WILTSHIRE

 

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UKA modern historic county, Wiltshire is the place to be if you're an avid fan of the past. With attractions that date from the times of our Mesolithic ancestors to the Bronze age and the Saxon era, there are abounding structures and settlements that are an eternal reminder of Britain's past. Getting its name from the river Wylye within the county itself, it was once a settlement of native Britons before the Saxons overthrew them and claimed it for their own. The village of Old Sarum played an important role in the county, in the days of the native Britons, to the ruling of the Saxons and the Normans. Once the Normans left, the land of the county was re-distributed to the English church and crown, under which rule it remained til today.


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Due to its historical wealth, Wiltshire is known best for iconic structures like the majestic and mysterious Stonehenge, its sister site at Avesbury; old-fashioned churches, white horses made of chalk, man-made hills, and countless other quaint buildings. To make sightseeing easier, the county is thick with modern day comforts – B&Bs, little cafes and teashops, and small tourist shops. For someone who is searching for an overall British experience, Wiltshire is just the place to be.

 

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Points of Interest:   1. Malmesbury  2. Avebury Stones  3. Castle Combe  4. Lacock  5. Bradford-on-Avon   6. Devizes  7. Longleat House  8. Stourhead  9. Stonehenge  10. Salisbury  11. Old Sarum  12. Wilton House

 


Malmesbury AbbeyListed as the oldest borough in England in the Guinness Book of Records, Malmesbury (pop. 4,440) started out as little more than shelter place for people passing by. Eventually it became a bustling market town, and a remnant of this can be seen in the ornate Market Cross in the centre of the town. As one of the busier towns, Malmesbury was roped in as a place to go for worship – much of the town in the olden days was home to monastic buildings, and remains of several churches can still be seen to this day.


Sights
Among the historical structures is the intricately gorgeous Malmesbury Abbey. Built in the centre of Malmesbury as a Benedictine Monastery circa 676, by the inspiring St Aldhelm – an Abbot who bewitched people to church by the beauty of his lyrical verse. Although the Abbey once had a church spire that rivaled that of the Salisbury Catehdral, much of it has been lost to weather and time. The remaining third of the Abbey that has survived consist partly of the beautifully arched interior and the south porch with its bible carvings and Norman architecture. The Abbey is open to visitors for no charge, and would make an interesting walkabout, including the Abbey House Gardens next door.

 

The colourful history of the town is catalogued at Athelstan Museum– from stories of their flying monk to their prized laces. It's a place where you can explore the surrounding Cotswolds' area – Gloucestershire is about 5 miles away, and is another place full of wonderful attractions, not to mention just taking time to enjoy the natural beauty offered through Cotswold walks and other outdoorsy activities.

 

Hotel

Old Bell Hotel and Restaurant [Abbey Row, +44 1666822344, from £110]

Touted as England's Oldest Hotel, the Old Bell is situated in the centre of Malmesbury, making it an ideal place for those who intend to do some exploring of the area. All rooms have private bathrooms, broadband access and televisions.


Avebury monolithAlthough Avebury (pop. 486) is commonly spoken of in the same breath as Stonehenge, it is not only a circle of stone. Avebury is in fact the sweet little village which is surrounded by, and lends its name to, the ancient stone circle. Unexpectedly, the prehistoric stones seem to have usurped the name for themselves, and when people say they come from Avebury nowadays, the reaction is to ask them whether they are pagan ritualists. In all honesty, the village itself was built slightly further away from the henge by the Saxon, and as time went by, the placements of the buildings changed, bringing it closer to the stones.

Avebury was developed as a village during the time of the Saxons, at about 500 to 600 AD. They chose the place not only for its natural beauty, but also for its fertile land and water supply. Later on, when the Christian movement became strong within Britain, and the Saxons had long gone, Avebury became a bone of contention between the hardcore Christians and the pre-existing pagan practitioners.  Eventually the Chritian church became more powerful, and unfortunately this meant the implementation of the most devastating destruction of the henge, as they insisted on removing as much proof of the pagan ways as possible. Eventually in the 1900s, there was more awareness about the historical importance of the henge, and more was done to preserve what was left.

