Explore the breezy site of a famous Civil War battle and the ramparts of an
Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 262ft (80m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Tracks, field paths, stretches of road, 1 stile
Landscape High chalk downland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 157 Marlborough & Savernake Forest
Start/finish SU 013639
Dog friendliness Can be off lead along tracks but under control on farmland
Parking Car park by The Plantation north of Roundway village
Public toilets None on route
1 From the parking area take the track on your left which leads you across Roundway Hill for 1¼ miles (2km). Initially well surfaced, it becomes grassier and rutted as it swings slightly left to pass the site of the Civil War battle.
2 At a crossing of tracks, turn left along a gravelled track. On passing a barn the track becomes metalled, then in ½ mile (800m), at Hill Cottage, fork left. Where the track swings left, keep straight on along a narrow, rutted and often muddy track. Gently ascend and near the summit, climb the stepped stile on your left and keep straight ahead between two fields, with excellent views unfolding to your right. In 400yds (366m), turn right and follow the footpath around the top of the escarpment and around Oliver's Castle, eventually reaching a gate by a steep combe known as Bloody Ditch.
3 Walk beside woodland, cross a stile to a parking area and keep straight on along a track, ignoring a similar track right. In 200yds (183m), where the track swings left, turn right across a stile and walk along the left-hand field edge. Gradually ascend, then in the top corner, turn left over a stile into a wooded enclosure and turn right down the track just within the woodland. At the road, turn left, then left again, uphill to the car park.
Roundway Hill forms a wide ridge of high chalk downland below the summits of Beacon Hill, King's Play Hill and Morgan's Hill, which rise steeply out of the Avon Valley north of Devizes. Now a peaceful scene of wide open fields and grassy scarp slopes affording fine views towards the Cotswolds and Salisbury Plain, this breezy, unspoilt downland once rang with the sound of battle cries. On 13 July 1643 a small Royalist army defeated the Parliamentarians in a bloody skirmish that killed over 600 troops and saw 1,200 wounded or captured.
It was following an indecisive battle at Lansdown near Bath that the Parliamentarian army, led by Sir William Waller, pursued a weakened Royalist army and their blinded leader Lord Hopton to Devizes where they had occupied the castle and barricaded the streets. Weary, short of ammunition and aware that an unfortified Devizes would not withstand a siege for long, Hopton sent Prince Maurice to Oxford for reinforcements. Knowing that Hopton's cavalry were in bad shape, yet unaware that Prince Maurice had escaped from the town, Waller took his time in besieging the town as his troops needed rest following the Battle of Lansdown. Eventually, news that Prince Maurice and Lord Wilmot were returning to Devizes with three brigades of cavalry (2,000 men), forced Waller to rally his troops on Roundway Down.
Waller sent out his cavalry, known as 'The Lobsters', to meet Wilmot's brigade and it was here that the two mounted armies clashed. Wilmot's troopers charged twice and forced the Parliamentarians west towards Oliver's Castle. Waller's infantry was unable to fire at the Royalists for fear of hitting their own men.
The fleeing Parliamentarian cavalry, unaware of the steep scarp slope on the other side of Oliver's Castle, was chased to the edge and forced down the slope. Many men and horses broke their necks as they plunged over the 300ft (91m) precipice. Others were killed by the newly arrived Royalist infantry who had sallied forth from Devizes on hearing a prearranged gun signal from Lord Wilmot. Since then, this combe has been known as Bloody Ditch and skeletons and military equipment are still occasionally found in the area. Wilmot's cavalry returned to attack Waller's infantry, who fought on bravely. But, seeing the 2,000 Royalists troops rising over Roundway Down from Devizes, they broke and fled, and many were cut down by the victorious Royalists. The hill was subsequently named Runaway Hill by the Royalists, and this later became Roundway. The defeat of a superior balanced army arrayed in proper battle order by a column of cavalry that had ridden down from Oxford was regarded as a remarkable event. As a result of this loss, Waller was unable to replace the Earl of Wessex as Lord General of the Parliamentary army. Also, with no Parliamentary forces left in the West Country, the Royalists had won an important victory.
Visit Devizes Museum and see the Civil War weapons found on Roundway Down and read the collection of original pamphlets describing the Civil War battles and sieges. At the visitor centre in the Market Square there is an interactive exhibition about the battle and the history of Devizes.
Take a packed lunch to the picnic site above Bloody Ditch or take refreshment in Devizes if visiting the town's museum or visitor centre to learn more about the Civil War battle.
At the end of the walk, view the newest of the Wiltshire White Horses, the Millennium White Horse cut into Roundway Down in late 1999 to replace the White Horse that had long been overgrown since it was first cut in 1845.