Thursday, 10 August 2017

Wansdyke and Bishop's Cannings

I planned out this walk over five years ago and have finally got around to doing it. The recent weather has been of grey skies with quite a bit of rain. As it had rained so much yesterday I thought I ought to head to the chalk hills as the paths are never muddy. Perhaps because the weather had discouraged from walking for so long I overcompensated and took rather a lot of photographs (194) nearly exhausting two camera batteries in the process. The walk was about 14 miles; here is a map of the route:

The original ambition was to do a considerable section of the Wansdyke which is an impressive man made feature running from Marlborough to Devizes (roughly). The Wansdyke is by most people considered a post-Roman defensive system built up to defend against the Anglo-Saxons and then Danes who occupied the Thames Valley and this line would have helped keep them out of south-western and southern Britain. It is a shortened form of ‘Woden’s Dyke’ after the Anglo-Saxon god who also gives us Wednesday. However, I believe this section - from Marlborough to Devizes was older and merely re-cut in later times. It is rare for such a significant feature to be built in a short period for one purpose as it would represent such a huge amount of effort. I consider a smaller feature was present back in the mists of time as a tribal boundary.

The first part of the walk was a pleasant ascent to the ridge along which the Wansdyke runs, harebells were in good numbers.


The ditch is impressive. It runs along the crest of the chalk downs for some miles. It marks an important watershed, to the north the waters drain east into Kennet that ends up at London, to the south the waters drain west to the river Avon through Bath and Bristol.

Wansdyke ditch

It was only when I reached the Wansdyke that I remembered my original reason for wanting to walk this route. I had visited Avebury with its amazing stone circle (the largest in the world), south avenue but also Silbury Hill. Silbury Hill is one of the most impressive earthworks and its function has been the subject of much debate. It is the largest man-made mound in Europe. It is located some distance from Avebury and seems unrelated to the other ancient features. It has now been reliably dated to the late Neolithic (2490-2340 BCE). I wondered whether its chief function was to advertise the presence of the tribe in the valley. Silbury Hill is certainly very prominent in the landscape, and if it was left as pure white chalk it would have stood out like a beacon. You can just about see Avebury church to the right of the hill in the distance,

Silbury Hill

This is the view of Silbury Hill a couple of miles further along the Wansdyke. I had to wait for the sun to catch the hill so it stood out rather like the white chalk would have done. I think it would clearly advertise to anyone coming north from the Vale of Pewsey that this land was occupied by a powerful tribe.

Silbury Hill

The land then fell away a little but the Wansdyke was still present as a significant ‘gash’ in the landscape. Centuries of farming have not really dented its splendour. I can't help thinking of a dim echo of the Great Wall of China!

Wansdyke ditch

There was a fairly strong northerly breeze and on the protected south side were a number of butterflies soaking up the sun. The real star was this Wall Brown butterfly (Lasiommata megera). I had only seen one other wall brown before - about a month ago in the same area. It is a pretty thing much more exciting than the name suggests.

Wall butterfly,Lasiommata megera

Over much of the chalk were plants of Red Bartsia (Odontites vernus) dotted here and there.

red bartsia,Odontites vernus

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina or Argentina anserina) was also in flower .

silverweed,Potentilla anserina picframe

I found my favourite thistle - the Woolly Thistle (Cirsium eriophorum) - along the Wansdyke path.

woolly thistle,Cirsium eriophorum

A wildlife friendly farmer had planted a wide strip alongside the walk with wild-flowers. He had installed bird boxes along the side of a barn. The blue flower that always impresses, common in the mixes that are sown, is Phacelia - but not really a full native flower.


A bit further along I made another discovery. I saw a few blue flowers which I took for scabious but on closer inspection they were rather different and much more 'blue'. I believe this is Round-headed Rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare). I had thought this flower was only found in the Sussex downs. Looking online it does have a good population in this area and there is very little else it can be. Quite an exciting find as I had not expected to see it here.

round headed rampion

This particular stretch of path had been heavily grazed by cattle and that had helped the more interesting wild-flowers prosper rather than grass..


I then left the Wansdyke path to explore the Vale of Pewsey to the south. The track had a good range of wild-flowers including kidney vetch, field scabious, meadow's cranesbill and great willowherb.

These walks always give one or two wildlife surprises. Apart from seeing the wall brown and the rampion I must count seeing about 50 house martins among the highlights. They must have had a tough time in all the cool and wet weather and were making best possible use of the sunshine by sitting on the warm slates of one house. There were continual comings and goings which is encouraging for a species that is now much rarer than it used to be.

house martins

I then came to the small village of Bishop's Cannings, quite the epitome of a rural idyll. One villager had set out fresh eggs for sale with an honesty box, which is always a good sign. The church took my breath away. It has a strange look, monumental but as if several churches have been stuck together. My thoughts turned to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. The manor of Bishop's Cannings was owned by the bishops of Salisbury (hence the name) from Norman times so the bishop had the funds to extend the church at several stages in the current architectural style.

bishops cannings church

The church had many interesting features, I regret I had not much time to spend there. One of the most unusual is the ‘monk’s carrel’ which is a seat used for confession decorated with exhortations for good behaviour in latin dating back to the 15th century.

bishops cannings,monks carrell

It wouldn't be a proper English village without a quaint old thatched cottage, so here you go.

bishops cannings cottage

And so down to the Kennet and Avon Canal. Another walking project that is almost complete; in sections I have walked all the way along the towpath from Reading to Pewsey. I now was able to walk the section from Bishop's Cannings to Alton Barnes leaving only a couple of short sections to complete. I joined it at the swing bridge just by Bishop's Cannings where a boat had just gone through.

kennet and avon canal, canal, swing bridge

I am not a great fan of canals, particularly when they have long straight sections. However here it is a series of gentle curves and it had a nice wild-flower ‘verge’.

kennet and avon canal, canal

Near a defunct swing bridge was a plant that likes damp conditions. It is gypsywort (Lycopus europaeus), so called because it yields a dye that people used to darken their skin (before tanning aids) and so look more like gypsies.


Eventually I reached Honeystreet with a nice canal-side pub (The Barge Inn) and then headed north to Alton Barnes and Alton Priors. The villages are only half a mile apart but each has its own church. The church at Alton Priors is larger and on the south face of the tower was an unusually large sundial. Accounting for British Summer Time it was still keeping good time.

alton priors,sundial,church

I was going to include another butterfly at this point but decided to economise on pictures. I saw a good many Meadow Browns, a few Common Blues, Small Tortoiseshells and one or two Red Admirals, Peacocks, Green-veined whites and Small heaths. A prominent feature of the landscape that can not go unrecorded was the Alton Barnes White Horse. Not quite as impressive or as old (only 1812) as the one at Uffington.

white horse

I then followed the last segment of what is considered the Great Ridgeway. On the steep undisturbed slopes north of Alton Priors was a good selection of wild-flowers including Clustered Bellflower. In one area were some Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) plants in flower. This is a plant now often planted as part of a mix as the leaves are considered to add useful protein to fodder. Up here though I think this one has been here a long time and could be considered 'native'.

sainfoin,Onobrychis viciifolia

As I climbed up the steep path from Alton Barnes at 6pm a farmer was just about to start harvesting a huge field of wheat - he would be busy well into the night. I end with one final view looking east along the bases of the chalk downs towards Martinsell and Oare, they look a bit like the Seven Sisters to me.

chalk downs