Travel review: Devizes, Wiltshire
There was a time when the medieval market town of Devizes held a particular spot in weary travellers’ affections.
Many people still remember, before motorways and ring roads headed west, this special little place being a landmark for holidaymakers heading to and from Cornwall and Devon.
A stop-off at Devizes was a must for sandwiches in greaseproof paper and tea from a flask.
But for me only living only five miles away in a little hamlet, where villagers viewed Devizes as a dazzling metropolis, it was a box of treats hiding such diverse delights as school shoes, cattle feed and cheese.
How lovely then to go back to my home town, on a tour of south Wiltshire and see it through the eyes of a tourist , and not one on the road to somewhere else, but one intent on enjoying all this 1,000-year-old settlement can offer.
Still dominating the skyline, is the Wadworths brewery, home of the much venerated 6X ale. The scent of its toasted malt fills the streets now, as it did then when I was a schoolgirl. A team of shire horses still deliver the barrels within a two-mile radius, and it is still a major employer.
But now, the facade is crisp and bedecked with flowers and pride of place is given to a smart visitors’ centre.
Booking in advance is a must for a two-hour tour of this fascinating building, where all the ‘big girls and boys’ seem to get holiday jobs when I was a youngster.
Now, amid the fermenting vessels, mashers and boiling coppers I could see what they were up to, and learn about the history of the brewery too.
Who knew founder Henry Wadworth was the first man to cycle from London to Bath on a Bone Shaker, complete with no saddle and steel tyres. It took him two and a half days.
The tour includes an opportunity to marvel both at the size of the shire horses, and the skills of the brewery’s own sign-writers. Wadworths is one of the few beer companies left to use in-house sign-writers, who create all the colourful Crowns, White Harts and Red Lions we love, and what’s not to love about the opportunity to taste some of the quality brews at the end – and take home a few bonus samples. What are car boots for, if not 96 bottles of Swordfish, Bishop’s Tipple and Farmer’s Glory.
Next on our fresh look at Devizes, was a 90-minute cruise aboard the Kenavon Venture along the Kennet and Avon Canal. While I’m sure this waterway was there when I was a child, I didn’t notice it, and neither had anyone with an eye for tourism.
It’s a beauty. Alongside a bewitching wharf, with cafe, curios, antiques and art the Devizes leg snakes through the edge of the town and into the Wiltshire countryside, with maybe the chance to spot a kingfisher or a water vole. There is also, nowadays, a smart new marina and a museum, telling the history of the 87-mile-long canal which goes to London.
Our trip was a lovely opportunity to relax after all the beer tasting and to hear all the fascinating snippets of canal gossip served up by our crew.
As well as a sneak peek at where Santa’s grotto sits for the families seeking him out on the Christmas trips, we learned how one canalside gardener had spent £20,000 on his plants and how occupants of a swanky new retirement complex were a little perturbed at finding they could see not only the occasional heron and mallard but the cemetery on top of a hill.
We were still laughing when we arrived at our perfect bed and breakfast, Avalon Lodge, in Rowde. Owner Nick greeted us not only with the biggest smile in the world but a huge pot of tea and plates of luxury biscuits. What’s more, he served them in a serene sitting room saved for guests – no annexing of the clientele in this lovely establishment. Beautiful decor, plump towels, an enormous shower and views over a cottage garden, ducks, geese and the hills beyond – perfect. A delicious bite at the George and Dragon down the road followed, before drinking in the Wiltshire air and a refreshing night’s sleep.
Next morning after Nick’s knock-out scrambled egg, we went somewhere no self-respecting 70s teenager would have dared visit – the Wiltshire Museum, just off Devizes market place.
The more mature me loved it, especially in the hands of director David Dawson, who gave us a personal guided tour. The ceremonial axes, dagger and jewellery which go back to the days of Stonehenge are truly awe-inspiring and families will love this collection of early Bronze Age gold which is the largest in the country. Pride of place is given to a display associated with the Bush Barrow Chieftain, which is so celebrated many other gems are loaned out to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. But there is one treasure the museum is not letting out of its sight – the splendid Lozenge cloak fastener which is made out of sheet gold and will give you shivers.
Our Wiltshire tour continued to a few more landmarks I would not have encountered in my days there – a pub for lunch – the very pleasant Red Lion Freehouse in East Chisenbury, and two empty but sacred churches, looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust.
All Saint’s Church in Alton Priors has a yew tree thought to be 1,700 years old and is just a short walk away from St Mary’s at Alton Barnes. Both are surrounded by fields and have to be reached through fields of cows.
If you’re seeking refuge from the crowds at the more dominant Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral of Avebury, head here. Nestling under one of the county’s impressive white chalk horses carved into the hillside, you will enjoy a proper sense of history, mystique and myth.
But it was to my own personal timeline that we returned for the end of our tour – Market Lavington, where I went to secondary school.
A good long look at the place that set me on my way then most sumptuous pan-fried lemon sole and a proper old fashioned fruit crumble in The Green Dragon. We were then treated to yet another luxury bed and breakfast – the Littleton Lodge in Littleton Panel – just a few miles out of Devizes.
With its four-poster bed, a bathroom the size of my house, a lush breakfast, attentive service and no expense spared it is more of a boutique hotel than just a place to bed down.
Devizes, you are no longer a town to travel through – you are a destination, and a delight.
- Sarah’s weekend was organised by Visit Wiltshire – www.visitwiltshire.co.uk #timeforwiltshire @VisitWiltshire
- Devizes Brewery www.wadworrth.co.uk
- Canal trip www.enjoykanda.co.uk
- Avalon Lodge, Devizes Road, Rowde, SN10 2PN. Tel 01380 728189
- Wiltshire Museum, Long Street, Devizes. www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk
- The Green Dragon, Market Lavington, Tel. 01380 813235
- Littleton Lodge, Littleton Panel, SN10 4ES