No doubt the biggest attraction at Avebury is the ancient henge. Despite the fact that much of it was ruined through by the punishment of both time and the Christian church, quite a fair bit remains, and the shape of the henge is still visible from the air. Postulated to have been built by a prosperous Neolithic colony, the henge served to mark an area that symbolised the serenity of the forest, earth and stones, which were important to the ancient people. The henge covers an area of land about 30 acres wide, and within it is also the village of Avebury.

The henge structure is basically an outlying ditch, and within that is a series of concentric circles. The surrounding ditch is incredibly deep, even now as deep as 20 feet, and it once protected a sacred circle of up to 600 stones. Although it is less well known than the somewhat more commercialised Stonehenge, the Avebury henge is in fact much bigger. For a more thorough experience of a prehistoric place of worship, the henge of Avebury would be a more intense choice, especially if you have several days to wander at ease as the entrance fee is free.

Much of what remains of Avebury's henge was preserved through the efforts of Alexander Keiller, an archaeologist and 'Marmalade Man' – he was heir to a wealthy marmalade business. Using his wealth, he helped to not only excavate much of the henge, he also bought up most of the land that constituted the henge, so as to stop it from being threatened by construction. He started the Alexander Keiller museum to preserve artifacts and findings. After his death, the museum was donated to the nation by his widow, and sadly the remaining areas of Avebury that were not covered by Keiller remain uninvestigated til today. Tickets for the museum can be bought on the spot.

Hotels
The New Inn
[Winterbourne Monkton, +44 1672 539240, £50.00].  The comfortable rooms at New Inn are all en suite, and they have a non-smoking policy. There are five bedrooms to choose from, and breakfast is served in the downstairs dining room.

The Lodge
[High Street, +44 1672 539023, from £95].  For accommodations in the centre of Avebury, The Lodge is the place to go. The food they serve is vegetarian, and organic where possible. The rooms include an English breakfast at their gorgeously furnished Georgian dining room.

 

 


Castle CombeLittle Castle Combe (pop. 400) is dubbed The Prettiest Village in England, and its beauty and tranquility certainly set it apart.   Many of the houses are hundreds of years old, and there is an ancient market cross that remains from the time of Castle Combe's weekly markets. There are several must-sees:  The White Hart Pub,  the village churchthe war memorial and the roman bridge at one end of the village.

To understand how picturesque this village is, imagine that it was used to film several movies and television episodes as the quintessential serene little town. Among them are episodes of The Avengers and The Saint, and it served as Wall and Blackmoor respectively in the modern films Stardust and The Wolfman. The Castle Combe Circuit is also located here, and although it is no longer used as a Formula racing track, homegrown races have taken over and several motoring shows use it as a test track.

 


Lacock Abbey cloistersAlthough Lacock (pop. 350) was founded in Saxon times and gained wealth from its position along the route to Bath, it truly prospered in the era of the wool merchants in the 15th century. Many of the houses and structures retain their original architecture from the era that they were built. This lovely village is almost wholly owned by the National Trust, which ensures its pristine environment of untouched village serenity – to the point that there are no TV aerials or yellow street lines that would denote the intrusion of modernity.

Because of the active efforts of the National Trust to preserve this quintessential rural hideaway, much of the architecture remains the same – houses, churches and abbeys that range from the 13th century to the 18th. Among the notable houses are the Sign of the Angel, a 15th century inn turned former wool merchant's house turned modern hotel and restaurant with a black and white facade, and Cruck House, with its bent beams and cave like interior, serves as reminder of the peasants of the medieval age.

The Abbey was said to have been founded by Wiltshire's first female sheriff, the Countess of Salisbury. Once built, she also conveniently had herself named Abbess. Sadly, there came a time when Abbeys became less and less important, and their sheer numbers ensured that most of them would end up in shambles. Fortunately, the Abbey and its grounds were passed on to the Talbot family and had a less dignified, but more charming, second life as a family estate. Attached to it is a gorgeous garden with a collection of interesting trees thanks to William Henry Fox Talbot, the last true Talbot to own the estate.

The Fox Talbot Museum is located in a medieval barn at the entrance to the grounds of the Abbey. Fox Talbot discovered the negative/positive process in photography and basically brought about the birth of photography that we are familiar with today (pre-digital camera). His photos and effects were stored at the Museum until recently, when the collection was taken over by the British Library. The Museum in Lacock still displays Fox Talbot's artifacts, on loan from the British Library.

