The Avon Valley - From Christchurch Harbour To Salisbury Plain

Mudeford Sandbank with Hengistbury Head in the background, enclosing Christchurch Harbour where the Avon flows into the sea.

The Avon Valley is somewhat neglected by the tourism guides as it lies between three counties: Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire, where it forms the western edge of  the New Forest. The River is variously known as the Salisbury Avon or the Hampshire Avon. (The modifier is needed as there are other River Avons, avon being the old Celtic-British word for a waterway.) This flows southward from near Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain down to Christchurch. The stream rises in Wiltshire, runs through Hampshire and ends in Dorset. "Salisbury Avon" identifies it with the Valley's best-known population centre. Though the river itself is not navigable in modern terms, the valley was an important ancient trade route between the coast at the ancient fortified port of Hengistbury and the Stonehenge area. Much of the ancient track is now road; a modern counterpart is the Avon Valley Path running between Christchurch Priory and Salisbury Cathedral.
With Christchurch (on the E side of the Bournemouth conurbation) as the starting point, this orientation guide or tour planner takes you north up the valley of the Hampshire or Salisbury Avon from its mouth in Christchurch Harbour up the Dorset-Hampshire boundary to Salisbury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire. Where a place-name first appears in boldface, there is more information on this site in the gazetteer section, including hyperlinks to any useful websites.
  Christchurch Harbour and Bay can be visited by pleasure boat
Taking the route south to north, you would start on the coast at Christchurch. You can explore the downtown area on foot, and from here you can either drive or take a motor-launch to visit its foreshore areas at Mudeford and Hengistbury. Private ferry launches run downriver from Christchurch Quay (and from Tuckton Tea Gardens upriver) to Mudeford Sandbank, from where you can walk up Hengistbury Head viewpoint. A separate service will ferry you from the Sandbank across the harbour-mouth "Run" [tide-race] to Mudeford Quay, where you can walk E along the Promenade. (An optional extension is to continue to Highcliffe Castle, a mile or so along the coast path.) Alternatively, you can drive a short distance SW out of Christchurch to park at Hengistbury Head car park, and walk up atop the Head and down along the Sandbank to catch the ferry across the harbour-mouth to Mudeford Quay. (For the infirm, there is also a land train service between the Head and the Sandbank.) You could also drive E from Christchurch to Mudeford and park in the Quay-side car park, taking the ferry launch from there across the harbour-mouth to the Sandbank and back.
For keen walkers, Christchurch Priory Gardens are also the start of the 34-mile long waymarked Avon Valley Path to Salisbury Cathedral. To take in the valley’s sites of interest by road, a zigzag route is necessary in the first section. The main road running N to Salisbury, the A338 from Bournemouth, runs first up the W side of the Valley N to the modern market town of Ringwood, at the interchange of four roads, where it crosses to the east side of the Avon, returning to the W side at Fordingbridge.
As the A338 N leaves the Christchurch suburb of Fairmile, you can turn right and park to walk up to St Catherine's Hill viewpoint. (The turn-off is not well-signposted - look out for the Fairmile pub.) Just beyond this is Hurn Airport. Near here, you can also cross the valley by road via the Avon Causeway to head up the E side, if you want to avoid the dual carriageway section of the A338, turning N on the B3347 for a closer look at the western edge of the New Forest. Beyond the busy market town of Ringwood (the largest centre between Christchurch and Salisbury), you can continue on, or return to, the back road N which here marks the New Forest’s western boundary. The back-road route, past villages such as Mockbeggar and Ibsley, is more picturesque, and you can often see ponies, donkeys, and even Highland Cattle by the roadside. You can of course follow this “old road” all the way N from Christchurch, but it means missing both Hurn Airport and the only viewpoint over the valley, St Catherine's Hill, so here we've suggested starting on the W side and rejoining the old road via Avon Causeway. The old road can also be picked up again just beyond Ringwood, and followed nearly all the way to Salisbury.

