pass Aldermaston Church, a Minster from Saxon times. Maria is buried there, under the yew, in a coffin weighed down with stones. You would think that might hold her, but apparently if you put a pin in the church door and run around it three times, her ghost will appear.
Behind the church is Aldermaston Court, an 1800’s replacement for an earlier Manor which burnt down leaving little besides the rather fetching chimneys. Admire the park gates. They were apparently won in a card game. It beats matchsticks I suppose. The building is now a hotel.
Britain's first Petrol Station was at Aldermaston, on the old A4. Previously fuel came from Russia but that became politically problematic. Familiar story! Here's a video clip of it in 1919.
Link: The First Petrol Station
D. Calleva / Silchester
You pass through Silchester on the way to the considerable amount that is left of Roman Calleva Atrebatum and the modest remains of its predecessor, a stronghold of the Atrebates Tribe. The name means 'The Atrebates place in the woods', highlighting that this place was probably chosen for political convenience rather than for its defendability or the fertility of the surroinding land.
|Calleva: A 2000 year old Garden Wall !!
Many Roman towns were subsequently built over but this one wasn’t, so the archaeologists has a field (!) day, revealing the incredible extent of its trading links. One of the first of these was the Duke of Wellington, who we will bump into later on this route. Some of the stuff they dug up can be seen in Reading Museum and includes relics of the motor industry of its day, the manufacture of chariot parts and the breeding of horses.
At 180 acres, Callleva isn’t small, but you can still see some of the best-preserved Roman town defences in England, and remains of the amphitheatre still stand. In its day it also had a basilica, forum, hospital and baths which were in the South Western part and fed by the spring that still appears when the mood takes it.
The location is a good place for a settlement, being on raised ground with several sources. So it is unsurprising that the Roman’s weren’t the first ones there. The Atrebates were an offshoot of a Belgic tribe from the area around Arras in what is now Northern France who had arrived in the previous century. They probably mixed in with the locals and would have had known the Romans well. They too had metalled streets, substantial buildings and earthwork walls; some traces of which can still be seen immediately outside the Roman walls to the North and West.
|The Atrebates Settlement
If you want more, the BBC offer a potted history.
E. Devils Highway
Calleva stood at the junction of a number of Roman Roads and this is one of them, what is now known as the Devil’s Highway went to London where it finishes as Oxford Street. (Portus Adurni went to Porchester via Winchester. Sorviodunum went to Salisbury and Isa Salurum went through Gloucester.) You can follow the Devil’s Highway on an OS Map to Sunningdale and Virginia Water. Following it on a bike is much more difficult.
You reach the waypoint opposite the start of the Devil’s Highway which at this point is a woodland track. You can follow it if you wish, but it is often muddy, so I prefer not to. You have options here. If you turn left here, after 50 yards or so you can see the marked site of the old Amphitheatre. If you want to see more of the walls, turn right and continue on for a few hundred yards. To follow the route your turn right into Clappers Farm Road before you reach the Church. This is all that is left of a medieval village that seems to have died with the Black Death, leaving only the church which you will see was built using some of the Roman remains.
After a mile or so further along the route, there is a paved stretch of the Devil's Highway which the route follows before turning south. It then reverts to a track, pictured below. It is easy enough to follow this in dry weather but the route prefers the road and detours south.
|The track looking E from Butler's Lands
F. Stratfield Saye
You know the The Duke of Wellington, the Prince of Waterloo, Duke, Marques, Earl, Count, Viscount and Baron. All in all, thirteen titles and don’t you forget any of them.
The winner of the Battle of Waterloo and one-time reactionary Prime Minister of this fair Island, had two main homes. The desirable detached house on Hyde Park Corner, address 1 London, is his London town house. His Des Res was Stratfield Saye, described by Queen Victoria as “a low and not very large house but warm and comfortable with a good deal of room in it’. His descendants still live there. Copenhagen, the horse he road at Waterloo is buried upright in the grounds, which suitably served as a set for the film ‘Warhorse’. I am afraid that you can’t see very much from the road.
|Copenhagen : The Warhorse
The river that you cross leaving Stratfield Saye, is the Loddon, which is joined by the Blackwater River which you will cross shortly and flows into the Thames at Wargrave. You will be shadowing it’s route northwards.
In the meantime, if you want to mock those afflicted by wealth hereabouts, check this Link: Muddy Stilettos
Before 1066, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, Swallowfield manor was owned, by a Danish ‘housecarl’ named Sexi! I’m not sure what the Hallowed Eddie would have made of that. The current Manor can be seen on the way of the village and has had some notable occupants including a philosopher of the entertainingly esoteric Rosicrucian sect and a former Governor of Chennai in India who bought the house with the proceeds of an ill-gotten diamond which can now be seen in the Louvre. Maybe Dr Who could have righted that wrong; he was there, thinly disguised as John Pertwee, for the 1972 series 'The Time Monster'.
H. Arborfield & Arborfield Cross
This is the unprepossessing home of the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre which arrived from Kew in 1985. Wot? Well, the next time you eat some chocolate, odds on it will have its roots here, where all new cocoa varieties grown around the world are held in quarantine for two years before cuttings are taken and the resulting fruit can be traded. In truth there isn’t much to see but if you, like me, are a sucker for oddities, you need to divert into Arborfield Village, and take Church Lane down towards the Loddon. The centre is just past the ruins of the old Church.
Also probably in the ‘not much to see’ category is Arborfield’s ghost who reputedly haunts the Green behind the Bull in the centre of the village. In the 1700’s a witch was thrown into a pond that existed at the time. In spite of being held down by a large stone, she periodically pops up to annoy people.
|International Cocoa Quarantine Centre
The ride back to Twyford isn’t thrilling so you might fancy a break and some greenery. The 450 acres of Dinton Pastures Country Park comprises a string of meadows and flooded gravel pits along the Loddon. It has more than its fair share of less quotidian but smaller wildlife, to the extent that the British Entomological and Natural History Society are based here. Oh, and there is a rather good café.
J. Finish. Twyford Station.