National Character Area 116

Berkshire and Marlborough Downs - Description

The Berkshire and Marlborough Downs today

The Berkshire and Marlborough Downs comprise a mass of uplifted Chalk which reaches as high as 295 m AOD (above ordnance datum) and falls gently south-east into the London Basin. The chalk plateau is incised by numerous steep-sided valleys which, due to water percolating into the aquifer, may be dry valleys or ‘combes’ or contain watercourses and springs that are naturally intermittent.

Almost the entire NCA falls within the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in recognition of the scenic qualities and national significance of features across this landscape.

The chalk hills are prominent, adjacent to low-lying vales to the north. Along the northern boundary in the west between Calne and Swindon, springline settlements such as Clyffe Pypard are backed by a steep escarpment with hanging woodlands and designed landscapes. Above this scarp is the almost flat Avebury Plain comprised of Lower Chalk and farmed for cereals. Intermittent headwaters of the River Kennet arise on the plain and flow past the plain’s few small settlements and monuments near Avebury. Avebury and a number of interrelated monuments are designated as a World Heritage Site (in conjunction with stonehenge). These monuments draw on connecting routeways and their setting and distinctive appearance against the skyline form a huge and seemingly sacred landscape that attracts high numbers of visitors.

From Avebury, the River Kennet flows between hills which rise above the plain as a second, higher escarpment. The Horton Downs escarpment overlooks Calne in the west and the Vale of Pewsey in the south-west, with the Wansdyke (a historic boundary bank) being one of many monuments on the escarpment above Pewsey. To the east, the escarpment and the rolling hills behind stretch north-east to meet the Chilterns at the Goring Gap, and comprise the Marlborough, Lambourn, Brightwalton and Blewbury Downs respectively. In contrast, the lower escarpment and plain grades into low hills before reaching Goring.

The higher escarpment is almost bare of woodland, exposing a slope convoluted by combes including the ‘Manger’. Steep slopes support the majority of the chalk grassland (around 1,500 ha) which can be vibrant with diverse flowering plants and butterflies. Rarities include the wartbiter cricket and, at Pewsey Downs and Hackpen Hill Special Area of Conservation (SAC), early gentian. Traditional downland makes up the majority of the open access land in the NCA and also conserves ancient monuments and isolated blocks of cemented sandstone known as sarsen stones, of which Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve (NNR) protects prime examples.

Across the sparsely settled uplands, huge arable fields offer vast skies and high levels of tranquillity. Post-and-wire fencing and grass strips bound fields, with views interrupted only occasionally by small woodlands and historic routeways bordered by scrub. The poet Edward Thomas wrote “there is something oceanic in their magnitude, their solitude… flowing on and on” (Richard Jefferies: His Life and Work, E Thomas, 1909). Man-made landmarks include chalk-cut horse figures, planted beech clumps and historic monuments. Gallops, racecourses and stables are particularly concentrated around the Lambourn Valley. Dew ponds, droveway verges and fallow plots create a mosaic of farmland habitat. Brown hare, harvest mouse, farmland birds including stone curlew, and arable plants such as Venus’ looking-glass (A Strategy for Arable Biodiversity in the North Wessex Downs AONB, S Smart et al, 2010) thrive particularly where there has been a history of consistent cultivation.

A wealth of monuments, cropmarks and historic routeways are visible evidence of a long history of human activity, with some damaged by modern cultivation (Heritage At Risk Register South West, English Heritage, 2012; Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site Condition Survey, Wessex Archaeology, 2010). There are 442 Scheduled Monuments across the NCA including Neolithic long mounds, bronze-age round barrows and enclosures, hill forts, Saxon earthworks and chalk-cut horse figures. Historic routeways bordered by historic hedgerows remain in use today, with byways and bridleways providing for walkers, cyclists, horse riders and, in some places, motorised vehicles. This includes the Ridgeway National Trail which traverses the top of the higher escarpment, linking key prehistoric monuments such as the White Horse and associated iron-age fort at Uffington.

Historic, often sunken routes wind from the uplands down into the dip slope valleys to reach farmsteads and settlements clustering along valley bottoms. Historic farmsteads typically have a courtyard plan, with outfarms built away from the main steading being a rare feature (Berkshire and Marlborough Downs Historic Profile, English Heritage). Traditional buildings are often constructed with timber and brick, while flint and hard bands of chalk are also common. Sarsen stone is found in the west and cob walls are distinctive. Roofing materials include thatch, tiles and Welsh slate.

