Prepare to enter a magical and sometimes spooky world. The downland around Marlborough contains some of the most beautiful and intriguing ancient settlements, henges and burial mounds in Britain, all set in wild and lonely chalk hills where buzzards and ravens battle for supremacy. Marlborough itself feels rather warm and cosy after a walk in these windswept highlands of mid Wiltshire.
If you’re approaching from the M4, don’t head straight to Marlborough. Instead, follow the A4361 south towards Devizes. Immediately you’ll find yourself at the western edge of the downland escarpment and the motorway will melt into nothing. Follow this very open road through the broad valley until you reach Avebury – a pretty village set in the middle of a gigantic stone circle at least 4,500 years old. Late afternoons here are enchanting. Visitors will have gone home so you can roam in the shadows of the sarsen stones and delve into the great embankments.
Return to your car and head south to the huge, mysterious conical mound of Silbury Hill. Despite many excavations, the 4,700-year old hill has yet to divulge its secrets – though legend has it that Merlin is buried here. Further east along the A4, you’ll enter Marlborough, with its streets lined with red-brick Georgian houses and shops. No time for exploring now – head to a coaching inn on High Street for supper and a pint.
Saturday morning is the ideal time for a stroll around town. Head straight for the very broad High Street, where you’ll find a bustling market right down the centre of the town. It’s no new farmers’ market but the descendent of the first markets held here since King John granted the town a charter (making it an official ‘market town’) in 1204. The High Street and several lanes leading off it – such as Angel Yard – are full of independent enterprises, antique shops and other delights that will keep you entertained for a joyous morning.
If your meanders take you to the western edge of town, you’ll be confronted by the red-brick Marlborough College, a famous independent school founded in the mid 19th-century and foundation for much of the town’s modern, upmarket feel. Within the grounds lie the Mound, all that remains of Marlborough Castle, which last saw action in the English Civil War, when the town, declaring itself for Parliament, was looted in 1642 by Charles I.
Marlborough is blessed with numerous cafés, eateries and pubs, but I’d recommend a picnic and an afternoon walk in one of either two wonderful woodlands just to the south. The largest of these is Savernake Forest –4,500 acres of ancient woodland. Used by both Saxon and Norman monarchs as a royal hunting ground, the forest remains privately owned though has been leased to the Forestry Commission and is always open to the public.
Wildlife highlights include roe and muntjac deer, though if you visit the scrubby glades and fringes in late April and early May, you might be lucky enough to hear a nightingale sing at dusk. Savernake is very popular with visitors and the roads through its heart mean you may wish for a little more peace and quiet. If so, head further west to little known West Woods, a beech and bluebell paradise.
After yesterday’s woodland visit, it’s time to take in lungfuls of Wiltshire air from the top of the downs. Head out of Marlborough along Lockeridge Lane towards Alton Barnes. As you crest the downs, you’ll find a car park on the left. From here, you have a choice of walks along the southern escarpment of the Marlborough Downs with views over the Vale of Pewsey below.
Head west and you’ll pass Adam’s Grave long barrow – one of the mightiest burial mounds you’ll ever see. This area is known as Pewsey Downs National Nature Reserve and is famous for its orchids and other chalk grassland flowers. Further on, you climb Milk Hill, Wiltshire’s highest peak, 26cm (10in) taller than its neighbour Tan Hill. Below you is Alton Barnes white horse – spectacular when seen from the valley; less so up close. If you follow the ridge-top path around the sinuous shoulder of Milk Hill, you come to a great groove running across the hillside. This is the Wansdyke, a Saxon-fortification 12 miles long that reveals just how important these hills were in Dark Age Britain.
Head east from the car park and you’ll enjoy ridgetop walks until you come to the A345. Press on for another mile to Martinsell Hill. This is topped by a hillfort, garrisoned entirely by trees today. The scalloped coombes beyond are fabulous.
After all that fresh air, you’ll need a pint. Head to Honeystreet in the vale of Pewsey below for a warm welcome in the Barge Inn on the Kennet and Avon Canal.