Donkeys at Gorley tearooms
Donkeys, ponies and cattle can be seen along the old back-road route. None are legally wild animals, but are all owned by local residents, who have free-range grazing rights for their animals on common lands. The donkeys however tend to hang out in tourist spots like Burley where they can cadge for treats like ice cream.

Wayside pubs and inns are a historic part of any route Along the main A338 road, there are a few pubs en route, like the Tudor Rose and Old Beams inns. However the back-road route has even more pubs (marked on OS maps as “PH” for Public House) and tearooms, where often small groups of ponies or donkeys can be seen. Just N of Christchurch is The Lamb Inn at Winkton and the Woolpack Inn restaurant at Sopley; near the Avon Causeway/Hurn cross-roads is a converted railway station, now the Avon Causeway Inn. Farther N,  just off our route [turn right] on the western edge of the New Forest are the Alice Lisle family pub at Rockford and The Royal Oak at North Gorley [frontage pictured, right - mouse over]. On the section N of Fordingbridge are The Fighting Cocks pub-restaurant at Godshill, the Horse & Groom at Woodgreen, plus half a dozen, such as The White Horse, The Kings Arms, The Wooden Spoon, and The Bull, in Downton (this being now almost a town due to its becoming part of the Salisbury commuter belt). The major pubs like The Fighting Cocks serve food all day. The Avon New Queen and The Royal Oak at North Gorley

Salisbury Cathedral and Christchurch Priory mark the start and end of the Avon Valley Path
Above: Salisbury Cathedral and [mouse over] Christchurch Priory, England's longest parish church. These are the northerly and southerly endpoints of the main part of the Avon Valley route.

Beyond the historic market town of Fordingbridge, you can turn off left at Breamore (just past the historic Tudor Rose Inn) to visit its Anglo-Saxon church, and Breamore House next to it. W of here is Rockbourne if you want to see the foundation remains of a Roman villa.
Around 6 miles S of Salisbury is Downton. Outside the town, at Bodenham, is Longford Castle, a triangular-shaped, originally late-16C, fortified manor house, since rebuilt as home of the Earls of Radnor. Though not open to the public, it is visible from the riverside footpath. The route enters Wiltshire for the final stretch to Salisbury, which has a park-n-ride scheme to alleviate traffic congestion, though this operates only from the northern and western approaches. Adjoining Salisbury to the W is the town of Wilton, where a new park-n-ride terminus is being built. In Salisbury, the Avon Valley Path which began at Christchurch Priory terminates in the Cathedral grounds. The town centre is walkable though now busy with traffic.
Just N of Salisbury is the heritage site of Old Sarum, on the road to Amesbury. W of Amesbury on Salisbury Plain is Stonehenge, the last major attraction on our route. (The river continues on, but the land is largely part of the Army Training Estate, out of bounds to the public for security reasons.)

For the return journey, again you have a choice of route between the busy A338 and the old backroad along the E side of the valley. It is possible to drive an alternate route down the Valley's upper W side, to villages such as Odstock, Rockbourne and Whitsbury, but this involves a certain amount of detouring or doglegging about, so an OS map is essential here.

Avon Valley footpath views
It's said there are more fish species in the Avon than in any other British river, from lamprey to Atlantic salmon.

Avon Valley Path: There is a 34-mile long waymarked footpath opened in 1992 between Christchurch Priory and Salisbury Cathedral. Few walk it as a long-distance route however, due to the fact much of it runs across swampy lowland. As the official website puts it, parts of the route are ‘seriously waterlogged’ at times. Other sections of it, mainly on the eastern, Hampshire, side of the valley, however are up on the drier heath of the valley hillsides, and these also offer more of a view. Though it was researched by walkers from the Ringwood and Fordingbridge Footpath Society, in the middle of the route, it officially seems to "run" from N to S, i.e. all the walk-guides start in Salisbury - the opposite to the driving route we outline here. The route is now clearly marked, by a dashed line with red diamonds, on the OS maps.
Download an online Ordnance Survey map-section

