Delving in Devizes, a Wiltshire town for all sizes

by zara

Limericks aside, the attractive Wiltshire market town of Devizes has a long history, scenic canals and spectacular battle sites - plus a rather good brewery

Castles and Churches

‘There was a young man from Devizes,
Whose balls were two different sizes…..’

Sadly, this limerick is many people’s only acquaintance with Devizes which is a shame as this fine market town has a history dating back to the Norman castle of 1080, though even older Roman and prehistoric traces have been found. The unusual name derives from the Latin ‘ad divisas’, denoting that it sat at the boundary of three different parishes.

The original castle was destroyed in the civil war and the 19th century replacement now contains apartments. It is a discreet castle, only visible from a distance through a gate, but then there are many such hidden corners in Devizes. Far enough from the commuter belt of London to avoid the over-gentrification of closer towns, it repays leisurely exploration.

The Market Place is the focal point of the town and still has a Thursday market with good food stalls. The fountain (1879) has recently been restored and there is a fine market cross (1814). A plaque on this commemorates Ruth Pierce, a local housewife who visited the market on the 25th January 1753 with three friends. They bought a sack of grain but the total sum was three pence short and it was decided it was Ruth who had not paid in full. She called on God to strike her dead if she lied and on repeating the oath promptly fell down dead, the money in her hand.

The Wiltshire Heritage Museum (41 Long Street; 01380 727369; has a diverse collection, including prehistoric finds from Avebury and Stonehenge. Also in this area is St John’s, the finest of the town’s two Norman churches, with a 15th century tower. The local ghost tours are great fun and expertly run by John Girvan (01380 721759/01380 725018; and you may well be taken up this way; the town’s old gibbet is now rather incongruously in the middle of a council estate beyond the old castle moat. St John’s Alley is one of the most picturesque areas of town, with timber framed buildings dating from the 16th century - one housing a rather fine hatters. Around the corner is a small old town lock-up.

Beer and Biscuits

Early risers might spot shire horses delivering Wadworth beer around the town; the family’s Northgate Brewery (New Park Street; 01380 732277; dates back to 1875 and is now open for relaxed and friendly tours (£10 including six 1/3pt tastings or £16.50 with lunch at the next door Crown pub).  They follow the brewing process down through the Victorian building; I like the huge fermenting tanks with the beer bubbling away under a frothy yeast head. Apparently if you fall in you could die quite quickly due to the poisonous gases at the surface - what a way to go! Their 6X is a popular local draught beer but there are at least 8 other options to try. You could just check out the bar without the tour (six 1/3pt samples cost £4) and the shop has some original gifts: I like the 9 pint mini kegs for £15.  The stables are included in the tour but are also open every afternoon in the week for (free) visits. 

For a small town, there are lots of things happening: in an old warehouse beside the canal, the Wharf Theatre (Couch Lane; 01380 725944; stages some excellent plays with a mean cup of tea and biscuit in the interval.  The box office is in Devizes Books (Sidmouth Street; 01380 725944). The Palace cinema (19/20 Market Place; 01380 722971;
 is an Art Deco relic that shows mainstream films and art ones on some Tuesdays .

Canals, battlefields and UFOs

The 19th century Kennet and Avon canal runs through the town and can be enjoyed either canalside at one of the many pubs along its banks (try the Barge Inn at Seend Cleeve, SN12 6QB; 01380 828230; or the Bridge Inn at Horton, SN10 2JS; 01380 860273) or actually on a narrow boat (White Horse Boats; 01380 728504 ).  If you take this choice, I would advise you to go eastwards into the Vale of Pewsey, otherwise you will be faced with the engineering feat of Caen Hill where 29 consecutive locks rise 237 feet. They are well worth a look and a nice picnic spot on a sunny day. At  Easter, there is a very strenuous non-stop canoe race from Devizes to Westminster.

For a breath of fresh air with great views, head to Roundway Down to the north of Devizes. A civil war battle took place here on 13th July, 1643 when the Royalist cavalry defeated the Parliamentarians driving them down the western escarpment in disarray.  Even today some claim to hear galloping hooves... There is an Iron Age fort on top called Oliver’s Castle, distinctive for several isolated trees and this is a great spot for a picnic or a sundowner on a good evening. If you see UFOs it is hopefully the army firing flares on Salisbury Plain. Nearby is Wiltshire’s newest white horse which was carved into the hillside to commemorate the Millennium.

Another local speciality are the crop circles which appear regularly in the summer. There is much dispute as to how they are caused - some suggest UFOs again!  Check out for the latest ones.

Where to Stay

A central choice is the Black Swan, (25-26 Market Place, Devizes, SN10 1JQ; doubles from £70) a good honest local where you always get a friendly welcome. It is also reputed to be haunted: apparently the brave ask for Room 4.

Two miles out of town, there is a Travelodge (London Road, Devizes SN10 2HL).  With advance deals from £19 for a double/twin, it can be excellent value for the usual anodyne en suite bedrooms.

However, my choice for style and character is the George and Dragon inn (High Street, Rowde, SN10 2PN; doubles from £55 with a good continental breakfast), some 2 miles from town.  It sits inconspicuously on a corner but has some of the best food in the area; their speciality fish is delivered fresh from Cornwall each day though it can get pricy if you stray away from the set menu. Recently they have added 3 bedrooms:  it is worth paying a little extra for the en suites.  No. 1 is charming in fresh white with a splash of pink, a French style bed and old exposed beams.  They have a great range of Cowshed products in the bathroom.

For food, the best bet in town is The Bistro (7 Little Brittox, SN10 2AT; 01380 720043; with lunches around the £5 - 7 mark with some interesting combinations: I like their home cured Wiltshire salt beef with roasted beetroot in pitta. Dinner is around £15: try the roast pork with honey stuffing though there is a quinoa and cashew nut roast for the hardy vegetarians. The Raven at Poulshot ( Wilts SN10 1RW; 01380 828271) some 2 miles west of Devizes serves good quality unpretentious pub grub.

To Finish

Oh, just in case you were wondering, the limerick ends as follows:

‘One ball was small,
It was no ball at all,
But the other had won several prizes.’