Andrew Swift finds timeless splendour in a historic old battleground as it shrugs off its winter torpor
This month’s walk is a breezy stroll along one of the most spectacular stretches of the Wiltshire Downs. It starts by weaving through deep woodland to emerge at a viewpoint high above the town of Devizes, before heading north to follow a narrow track along the escarpment, with the ground shelving steeply away.
After leaving the woods, we head into open country, crossing Roundway Down, where a famous battle was fought 375 years ago, before skirting the ramparts of an iron age hillfort, down whose vertiginous slopes cavalrymen, fleeing the battle, fell headlong to their deaths. The sense that this is a place where history was forged in blood is inescapable. Yet, looking out today across the folded hills, with cloud shadows brushing across the patchwork fields below, such sombre reflections are blown away by the timeless splendour of the scene. Roundway is a down for all seasons – in spring, when the land shrugs off its winter torpor, in high summer when flowers bespeckle the chalk grasslands and the hazy air is alive with butterflies, in autumn when dying leaves are blown upon the wind, or in winter when snow lies late in banks and drifts.
One thing you always have to be prepared for up here is the wind – one of my most memorable visits was in late January this year, on a day when it was touching gale force. Few others had ventured out, yet frantic, eerie whistlings announced the presence of a red kite, soaring and wheeling in the teeth of the wind, the bleak and brooding down a perfect setting for its menacing insouciance. You may be lucky enough to see this most magnificent of birds on your visit. I was hoping for another sighting when I returned in early March but, although the songs of innumerable skylarks cheered the snowy scene, the kite failed to make an appearance.
To get to Roundway Down, head east out of Devizes along the A361. Three-quarters of a mile after leaving the town centre, turn left along Folly Lane, following a sign for Roundway. After another two-thirds of a mile, turn right just before a phone box. As you continue, look up ahead to see the fading outline of Wiltshire’s newest white horse, carved in 1999, and the only one facing right. When you come to a fork, bear left by a sign for Leipzig Plantation. After climbing steeply for a third of a mile, when the lane levels out, pull into a parking area (SU008640).Oliver’s Castle
Having parked, go through a kissing gate (KG for short) on the left, head across a field and go through another KG into Roundway Hill Covert, established to provide a cover for pheasants but now a nature reserve. Bear right to follow a track alongside the fence. When the fence curves right, carry straight on, following a track winding through bushes of box to emerge on the edge of the escarpment.
Below lies a patchwork of fields stretching far away, the horizon ringed by the undulating line of Salisbury Plain, while to the north the mistier heights of Mendip can be dimly descried. A right turn leads down a short flight of steps and into woodland, with the land shelving steeply away below you. With trees and undergrowth blocking any view to your right, walking this narrow path, squeezed onto the shoulder of the hill, has a curiously vertiginous feel.
Soon, an iron-age promontory fort, known as Oliver’s Castle comes into view ahead, its flattened profile topped by a few lone trees. Beyond it, far to the north-west, lie Lansdown and Cotswold Edge.
Then the path leads into the woods, the views disappear and, as the path curves up to the right, before continuing as before, all sense of being on the edge of an escarpment fades.
At the wood’s end, a gateway leads into a parking area. Turn left and carry on past another gate to follow a track between fences. On your right is the site of the Battle of Roundway Down, fought on 13 July 1643. After 300m, turn left through a handgate. Carry on along a rough track following the edge of the escarpment with a fence on your left and, after going through a KG, bear left towards the ramparts of Oliver’s Castle. This was named after Oliver Cromwell, despite it predating him by several millennia, and despite him not having fought at the Battle of Roundway Down, one of the greatest cavalry battles of the English Civil War. Unfortunately for the parliamentarians, they were not only on the losing side; when they fled westward from the battlefield, they tumbled down the precipitous slopes below you. Many were killed, many more injured, and an area at the bottom is still known as Bloody Ditch today.
When the track forks, by a post bearing the legend R5, fork right alongside the ramparts. The view northward from here is particularly dramatic, with the chalk headlands scored by drainage channels and sculpted by the wind into something resembling a line of frozen waves.
As you continue round the ramparts and start heading eastward, the woods of the covert come into view, like a cloak thrown over the hillside. Back at the parking area, you can either head south along a rough byway to return to your car, or retrace your steps through the woods and along the escarpment.
From there, it is a short drive into one of Wiltshire’s most fascinating historic towns. Devizes has a wide range of places to eat and drink, as well as a wealth of half-timbered buildings, Georgian terraces, old coaching inns and a couple of still-thriving market halls. You can also take a tour round a 19th-century brewery, visit the splendid Wiltshire Museum or stroll out along the towpath of the Kennet & Avon Canal to see one of the longest flights of locks in the country at Caen Hill.
At a glance
- Length: 3½ miles
- Time: 1½ hours
- Level of challenge: Straightforward, although with some muddy and uneven stretches
- Map: OS Explorer 157