White horses and stone circles
White horses, stone circles and mysterious hills are all part of the landscape of Wiltshire between the Cherhill Downs and Devizes
On a hillside bathed in sunlight, a gleaming white horse appears to trot across an ancient landscape. Its pricked ears are caught by the rays of a May sun that sends undulating shadows over the surrounding land, carpeted in shades of green. The appearance of movement is deceptive. This horse is, in fact, carved into the ground and covered with layers of compacted chalk kibble. It is the Cherhill White Horse, the second oldest of Wiltshire’s original 13 white horses. A striking feature, it sits proudly in a landscape that has seen human occupation for the last 4,000 years. This area of downland is filled with Neolithic henges, barrows and avenues. The Romans came here, and the Normans, who made their mark building castles and medieval settlements, such as Devizes, to the south. In early summer, the land ripples with colour. Butter-yellow cowslips and the deep blue chalk milkwort are the first wildflowers to make an appearance, followed by the early purple orchid. Rare butterflies, including the iridescent Adonis blue and the multi-hued orange marsh fritillary, flit from flower to flower. Above, the skylark sings.
Labour of love
Legend has it the 129ft long, 142ft high (39m x 43m) horse was constructed on a whim by Dr Christopher Alsop, of nearby Calne, in 1780. Standing a set distance away from the bottom of the hill, he called instructions up to his workforce, using a megaphone. This way, they could mark out the shape with a true passer-by’s perspective. The result is that, of the seven other Wiltshire horses visible today, this is arguably the most realistic. Today, the horse is owned by the village of Cherhill. It is regularly tended to by the Cherhill White Horse Restoration Group, founded in 1980 to mark the 200th anniversary of the horse’s creation. Before then, it was the landowner who had responsibility for its care. “One owner had to cover it with brushwood and timber during the Second World War. This was because it was such a visible landmark for enemy bombers,” says David Grafton, a committee member of the group. “Another tried to fill in the horse with concrete, but the hill is so steep, the concrete just slid into the valley.” A major restoration in 2002 saw 157 tons of fresh chalk spread over the site. Now, villagers, volunteers and local Scout groups gather every two years to touch up particular sections of
the animal with 14 tons of chalk. “Last time, we did the head and tail,” says David. “This year, we’re focusing on a front leg which is looking a little out of shape. The chalk sits on a network of timber ledges, which help to keep it in place. Over time, the level of chalk drops due to erosion from wind and rain, so we have to top it up. The natural chalk here is grey, which is why we source a white alternative from a quarry near Romsey in Hampshire. The horse looks much brighter afterwards.” The work, which also involves light weeding of the site, is funded by donations. Much of the money comes from walkers drawn to the area by the nearby panoramic views from the Calstone and Cherhill Downs. This is both a Site of Special Scientific Interest and part of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The white horse is not the only manmade attraction to enhance the landscape. To the right of the horse, at the top of Cherhill Hill sits the Grade II* listed Lansdowne Monument. This 120ft (36½m) tall stone obelisk was built in 1845 by the 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne to commemorate his ancestor Sir William Petty, a 17th century economist, scientist and philosopher. It was designed by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament. Near the monument are the banks and ditches of Oldbury Castle Iron Age hill fort. Originally a Bronze Age enclosure dating circa 1000BC, this was later developed into a hill fort in the Iron Age. Up to 20 circular features have been discovered inside its walls, thought to be the remains of timber roundhouses.
Made to last
This is a landscape where man has long made a lasting mark. Well before the likes of Alsop were carving horses into hillsides, the ancient inhabitants were staking their claim in other impressive ways. Five miles to the east of Cherhill is Avebury, one of the principal ceremonial sites of Neolithic Britain. Along with Stonehenge 24 miles away, it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1986. “Avebury is best known for the henge monument,” says Peter Oliver, a National Trust area ranger for the site. “That comprises a great outer prehistoric circle of approximately 98 stones, the biggest in the world, plus two smaller inner circles with 28 and 29 stones each. It is surrounded by a circular ditch and
“The mystic ring now scarcely traced Is by a grassy dike embraced, Circling the whole about.” Mary S Cope, ‘From Western Lands’
bank, which measures approximately 1,380ft (421m) in diameter. But what makes Avebury particularly special is that it is also the only stone circle to have a village built within it.” Approximately 300,000 visitors flock to Avebury each year to marvel at the stones. The henge bank and ditch was formed in 2600BC and the stone circles erected in 2500BC, more than 4,500 years ago. Not all the stones have survived. Today, approximately 30 remain visible in the outer circle, with just nine left between the two inner circles. Few artefacts have been uncovered from the site, but the size of the stones suggest it was used for gatherings at its peak. However, by 1800BC, it is believed changes in ritual practices meant the henge was abandoned. In the Middle Ages, stones such as these were often connected to devil worship. This led to much of the monument being destroyed or buried. Finally, to accommodate increasing demand for building and farming, many were removed. In the 1930s, businessman and archaeologist, Alexander Keiller bought the site and undertook major excavations. Buried stones, some up to 3ft (1m) underground, were dug up and replaced. Missing stones were marked by concrete pylons. Some of his archaeological finds, including flint tools and skeletons, are housed in a museum that bears his name in Avebury. “You can’t help but marvel at the site,” says Peter. The sarsen, or sandstone, stones measure from 10-20ft (3-6m) in height. Aerial and geophysical surveys are helping to identify the order in which the stones may have been placed, but much remains unknown. Keiller eventually sold the 950 acres of land he owned in the village to the National Trust in 1943. He charged £12,000, the agricultural value of the land. There has been a settlement at Avebury since Saxon times. What remains today, much of it built within the prehistoric monument complex, is now home to approximately 400 people. There is also a church, a pub, a National Trust visitor centre and a 16th century manor house. Although privately occupied, visitors can explore parts of the property. There is chance to experience the lives of the people who lived there during the Tudor, Queen Anne, Georgian and Victorian eras.