Further Reading:
The Salisbury Avon (Arrowsmith 1929, in The Rivers Of England series) by Ernest Walls
The River Avon (1991 pbk) by Noreen O'Dell
Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd (1986)
Gazetteer Of Sites Of Interest En Route (South to North)

Two views of lower Avon 

Left: Two views of the lower Avon from St Catherine's Hill. The tower of Christchurch Priory can be seen in one, and the other shows the river in flood. (Its poetic name is the 'valley of the water meadows.')

  Christchurch - riverside and reconstruction of mediaeval Twynham

The town's free Red House Museum documents the site's long history at this strategic point at the mouth of the Avon. The Saxons called the town Thuinham, Tweoxnam or Twynham, because it sits 'tween the rivers, i.e. the Avon and Stour, whose mouths converge here. The ruined Norman castle of Twynham still stands in the town centre, once moated by a canal from the Avon millstream. Its most impressive historic site is Christchurch Priory, the town being renamed in the 12th C. after it. (A priory is a collegiate church for training local monks.) It's an unusual construction - apparently a number of early churches and chapels joined together and built up into a High Saxon priory, which may well be England's most magnificent pre-Conquest church. It survived Henry VIII's Dissolution Of The Monasteries in the 1530s because it was also the local parish church – and it is still England’s largest (or rather longest). The Priory contains the Shelley Memorial, dedicated to the Romantic poet. (The family of his wife Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, had local connections.) Almost downtown is Christchurch Town Quay [pictured left], with its park and swannery, a stopping point for river cruises downriver to Christchurch Harbour and Mudeford-Hengistbury.


Hengistbury Head
This is the headland adjoining and overlooking Mudeford Sandbank enclosing Christchurch Harbour. There is a 360-degree viewpoint from the top of the headland. Today the Harbour is only used by sailing craft as it is only a few feet deep and has a sandbar called the Run across most of its entrance, but this was a prehistoric site of considerable importance, dating back to the Reindeer Hunters of the Upper Palaeolithic era (end of the Old Stone Age), who camped on there. Later, it served as an Iron Age Celtic port and tribal mint, with an (undated) earthen fortification called the Double Dykes built to protect the headland from inland attack. A plinth on the height of land has a brass dial that points to sites on the horizon, though this is slightly out of alignment, perhaps due to subsidence. There is a nature centre and cafe at the terminus for the landtrain which takes people down to Mudeford Sandbank.

 Hengistbury Head, from the Bournemouth side

The Avon's southernmost reach: Mudeford Sandbank enclosing Christchurch Harbour


Mudeford Sandbank, with Christchurch Harbour on the left and Christchurch Bay on the right, access between these being via the narrow channel between it and Mudeford Quay on the mainland.

  18thC houses on Mudeford Quay

Mudeford Sandbank and Quay
Mudeford straddles Christchurch Harbour mouth. Mudeford Sandbank is a spit of land formed by tidal action around Hengistbury Head, and enclosing most of the harbour mouth. The Sandbank is the location of Britain’s most expensive beach huts (this is because you can sleep in them in summer, which is not allowed elsewhere).
Mudeford Quay stands on the inland side across the harbour mouth. On the quay is a stand of Georgian houses including the Haven House Inn, some picturesque fishing bric-a-brac, and a car park. You can walk W from here around the edge of this part of Christchurch Harbour to the largest hotel in this area, formerly the Avonmouth, now refurbished with orangery, terrace, and spa as the Christchurch Harbour Hotel. Mudeford Quay is the western end of the esplanade or promenade running E towards Highcliffe (though it doesn’t run all the way to the Castle). Two Regency buildings survive with historic connections to the local landowning Rose family: Sandhills House (now the HQ of a caravan park) and ‘Gundimore’, from when this area was a fashionable Regency-era resort (details and photos here – ‘The Forgotten Regency Resort’ ).


