landscape articles come from the Fyfield and West Overton Parish
landscape group. We are an informal group made up of anyone who
is interested and always keen to hear your comments. If you
would like to join us you would be very welcome. Meetings take
place round the kitchen table with a glass of wine! Some years
ago we were the first parish in Kennet district to get up a
village design statement. That project opened our eyes to the
history we see every day in the buildings around us and made us
think " why only the buildings ?" Here we have a landscape
etched over and over with the patterns of previous lives. We
live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but we hardly ever
think how it got that way. Most of us see it through a
windscreen, unlike our forefathers who worked the land, but we
all love it and want to protect it. These magazine articles are
a way of thinking aloud about what we value.
A countryside management
Over the last few months landowners
and farmers have been busy form filling to comply with and sign
up to the new Common Agricultural Policy rules. To put it
simply, in the past support payments were linked to production
and to livestock headage plus
additional payments under schemes such as Countryside
Stewardship. In the future matters will be very different.
Byways and minor roads
As well as hosting a roman
road, during the Saxon and Medieval periods the present network
of lanes evolved. These wound from settlement to settlement,
often along river valleys. The King's Special Peace was granted
to the main crossing streets in villages and market towns during
the 11th Century.
Dark Skies. A study in light
pollution in the Upper Kennet Valley
enshrined deep in our consciousness and our language as a thing
to be sought. It stands in metaphor for safety, knowledge and
spiritual salvation. No wonder it is such a latecomer to the
list of statutory nuisances. Meanwhile moonlight fades in
landscapes of permanant half light.
Farming in Fyfield and West Overton
During World War II everything was sacrificed: money, men and
materials. At the end the country was bankrupt and exhausted.
The euphoria following the General Election of 1945 faded into
five years of austerity. Bread, unrationed during the war,
became rationed. As late as 1951 coupons were still required for
Environment and Wildlife
The parish of West Overton with
Fyfield is pear shaped with the pointed end to the North.
Bisecting the pear centrally is the River Kennet valley running
West to East. Dry valleys cut into the chalk on either side of
the river lead north west up to West Overton and Fyfield Downs
and south west towards West Woods. Somewhat protected within the
river valley folds, where there was also a reliable water
source, lie the three villages West Overton, Lockeridge and
Pre-history of the Valley
Following the end
of the last glaciation, some ten thousand years ago, forests
spread across southern Britain. The people who inhabited them
were hunter-gatherers whose presence is indicated by the flint
tools they left behind: in the immediate area the naturally
occurring flint of the West Woods seems to have been especially
important for tool-making.
Re-alignment of the river
Kennet at West Overton
During the 1970s the river was artificially
straightened at the same time as a livestock bridge was constucted. A deep pool was
also lost. This pool was important because it provided a
temporary refuge for fish when the river ran dry. ARK has been
supporting the case to realign this stretch of river to its
Memories of the
All the young ‘uns used to learn to
swim in the six foot deep pools by the hatches of the water
meadow and we’d all build dams to make them even deeper. The
stream was full of fish, Sticklebacks, crested newts, frogspawn
and once even a 10lb trout! Kingfishers too were a familiar
The formation of the dry
valleys in the Upper Kennet region
are scattered widely over the downs but they are most dramatic
seen lying along the dry valleys leading to the river Kennet.
The name sarsen may come from Anglo Saxon ’sar sten“ a
troublesome stone, or from ’saracen “meaning foreign or alien.
Locally they are called grey wethers because, in the half-light,
they are said to look like sheep.
The Great West Road
The highways in our Parishes
do not in themselves visually affect the landscape in any major
way, but roads are as intrinsic a part of our landscape as
rivers and trees. It is while travelling along them most
people view their surroundings on a day to day basis and as a
consequence they affect our perception of the landscape.
The history and beauty of
The Woods are set high (600ft)
above the valley. Looking down to the North, we can see the
villages nestling below; the A4 traffic is a moving strip in
mid-horizon, and Fyfield Down stretches out almost bare in its
patchwork of large open fields beyond. Natural folds in the
Downs give a wonderful feeling of space without appearing as
bleak, say, as the larger Downs to our West (towards Devizes) or
further South in the County.
The stone masons of the Upper
In the mid 19th
century stonemasons working in the High Wycombe area heard of
the plentiful supply of sarsens in our valleys, and moved to
Fyfield. Unlike the stones near High Wycombe, which had to be
dug up from the clay, ours lay conveniently on the surface.
Wildlife in the Valley
I and my
family came to the valley in late 1970, after one of the big
factors that caused a very rapid decline in the wild bird
population had already occurred. I refer to the severe winter of
1963-64 snow, freezing and icy winds lasted over two months and
icy snow was still in some places until June. I think the worst
hit wild bird was the Grey Partridge, thousands froze to death
from starvation and until this day it is quite a rare sight to
see a covey of Partridge. For many years, shooting and game
syndicates refrained from shooting them.
The Water Meadows
has been managed as a resource since at least the 10th century
when there is a reference in the East Overton charter to a
series of offtakes at Uferan Tun. These could have been for
drainage but may have been an early form of irrigation.
most intensive management of the river came with the
construction of the water meadows, a feature of chalk streams
all over Wiltshire. West Overton is one of the few places where
they have not been destroyed and although fallen into decay they
still bear witness to an agricultural innovation that enriched
the county for several centuries.