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The North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is located in the Englishmarker counties of Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshiremarker. The name North Wessex Downs is not a traditional one, the area covered being better known by various overlapping local names, including the Berkshire Downsmarker, the White Horse Hills, the Lambourn Downs, the Marlborough Downs, the Vale of Pewseymarker and Savernake Forestmarker.

Topography

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 Newburymarker and the River Kennetmarker watershed. The northern arm reaches as far east as the suburbs of Readingmarker whilst the southern arm similarly reaches Basingstokemarker. The western extreme of the AONB reaches as far as Calnemarker and Devizesmarker. The highest point is the 297m (974 ft) summit of Walbury Hillmarker, situated to the south of Hungerfordmarker in West Berkshire, close to the Hampshire border.

At its northeast extreme, the North Wessex Downs AONB faces across the Goring Gapmarker to the Chilterns AONBmarker on the other side of the River Thames. From here working anti-clockwise around the horseshoe, the Berkshire Downs have a steep scarp slope facing north over the Vale of White Horsemarker and a gentler dip slope facing south into the valley of the Kennet. This area includes the horse-racing village of Lambournmarker and is hence sometimes known as the Lambourn Downs. Beyond the town of Marlboroughmarker the downs (now called the Marlborough Downs) sweep in a semicircle to the south around the headwaters of the River Kennet, with the Vale of Pewsey cutting through these downs carrying the headwaters of the Hampshire River Avonmarker. 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 Englandmarker which runs from Dorsetmarker in the west to Kentmarker in the east and also includes the Dorset Downsmarker, Purbeck Hillsmarker, Cranborne Chasemarker, Wiltshire Downsmarker, Salisbury Plainmarker, the Isle of Wightmarker, Chiltern Hillsmarker and the Northmarker and South Downsmarker.

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 Hengemarker.

Economy

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 is made over to gallops and other training areas. Several of the upland villages, and especially the village of Lambournmarker, are home to major racing stables. Other villages with strong horse racing connections include Beckhamptonmarker, Kingscleremarker and West Ilsleymarker. 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.

Literature

On the south east arm of the AONB can be found Watership Downmarker where the book Watership Down by Richard Adams is set, to the north of the small market town of Whitchurch, Hampshiremarker.

AONB partnership

The Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was designated in 1972. It is currently managed by a partnership of Basingstoke and Deane Borough Councilmarker, Hampshire County Council, Vale of White Horse District Councilmarker, West Berkshire Council, Wiltshire County Councilmarker, the Countryside Agency and Wiltshire Food Links.

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