Natural England - Fyfield Down NNR

Fyfield Down NNR

Fyfield Down NNR has a unique combination of geomorphological, biological and archaeological features.

Fyfield Down NNR

County: Wiltshire

Main habitats: Grassland

Why visit: Hidden amongst the grass and grey wethers on Fyfield Down, thousands of years of history can be seen in one place. From natural forces strong enough to shape the landscape to signs of Bronze Age man, Roman settlements and struggling medieval farmers. Huge holes show where the largest Sarcen Stones were excavated centuries ago. Our ancestors used this stone to build famous monuments like Avebury Stone circle and Stonehenge. 

This is one of the country’s oldest National Nature Reserves, being created in 1955. The site is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of the landforms it contains and the wildlife it supports. The whole site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and its historical importance was recognised when it was made part of Avebury World Heritage Site.

Star species: The sarcen “train” dominates Fyfield Down NNR. Sometimes called grey wethers as from a distance people have mistaken them for sheep, the sarcen stones are the most striking feature in the landscape. Their history began 50 million years ago when tropical plants were growing in the then sandy soils. Amazingly holes where their roots grew millions of years ago can still be seen in the stones, preserved when the sand was turned to silcrete. The valley containing the sarcen train was made by massive natural forces; strong enough to shape the landscape as well as carry the stones to where they now lie.

Fyfield Down is considered to be one of the best sites for lichens in Europe as the stones are home to rare lichen species. Thin strips of chalk grassland survive where the soil was eroded away by carts travelling between Avebury and Marlborough. This exposed the chalk, creating the conditions these plants need. Elsewhere on the clay soil slopes small pockets of neutral grasslands survive while around the sarcen stones little pockets of acid grassland can be found.

Seasonal highlights

Many of the reasons to visit Fyfield Down can be enjoyed all year round. A bit of exploration might be required to discover the centuries of archaeology or to find some of the rarest lichens in Europe. More instantly accessible however are the things that visitors say they enjoy. Tranquillity and peacefulness are some of the words people use and despite there being a long history of man shaping the landscape “wilderness” is often mentioned.

Through the spring and summer wildflowers can be found in the oldest areas of grassland, Round Headed Rampion and the tiny frog orchid probably being the stars of the show.

Over the years a wide range of birds have been recorded on the site. The NNR supports a breeding population of skylark, the iconic downland bird. The wider landscape is a hotspot for farmland birds, including lapwing, tree sparrow and stone curlew.

History

The earliest evidence of people on the site comes from four sarcen stones with marks on that date back to Neolithic times. Known as “polissoirs” these sarcens have lines and smooth bowl shaped indentations where the harder sarcen stone was slowly worn away by people making tools from other softer stones.

The site was densely populated in Bronze Age time; signs of burial mounds and field boundaries are still present. Low banks show that tiny fields covered the site. It seems the Down was never to be as densely populated again, possibly because over-farming led to the soil be eroded away. However by the Romano-British period people were once again living on Fyfield Down. There are remains of two Roman settlements but more obviously the huge lynchets that were built to level the larger more symmetrical Roman fields.

A medieval farmstead called Raddon once stood next to Wroughton Copse. Parish documents tell of the tithe the occupants had to pay to the local Parish. These show that life was so hard on Fyfield that two consecutive bad winters were enough to force them to abandon their home. 

Evidence of the more recent Victorian sarcen industry is littered across the NNR. Unnatural straight lines and right angles show where stones were split and dressed for building materials.

How to get there

We encourage the use of sustainable transport whenever possible.

By cycle

Route 45external link of the Sustrans National Cycle Network crosses through the reserve, connecting Avebury and Marlborough.

By train

The nearest train stations are Swindonexternal link and Pewseyexternal link.

By bus

Bus services run from Swindon to Avebury and from Pewsey to Avebury, via Marlborough. See the Traveline SWexternal link website for details.

By car

It is not possible to drive to the site, but there are numerous car parks at Avebury and Marlborough from which the reserve can be accessed by footpaths and other Public Rights of Way.

The official NNR car park is located 1km east of the reserve. It is accessed via a minor road, signposted “Manton House and Hollow”, that connects to the A4 2km west of Marlborough. Take care in locating the car park as it is surrounded by trees and accessed by turning left off the road before it becomes a private road leading to Manton House.

On foot

The NNR has excellent links via Public Rights of Way to Marlborough 5km to the east and Avebury 2km to the west. The Ridgeway National Trailexternal link passes by the western boundary of the site and starts a short distance south of the reserve at Overton Hill. Heading north from the NNR the Ridgeway leads to Hackpen Hill, where there is another car park. The reserve is also on the White Horse Trailexternal link, which links Wiltshire's 8 white horses.

Within the reserve, the field below Wroughton Copse and the lower half of the valley containing the sarcen train is Open Access Land. Just outside the NNR the SSSI to the north of Delling Copse is also Open Access Land

Discovering Britain is an exciting series of geographically-themed walks that aim to bring the stories of our landscape alive and to inspire everyone to explore and learn more about Britain. You can follow a walk which takes in this National Nature Reserveexternal link.

Visiting the reserve

The nearest toilet and refreshment facilities are in local towns and villages. At Avebury,The National Trust’s museums and facilities tell the story of the monuments that were built with Sarcen stones. Parking and a wide range of facilities are available in both of these places.

Further information

To find out more about the reserve, contact site staff on 07771 944557.