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A Guide to History Through the Ages Along the North Wessex Downs

A Guide to History Through the Ages Along the North Wessex Downs

Along the way you’ll enter medieval castles, historic inns and a watermill turned theatre. Contrast prehistoric mysteries with marvels of the Industrial Revolution, all amid the high chalk plateaus and wandering river valleys of the North Wessex Downs. If you like a bit of everything when it comes to history, preferring to peer in at one century then dash off to investigate another, this is the itinerary for you. In 3 days you’ll get an easy introduction to the people and places of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty through time...

Day 1 

Today is a day of castles. Start your historical odyssey in style by visiting Highclere Castle. The Downton Abbey set is less than 2 hours from central London by car or coach. Although you’ll associate Highclere with the glittering 1920s glamour featured in the TV series, the estate’s real history extends as far back as 749 when Bishop William of Wykeham constructed a medieval palace on the site.

Since then the building and grounds have been reimagined by some remarkable people - including landscaping genius Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1770s and architect Sir Charles Barry, designer of the Houses of Parliament, in the 1840s. During WWI it was even converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Your visit will bring all this and much more to life. Good to know: Highclere is only open to the public seasonally and for special events - see the website for tickets.
Did you know? A new Downton Abbey film has been announced, to be released in autumn 2019.

Afterwards, make your way to Donnington Castle. The 14th-century castle was severely damaged in the English Civil War. Although only earthworks and a gatehouse remain, it was once considered very luxurious - so luxurious that on separate occasions it hosted both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth. Did you know? Thomas Chaucer, son of famous poet Geoffrey Chaucer, once lived here. 

Or, stay close to Highclere, and take a walk up Beacon Hill where you can admire Donnington Castle from on high. It’s a strenuous but short hike up to the hill fort, but the fantastic views are well worth it and you may even be joined by red kites and skylarks. Plus you’ll get to see Lord Carnarvon’s burial place - the former Highclere Castle resident is legendary for his role in the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. 

Check into your hotel. Nearby Donnington Grove Hotel is a gothic mansion with an intriguing past. It was once home to Daisy Fellowes, a 1930s fashion icon, who spent much time renovating the property in her singular style. She was well-known for her high society antics, love of ludicrously expensive jewels and for inspiring the colour Shocking Pink.

Continue the drama with dinner and a show at The Watermill Theatre in Bagnor, just a 10-minute drive from Newbury in an idyllic rural setting. Built in 1830 as a working corn and then paper mill, it was repurposed in the 1960s and is now a highly respected theatre. Recent performances have ranged from historical satire to modern takes on Charlotte Brontë classics.
Good to know: You can book a casual pre-show buffet or a 3-course post-show meal.

Day 2 

There’s a lot to fit in today - about 5,000 years in fact. The North Wessex Downs is positively packed with prehistoric sites, but luckily many of the major ones are situated close together. (If you’re tempted to delve into motoring history, by the way, consider hiring one of Vintage Classics’ Aston Martins or Jaguar E-Types to navigate between them). 

You could head straight for the iconic stones of Stonehenge. Or have a wander round Avebury, part of the same World Heritage Site, where you’ll find the largest prehistoric stone circle in the world. And there’s heaps of burial mounds to see… Enter the cavernous tomb at West Kennet Long Barrow or come up with your own theories about Silbury Hill - no evidence of burials has ever been found within, leaving its purpose curiously unexplained. Did you know? Victorian visitors to Stonehenge hired chisels to chip off bits of the sacred stones as souvenirs. Thankfully the stones are now very well protected - and there’s a wonderful gift shop selling much less destructive treasures. 

