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(Original Text dated 1992)
Look at a map of Wiltshire and almost in the centre you will find the town of Devizes. An ancient borough since the twelfth century, it only got downgraded in one of those local government reorganisations.
The name comes originally from "The Divides", where the boundaries of four parishes, St James, St Mary, St Peter and St John came together at one point.
20 miles to the west is Bath, 20 to the north-east is Swindon and 25 to the south is Salisbury. No rail network here since Dr Beeching, but Chippenham, Westbury or Pewsey stations are within easy striking distance.
Dr Beeching could almost be said to have been responsible for the Hungerford massacre, as the disused railway tunnel under the castle is now a shooting centre, with the dubious honour of having been used for practise by Michael Ryan.
If you say Devizes to anyone who was in the forces around the time of the last war, they'll almost certainly tell you that they were there for a while in a transit camp before going overseas. The old camps have gone now, replaced by estates, either of the trading or housing variety.
Probably the two things Devizes is most famous for nowadays are Wadworth's Brewery and the Kennet and Avon Canal locks.
Wadworth's is still a privately owned and run brewery with a huge red brick headquarters in the middle of town. Their 6X beer from the wood is now famous throughout the south of England. Although the locals aren't so enchanted by the traffic jams, many people visit the town to see the two horse-drawn drays which the brewery still use to deliver to the pubs within the central area of the town.
The other attraction is the canal. To the west of the town is Caen Hill, with it's flight of twenty-nine locks taking the Kennet and Avon down from its high point in central Wiltshire, towards Bath.
For many years the locks were dried up and in ruin, but thanks to an enormous amount of work by the canal trust, they are now fully open again. The canal is now officially navigable all the way along its length, but water shortages can mean the twenty-nine lock flight has to be closed for fear of it drying up again.
If you're intending to visit Devizes by narrow boat, it's best to check water availability before setting out. Even if you can't take a boat down, the flight is certainly worth a look on foot, just to see the enormous feat of Victorian engineering.
I briefly mentioned the castle earlier. Don't expect a guided tour as, would you believe, it's been turned into private flats and is NOT open for viewing.
If you're wandering round the centre of town, find St John's Street leading east from the Market Place and then find St John's Alley. It's a beautiful restoration of half-timbered buildings and well worth a look.
If you stay in the town, don't expect an awful lot of night life, you have to go to Bath or Swindon for that. Devizes is one of those places where night life means standing in the Market Place, watching the paint dry on the bus shelters!
There are a number of bed and breakfast places in the town, plus two main hotels, The Bear and The Castle. The Bear is well worth staying in, as it's an old coaching inn from the Bath to London run.
If you visit by car, watch out for the strange parking arrangements. It's one of the few places to use disc parking. You get your disc for free from a shop or garage and put it in the windscreen set to show the time you arrived. You then have ninety minutes free parking from the time your disc is set for.
If you are staying, it's worth avoiding the town over Easter weekend, that's unless you're involved with the annual Devizes to Westminster canoe race. From about the Wednesday before, all the parking places are full up with cars with canoes strapped on top; and all the hotels and B&B's are full of disgustingly fit canoeists hoping to beat the record in the race which starts at 6am on Good Friday morning from the wharf.
If you're walking round town, the wharf is well worth a visit, with its canal centre and many shops. Also there is a tiny theatre which has been built out of a converted warehouse. If you're lucky enough to be around when they have a production, give it a try as you'll have trouble finding a more intimate place anywhere. Personally, I love their pantomimes, which spill off the stage and get absolutely everyone involved.
To sum up then, a closed castle, a brewery, some canal locks and no night life. It's not that bad, honest. Why not give it a try next time you're on your way further west. If nothing else, it's well worth an overnight stop to break your journey.
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