Wansdyke and the Kennet and Avon Canal
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
By Paul Timlett
If I had to choose my favourite part of Wiltshire, the Vale of Pewsey and its downs would be a serious contender. Its ancient history, the flora and fauna, the sense of remoteness in the hills, and above all the immense views – its charms are impossible to resist.
Wansdyke and the Kennet and Avon Canal represent two very different periods of the vale’s past and, and arguably two totally different modes of transport. Wansdyke’s history and purpose is the subject of some debate. It was undoubtedly intended to be a defensive structure when it was built sometime between the 5th and 6th centuries AD. However, the middle section of Wansdyke’s 35 miles is formed by the remains of the old London to Bath Roman road. It’s thought the defensive structures, including the eastern section that runs through Wiltshire, were not actually a patrolled fortification but served more as a border. Providing a clear means of navigation it’s not too much of a leap of imagination to think that it may also have been used as route for traversing this part of the world just as long distance walkers, horse riders and cyclists use it today.
Of course the Kennet and Avon Canal’s raison d’être was as a means of transportation. From the germ of an idea in the 16th century to the construction of the stretch that runs through the Vale of Pewsey in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, its purpose was always the carriage of goods. Today its purpose is leisure and apart from the canal boats themselves there is of course a public right of way along the tow path.
This walk takes in both Wansdyke and the Kennet and Avon Canal tow path. The route I planned was around 12 kms/7.5 miles but can be shortened as explained later. The weather was perfect. A warm sunny day with a little cloud blown by a light wind across the skies to create some interesting light. Conditions underfoot were dry, so no muddy tow path along the canal.
I parked in the pretty but workaday village of Allington, between Alton Barnes and Devizes. The farm(s) dominates Allington. There are several barns and cattle sheds with wide entrances, and broad grass verges in places. However, I was unsure where best to park. I always worry about this. Of course I don’t want to park on private property and I don’t want to block other vehicles, particularly farm vehicles. I found a grass verge that wasn’t outside a house or a farm building so I tucked my car into the hedge out of the way hoping the perfectly manicured verge was the work of the Parish steward and not a proud house owner from along the road.
My route began on the metalled farm track from Allington that heads roughly northwards in the direction of Horton Down.
Whilst it is a bridleway, this private road has a better surface than most of the roads in Wiltshire! But on foot it’s a bit of trudge ever upwards to the summit around 1.25 miles/2 kms away.
Passing between fields of wheat and maize the views steadily open up ahead taking in Tan Hill and Cliffords Hill to the east. But don’t forget to look behind you. As you climb, ahead you’ll see some fine strip lynchets, Kitchen Barrow, a hint of several tumuli and a disused chalk pit, all a reminder of this area’s ancient past. Neolithic Kitchen Barrow is to your left as you ascend. Sherds of Roman pottery were found there and there was at some point a sarsen stone protruding from the north east end, sadly no longer visible. There was a bull and a herd of cows grazing quietly up here as I passed but they barely paid me any attention. They clearly recognised a fellow admirer of these hills.
Over the top of the hill, beyond two further cattle grids, the views are spectacular. I stopped here for quite some time, sipping coffee and basking in the warm sunlight. I had the place to myself apart from two distant paragliders over Milk Hill. I did however think that I could hear voices. The wind was a little stronger up here so I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see anybody. I set up my tripod to make a panorama photograph of the scene to the west in front of me.
Cherhill and Morgan’s Hill dominated the middle distance. I’ve heard it said that you can even see the Brecon Beacons from up here, but my eyes clearly aren’t good enough for that. It was only once I got home and stitched the photographs together to make a high resolution panorama that I spotted the source of the voices I’d heard. Two guys walking along the Wansdyke about a kilometre away!
I could have stayed at this spot for hours but eventually packed up and began to head downhill towards the junction with Wansdyke itself. Here I began my journey west as I passed through a pedestrian gate into the ditch below the embankment.
Signs on the gate told me this was the route of the White Horse Trail, The Wansdyke Path and the Mid Wilts Way. Despite that there was no one to be seen other than a solitary chap on a mountain bike.
Along much of this stretch of Wansdyke you have two choices – to walk on the embankment or to walk along the ditch. I alternated between the two.
At one point one of the long distance paths seems to diverge to run parallel to the dyke, but stick to the dyke and you’ll be fine. I followed Wansdyke for about 2.5 kms, with Morgan’s Hill and Furze Knoll urging me onwards. Whilst the views to the south are hidden by higher ground, to the north the views are uninterrupted. I tend to make notes as I walk, often writing just single words. Here I wrote “corn crake”, “buzzards”, “corn flowers”, “gentle breeze”, “peace”. I’ve seen people write Wansdyke in the same sentence as Hadrian’s Wall. Whilst in our part of the world you’re never far from a town, you do get that sense of remoteness here found on the Scottish borders.