Pick a historic town to make your base for the night - Marlborough or Hungerford. Both were coaching towns along the Great West Road, with the Halfway Inn (between Newbury and Hungerford) offering stagecoach passengers a rest stop halfway between London and Bath

Enjoy a leisurely afternoon rummaging through antique shops and stopping for afternoon tea. The Tutti Pole in Hungerford does fabulous luxury afternoon teas including mini meringues and even a little bottle of prosecco if you fancy some sparkles. A short stroll from the café brings you to Hungerford Common where General Eisenhower reviewed massed allied troops in 1944.  Today you can walk over prehistoric and medieval field boundaries, explore wartime fortifications or just enjoy the lovely views across the Kennet Valley and towards the Berkshire Downs. You could also stop in at The Merchant’s House in Marlborough. This handsome 17th-century home of wealthy silk merchant Thomas Bayly stands on one of the widest High Streets in England.

Did you know? Hungerford is the only place in England that still marks the medieval Hocktide festival. It’s evolved over the years, but these days the week-long festival features lots of feasting, ale-tasting and the donation of oranges in exchange for kisses. Tutti Day, the second Tuesday after Easter Sunday, is the main event, with the Tutti Men’s costumed parade carrying Tutti poles decorated with flowers down the High Street. Find out more here.

Settle in for dinner and drinks at a nice historic inn. Both Marlborough and Hungerford have some excellent options. While in Inkpen, just outside Hungerford, you’ll find The Crown & Garter. At this 17th-century restaurant with rooms you can tuck into a hearty fireside dinner before retiring to your beautifully refurbished courtyard room. 

Day 3 

This morning, visit Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes - it’ll help put some of what you’ve seen over the past couple of days into context. You’ll behold gold from the time of Stonehenge, discover the origins of the Kingdom of Wessex and learn what Devizes would have been like in Georgian times. The Kennet and Avon Canal Museum is another great option if you’d like to see some intriguing artefacts from the canal. Plus there’s the lovely Wharf Tea Rooms - treat yourself to a marshmallow-topped hot chocolate.

Next stop: Wadworth Brewery. Take a guided tour to find out more about its Victorian heritage and learn about the shire horses that still make local deliveries just as they did back then. You’ll also get to see where artists paint the brewery’s distinctive hand-painted pub signs and enjoy a tutored sampling of some of their ales (6X is a favourite). Good to know: They serve delicious hot pies, perfect for lunch, at the Harness Room Bar in the Visitor Centre.

Afterwards, head out into the countryside for a refreshing stroll in the Vale of Pewsey. The Vale Trail takes in some industrial history hotspots including Crofton Beam Engines, the Kennet and Avon Canal and Wilton Windmill. While The Wansdyke Path offers big skies and spectacular views from the rolling chalk downs of one of the North Wessex Downs’ 8 white horses, a National Nature Reserve and a whole series of prehistoric hill forts.

After such a history-packed final day on the Great West Way, you’ll want somewhere comfy to spend the evening. Two excellent choices include Troutbeck Guest House, Pewsey, a boutique B&B with a foodie pub, the Red Lion Freehouse, just across the road, and Manor Farm - a Grade II-listed farmhouse in the village of Collingbourne Kingston, with dreamy vistas of the North Wessex Downs to wake up to. 

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Product Information

  1. North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty


    The rolling North Wessex Downs encompass some of England’s finest landscapes. The North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) was created in 1972 to conserve and enhance the natural beauty and tranquillity of these landscapes.

  2. Vintage Classics


    Explore the beautiful and picturesque west country at your own pace in a classic car from the 1960’s 70’s 80’s or 90’s. Your adventure starts behind the wheel of an iconic two seater sports car or a four seater saloon. Choose to start your tour in an E-Type Jaguar, Jaguar MKII (of Inspector Morse…

  3. Marlborough

    Marlborough is situated in the picturesque rural north-east of Wiltshire.

    Much of its great natural beauty is environmentally protected and it offers the discerning visitor a unique blend of modern attractions and facilities. Site of a twice-weekly market, the High Street is one of the widest in…

  4. Hungerford


    In the far west of West Berkshire, alongside the Kennet & Avon Canal and surrounded by beautiful countryside, the charming market town of Hungerford boasts impressive transport links for a town of its size. It is conveniently placed for access to the M4 motorway and is on the main train line from…

  5. What's happening in Newbury?


    Alongside the Kennet & Avon Canal, the largest town in West Berkshire, Newbury, has a bustling high street with many interesting shops, which include unique stores such as family-run department store Camp Hopson.