Marlborough and Hungerford are the principal towns of the Downs sited on the London-Bath road and beside the River Kennet. The River Kennet is a chalk river and, with its few tributaries including the Lambourn, it drains the dip slope to feed the Thames. The Pang in the east drains directly to the Thames. Chalk rivers are characteristically clear and water-crowfoots are common. Pea mussel, whiteclawed crayfish, wild brown trout and brook lamprey thrive in stretches of good habitat. The River Lambourn SAC is one of the least modified chalk rivers in the country (SAC description) while other rivers have been restored or enhanced. Fishing interests influence management of watercourses and fish populations. Some watercourses exhibit artificially low flows as well as sediment pollution.

The flood plains support significant areas of grassland and wetlands of natural and historic interest, including watermeadows. Reedbeds, ditches and wet meadows in the Kennet and Lambourn Floodplain SAC support Desmoulin’s whorl snail while a complex of wet woodlands lie in the Kennet Valley Alderwoods SAC. However, the majority of the valleys are managed productively, with arable crops making the most of the fertile soils.

Woodland grows on steep valley sides and on clay-with-flint deposits on lower dip slope ridges. Woodlands contain features of archaeological interest, including the Bedwyn Dyke in Savernake. Savernake Forest is largely unsettled and represents the largest concentration of woodland in the NCA, with much of this being ancient. There are wood pasture, heathland and veteran trees supporting lichens and birds such as hawfinch.

To the south-west of Savernake is the Vale of Pewsey, a low-lying corridor of Upper Greensand enclosed by the escarpments of the Downs and, to the south, Salisbury Plain. A mainline railway passes through as well as the Kennet and Avon Canal which is a corridor for recreation, wildlife and historic features. Tree-lined, groundwater-fed watercourses flow south to the Hampshire Avon, bordered by meadows, pastures and wetlands. The headwaters of the River Avon SAC conserve Desmoulin’s whorl snail, brook lamprey and fish spawning grounds. Grade 1 agricultural land sustains arable crops and remnant orchards.

The landscape through time

Between 145 and 95 million years ago, the Upper Greensand bedrock flooring the Vale of Pewsey was laid down. Chalk was subsequently deposited between 95 and 70 million years ago under warm seas.

During the Palaeogene (60 to 40 million years ago), the London Basin syncline was formed by massive earth movements, tilting the Chalk into the Basin. In the south-west, the Chalk was uplifted to form an anticline but erosion of the Chalk has since reduced the elevation to create the low-lying Pewsey Vale. Silts, sands and clays were also deposited at the bottom of the dip slope. Sarsen stones were later formed through the cementing of some of these deposits.

During the Quaternary glaciations (the last 2.6 million years), tundra conditions made the Chalk impermeable, allowing water to flow across the dip slope, scouring valleys and the escarpment. Watercourses shaped terraces of gravels and sands, as exemplified by the Kennet terraces, and weathering of the Chalk produced the widespread clay-with-flint deposits. The rare sarsen stone ‘trains’ at Fyfield Down, now an NNR, illustrate how frost heave shifted these stones across the ground. Unique lower plant communities have since evolved on these stones.

Evidence of the earliest humans is associated with Palaeolithic artefacts found in the clay-with-flints around Hungerford and in Kennet terrace deposits (The Lower Palaeolithic Occupation of Britain, J Wymer, 1999). By the late Mesolithic, woodland was being cleared off high ground to attract grazing animals. With the development of agriculture and changes to soils in the Neolithic (4th and 5th millennia BC), the characteristic chalk downland vegetation first appeared (The North Wessex Downs landscape: a landscape assessment of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Countryside Agency, 2002). Neolithic peoples constructed Avebury stone circle using sarsen stones and, along with other monuments, it remains as a legacy of the mortuary ritual and ceremonial life of some of the earliest farmers in Britain.

Many of the most important prehistoric monuments date from the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age and are linked by the Ridgeway, which is considered to represent one of the oldest routeways in Britain. Several monuments centred on Avebury are recognised as internationally significant by World Heritage Site designation, including the largest man-made mound in Europe known as Silbury Hill. The concentration of unique causewayed enclosures around the Vale of Pewsey and numerous long mounds around Avebury suggest the development of different regional traditions.

By the Bronze Age, field systems were established on the Marlborough and Lambourn Downs and woodland was managed for firewood and timber. The late Bronze Age saw more substantial building and settlements, including the first example of ‘hill fort’ construction at Rams Hill.