A living landscape
The Avebury henge does not stand alone in the landscape. There are other linked places, including Silbury Hill, and West Kennet Avenue and Long Barrow. The magnitude of the whole site is best appreciated away from the village. “One of my favourite spots is the top of Waden Hill, to the south of the henge monument,” says Peter. “From here, you can see all the major features of the landscape, from the stone circles to the enigmatic Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long Barrow. In May, the air is filled with the high-pitched trill of skylarks in flight, and the hawthorn, or May tree, is coming into beautiful white flower.” From this vantage point, another of Wiltshire’s key distinguishing features is visible. Known locally as hedgehogs, these are clumps of beech trees resting peacefully in beautiful leafy domes. “They mark the sites of Bronze Age round barrows. They were planted with trees by the Victorians. There would have been more, but many have been ploughed out,” says Peter. Today, one of his major roles is to protect the landscape from such change. His days are spent maintaining paths and hedges, monitoring the ground around the stones for signs of erosion. He also looks after habitats for the site’s many rare species. These include water voles, one of Britain’s rarest mammals. He has help in these tasks from tenant farmer, Judy Farthing, her husband Tony, and their daughter Katie. They rent their farm, which includes the West Kennet Avenue, from the National Trust, with an agreement to ensure their agricultural practices do not damage the site. They also belong to a local initiative to create wildlife corridors across the county. This scheme, the Marlborough Downs Project, was originally a government-funded
“The Bard has harp’d, but perish’d is the song Of praise, as o’er these bleak and barren downs The wind that passes and is heard no more.” Robert Southey, ‘For a Monument at Silbury Hill’
project. The locals have now taken it on to continue the work. “We only plough to 4in (10cm) deep to avoid disrupting any archaeology, and we leave some areas of our land to grow wild,” says Judy. “As a result, we frequently see hares, barn owls, tree sparrows and corn bunting. Katie always says: ‘What a wonderful office’. “May is particularly lovely. Our herd are out grazing again, all around the stones. We’re cutting grass, making hay and rearing calves. There’s a sense of calm and peace to the land here that’s incredibly special.”