St Catherines Hill N of Christchurch

St Catherine's Hill
St Catherine's Hill is a wooded nature reserve on the west side of the Avon Valley which offers the only hilltop viewpoint over the lower valley. This is the only point from which you can actually see the course of the Avon as it meanders down to the sea. It is also an ancient monument, though no traces are visible of either the Roman fort once there, or the chapel dedicated to St Catherine which gave the hill its name; most of the ditches and banks you see are more recent, from 20th-C. use in army training.) The hill is well-known to locals (popular with dog-walkers and horse owners), but strangers to the area will need to consult a street-plan map to locate the turn-off to the two small parking areas near its south-west corner. Historically, it remains
a slightly mysterious place, and we have a separate "Notes & Queries" page on this, here:  The Mystery Of  St Catherine's Hill.

Lower Avon aerial shot

Left: The Lower Avon meanders through flat bottomland, so the main road runs up one side or the other of the valley, with only a few farms in the middle. (Photo taken from aircraft soon after takeoff from Hurn Airport.)



Below: The "old road," or rather the network of ancient trackways which criss-cross the E side of the Valley, can still be accessed in places. The section pictured below, looking south from near Burley Beacon, is designated on OS maps as the Smugglers' Road, presumably because the smuggling convoys came inland through here in the 18C. These tracks are much older than the 18C and Burley Beacon itself is associated with an older legend, that of the Bisterne Dragon, who supposedly flew from the Beacon. (The slaying is commemorated in the mediaeval coat of arms of the family who owned nearby Bisterne Manor.)


BIA Hurn Airport
This site was chosen by British aviation pioneer Sir Alan Cobham for Bournemouth's municipal airport. In WW2, it became RAF Hurn and then was the first terminus of what would become British Airways when BOAC abandoned reliance on flying boats and switched to using aerodromes. It is now officially BIA – Bournemouth International Airport. The aviation museum formerly onsite was moved over the road when the airport facilities were expanded. As the prevailing winds are from the west, its normal flight-path for landings is across the Avon Valley, and landing approaches can be viewed from the viewpoint on the NE corner of  St Catherine's Hill. Scenic charter flights over the area are usually available.


 Click here to view official Airport website


  Avon Causeway

Avon Causeway
That the road across the Valley here is called a causeway indicates how wet the Valley floor is in winter. This type of terrain is known as water-meadows; elsewhere, farmers have to create water-meadows by damning streams, but here they occur naturally. This bottomland of Hampshire streams and water-meadows is classic angling country. Off the west end of the Causeway is the site of Hurn Station, the only remnant of a Victorian railway that ran up the Valley from Christchurch to Ringwood. After being derelict for many years, it was restored as a theme pub/hotel, the Avon Causeway Inn, with a small steam engine and 'diner' carriage standing at the old station platform.


David Niven in The First Of The FewThe WWII fighter airfield of RAF Ibsley was a front-line Battle of Britain airfield which stood between the main road and the village of Mockbeggar, where there is a memorial with a plan of its layout. The airfield area is now flooded due to gravel quarrying, with only the ruined control tower still standing (just visible across the lake, from the main road). In 1942 the airfield became the main location for the Leslie Howard film The First Of The Few, co-starring David Niven, on the development of the Spitfire. Some of the young pilots who appear in the film did not survive to see it. [Details of the production here].
RAF Ibsley

This historic market town features a late-mediaeval 7-arched bridge, an old riverside coaching inn (The George), a partly Saxon-Norman church (St Mary’s), and a riverside statue of painter Augustus John, one of those bohemian figures who attract a coterie of other artists and writers. He lived here with his family and an ever-changing entourage for three decades, and is buried here in the local cemetery. A pub-hotel on the west side of town has also been renamed after him.
Augustus John statue and river-side walk, Fordingbridge

Augustus John statue and pub, Fordingbridge

Castle Hill view
Views W over the valley around the Breamore area can be had from the hilltop lay-by on Castle Hill, N of Godshill.

