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Combine a gentle canalside stroll with a stiff downland climb to the summit of Oare Hill for magnificent views across the Vale of Pewsey.
Distance 5 miles (8km)
Minimum time 2hrs 15min
Ascent/gradient 393ft (120m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Tow path, tracks, field paths, lanes, 4 stiles
Landscape Vale of Pewsey and chalk downland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 157 Marlborough & Savernake Forest
Start/finish SU 157610
Dog friendliness Let off lead along tow path
Parking Free car park at Pewsey Wharf
Public toilets None on route
1 Facing the canal, turn right along the tow path and walk beside the canal for just over a mile (1.6km) to the second bridge. Cross the stile on your right before the bridge and turn left along the lane, crossing the canal bridge. At a road junction, keep ahead towards downland. Pass cottages on your right and proceed ahead through the gateway along the drive. Where this bears left to West Wick House, continue straight on along the grass-centred track, which soon narrows and begins to climb steadily towards Martinsell Hill. Go through a gate and bear left at the fork to ascend a steep sunken lane (this can be muddy). At the top, keep left of the gate, disregard the waymarked stile on your right and bear left alongside the fence, following a path towards the long barrow on the summit of Oare Hill that's known as the Giant's Grave.
2 Follow the path past the trig point and descend the steep grassy slope towards Oare, soon to reach a stile at the bottom. Bear left along the field edge and follow the path across the field to a gate and crossing of ways. Take the footpath ahead, bearing right, then left around the field edge to reach a lane. Cross the stile opposite and bear half-left across the field to a stile. Cut across the field corner to a further stile and turn right along a track. Keep ahead where it bears right towards a farm and continue to the Kennet and Avon Canal. Cross the bridge and bear left back down to rejoin the tow path, passing Jones's Mill - The Vera Jeans Nature Reserve.
3 Retrace your steps back to the car park at Pewsey Wharf.
The Vale of Pewsey separates Wiltshire's two principle areas of chalk downland, Salisbury Plain to the south and the Marlborough Downs to the north. Through its heart meanders the Kennet and Avon Canal, the longest and most important of the canals within Wiltshire, built between 1794 and 1810 to link the River Kennet, which flows into the Thames at Reading, with the River Avon at Bath. It was used to carry iron, coal, stone and timber from Bristol and to bring luxuries like tobacco and spirits from London. The canal company built the wharf at Pewsey to serve the village, but it was never a great commercial success and was eclipsed by those at nearby Burbage to the east and Honey Street to the west. It remains much as it was in the past. The main buildings consists of a cottage, which would have housed the wharfinger - owner or keeper - of the wharf, and the two-storey warehouse, used to store goods transported by canal.
The Giants Grave is an ancient unchambered burial site that has a charming legend associated with it. It is claimed that the giant will stir from his slumbers if anyone runs around the tomb seven times. Standing as it does on the top of Oare Hill, it is a splendid vantage point from which to savour far-reaching views across the Vale of Pewsey and the North Wessex Downs. You can also see the impressive combes and dry valleys etched into the downland scarp slopes away to your right. The unimproved chalk downlands along the steep escarpment of the vale and on nearby Martinsell Hill are noted for their extremely rich chalk grassland flora, notably cowslip, burnt orchid and devil's bit scabious, and a wide variety of butterflies including Adonis and chalkhill blue and dark green fritillary butterflies.
Bordering the River Avon and fed by numerous springs, this wetland reserve, or fen, is a rare environment within Wiltshire and an exciting place because of the diverse wildlife it supports. Since the water-meadows were abandoned, the site has developed an exceptionally rich flora with 14 species of sedge (a grass-like plant) alone. Dotted among the sedge you will also find bogbean, bog pimpernel and southern marsh orchid. An unusual sight are the belted Galloway cattle which graze the fen to keep the coarser vegetation at bay, thus allowing the more delicate flowers to thrive. The wet woodland in the middle of the reserve has an understorey of huge tussock sedges and great horsetails creating a prehistoric landscape.
Visit nearby Pewsey and its heritage centre in the High Street. Housed in an 1870s foundry, it contains a collection of agricultural machinery. Cut into Pewsey Hill south of the village is the Pewsey White Horse, carved in 1937 on the site of an older horse (1785) to celebrate the coronation of George VI. The climb is worth it for the inspiring views.
From the Giants Grave look west across Oare to locate Oare House on the west side of the village. This small mansion has associations with Clough Williams-Ellis of Portmeirion fame. He added the symmetrical wings in the 1920s.
Occupying the former wharfinger's cottage and with its small canalside garden, the welcoming Waterfront Café at Pewsey Wharf offers light lunches and snacks all day and is the perfect resting place after your walk. Alternatively, try the French Horn pub across the bridge.