Hill forts continued to be developed in the Iron Age, including the so-called Uffington Castle, while the first chalk-cut horse figure at Uffington is associated with this period. Iron-age farming evolved to combine sheep grazing and cultivated fields across the area, the boundaries of which remain visible today, mostly as cropmarks. Livestock farming gave rise to droving and trade routes and monuments for containing livestock – ‘banjo’ enclosures (Introductions to Heritage Assets: Banjo Enclosures, English Heritage, 2011). Large nucleated settlements had developed, often at strategic points such as river crossings.

Following the Roman conquest in 43 AD, the Roman settlement of Cuentio was established on the River Kennet. Villa estates adapted existing farmsteads and field systems with their linear boundaries on the Lambourn Downs and elsewhere. New roads were built, including the Roman road from Swindon to Aldbourne.

During the Anglo-Saxon period, the area lay on the boundary between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. Iron-age hill forts were re-defended and the Wansdyke and Bedwyn Dyke defined territorial boundaries. Many valley settlements – including Avebury – had been established by the 11th century. Large estates were established, apportioning meadow, arable lower slopes and pasture on the high ground to villas and manors. ‘Strip’ parishes reflect these ancient boundaries and retain routeways linking vale to down. The royal hunting grounds of Savernake and Barroc were established, probably as continuous woodland.

The Normans introduced new features including Marlborough’s motte and bailey and ‘pillow mounds’ for farming rabbits. As with nearby chalk landscapes, the Downs were a prime area for corn and sheep farming in the medieval period. Market centres included Burbage, Pewsey and Marlborough.

Throughout the medieval period, population growth and decline drove cycles of cultivation and reversion to pasture. Strip lynchets on the steep slopes of Morgan Hill are evidence of an intense land-hunger in the 13th century. Successions of earthworks at Fyfield Down NNR and elsewhere indicate the flux between arable and pasture which prevailed throughout history.

Disease and famine in the 14th century brought desertion of villages as well as arable reversion. Sheep numbers rose, stimulated by a growing wool and cloth industry, to the extent that East Ilsley became home to the biggest sheep fair in the country and Marlborough became an important textile centre. Fulling mills were built along the chalk rivers.

In the late 15th and 16th centuries, the amalgamation of holdings and informal enclosure led to the establishment of some of the largest farms in the country. This contrasts with Savernake where small-scale holdings persisted. Further increases in farm size occurred in the late 18th century in addition to formal Parliamentary enclosures.

Areas of down pasture were converted to arable and rectangular, regular boundaries came to dominate. Significant areas of woodland were also clear felled to supply the Navy and industry during the 18th and 19th centuries. By 1810, the Kennet and Avon Canal provided a fully navigable waterway between Bath and London, and this was later followed by the Great Western Railway in 1841. Improved transport links to London stimulated watercress-growing (Action for the River Kennet, 2013) and dairying (Historic Farmsteads – Preliminary Character Statement – South East Region, English Heritage, 2006). Local industries now included brewing and sarsen stone-cutting and the area had become known for trout fishing and horse racing.

In the early 20th century, the significance of the area’s prehistoric archaeology was promoted through Alexander Keiller’s research, building on work in earlier centuries by antiquarians John Aubrey and William Stukeley. More recently, the Second World War meant the introduction of pillboxes along the Kennet and Avon Canal (Ibid) and a legacy of airfields (Ibid). The World Wars also stimulated a revival and intensification of arable production involving the amalgamation of fields, cultivation of slopes and decline of traditional downland pasture. By the 1950s, amalgamation had created exceptionally large farmsteads by national standards. Dew ponds, small woodlands and flood plain meadows fell out of use while scrub cover increased and the Kennet Valley alder woods developed (Kennet Valley Alderwoods SAC description). Drying of the Kennet headwaters was first recorded in the 1930s. Dutch elm disease had a particularly significant impact on hedgerows in the Vale of Pewsey where elms had been prominent.

More recently, the area has been a focus for conservation and restoration. In 1972, the area was designated as part of the North Wessex Downs AONB and there has since been targeted conservation management of downland pasture, farmland bird habitat, chalk streams and key historic monuments. Low flow alleviation schemes were initiated in the 1970s to benefit the chalk streams and continue to this day alongside pollution prevention measures such as phosphate-removing plants along the Kennet (Action for the River Kennet website, 2013). In 1986, Avebury was listed as a World Heritage Site together with Stonehenge and associated monuments. The Kennet and Avon Canal was reopened in the 1990s following restoration.