Eight miles to the south, lies the charming market town of Devizes. With its alleyways and narrow streets, it dates back to the 11th century. The name comes from the Latin ad divisas, meaning at the boundaries, indicating its site at the meeting of three boundaries, the parishes of Rowde, Potterne and Bishops Canning. The Normans built a wooden motte and bailey castle here in 1080, replaced by 1121 with a stone structure. “The castle was demolished following the Battle of Roundway in 1643,” says David Dawson, director of the Wiltshire Museum in the town. This was one of the only major Royalist successes of the Civil War. “Devizes lay in a strategic position. On 13 July, William Waller tried to stop Royalist forces from the West Country, led by Sir Ralph Hopton, from joining the King in Oxford. They clashed on the Roundway Down, just outside the city. When Oliver Cromwell later captured the castle, he ordered it to be destroyed.” Today’s castle is a multi-turreted Victorian offering, built as a private residence, and now turned into flats. In the 1800s, the development of the wool, brewing and snuff trades brought prosperity to Devizes. At the peak of the wool trade in the 16th century, there were 300 looms operating in the town. Two brothers were Devizes’ key entrepreneurs: John Anstie with textiles and Benjamin with snuff. The latter’s factory operated until the 1960s. In 1965, New Street, on the corner of which the factory was built, was renamed Snuff Street in its honour. The continuing success of these trades remains visible in the fine brick, stone and stucco Georgian architecture throughout
the town. Of particular note are Long Street, with a wonderful cross-section of building styles, and the Market Place, with its Market Cross, the largest in the west of England. The Shambles, the original butter and poultry market, was built in 1835. It is now home to a popular covered market throughout the week. The former cheese market was built in 1752. It is known as the Old Town Hall because it was used as a town hall premises during the erection of a new building in the 19th century. Designed by Thomas Baldwin, a leading architect of Bath, this stands across the road. “There are more than 500 listed buildings in the town, ranging from cottages to factory buildings, and town houses to mansions. That’s a greater density than anywhere else in the country,” says David. “Despite its prosperity in the 19th century, Devizes never became a county town. The railway bypassed it, and it wasn’t bombed in the 20th century. It’s therefore a beautifully preserved Georgian town.” Two of the best-known landmarks in the town are its brewery and its canal. Wadworth Brewery was founded in 1875 by Henry Wadworth, in partnership with John Smith Bartholomew. A family-run business, Wadworth is the only brewery in the country to regularly deliver its beer with Shire horses. “I love hearing them trot past my office every morning,” says David. At one time, the brewery employed 40 horses. Today, just three are left, Monty, Max and Archie, who deliver to pubs within a 2½-mile radius of the brewery. As well as a visitors’ centre, with brewing memorabilia, Wadworth runs tours through the Victorian Tower Brewery. These include a visit to the sign studio, where pub signs are still painted by hand, and the horses’ stables.
A mile from the centre of the town are the Caen Hill Locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal. Built between 1794 and 1810, the canal connected London and Bristol. The locks are a series of 29, rising 237ft (72m) over two miles in the direction of the capital. The locks come in three groups, but it is the middle block of 16, forming a steep flight straight up Caen Hill, which are of particular significance. They run in a straight line, with very short sections in between, to enable the canal to rise rapidly, approximately 130ft (39m) up the steep hill. As a result, there are large sideways-extended pounds, which hold the water needed to operate them. “The flight of locks was engineer John Rennie’s solution to climbing Caen Hill,” says Steve Manzi. He is a volunteer development coordinator with the Canal & River Trust. “It was the last section to be completed, and a tram road provided a link while the locks were under construction. Its remains can be seen in the bridge arches that cross the towpath.” Once completed, the locks became a key way of transporting coal, beer and tobacco. However, it took five to six hours to traverse them. The coming of the railways in the 1840s hit the canal, and it fell into disuse, closing in 1948. Then, in the 1960s, a group of volunteers took on the task of clearing and rebuilding the canal, eventually restoring it to its former glory. Today, it is a stretch bustling with holidaymakers, cyclists and walkers. Colin McDermott is one of 40 volunteers who regularly help operate the locks, as well as maintain the channels, pathways and surrounding habitats. “Lots of people just come for the views,” he says. “But it’s more than that. The locks are one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways. To be involved with such an important part of the country’s heritage: what could be better?” But this part of Wiltshire is not just about the past. Following the canal back towards the east, a more modern landmark comes into view on the horizon. This is another white horse, this one a symbol of the new millennium. The Devizes White Horse, as it is known, was inspired by a horse that once graced a slope at Roundway Down. The new horse was designed by a former student of Devizes Grammar School, and cut by 200 local people in 1999. Measuring 150ft long by 148ft high (45.7m x 45m), it looks right, one of only four chalk horses in Britain, and the only one in Wiltshire, to do so. The reason is unknown. It adds yet another mystery to this ancient landscape. “Wiltshire is a place of unanswered questions,” says David Dawson. A place to let the imagination gallop free.
Walkers on Cherhill Downs, near Calne, come across the white horse. It once had a glass eye, made using upturned bottles. The 19th century Lansdowne, or Cherhill, Monument built as an ‘eye-catcher’ at the edge of the Bowood Estate. David Grafton is one of many volunteers who help to maintain the Cherhill White Horse, ensuring it retains its features and is topped up with visible white chalk.
The outer and inner Avebury stone circles, which surround the majority of the village. Devizes Cherhill Avebury A4 West Kennet Avenue A4 Silbury Hill A361 Roundway A342
Visitors converge on Avebury each year to soak up its ancient aura. From left: Ranger Peter Oliver, and Judy and Katie Farthing at their farm.
From left: the Devizes Market Cross, around which sacks of wheat and barley were traded in the early 1800s; a busy, narrow shopping street today; and the red brick Wadworth Brewery dominating the town centre. Delivering beer the old-fashioned way, with Shire horses Max and Monty pulling a dray, a low, flat-bed sideless wagon.
The flight of 29 locks up Caen Hill (above). Volunteer Colin McDermott operating a lock (left).