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  • Glyn Coy

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.

Track from Allington and Kitchen Barrow

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.

Summit Cattle Grid

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.

Morgan's Hill and Cherhill Panorama

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.

Joining Wansdyke

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.

Wansdyke Ditch and Bank

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.

Wansdyke under a Carpet of Flowers

Looking Back Along Wansdyke

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.