Tuesday, 19 May 2009
Site of the first engagement at Roundway down
View from Roundway Down into the gruesome and aptly named 'Bloody Ditch'
Following the stand-off at Lansdowne Hill near the town of Chippenham a few days earlier, Sir William Waller, commander of the Parliamentarian army was eager to engage the Royalists at the soonest opportunity. He deciding to lay siege to the town of Devizes, where he had learned the Royalist, Lord Ralph Hopton (who had been injured during the Landsdowne encounter) had taken refuge. Waller, seizing the opportunity to have another pop at Hopton, gave the order to advanced on Devizes, unfortunately for Waller, Hopton had already sent word detailing his predicament. When Waller reached Devizes, he was horrified to find the superior forces of the Royalists cavalry and foot soldiers, commanded by Sir John Byron and Lord Wilmot waiting for him. A fierce battle ensued at Roundway Down, one mile north of Devizes, on the 13th July 1643.
As the battle raged, Waller could only watch in horror and disbelief as his men where cut down. Finally, in a desperate bid to escape the carnage, the Roundheads fled to nearby Roundway Hill where they found themselves cornered by the Royalists' Cavalry. A deep and dramatic escarpment fell away to their rear (the foot of which is now aptly named ’Bloody Ditch’) which would claim many lives that day and not just those of the Parliamentarians' but also those of the Royalist Cavalry, who, having been given the order to charge, inadvertently followed the fleeing Parliamentarians' over the abyss to their deaths, men and horses breaking their necks in the steep fall.
Well over 4000 men engaged in battle on that day and in excess of 600 or so of those perished at Bloody Ditch. Some were buried nearby at Rowde and Devizes on the 14th July. Some have been discovered in shallow graves on Roundway Down. These individuals had been stripped, their skeletal remains showing evidence of sabre and bullet wounds. The whereabouts of the remaining soldiers is a bit of a mystery but many scholars speculate, because of the logistics in moving so many men and horses, that a decision would most likely have been made to bury some of the dead where they fell at Bloody Ditch.
What had begun as a favourable strong hold for Sir William Waller’s Parliamentarians' ended in a crushing defeat, a defeat that would go down in history as one of the most decisive Royalist victories of the English Civil War.
The bodies of the fallen Parliamentarians' were stripped and pillaged by the Royalists, some personal items however are still being recovered to this day. Artillery artefacts, often unearthed by local farmers, have included canon balls and discharged carbine shot.
Standing atop Roundway hill, and looking down into Bloody Ditch still sends icy crystals down my spine. It can be a desolate and windswept place at the best of times, often shrouded in mist. So it is not surprising to learn that it has a very haunted history. Reports still abound of ghostly musket and canon fire echoing across the down. Sounds of horses in distress and the terrified screams and shouts of long dead soldiers are still common to this day. Though spectral horses have been seen plunging to their deaths over the escarpment there have been few sightings of actual soldiers. The Down is well known for its eerie mists that drift along the valley floor and the top of the escarpment. It is from these mists that the majority of ghostly encounters are often witnessed.
Roundway down and Bloody Ditch are now a nature reserves where many species of wild flowers and insects are plentiful. If you’re lucky you may just spot deer or two which roam freely on the Down.
How to get there:
From Devizes on the A361, turn into Folly Road by the Travelodge Hotel. Follow the road out of Devizes into Roundway village, from there follow the road up hill till you reach a fork, take the right fork where you will see a chalk white horse carved into the hillside on your right. Follow this road till it forks again, take the left fork. At the top of the hill follow the gravel track for about a ¼ mile till you reach a car park, you are now on Roundway Down. Access to Bloody Ditch and Roundway Hill, are through the gate just off the car park to the left, marked ‘Nature Reserve‘.