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

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Emma Pritchard

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.”

Strate­gic site

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.

Sig­nif­i­cant wa­ter­way

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).

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