This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of My Wiltshire magazine
Lying at the very heart of Wiltshire, the charming market town of Devizes has a history which stretches back at least as far as the Roman invasion.
The first Devizes Castle was erected shortly after the Norman Conquest and provided one of the area’s main landmarks (today’s castle is a Victorian building, erected on the site and now privately owned), and Devizes is one of the few towns in the country that has kept its medieval street pattern. Boasting nearly 500 listed buildings, possibly the highest concentration of such important architecture anywhere in England, there are still fine examples of Tudor and Georgian construction throughout the town.
Approaching Devizes from the west, one of the first things you encounter are the historic Caen Hill locks along the Kennet and Avon Canal: 29 locks with a rise of 237 feet over two miles. Caen Hill Marina itself provides mooring for almost 250 boats, and you’ll find colourful narrowboats and barges tied up along the canal bank all year round. If you fancy a day (or longer) on the water, canal boats can be hired from the following three businesses; Below the locks is Foxhangers, above the locks are White Horse Boatsand Devizes Marina, have everything you need.
Devizes is dominated by the presence of Wadworth’s Northgate Brewery, which proudly overlooks the town from one end of the Market Place. The new Visitor’s Centre traces the history of brewing in Devizes – Wadworth’s own history spans over 125 years – and the brewer’s famous shire horses still make daily deliveries in town. The Market Place itself is home to many of the town’s coffee shops, restaurants, pubs and shops, as well as a bustling outdoor market which was established by Royal Charter in 1141 and is still held every Thursday. Just off to the left of the market is The Shambles, Devizes’ historic indoor market, where you can buy everything from fruit and veg to flowers and fresh fish. Open every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, many of the traders in The Shambles have been working there for years. On the opposite side of the Market Place, next to the Bear Hotel (which has stood on the site since at least 1559 and was once an important coaching inn), you’ll find the Corn Exchange, where regular flea markets, collector’s fairs and live concerts are held.
The town has managed to hang on to many of its small, independent businesses – several of which you’ll find in the pedestrian-only streets radiating from around The Shambles. Take a wander down the 15th Century St John’s Alley where, occupying a wonderfully unspoiled example of Tudor architecture, you’ll find milliner Joan Pressley Hats where you can not only get your hats sorted for that special occasion but, if you wish, spend a night under the ancient wooden beams: they also offer bed and breakfast! Need a new outfit to go with that hat? Spirit Fashion (3 High Street) offers a fabulous mix of stylish clothes and accessories for all ages, and Lovely Shoes in nearby Maryport Street will sort you out with the perfect pair of heels and perhaps a matching bag too. While you’re shopping, why not take advantage of the professional fitting service at Mystique Lingerie in Little Brittox? At The Emporium (7, St John’s Street) you’ll find a wide range of gifts and homeware items, and the Bluestone gallery in Old Swan Yard is recognised as one of the foremost craft galleries in the South West, with a wide choice of high quality original work on offer.
A haven for foodies, apart from all of the glorious fresh produce you’ll find on market day in Sidmouth Street there’s Walter Rose and Son, the town’s long-established independent butcher and winner of the Best Butcher’s Shop in the South of England. You’ll often find Salisbury-born celebrity chef Tom Kerridge there: the Cook family supply most of the meat for Tom’s famous Hand and Flowers pub. Just one mile from the town, Poulshot Lodge Farm Shop sells locally sourced beef, pork, lamb and poultry, with 90 percent of the meat coming from the Hues family’s own farm, where they have been rearing livestock for almost 50 years. Take a break from your shopping at Emily’s Tearoom, in Maryport Street, situated in the North wing of the 300-plus year old Three Crowns Brewery. A trip back to a bygone age, there are home-made scones and cakes, soups, sandwiches, a range of daily specials and your tea is served in fine china cups. If you’re looking for something more substantial then head for The Bistro at Vaughan’s Kitchen in Little Brittox, where chef/proprietor Peter Vaughan also runs an excellent cookery school on Hopton Industrial Estate, Devizes, or Dolcipani in Old Swan Yard, where Sicilian-influenced dishes vie for your attention alongside the famous, freshly-baked breads and cheesecakes.
Each year the Devizes Festival brings an amazing variety of music, literature, theatre, dance, poetry and comedy to the town. Now celebrating its 32nd anniversary, the festival has grown from just a couple of days to two and a half weeks of top class entertainment: this year’s festival takes place June 4-22. The annual Devizes Carnival and Street Festival, with its colourful floats, musicians, marching bands and street performers, is held at the end of August.
In nearby Rowde, the Rowdey Cow Cafe and Ice Cream Parlour offers up to 16 different flavours of fresh ice cream made on the farm from their own cows’ milk. The café itself serves up scrumptious cooked breakfasts, lunches and teas seven days a week, using the best local produce.
If you’re looking for a unique place to stay whilst exploring Devizes, Rosemundy Cottage is an environmentally-friendly, four star Bed and Breakfast situated right next to the glorious Kennet and Avon Canal. A relaxing base for both leisure and business visitors, the award-winning Rosemundy Cottage is within easy reach of the area’s many tourist attractions. Just a mile outside Devizes, in the hamlet of Roundway Village, you’ll find Southdown Bed & Breakfast, which also offers award-winning four star accommodation and is perfect for cyclists and hikers wanting to discover the gorgeous local scenery.
Whether you’re looking for a new carpet for your home or a contract floor for an office, factory, hotel or pub HallMark Flooring in Market Place can provide everything you need. With fully-qualified and highly-experienced fitters and service personnel HallMark pride themselves on providing quality, value and convenience to their customers.
The Wiltshire Heritage Museum, which also acts as the town’s Tourist Information Centre, has the finest Bronze Age archaeology collection in England with much material from the World Heritage Sites of Avebury and Stonehenge, including dozens of spectacular treasures worn by people who worshiped inside the stone circle. At the other end of town the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust museum traces the history of the canal from its earliest days to its decline and its rise to glory again thanks to the Canal Trust.
With so much history, it should come as no surprise that the town has its own ghost walk, hosted by local blacksmith John Girvan, or that the area abounds in stories, myths and legends. Perhaps the most famous story is that of the Moonrakers: a group of smugglers had hidden contraband barrels of French brandy from customs officers in the Crammer, a pond at Southbroom, Devizes. While trying to retrieve the barrels at night, they were caught by excise men, but the quick-witted smugglers pointed to the moon’s reflection and explained that they were trying to rake in a cheese which had fallen in the water. The excise men laughed at the stupidity of the yokels and went on their way – but it was the Moonrakers who had the last laugh!
The perfect centre for trips to Bath, Stonehenge, Avebury, Salisbury, Marlborough and Swindon, the countryside surrounding Devizes offers stately homes, picturesque villages, wonderful waterways and fantastic walking and cycling as well as some truly great pubs – a visit to the King’s Arms in All Cannings on May 31 is a must: the pub is hosting a fundraising concert starring the Boomtown Rats and Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel.