The North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is located in the English counties of Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. The name North Wessex Downs is not a traditional one, the area covered being better known by various overlapping local names, including the Berkshire Downs, the Lambourn Downs, the Marlborough Downs, the Vale of Pewsey and Savernake Forest.
The AONB covers an area of some 1,730 sq km (668 square miles). It takes the form of a horse shoe on its side, with the open end facing east, surrounding the town of Newbury. The northern arm reaches as far east as the suburbs of Reading whilst the southern arm similarly reaches Basingstoke. To the west the AONB reaches as far as Calne and Devizes.
At its north-east extreme, the North Wessex Downs AONB faces across the Goring Gap to the Chilterns AONB on the other side of the River Thames. From here working anti-clockwise around the horse-shoe, the Berkshire Downs have a steep scarp slope facing north over the Vale of the White Horse and a gentler dip slope facing south into the valley of the River Kennet. The area includes the horse-racing village of Lambourn and is hence sometimes known as the Lambourn Downs. Beyond the town of Marlborough the downs (now called the Marlborough Downs) sweep in a semi-circle to the south around the headwater of the River Kennet, and the Vale of Pewsey cuts through these downs carrying the headwaters of the Hampshire River Avon. Here too can be found the wooded area of Savernake Forest. Finally, the highest stretch of the downs runs east along the Berkshire/Hampshire border on the opposite side of the River Kennet from the Berkshire Downs. Again the scarp slope is to the north (facing down in the valley of the Kennet) and the dip slope is to the south into Hampshire.
Geology and natural history
The downland is part of the Chalk Formation of southern England which runs from the Dorset in the west to Kent in the east and also includes the Dorset Downs, Purbeck Hills, Cranborne Chase, Wiltshire Downs, Salisbury Plain, the Isle of Wight, Chiltern Hills and the North and South Downs.
The area is a site of scientific interest in numerous fields and has an internationally important habitat for early gentian. Geologically, its chalk downs, dry valleys and sarsen outcrops are of note, the last in the area around Marlborough providing material for many of the Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in the area such as Avebury Henge.
Horse racing forms a major industry in the area, largely because of the good quality turf that comes with the chalk underlay, and much of upland area made over to gallops and other training areas. Several of the upland villages, and especially the village of Lambourn, are home to major racing stables. Other villages with strong horse racing connections include Beckhampton, Kingsclere and West Ilsley. The term Steeplechase originated in this area, a steeplechase originally being a race between two villages, navigated by reference to the church steeples visible across the rolling downs.
On the south east arm of the AONB can be found Watership Down, where the book of the same name by Richard Adams is set.
The Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was designated in 1972. It is currently managed by a partnership of Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council, Hampshire County Council, Vale of the White Horse District Council, West Berkshire Council, Wiltshire County Council, the Countryside Agency and Wiltshire Food Links.