Although strictly a village and with a population of around 3500 it has the look and feel of a small town and can be regarded as the capital of Pewsey Vale.
The village is set in an ancient landscape which was very much isolated from outside until the construction of the canal and railway in the 19th century.
Throughout the area there is much evidence of prehistoric activity with finds from the Stone Age and an Iron Age hillfort at nearby Martinsell hill and several long barrow burial chambers from that era. It is likely that the area has been continuously occupied for many thousands of years. There is a church of Saxon origins and a Roman mosaic pavement discovered nearby at Manningford Bruce 2.5 miles (4km) to the southeast of the town.
The legendary King Alfred, king of Wessex from 879AD, owned much of the land in the area and it is believed that he granted the residents the right to an Annual Feast in return for caring for his wife whilst he was away at war. This feast has since been incorporated into the modern day annual Carnival which is held for two weeks in September. This started in 1898 to raise funds for the Savernake Hospital.
Today, Pewsey Carnival and its wide and varied programme of events is one of the best in Wiltshire. Amongst the many attractions there are the mad Wheel(beer)o and Wine Races, the Sedan Chair Race, Rock Night and a travelling funfair set up for the second week of the Carnival. The grand Carnival Procession on the final evening come rain or shine brings the Carnival fortnight to its grand finale. The whole village joins in and the locals along the route decorate their houses and gardens which are later judged and awarded prizes.
A statue of King Alfred stands at the crossroads in the centre of the village. The land was given to the abbey of St Peter at Winchester in 940 AD. From the Domesday Book of 1086, and inventory of population livestock and land compiled following the invasion of England by King William I, William the Conqueror, we can estimate that there were probably 370 to 400 people living on the estate which formed the basis of the village and the present day parish boundaries.
Although having a substantial population and being the largest centre in the area, the village never really developed because of its lack of a market at the time. The nearest market was at Upavon which is about 4 miles (6.5km) to the southwest. During the 14th century agriculture dominated the Vale and many small farmsteads stood in what is now the centre of the village. The original settlement was on the Saxon estate next to the river but it combined with the many small farmsteads and shifted north to its present day position.
By the 17th century there were between 600 and 700 inhabitants and during the 18th century much of the land was enclosed. Larger farmhouses were built close to the town and they too were eventually absorbed into it.
The famous White Horse was believed to have been cut into the hill around 1785. The Kennet Avon Canal arrived in the town in 1810 which enabled agricultural produce to be exported and building materials to be imported. The biggest and most dramatic change to affect the village was the construction of the Berks and Hants Extension railway in 1862. This connected the village to the Great Western Railway network and from 1906 it became part of the London to Exeter main line.
A market was granted in 1824 with a weekly Corn Market held at the Phoenix Inn. A monthly livestock market was introduced in the 1920’s. A new White Horse was cut into the hillside in 1937 just to the left of the old one in commemoration of King George VI coronation.
Within easy reach of the village there is a Riding Centre at Stanton St Bernard set in beautiful countryside. The Riding Centre is particularly suited to riding totally off-road with trails through the Ridgeway, Wansdyke and Silbury Hill and breathtaking views of the Avebury Stone Circle and Kennet Long Barrow. What better way to spend a few hours on a lazy summer’s afternoon.
Cycling and walking is possible along much of the restored Kennet and Avon Canal which crosses the Marlborough road just to the north of the village. The canal towpath continues east to run alongside the railway line. Then past the Crofton Pumping Station and the Wilton Windmill both open to the public (it is essential to check opening dates and times before setting out) and on to the picturesque villages of Great Bedwyn and Little Bedwyn.
Although deep in the Wiltshire countryside there are many places of interest in the area. The Heritage Centre in the village is worth a visit. The historic town of Marlborough is 7 miles (11km) by road. There are good rail connections in both directions with intercity trains to London in the east and Exeter in the southwest of England. Journey times are generally less than 90 minutes in either direction. Within easy traveling distance by road are the World Heritage sites of Avebury and Stonehenge Stone Circles, Bowood House and Gardens, Longleat Safari Park, the medieval city of Salisbury, Bath, and the impressive Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes.Pewsey