The best way to see Devizes is on foot, strolling along the same lanes and alleyways that have been trodden by countless others down the ages. Our tour is a journey through time, with the town’s architecture marking the passage of the years like the rings of a tree.
On your walk you will see that many buildings bear blue plaques, indicating that the building is of special interest. If you would like to learn more about these you can purchase the Trust for Devizes’ Town Trail at the Visitor Centre. You can also book a tour with the ever-popular John Girvan, who give fascinating insights into the history of Devizes. Find out more from the www.devizestours.co.uk website.
Our walk starts at the Market Place, the largest in the west of England. Here you are surrounded by buildings from many periods, nearly all listed as of architectural or historic interest.
On the north side of the Market Place is the Visitor Centre where you can learn about much of Devizes’ history, including the war between the Empress Matilda and her cousin Stephen. To acknowledge the loyalty of the burgesses of the town in her war with Stephen, Matilda, the granddaughter of William the Conqueror, gave Devizes its first Charter in 1141 and made it a borough, with rights to hold a market and to raise tolls from it. That market is still held every Thursday.
The Market Cross, given by Lord Sidmouth, the town’s MP and a former Prime Minister in 1814, bears the chilling tale of Ruth Pierce, In 1753, so the story goes, Ruth, accused of theft in a corn deal, asked God to strike her dead if she was lying. It seems that the Almighty took her at her word and she was immediately struck down with the proof of the lie clutched in her hand!
The fountain dates from 1879, and commemorates Thomas Southeron Estcourt MP who gave the town its Friendly Society. It is his statue that stands on the top surveying the town.
Towards the southern corner of the Market Place is the Shambles Market Hall. Built in 1853, it was the original butter and poultry market hall and is still used today on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays for traditional market goods. On Tuesdays it hosts an antiques and bric-a-brac market.
The Bear Hotel on the western side of the Market Place was a coaching inn before 1600. It is best known as being the boyhood home of portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Next to the Bear Hotel is the Corn Exchange. You can see a statue of Ceres, Goddess of Grain above. The exchange was built in 1856 to house the corn market, after dealers and farmers complained about the lack of protection for their produce. Refurbished by the Town Council, the building is now a conference centre and entertainment venue.
Built in 1885 by Henry Alfred Wadworth, using locally-made bricks, the Northgate Brewery is a fine example of Victorian Industrial architecture. The Wadworth
brewery is a family business that maintains a number of unique, traditional skills including a practicing Cooper, Sign-writing team and working Shire horses who deliver the beers to local pubs every weekday morning – look out for them on your tour. There is a free Visitor Centre
where you can learn about the history and heritage of the Company, purchase souvenirs to take away or beer tokens to spend in the on-site bar! The ‘Brewery Experience’ is available most days which includes a tour of the main brewery production areas, brand new Copper house, sign-writers studio, Shire horse stables and a tutored beer tasting of 5 wonderful cask ales. There may even be a chance to witness a barrel making demonstration if the Cooper is on-site!
To continue the tour, head east along New Park Street, arriving at the cross roads with Snuff Street on your right. This is so called because there used to be a snuff factory at the Market Place end. Longs Building, on the far side of Snuff Street, was one of the earliest cloth factories. Built in 1785 it is said to have housed up to 300 looms. Later it was converted into a tobacco factory and remained so until the 1950s. The building is now private apartments. To your left you will see Couch Lane with its steel arch, leading to the Wharf and the Kennet and Avon canal.
Further along New Park Street, on your left is Brownston House, a Grade 1 listed building that dates back to 1720. It is undoubtedly one of the finest buildings in Devizes.
Along from Brownston House is St. Mary’s church, one of two original Norman churches in Devizes. Built in about 1150 on the site of a smaller church, St.Mary’s is the oldest church in the town. The exterior was substantially rebuilt in the 15th century.
Cross the road to Monday Market Street (so called because this was where the original market was held) and on your left you can see Great Porch House. This is Devizes’ oldest property, believed to date from the 15th century.
From Monday Market Street, turn right into Maryport Street. On your left is the Brittox, now a shopping precinct but once the main approach to Devizes Castle. The name Brittox is believed to be derived from the Bretesque, the wooden stockade that flanked the route as it made its way up to the castle gates.
Walk down the Brittox and continuing through Wine Street, cross the pedestrian crossing in St. John’s Street and turn left. You will see the gates of Devizes castle on your right. Unfortunately neither the castle nor its grounds are open to the public.
This has been a fortified site for thousands of years, and we know that an early Iron Age hill fort stood on the mound. The first castle was built here in the 11th century by Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury. Its position on the boundary line between the ancient manors of Bishop Cannings, Rowde and Potterne is claimed to be the origin of the town’s name, the Latin for ‘on the boundaries’ being ‘ad divisas’. Through the centuries this has developed through Divisae, De Vies, Divisis and The Vize to today’s Devizes.
That first castle was made of wood, and when it burned down in 1113 a stone castle was erected in its place by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury. For more than 500 years, the castle dominated the town and the surrounding area, until in 1646 it was destroyed by the Parliamentarians in revenge for the support it gave to the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. All that remains today is the outline of the moat and traces of the foundations of the great hall. The present castle dates from the 1800s and is divided into privately owned flats.
Continuing down St. John’s Street southwards, you will see the Town Hall. Redesigned in 1806 by Thomas Baldwin, the City Architect of Bath, the building used part of an earlier 17th century structure that included the town lock-up which can be seen at the rear. The Assembly Room, with its fine Adam-style ceiling, was restored a few years ago to its original Georgian appearance. Visitors are welcome to go inside to take a look at the interiors, where you will also find a fascinating gallery of old and historic photographs of the town. You can also make arrangements to view the town’s fine collection of gold and silver plate, which includes maces and other pieces dating back to the 1600s.
Behind the Town Hall is St John’s Church, with its imposing 22 metre high tower housing eight bells. This is the town’s other Norman church, and viewed from any angle it is beautifully-proportioned. The tower is not square but rectangular, and the stonework is so accurate that the joins between them are all but invisible to the naked eye, giving the tower the appearance of being carved from solid rock. Step inside and you will find more examples of the finest Norman church architecture in England.
Set within a tranquil churchyard a stone’s throw from the castle, St. John’s was almost certainly built by Bishop Roger as the original ‘castle church’.
On the opposite side of the road, directly opposite the Town Hall, is St. John’s Alley. This outstanding example of timber-framed building with jettied-out upper floors dates back to the 16th century, and provides an authentic glimpse back into Tudor England. Ladies please note that there is an excellent hat shop here!
Continuing northwards along St. John’s Street brings you back to the Market Place and the end of this short tour. We hope it has given you an interesting, if brief snapshot of our town.