Start The Bear, Devizes, Wiltshire
Distance 10 miles one way (round trip by bus)
Time 5 hours
Total ascent 276 meters
Google map of the promenade
Three of us have traveled the British countryside together, on and off, since we left college decades ago. Our plan is to stay at the Bear in Devizes, walk 10 miles to Avebury, through the old downland, and get the bus back.
The sun is shining on the evening we arrive in Devizes and we walk through town to the Kennet and Avon Canal, descend the long flight of locks known as Caen Hill and back up the other side. The lower lock is called Moon Rake, after an old tale about Wiltshire smugglers. Caen (pronounced “cane”) Hill is a steep slope of 16 locks – part of a total of 29 over two miles from Kennet and Avon. As we return to the Bear for dinner, there is a golden evening light on the canal. Herons loom near the side ponds (rectangular ponds used to supply water to the canal) and dragonflies glow through fringes of purple loosestrife and fragrant meadowsweet at the water’s edge.
Devizes is a century-old market town with a mix of architecture, often in the same building: Georgian mansions with Tudor interiors or a Norman church with medieval chapels. In the middle of town, next to the Great Market Square, the Bear Hotel stands opposite the Market Cross and Fountain and next to the Victorian Corn Exchange (currently a Covid Vaccination Center).
The Bear is a coaching inn that spans two buildings: an 18th century honey-colored Bath stone mansion and an older section where wooden columns support a beamed ceiling and the bar is tiled. Dutch. All kinds of venerable elements remain: on a chest opposite the reception desk are three large leather-bound books dating from the 19th century. There is an old telephone in a booth next to the pillared area in front of the bar and a stone fireplace in the room lined with books on one side, where we drink.
Photos of 18th century portrait painter Thomas Lawrence are scattered around the pub. From 1773 Lawrence’s father was the owner of what was then the Black Bear, and six-year-old Thomas drew guest portraits and recited verses from Milton. By the time the family moved to Bath, five years later, he was already supporting them with his art. The Holbourne Museum in Bath is organizing a virtual exhibition of his early work (until May 31, 2022).
The next morning, Assistant Manager Georgia Raspini takes us to the Bear Pit, a crumbling bar-cave that once hosted blues nights on weekends. There are trumpets and a guitar on an arch and Raspini says she wants to make it a jazz hall.
We passed through Devizes to walk to Avebury, crossing the canal on a large lime avenue called the Quakers Walk. On Roundway Down, we pass the site of a 1643 Civil War battle, where Royalist cavalry defeated parliamentary troops. On the other side of a golf course, we cross Wansdyke, a defensive embankment and a ditch. One of the golfers tells us to shut up; otherwise we hardly see anyone before Avebury. Bronze Age burial mounds rise from a sea of scabious and pale purple knapweed, bright yellow ragwort, clover and yarrow. Our picnic area is a soft bank of ladies’ doormats, with its little star-shaped flowers. Butterflies twinkle through the late summer flowers. They include a chalk hill blue, turquoise lightning among horseshoe vetch and bellflowers.
Up to 50 types of flowers can grow on a single square meter of limestone soil. There are deep blue round-headed rampions and carpets of aromatic wild marjoram. Flowery duvets frame the expansive views, stretching south across the Pewsey Valley to Salisbury Plain and north to the Cotswolds. The Wiltshire countryside is a patchwork of historic and prehistoric sites. This hike along ridges and ancient Roman roads ends near the largest stone circle in the world. Along the way are hills, burial mounds, and chalk-cut white horses. The triangular walls of Oldbury Castle were once full of Iron Age rotundas.
Not all monuments are old. The newest white horse, just outside Devizes, was created to celebrate the third millennium in 1999. The one at Cherhill, near Oldbury Hillfort, was carved at the end of the 18th century. Charles Barry, architect of the reconstructed Houses of Parliament, designed the nearby Lansdowne Monument, a large stone obelisk, in 1845.
A few standing stones in a field near Avebury are all that remains of a ceremonial megalithic avenue. Later we explore the double row of stones that form West Kennet Avenue, which runs down the other side of the old circle and gives an idea of the immense scale of the original site. But first, it’s time for tea at a National Trust picnic table and a gentle stroll past thatched cottages with hollyhocks outside and around the gardens of Avebury Manor. Orange marigolds and flamboyant, crisp dahlias contrast with the mellow gray stone of the 15th-century garden and church walls.
There are lovely views of Silbury Hill, the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, from the top deck of bus 49 to Devizes. On the wall of the Red Lion’s Dining Room, next to the Avebury bus stop, a map of ancient sites from the Norfolk coast to the tip of Cornwall, including Bury St Edmund, Avebury, Glastonbury, Bodmin Moor and St Michael’s Mount, draw a straight diagonal line across southern England.
In the 17th century, The Bear was a coaching inn on the London to Bath route and boasted a bowling alley, ballroom and ornamental garden. With sloping and uneven floors, a wooden spiral staircase and painted tiles, it is full of atmospheric corners. The main menu features pub classics, vegan options, and local produce with a gourmet twist (sourdough, burrata, tapenade, etc.) and breakfast choices include scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. The Bear is now a flagship pub of the nearby Wadworth Brewery and serves paddles from three beer tasters to a third of the pint.
Of the 25 rooms, we booked three singles. The view from mine is on a rooftop, but it’s comfortable, with a powerful shower and good storage space, tea and toiletries. There are double rooms and more spacious suites with a four-poster bed or family rooms with nice rows of single beds. Decor includes polished wood, classic floral prints, and sturdy curtains in faded pink. The images favor landscapes or botanical drawings, with a few nods to the history of the pub, such as the collection of portraits of Lawrence. There is talk of refurbishment, which could be a shame – although replacing one or two of the mattresses might be appropriate. The building’s Grade II list prohibits anything too drastic, so the bear’s sense of history should survive for future travelers.
Double from £ 82.50 Guest rooms,