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North Wessex Downs AONB

North Wessex Downs AONB logo

The evocative, albeit made-up, name for the AONB was created to give a protective coherence to one of the largest tracts of chalk downland in southern England and perhaps one of the least affected by development. It includes the bright, bare uplands of the Marlborough, Berkshire and North Hampshire Downs and sweeps on its western edge to a crest above the White Horse Vale.

In the east, the AONB’s chalk ridge meets the Thames and the Chilterns AONB along the wooded reaches of Goring Gap. It loops south round the Kennet Valley, with superb views north from the steep scarp edge, to fall gently away to the Test Valley. The AONB’s richly farmed valley landscapes are a pleasing foil to the chalk uplands. They include the Vale of Pewsey’s meadows and the handsome beech avenues and oak-fringed glades of Savernake Forest.

The importance of the surviving downland habitat and ancient woodland is matched in this AONB by its huge archaeological significance. Settled since 3000 BC, the downs are dotted with barrows and other prehistoric features. The Wansdyke earthwork, Roman roads and ancient tracks such as the Ridgeway add to a striking sense of antiquity. In places, distinctive white horses have been cut into the chalk, the most famous being the White Horse of Uffington. The neolithic stone circle at Avebury and surrounding monuments are included in a World Heritage Site.

Agriculture is the major land use in the AONB. Most of the downland sheep runs have been ploughed up for cereals and the valleys are among some of Britain’s most fertile farmland. Bordered by the growing towns of Swindon, Reading, Basingstoke and Andover, the AONB’s scattering of small towns and villages is inevitably becoming expensive commuter country.

Tourism in the AONB has to date been focused on localised sites such as Avebury. However, the AONB is of growing recreational importance both to visitors and to an expanding regional population. A number of initiatives, including the Ridgeway National Trail, and Kennet and Avon Canal Projects have developed to meet this need.