North Wessex Downs Walking Guide
This AONB includes significant areas of chalk downland with their unique habitat. Man's past has left many reminders in this area too including the iconic white horses, the stone circle at Avebury and Silbury Castle.
The North Wessex AONB covers an area of 1,730 sq km and lies between Newbury, Reading, Basingstoke and Devizes. The highest point is Walbury Hill (297m) although the ridge linking Milk Hill and Tan Hill lies only 2 metres lower. Like many AONBs the North Wessex Downs is not constrained by county boundaries and the AONB includes parts of Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire.
In the northeast the North Wessex Downs AONB faces the Chilterns across the Goring Gap on the other side of the Thames. Another notable features is the steep slope facing north over the Vale of White Horse. The remainder of the AONB includes the horse-racing village of Lambourn, the Marlborough Downs, Savernake Forest and the downs on the Hampshire-Berkshire border.
The downs, traditionally grazed by sheep, are part of large formation of Chalk stretching from Dorset to Kent. The downlands support a wide variety of unique flora and fauna including rare butterflies such as adonis blue and the silver-spotted skipper. Plants such as the early gentian, dwarf mouse ear and burnt orchid can be found here. The grassland also offers food and a breeding ground for declining farmland birds including skylark and stone-curlew.
There is much evidence of man's former presence in the area. The imposing circle of stones at Avebury together with the remarkable circular mound of Silbury Hill are both major sites. Also to be found are the Neolithic long barrows, including some 20 examples around Avebury. The Iron Age is represented with enclosures and hillforts such as Ladle and Beacon Hills in Hampshire and Liddington and Barbury Castles in Wiltshire. It is also at this time when the first of the chalk white horses is believed to have been created at Uffington - one of 6 in the area. The Ridgeway, Britain's oldest road, follows an ancient ridge route through the Downs. Starting at Overton hill, near Avebury it runs along the edge of downs to the Thames at Goring and onwards to the Chilterns.
Horse racing is a major industry in the area because of the good quality turf that comes with the chalk underlay. There are many gallops and other training areas. Several upland villages, like Lambourn, are home to racing stables. The North Wessex Downs AONB has a population of only 125,000 people, concentrated in the valleys and the two market towns of Hungerford and Marlborough. However, it is surrounded by rapidly growing centres population most notable being Reading, Newbury, Basingstoke, Andover, Swindon and Didcot.
The landscape provides a wonderful backdrop to many attractive walks. The Ridgeway National Trail can be completed as a single linear walk over a few days or more commonly sections can be incorporated into shorter circular day walks. In addition to upland walk, there are many opportunities to explore the valleys and villages of the North Wessex Downs.
Picture courtesy of 'Blue Sky Images'.
For more information on this area visit the
official web site for North Wessex Downs
Recommended Books & eBooks
Walking in the North Wessex Downs
30 walking routes exploring the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The routes are between 7km to 20km through this peaceful rolling chalk landscape covering parts of four counties: Berkshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, with descriptions to reach the highest points in each one.
This pocket handbook to navigation will help you master the necessary map and compass skills for mountain walking. Chapters include map scales, symbols and contours, grid references, map reading, bearings, route planning and night and bad-weather navigation, as well as navigating with a GPS.