Extensive (2750 acre) ancient oak and beech forest. Visit the Grand Avenue of beeches planted by Capability Brown, the Big Belly Oak and other veteran trees and try to see (or hear) crossbills, hawfinches and even a nightjar.
Two distinctive round hills topped with 18th century beech trees give a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and the nearby historic town of Dorchester on Thames. There is a hillfort on Castle Hill, with earthworks dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages. The hills can be seen from miles around and are popular with local people for kite flying and weekend walks. Just a short walk away are Days Lock on the river Thames and Dorchester Abbey.
The Down became famous, first from Richard Adams’s book Watership Down about a group of rabbits, then the animated film accompanied by Art Garfunkel’s song ‘Bright Eyes’. Rabbits can still be found on the Down along with rare butterflies such as the Adonis Blue and Silver-spotted Skipper. The Down is a well-known beauty spot and is well used by walkers. Stunning views from Woodcott Down and Ladle Hill contrast with the picturesque Hampshire villages of St. Mary Bourne and Binley.
No need to travel the world to experience the delights of a rainforest as surprisingly there is one on our doorstep. Located at Hampstead Norreys, The Living Forest’s tropical glasshouses are packed with over 700 species of plants and animals normally found in exotic locations. A great day out for children, who can watch birds, butterflies and lizards roam free in their natural habitat.
Located to the south west of Marlborough, West Woods are famous for their spectacular display of bluebells in May and early June. The woods are almost entirely made up of beech trees and are very popular with walkers and wildlife photographers. Bluebell woods can also be found at Collingbourne and Coldridge Woods, Hailey Wood in the grounds of Ashdown House and in Brightwalton. A little earlier in the year in February, you can see the glorious snowdrop display at Welford Park.
Situated on the northern escarpment of the downs, the hill is world-famous for its stylised Bronze-Age chalk White Horse. Just below the White Horse the last Ice Age has left a dry valley with rippled sides known as Giant’s Steps – a must for landscape photographers. On top of the hill is an Iron Age fort with a rampart and ditch. The fort is the highest point in Oxfordshire and on a clear day gives a view of six counties.
Letcombe Valley has one of only two chalk streams in Oxfordshire. The clear waters of this rare habitat are home to some unusual and interesting wildlife including Bullhead fish, Brook Lamprey (a primitive jawless fish) and Water Vole. The chalk streams of the Kennet, Lambourn, Pang and Og also flow through the North Wessex Downs. Meanwhile, watercress is still grown by the River Bourne in North Hampshire.
A wonderful sweep of chalk downland located to the north of the Pewsey Vale. The reserve covers three hills and includes Alton Barnes chalk white horse cut into the hillside. The reserve offers great opportunities for wildlife photography with a landscape views stretching across the Vale of Pewsey to Salisbury Plain. While you are there, also look out for the Sarsen stones, known locally as ‘Grey Weathers’. Other magnificent examples of chalk downland can be found at Cherhill Down, Barbury Castle, Seven Barrows at Lambourn, Walbury Hill and Beacon Hill.
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Rare Habitats and Wildlife Sites
The North Wessex Downs are home to some very special wildlife sites, many designated as ‘Sites of Special Scientific Interest’. A must for the wildlife enthusiast who likes to get off the beaten track. Rack Marsh is a fine old wet meadow characteristic of the Lambourn Valley in days gone by, with considerable botanical interest. Full of rushes and sedges, it is possible to find such plants as early marsh orchids and Water Avens. Abandoned lime workings at Old Burghclere are now a refuge for rare flowers and butterflies. Kintbury newt ponds and the watermeadows of Freeman’s Marsh and Stonebridge Lane can be found along the Kennet Valley. ‘Commons’ dating from the Medieval period are a great place to walk, including those at Inkpen, Ashampstead, Snelsmore and Bucklebury.