  6. Bath


    The golden city of Bath has been welcoming visitors for over 2,000 years. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Bath is home to some of the most impressive architectural sights in the world such as the Royal Crescent, the Circus and Pulteney.

  7. The Tutti Pole


    A family run restaurant established in 1981 that offers a warm welcome and friendly service along with a vast choice of quality homemade food from light snacks to full meals. Open from 9a.m.- 5.30 p.m. weekdays and 9a.m.- 6p.m. weekends.

  8. The Merchant's House


    The Merchant's House - a glorious restoration of a 17th century silk merchant's house. The 17th century style town garden is a hidden gem, voted Garden of the Year 2009 by Wiltshire Life magazine.

  9. Devizes


    Devizes is a historic market town with a colourful Medieval past, wealth of history and architectural heritage with more than 500 listed buildings and a large Market Place in the heart of the town.   This can all be enjoyed as you discover the wide range of traditional independent shops or peruse…

  10. Wadworth Brewery, Tap and Shop


    Family friendly, self guided Visitor Centre and interactive exhibition – Free entry
    On-site Sample bar with five cask ales on draught. 1/3 pint samples can be purchased.
    Traditional pub games are available to play in the bar.

  11. Vale of Pewsey

    Located in the heart of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and between Stonehenge and Avebury, the Vale of Pewsey is ideal for getting off the beaten track and has plenty of friendly and atmospheric places to stay, eat, drink and shop

  12. Troutbeck Guest House


    This Michelin-starred country pub has a national reputation for serving outstanding food in a quintessential pub setting; the recent addition of their 5 star boutique guest house means you can experience a room just as special as the food.

  13. Red Lion Freehouse


    This Michelin-starred country pub has a national reputation for serving outstanding food in a quintessential pub setting; the recent addition of their 5 star boutique guest house means you can experience a room just as special as the food.

  14. Stonehenge

    Nr Amesbury

    Stonehenge stands impressively as a prehistoric monument of unique importance, a World Heritage Site, surrounded by remains of ceremonial and domestic structures - some older than the monument itself.


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Itinerary Distances

FromToDistance * (metric)
North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (51.41393,-1.49522)Vintage Classics (51.37318,-2.14073)40.56
Vintage Classics (51.37318,-2.14073)Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site (51.41514,-2.03278)7.95
Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site (51.41514,-2.03278)Marlborough (51.41998,-1.73264)18.76
Marlborough (51.41998,-1.73264)Hungerford (51.41237,-1.51697)13.5
Hungerford (51.41237,-1.51697)What's happening in Newbury? (51.40368,-1.32427)12.08
What's happening in Newbury? (51.40368,-1.32427)Bath (51.3856,-2.36168)64.88
Bath (51.3856,-2.36168)The Tutti Pole (51.41647,-1.51478)53.03
The Tutti Pole (51.41647,-1.51478)The Merchant's House (51.42071,-1.73135)13.54
The Merchant's House (51.42071,-1.73135)Devizes (51.35258,-1.99576)17.89
Devizes (51.35258,-1.99576)Wadworth Brewery, Tap and Shop (51.35408,-1.99836)0.22
Wadworth Brewery, Tap and Shop (51.35408,-1.99836)Vale of Pewsey (51.3398,-1.76513)14.67
Vale of Pewsey (51.3398,-1.76513)Troutbeck Guest House (51.27276,-1.80071)7.08
Troutbeck Guest House (51.27276,-1.80071)Red Lion Freehouse (51.2726,-1.80063)0.02
Red Lion Freehouse (51.2726,-1.80063)Manor Farm B & B Collingbourne Kingston (51.30175,-1.65978)9.3
Manor Farm B & B Collingbourne Kingston (51.30175,-1.65978)Stonehenge (51.18406,-1.85768)17.12
Total Distance *290.54 miles
Estimated Journey Time9.35 hours

* Approximate distance by road

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