Breamore church and manor

Breamore Church is described in Pevsner's The Buildings Of England as "by far the most important and interesting Anglo-Saxon monument in Hampshire". It is one of the few surviving mainly Saxon-era or "pre-Conquest" churches, built in 980 AD, complete with an inscription in Anglo-Saxon. Breamore House & Countryside Museum, an Elizabethan Manor built in 1583, stands next to it and is now regularly open to the public, incorporating a museum showing traditional country crafts.

 Downton Moot Garden
In the large suburbanised village of Downton 6 mi S of Salisbury is The Moot Landscape Garden, just S off the High Street. (The Avon Valley Path connects with the riverside path here.) The Garden is a riverside park with lake and grass amphitheatre, built on a terraced hillside area that was the foundation of a Norman fort, and re-landscaped in the early 18thC. It is now registered both as an Ancient Monument and a Historic Garden. Though the 18-C "folly" buildings such as the Temple Of Mercury have now been been demolished after years of neglect, the park is still maintained as a public free space used on weekends for open-air concerts etc. , amidst the historic landscaped riverside ornamental gardens. The town is home to the popular May-Day weekend Cuckoo Fair, a revival of the old Mediaeval fair, when tens of thousands of visitors arrive to see the street entertainments, market stalls etc.



Salisbury was once called New Sarum because it replaced the original hilltop town site of Old Sarum [see entry below] to the north. An old legend says the town site was chosen by firing an arrow from the old site. This is unlikely as it was two miles away, but the story may be inspired by the fact that Salisbury lies in a straight line with Old Sarum and Stonehenge – though why this is exactly is a mystery. Some books argue that the position of the townsite and its layout or plan were meant to be mystical or magical, a Christian counterpart to the ‘pagan’ alignments at Stonehenge.
Salisbury Cathedral and the Avon stream
Salisbury town centre
The new city was built around the Cathedral, which was begun in 1220. Fifteen thousand tons of stone from Purbeck quarries was barged up the Avon to build it. In the Middle Ages, expansion also occurred around the market place. The surrounding area was laid out on a pattern used in other Mediaeval towns – a chequer-board or grid plan. Each “chequer” or bloc of houses was named after an inn or other historic building: Antelope Chequer after the old Antelope Inn, and so on. The low-lying city area was marshy and liable to be flooded when the Avon was in spate, and old prints show that drainage channels ran down the middle of each street, unhealthily used as open sewers. In the Market Place, Tuesday is “stall” market day and there is also a livestock market in Ashley Road. Butcher Row, on the south side of the market, has gabled mediaeval houses.

Salisbury archway

The town remains most famous for its Cathedral, which has a spire 404 feet tall, the tallest in England and second tallest in Europe. Guided tours are available of the grounds. Inside the Cathedral, making “brass rubbings” or tracing-paper copies of brass plaques is allowed. The Cathedral Close is the largest in England, and is marked by 14th-century gateways. North Canonry Park (west side) offers a walk by the River Avon. The path offers the view of the Cathedral, from the water meadows, which was made famous by the painter Constable.

Pictured right: the view through one of the city's mediaeval archways.

 Salisbury Cathedral
Historic buildings around town include the Matrons’ House (probably designed by Sir Christopher Wren around 1682), Mompesson House (designed by Wren around 1701, and often seen in film and TV dramas), and Malmesbury House, home of the Earl of Malmesbury.

There are several old churches, one being dedicated to St Thomas Becket containing a Mediaeval ‘Doom’ painting showing royalty and churchmen alike going to Hell. There are a number of historic inns, like The Haunch Of Venison, which was built in the 15th-16th centuries. The Old George Inn at the end of what is now Old George Mall was visited by Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, and the diarist Samuel Pepys (whose Diary says he had “a silk bed and a very good diet” — but the prices made him “mad”).