I mentioned earlier an opportunity to shorten the walk. On a day like this why on earth would you? But the weather can be extreme up here (I’ve seen the ditch filled with snow) so an escape route may come in handy. Although the profusion of wild flowers at this time of year make bad weather seem an unlikely prospect.
Not long after a large barn, where the route switches right then left to by-pass it, a footpath bisects Wansdyke heading north/south. South leads you to Harepath Farm and the Alton Barnes-Devizes road just east of the village of Horton. Close by to the north the path passes the Neolithic long barrow and tumulus on Easton Down. It’s reported that excavations in the 1860s found two adult and two child inhumations. Bronze Age and Iron Age artefacts have also been found.
Although a late start to the walk meant time was pressing on I decided to forgo the shortcut and continue to the next junction on the rise ahead of me where a broad stone track heads away from Wansdyke south-west towards Easton Farm and Bishops Cannings. At this junction the 1:25,000 OS map shows a long barrow on Roughridge Hill but I couldn’t be sure if what I was looking at was the barrow or the embankment of the dyke. It’s very indistinct.
As I ever, my heart always sinks slightly as I head towards “civilisation” after hours alone in the hills. The sound of traffic and voices is dispiriting. At the end of the track at Easton Farm the route becomes slightly confusing. Being somewhat of a cynic I suspect this is with some intent. To the left there is a broad track into a yard. Working clockwise from this was a paddock where horses were being exercised and a well surfaced road headed towards the farmhouse. To my right was the road into Bishops Cannings but on the other side of the road on the corner was a slightly hidden footpath sign in a gap in the hedge opposite a house. A very friendly sign said that I had two options here. The official right of way heads diagonally across the field but the sign warns of the presence of livestock. The alternative was to follow a newly laid hedge to the right following the edge of the field thereby avoiding the livestock. However, hard against the hedge was a wooden post and rail fence and it wasn’t clear if I was supposed to squeeze in between the two. I didn’t fit, so I followed the path across the field. Shortly the path continues into a paddock where a girl was exercising a pair of horses. A tape fence had been stretched across the field but the girl moved it so that I could continue to the gate a little further on. Through this gate was another paddock with a loose box containing another horse. Beyond was another gate into a field where a single strand wire fence had been erected along the left hand edge. This forces the walker into thick stinging nettles so I hopped over the wire and walked in the field until I reached a little wooden bridge where I had to hop back over the wire again to cross the bridge (still with me?)
The next field had been partitioned with wire fences. The first one contained some rather splendid Tamworth pigs quietly rooting around in the soil. Next was a herd of cows. As I glanced to my right I spotted one of the pigs lying against the garden wall of a large farmhouse. It looked as though it had escaped but seemed contented enough snoozing against the wall. The series of wire fences and the herd of cows were blocking the path. I continued round until a gap in the wire enabled me to head back towards the footpath south in direction of the canal. I crossed another little wooden footbridge into a field of wheat that looked as though a crop circle had been cut into it. Beyond was a camping field containing a small handful of camper vans next to the canal. To my left across the wheat field was a pillbox, almost completely overgrown, with another by the canal.
From this point the route is very simple, not that the route through the hills was complex. Crossing the swing bridge by the camp site turn left and simply follow the tow path (which is also the White Horse Trail) east for around 3 kms back to the swing bridge at Allington. If you start your walk earlier in the day you could even turn right and head west for about 1 km to The Bridge Inn at Horton Bridge before retracing your steps back to where you joined the tow path.
Along the way back to Allington, most of it well away from the noise of the road, you’ll find beautifully decorated canal boats, pretty canal side cottages, classic brick canal bridges including the curiously named Grade II listed Horton Chain Bridge, and a disused swing bridge with a convenient bench to rest upon to the west of Allington. Even during school holidays, on a weekday this can be a very peaceful stretch of the canal, all the time with glimpses of the hills whence you came.
Being fairly late in the day as I drove home, the sun was beginning its descent in the sky. I decided to drive cross country. I went up onto Salisbury Plain to Redhorn Hill where once again I was on the White Horse Trail which skirts the Danger Area. It’s a rough and in places deeply potholed gravel track up here. I stopped on Urchfont Hill just before Dogtail Plantation where I had a glorious view of Pewsey Downs in the distance to the north, each crease and fold deep in shadow, each ridge and summit bathed in and highlighted by the golden sunlight. One final photograph and a fitting end to a perfect day.
All images copyright of Paul Timlett