Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Marlborough and the Upper Kennet valley

I made the only warm, sunny day in the forecast to restart my exploration of Wiltshire. I enjoyed a walk to Avebury last year, and have previously explored part of the Wansdyke Path. I decided to try to walk the rest of the Wansyke which runs west from Marlborough to Morgan's Hill (halfway between Devizes and Calne). To make it a circular walk I also followed the upper River Kennet from Marlborough to West Overton. Here is map of the 13.5 mile walk:

I set off from Manton, a small village on the Kennet and headed towards Marlborough. It was a good day for butterflies, the first I saw was a Speckled Wood, and there were more of these than any other kind.

speckled wood,butterfly

Manton village has no church, the church of St. George at Preshute is half a mile away, the church is associated with the local manor house at Preshute. It is mainly a Victorian rebuild although the base of the tower is 14th century. The most impressive feature is the font. It is one of only half a dozen black marble fonts in the country, the only other one I have seen in the area is at Iffley near Oxford. It is said to have been moved from Marlborough Castle and when there it may have been used to baptise some of King John's children. I am always interested in fonts as they are such a useful guide to the antiquity and relative prosperity of a place. Being sacred and of such weight they rarely move far over the centuries, and when a church is rebuilt, the old font is about the only thing re-used. For more on fonts see my page Church fonts.

It was here that I over-heard an elderly couple conversing and was delighted to hear the Wiltshire Burr dialect accent still in use. This is a dying accent distinctive for 'there' being pronounced 'thurrr'; it is somewhat similar to the Hampshire Burr accent for with John Arlott was famous.

Preshute church,font

The path then takes you through the playing fields of Marlborough College, one of the foremost 'public' schools in the country (famous alumni include: Siegfried Sassoon, John Betjeman, Mark Tully, Samantha Cameron, Mark Reckless, Sally Bercow and the Duchess of Cambridge). I made my way to Marlborough's busy market place, which still has the busy A4 running through it.

Marlborough Market Square

The edge of Marlborough comes to an abrupt edge on the Kennet bridge, all looks calm and peaceful on the western side.

Marlborough,River Kennet

I then followed the Wansdyke Path up a steep slope out of the town. Along the path were patches of Meadow Saxifrage.

Meadow Saxifrage

It is well worthwhile climbing up for the marvellous views over Marlborough. You can see part of Marlborough College in the foreground and then the Market square that runs between the two church towers. There is a refreshing lack of ugly high-rise flats.

Marlborough view

Soon I left Marlborough behind as I followed a ridgeway path west, followed by a very inquisitive bunch of heifers. Soon I was in the next valley: Clatford Bottom, with little sign of habitation.

Clatford Bottom

The Wansdyke Path then meets the actual Wansdyke at Short Oak Copse and here it is an impressive bank and ditch. Up until this point my path had just followed bits and pieces of footpaths. The Wansdyke was most recently used as an early medieval defensive structure but previously by the Britons against the Anglo-Saxon invasion. There is evidence of use in late Roman times, and with Neolithic Avebury so close I would suggest at least some parts of it go back a lot further. I suspect it marked an ancient tribal boundary. The path in this part goes along the ditch, and there were patches of wild garlic (ramsons).

wild garlic,ramsons

I have posted pictures of bluebells already this year (Mortimer and Turville), and try not to repeat myself too much; however, the bluebells in the woods south of Lockeridge were so splendid that people were out with cameras trying to capture them. The ‘West Woods’ are really part of Savernake Forest and have the same look and feel. Most of the area is managed for timber but on its borders there are a few ancient trees.

bluebells,West Wood

Within West Woods are some meadow areas rich in wildflowers. One area was thick with Valerian leaves, soon to produce a mass of flowers. By the side of some of the many tracks were woodland plants such as yellow pimpernel.

yellow pimpernel

Walking along a track within the woods I heard and saw a Wren seeming to be defending its territory against me. This is a common bird that is often heard and not seen with the charming latin name Troglodytes troglodytes.


I left the woods to head north into the Kennet valley. In the distance to the west was Silbury Hill (the tallest prehistoric artificial mound in Europe, built 4,750 years ago). Imagine how it would stand out if the original white chalk was exposed. Its positioning to me suggests a proclamation of territory more than anything else - this is our tribal land - the upper Kennet valley. It is highly visible from downs to the south of Avebury.

Silbury Hill

Scampering over the busy A4, I climbed up the other side of the valley there was a field edge with lots of things of interest including a Cardinal beetle. Here I saw my first Small heath butterfly of the year. I waited patiently for it to open its wings, but to no avail, they rarely do. The other butterflies seen in rough order of frequency were: Speckled Wood, Orange Tip, Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Green veined white, Small White, Holly Blue and Small Heath.

Small heath butterfly,butterfly

The reason for the walk on the north side of the valley was to visit an area of National Trust property. From the O.S. map I guessed it was to protect an area of sarsen stones also known as grey wethers. I had hoped that an area of undisturbed soil would be supporting a rich flora, unfortunately not, I suspect that weed-killer has been used on the fields on either side and little has survived. The sarsens were used at Avebury and Stonehenge for the standing stones, however I suspect the accumulation of smaller stones may have more to do with farmers over the last few millenniums clearing them from the fields and rolling them down into this valley. By good fortune a red-legged partridge was exploring the stones too.

partridge,grey wethers

This small strip of land is right next to the A4 and I walked back along the busy main road to Fyfield. The A4 is an important road linking Bristol (Britain's second city for a long while); Bath and London, and was maintained as an important route from the 17th century onwards. In the 18th century a new turnpike route (toll road) was constructed to avoid the twisting lanes through villages along the Kennet valley. One of these pleasant, little villages is Fyfield. The church of St. Nicholas, Fyfield is a much restored 13th century church.

Fyfield church

Inside I was delighted to see another attractive font with deep carved decoration. The carving is so fresh I thought it might be a modern copy, but the Internet tells me 12th century. The age and prosperity of settlement is clearly evident in having four churches in the five miles between Avebury and Marlborough.

Fyfield church,font

The next section followed a rarely used footpath to Clatford. Approaching a gate, I was mobbed by a group of young lambs. They were all amazingly tame and keen to see me. I had to push them out of the way to open this gate. They then proceeded to jump up on me, despite the plaintive warning bleating of their mothers. I guess they were keen for an afternoon feed provided by someone with a bucket. So cute you could almost eat them!


It was then a mile back to Manton where I had parked the car. A very mixed and interesting 13.5 mile walk in unbroken sunshine. In the last section there was a field full of dandelions already in seed, so thought I would end on that note; with 150 photographs taken I find it hard to pick interesting ones.


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