The town has a busy downtown core, with shops, a market, museums and art galleries. The latter include Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, at the Kings House (it has a model of Old Sarum and items from Stonehenge); the Guildhall (portrait paintings); and Salisbury Arts Centre, on Bedwin St. The Tourist Information Centre is on Fish Row.


Old Sarum
This site is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a Royal castle, built on the site of an Iron Age hillfort, and is still encircled by an impressive dry moat. It was not just a castle, but had a cathedral and other buildings built in the outer precinct, which was also dry-moated. Though apparently impregnable, the site proved unsuitable for its inhabitants, a mix of soldiery, churchman and townspeople. The bishop’s palace and cathedral completed in 1092 had to be reconstructed after the monks got into territorial or jurisdictional disputes with the garrison and local traders. There was also no water supply onsite.
The townspeople and church left around 1220, when construction began on “New Sarum” - the present-day Salisbury - supposedly an arrow’s flight to the south. It was not however abandoned, being garrisoned until the Wars Of The Roses, and used as a gaol. Even when long deserted, it was still listed as a city and until the 1830s reform act, entitled to be represented by 2 MPs – a so-called Rotten Borough. Most of the stonework is gone as Salisbury’s mediaeval walled town and cathedral were built largely with stone from here. Only remnants of its fortified gatehouse are now left above ground, but the outline of other buildings can be seen. Signboards show what it once looked like.

 Old Sarum castle precinct and outline of cathedral

Old Sarum: the inner bailey or moated precinct of the mediaeval royal castle, and [mouse over to see 2nd image] the foundations of the the former cathedral before it was relocated to its present site just over a mile to the south.

  Salisbury Plain, in distance

Looking north from Win Green, the highest point in Cranborne Chase, the best viewpoint over the southern edge of Salisbury Plain.

Salisbury Plain
This is the undulating plateau on which Stonehenge and many other ancient sites stand. (Even Stonehenge does not stand on flat ground.) Long denuded of its ancient woodland cover, the Plain has been used for centuries as the British Army’s main training ground, with areas still out of bounds to the public. Now the Army has been reduced in size, the Plain is even more sparsely populated. Wiltshire has other ancient sites right across it, reaching right up to and beyond the headwaters of the Avon. Stonehenge itself is officially Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site, with the latter site to the NNW, just above the valley headwaters.

Stonehege, road and foot access
Stonehenge, approached from the busy A303, and [mouse-over to see 2nd image] the tourist access footpath partly around the stones. There is a long-standing plan to turf over the road and move the visitor centre [on right] farther away to restore more of a sense of setting, and build an access tunnel between them. The current setup has been described by a Parliamentary committee as "a national disgrace."

Stonehenge is so well-known it needs no description. Its purpose or function remains as mysterious as ever, too complicated to attempt even a summary here. In connection with the River Avon, the site had a ‘cursus’ or ritual avenue linking it to the Avon. ‘The Avenue’ curves southeast nearly two miles from Stonehenge to reach the banks of the river near Amesbury's old Abbey. Some archaeo-historians argue this is itself a symbolic river, connecting the site to the actual river where bodies were put as part of a Bronze Age water-based cult. Some theories concerning Stonehenge are outlined here.

Stonehenge - rollover photo by Frédéric Vincent

Upper Woodford
Upriver, the Avon flows through quiet Wiltshire countryside. The riverside pub garden of the Bridge Inn at Upper Woodford, SW of Amesbury, 10 miles from Stonehenge and 6 miles from Salisbury, provides a useful viewpoint.


Right and below: the view from the riverside pub garden of the Bridge Inn at Upper Woodford


The Avon at Upper Woodford

Salisbury from Laverstock Down just to the east.
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