Hidden Gem – family-friendly walking in the North Wessex Downs AONB

Lesley Williams looks back on childhood walks around Wallingford and explores a walk between Shillingford, Brightwell-cum-Sotwell and Dorchester on Thames with all the ingredients for a family-friendly afternoon: pretty villages, panoramic views, ancient history and riverside delights.

I have fond memories of childhood holidays in the North Wessex Downs AONB. It was the height of adventure to head out of the village with friends on a long walk that would take us across fields before climbing the Wittenham Clumps to look down onto the River Thames and Day’s Lock. If we had all afternoon, or even all day with a picnic, we would run down to the lock and watch boat owners operate the lock – a fascinating insight into fluid dynamics for a ten-year old!

This hidden gem is a walk visiting the north eastern corner of the North Wessex Downs AONB. It features as walk 4 of Steve Davison’s guidebook to Walking in the North Wessex Downs, and has all the ingredients for an enjoyable family-friendly walk; pretty villages, views, various types of landscape and riverside interest.

The North Wessex Downs AONB is mainly characterised by the rolling chalk hills that span either side of the River Thames between Devizes in the west, and Reading in the east. The AONB includes Avebury, the Uffington white horse and parts of the Ridgeway south of Wantage. Wallingford is at the northeastern edge of the AONB, and although it lies firmly within the flat Thames Valley, the Sinoden Hills create a vantage point from which enjoy extensive views.

Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, my childhood home, is a lovely village nestling just to the south of the Sinoden Hills, sporting three churches of various denominations, a village pub, a school and even a duck pond! Historically two separate villages, the two are united roughly half-way through the village, where the duck pond still provides delight to small children and adults alike. Originally a farming village and home to employees of various nearby research establishments, over the years it has become one of the most desirable villages in the area.

The peaceful River Thames at Shillingford
The peaceful River Thames at Shillingford

Steve’s walk begins in Shillingford, where the river Thames is spanned by a beautiful stone bridge, just two kilometres across the fields from Brightwell-cum-Sotwell. It’s an area of mixed farming; grains, livestock, vegetables and fruit orchards, many of the orchards of national importance rivalling Kent’s ‘Garden of England’ status.

Walking through the village passing ancient thatched cottages and neatly tended gardens, you become aware of the origin of the name of the village. Brightwell-cum-Sotwell lies on a spring line, Wellsprings being the most notable, with water in abundance. As children we used to delight in constructing dams across the streams so we could wade in deeper water and test our wellies.

Heading out of the village, the route climbs Brightwell Barrow, then heads across to the twin hills of Wittenham Clumps. The first, Castle Hill, was once the location of an Iron Age fort while the second, Round Hill, offers fantastic panoramic views. These views stretch north to Day’s Lock, across the flat plain towards Oxford, west to Berkshire Downs and the rest of the AONB, and east to the Chiltern Hills.

From here the walk continues by descending to the pretty hamlet of Little Wittenham before down to Day’s Lock. Pause to watch boats negotiating the lock, then continue on to pass more Iron Age earthworks at Dyke Hills before entering Dorchester on Thames. This historic village dates back to pre-Roman times, and is dominated by the ancient 12th century Abbey church of St Peter and St Paul. The building seen today was built on the site of two earlier Saxon cathedrals dating from 635AD. There are antique shops and tea rooms to enjoy here, before the final beautiful riverside walk back to Shillingford.

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