Oh I do love to be beside the… hilltops. Oh I do love to be beside the… sheeeeeeep
But sar-iously though, a weekend in the English countryside is a dream come true for this London girl. Bugger off smoky fog, gimmie that scent of fresh horse droppings. A few times a year, I coax my Dad and Poppy the lab into a rural escape, most recently running to the plains of the North Wessex Downs.
Where on earth is that? I hear you say, for that’s what I thought when I saw it on the map. Well have you know it, sitting directly under the grey industrial skies of Swindon is a vast Outstanding Area of Natural Beauty, packed with National Trust houses and sunny rolling hills.
We booked in for a short snappy 2 night stay in a farmhouse on AirBnb, staying in the town of Pewsey. With it being just a one hour direct train ride from London, it meant I could leave bang on 6pm on Friday and stay until the early evening on Sunday.
Over two full days my Dad, Poppy and I explored the majority of the west side of the reserve, finding the best places to visit…
The Alton Barnes White Horse
Lying in wait across Milk Hill is the Alton Barnes White Horse, a 200 year old figure, dug from the ground’s chalky residue. The story is one of classic British thievery; farmer pays painter to do the job, painter runs of with the money half way through. Bastard.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, the area has an additional mare known as the Pewsey Horse just south of the town. It is said that said farmer, or indeed his father, may have also created this first figure.
Tip: The horse is perfectly viewed from the roads surrounding it, with even an opportunity to witness private stable horses in the morning under its chalky glow.
The Vale of Pewsey
The rolling hills of Pewsey are completely unspoilt, packed with forests, canals and wildlife (including a few herds of rather friendly cows). Whilst driving through, stop along the lanes for short walks to the vale’s peaks where striking views can be admired over the surrounding countryside.
West Kennet Avenue
Leading to the town of Avebury is West Kennet Avenue, a prehistoric strip of GIGANTIC stones leading on for over 2km. You can drive or walk down the avenue where the standing rocks remain for the first 800m.
Originally 100 stones lined the trail, ranging from 4 to 13 feet high. They continue on to Avebury whose own collection circulates the town like a creepy religious ritual. Here lies the world’s largest stone circle, rivalling the North Wessex Down’s even more famous site, Stonehenge.
Red Lion Freehouse
“That’s Rupert Everett”.
“Oh bloody hell Dad when I show you a message on my phone you’re not supposed to read it out!” I aggressively whispered across the table, hoping our A lister next door neighbour was the only person in the world whose ears don’t pipe up at their name.
The Michelin star Red Lion Freehouse is an absolute must for a visit to the North Wessex Downs. Set in a cosy village pub, warm comforting meals are served to locals, including Mr Everett. The menu changes with the season’s ingredients. A creamy artichoke soup was like luxuriously silk. The soft roast halibut fell apart with a mouthful of sprout flowers and bacon. Caramelised hazelnuts added a crunch to a sweet autumnal pumpkin rice pudding.
Make sure to reserve a table for you and your pup, and if you have one too many from their fine wine menu, you can always book a room upstairs.
Avebury Manor and Garden
The town of Avebury feels like a Victorian time warp. Owned by the National Trust, the area has been refurbed and restored to include a 17th century barn, church and museum, displaying the archaeological treasures from Alexander Keiller who dug up the area in the 1930s.
The treasure of the town is the Manor and Gardens, which was transformed by the BBC in 2011. They created a house through the ages with décor from various periods to demonstrate the lives of its previous owners from Williamson the travelling soldier, to the High Sheriff of Wiltshire.
The manor is perhaps one of the most enjoyable National Trust sites I’ve mooched around due to its interactive nature. Furnishings, belongings and even beds are there to be picked up, played with and bounced on.
Along the Kennet and Avon canal is Honeystreet, a road as quaint as it sounds. Among the thatched cottages and waterside pubs is the Honeystreet Wharf, a home-run cafe with a wide open garden next to the canals where guests can hire a boat after a cup of fresh tea.
After a short walk along the bank, we picked a rickety table by the water for a hot refreshment served in adorable vintage cups. Arriving at 5pm, the cake selection was short, the best bakes of the day long disappeared.
Not so much as a castle as more of a mound, Barbury is an open Iron Age fort that was occupied over 2500 years ago. To my Dad it was an interesting part of British history, an insight into how the Saxons fought… to me it was a nice grassy dune to wander along whilst admiring the views far and wide that can reach the Cotswolds and River Severn on a not so cloudy day.
Not to save my favourite for last but this house was unlike any I’ve seen on my curious visits to the National Trust sites.
Highly unusual and most definitely opulent, the once hunting lodge sits alone, a perfect square, surrounded by woodlands filled with deer and pheasants. To venture inside, one must take a free tour of the 100 steps leading up to the roof, available on the hour of every afternoon.
Not normally one to have a long attention span for a tour, I was surprised to be completely engaged as author and historian Nicola Cornick led us around the winding staircase, telling us more and more about the lavish Earl William Craven who used the house for his bachelor hunting weekends.
Before it became a place for booze and shooting, the white doll’s house was built for his secret lover, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, also known as the Queen of Hearts who basically became poor and seduced William for his dollar. Like all classic love stories, she died before she could see it. Oh.
Among many fascinating stories Nicola told us about the house, one I loved was the tale of the missing antlers. Among many of the treasures Elizabeth left to William, her prized hunting trophies were her favourite. Unfortunately William gave less of a shit about them and their location became a mystery for. years. One day a group of men playing football looked in a locked shed for something they could use as a goal post and came across a ginormous pile of wooden deer heads. As they began to stack them up as their goal, one not so ignorant male piped up “erm might these be worth something?” Well yes, yes there were.