A walk through an ancient forest landscape and beside a tranquil canal.
Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)
Minimum time 2hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 213ft (65m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Woodland tracks, tow path, bridle paths, country lanes
Landscape Forest, farmland, canal
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 157 Marlborough & Savernake Forest
Start/finish SU 215646
Dog friendliness Dogs can be off lead through Savernake Forest and along tow path
Parking Hat Gate 8 picnic area off A346 south of Marlborough
Public toilets None on route
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1 From the car park, turn right, then almost immediately left past a wooden barrier. Follow the wooded path for 500yds (457m), then bear right to reach the A346. Cross over near an old milestone and take the track beyond a wooden barrier, signed to Tottenham House.
2 In 150yds (137m), at a major crossing of routes, turn right and after a similar distance at a more minor crossing of paths, turn left. Follow this straight track (which can be very muddy in places) for ¾ mile (1.2km) to The Column.
3 Maintain direction towards Tottenham House, which is visible in the distance. On leaving the woodland, continue along a wide fenced track, eventually reaching a gate and road opposite the drive to Tottenham House.
4 Turn right, walk through the hamlet of Durley and keep to the lane across the old railway bridge, then the main railway bridge, and shortly take the footpath on the right, waymarked 'Wootton Rivers'. You are now walking above the Kennet and Avon Canal as it passes through the Bruce Tunnel.
5 Walk down some steps, pass through a narrow and low tunnel under the railway line and join the canal tow path just below the entrance to the Bruce Tunnel. Turn left along the tow path for about 1½ miles (2.4km), passing beneath the A346 at Burbage Wharf to reach Cadley Lock.
6 Turn right over bridge No 105 and follow the metalled track to a T-junction. Turn right and keep to the road, passing two dismantled railway bridges, back to the car park at Hat Gate.
Situated on an undulating chalk plateau high above Marlborough on the extreme north east edge of Salisbury Plain, Savernake consists of 2,300 acres (931.5ha) of mixed woodland managed by the Forestry Commission. In the Middle Ages, Savernake was a wilderness of bracken and heathland stretching for miles across the Wiltshire countryside and had been a royal hunting ground from long before the Norman Conquest. It was William the Conqueror (1027-87) who appointed the first hereditary warden, Richard Esturmy, and subsequent kings of England rode through the forest glades in pursuit of deer, which were in plentiful supply for the royal sport.
In the 15th century a daughter of the Esturmy family married into the Seymour family who then became wardens of Savernake. It was in 1535 that Jane Seymour, daughter of Sir John Seymour, was first introduced to King Henry VIII while he was hunting with Sir John in the forest. Local tradition has it that Henry VIII married Jane at Savernake, where a great barn was hung with tapestries and transformed into a banqueting hall for the wedding feast. Jane's brother, Edward Seymour, became warden in 1536 and was later created Protector of the Realm, the Duke of Somerset, on Henry VIII's death in 1547. He managed to persuade King Edward to transfer the ownership of Savernake from the Crown to the Seymour family. In 1676 it passed by marriage to the Bruce family and so to the present owner, the Marquis of Ailesbury, whose mansion, the present Tottenham House, was begun in 1781 by the first Earl of Ailesbury.
Although a large part of the forest was enclosed during the early 17th century, much of Savernake decayed due to the lack of systematic replanting following increased timber demands for shipbuilding. Few trees were declared fit for building use by a naval surveyor in 1675. Today's forest of grand oaks, chestnuts and stately beeches was the inspiration of landscape gardener 'Capability' Brown (1715-83). He planned the 4 mile (6.4km) long Grand Avenue that cuts north to south through the forest, and the eight lesser beech avenues which lead to its centre. Originally intended to be very formal, it now has an air of informality, with young broad-leaved trees and glorious tall pines intermingling with the surviving great beeches and ancient pollarded oaks.
You will experience the grandeur of this beautiful forest as you journey down one of the deliciously cool and shady rides to the Ailesbury Monument, an elegant classical column standing at the end of Column Ride, a straight 2 mile (3.2km) ride that extends to Tottenham House. The column was built by Thomas Bruce in memory of his uncle, Charles Bruce, a former Earl of Ailesbury, who 'left to him these estates and procured for him the barony of Tottenham'. The inscription also refers to George III who conferred upon Thomas Bruce the honour of an earldom.
The 16th-century, thatched and timber-framed Royal Oak Inn at Wootton Rivers on Walk 4 offers a good range of interesting pub food, real ales and a sun-trap courtyard. If hungry and thirsty, it is well worth undertaking the extra few miles as Walk 3 is devoid of a refreshment stop.
You may catch a glimpse of fallow deer, with fan-shaped antlers and spotted summer coats, slipping silently into a thicket as you walk through Savernake Forest. Well-lit clearings may be carpeted with primroses and the woods with bluebells, while wood anemones, wood sorrel and rosebay willowherb thrive in spring and early summer. As you cross the A346, note the old milestone in the hedge, 'To Tottenham House 2 miles, 3 furlongs and 143 yards. To Marlborough Town Hall, 2 miles, 7 furlongs and 70 yards'.
Drive east towards Great Bedwyn to see the magnificent steam-powered beam engines at Crofton Pumping Station or visit Wiltshire's only operating windmill at Wilton. If heading north towards Marlborough, lookout for the Big Belly Oak, one of Savernake's oldest trees, set right beside the A346.