Hotels
Housed in one of the iconic buildings of Lacock, a stay at t
he Sign of the Angel [Church Street, +44 1249 730 230, £82] would be for those who wish to immerse themselves in a character building of an idyllic English village. The rooms are beautifully furnished .

The Old Rectory [Cantax Hill, 01249 730335, £45].  A few minutes away from Lacock centre is the Old Rectory, a gorgeous piece of Gothic work. It has its own grounds, and works well as a starting point to explore several other villages in the area aside from Lacock. Each room comes with a view of the garden.

 


Bradford-0n-AvonBradford-on-Avon (pop. 8,820), not to be confused with Bradford in West Yorkshire, began its life like most villages in Wiltshire – from the wool trade. But unlike its contemporaries, Bradford-on-Avon exploded with the trade and became one of the manufacturing centres. Its rapid industrialisation brought in a large population, and even today, Bradford-on-Avon is considered densely populated for its size. Once the wool industry quieted down, moving north to Bradford in Yorkshire (which may have been named after Bradford-on-Avon) tourism took over as its main economy.

 

 

 



Sprouting up in the wake of a castle, the village of Devizes (pop. 13,200) soon became a market town with charter from the King. Even today the markets are a constant of Devizes life, held every Thursday of the week. Sadly, the castle that gave Devizes it's name for being built on the boundaries (Latin: ad Divisas) did not survive the Battle of Roundway Down in the 16th Century, and so did not live on to become one of the villages historical attractions.

The Market Placees takes up a long stretch of central Devizes and houses a variety of cafes, pubs, shops and indoor markets accessible to everyone. At one end of the Market Place is Wadworth's Brewery, an independent brewery that offers a variety of beers – and a sampling tour for those visitors who are so inclined.

Devizes has a couple of museums including the Wiltshire Heritage Museum which has the best bronze age archeological collection in the UK and displays thouands of years of local history.   The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust Museum was set up by people impassioned to keep the canal clean and educating the community on its importance and sets up events all year round, including boat trips along the canal ways.
There are also a healthy smattering of Anglican churches to ponder.

Hotel
A 17th century coaching inn turned modern hotel, the  Black Swan Hotel [25-26 Market Place, £65]
is situated within walking distance of most of Devizes attractions. Rates includes breakfast.

 


Longleat HouseLongleat is best known for two things – one is the hauntingly beautiful country house set in 900 acres of parkland. A gorgeous example of Elizabethan architecture, Longleat was the first manor house in England to be open to the public and is still open for those who are curious to see how lavishly the nobility used to live. It's even been used in the extravagant Bollywood production of Mohabbatein, a movie about talented kids at a prestigious private school that's mostly remembered for its sumptuous location.

Longleat Forest run by CenterParcs that's sort of a forest holiday with modern luxuries thrown in. There's a massive amount of activities going on, most of them outdoor, but it's a good place for those who want to be near nature but don't want to give up their urban holiday completely – there's even a variety of restaurants from Indian to Italian.

An associated BBC Animal Park will help convince the kids that a visit here is a good idea.

 


StourheadOne of the first Palladian (classic romanesque style) buildings in England, Stourhead was completely rebuilt from its original manor building when it changed ownership in the 16th century. The layout is rather rigid and symmetrical, the hallmark of the Palladian style, and it houses an amazing Regency library and a fabulous collection of paintings and furniture, mainly by Thomas Chippendale. Many of the heirlooms and antiques from the original owners of Stourhead, the Stourtons, still remain on display for visitors.

As lovely as the mansion is, nothing beats the spectacular grounds – all 2650 acres of it. Brought to life on the insistence of Henry Hoare II, the garden changes the natural face of the environment to create a landscape so beautiful and serene that one is reminded of Xanadu. Or at least, imagine that's how it was. The River Stour was dammed to create a lake for the pleasure of the guests, and man-made structures that enhanced its classic feel were added. If you enjoy Greek and Roman architecture, Hoare's propensity for garden temples in that vein – namely the Pantheon, and the Temple of Apollo for example – would no doubt delight you. For the rest, the natural magnificence of the garden would be lovely enough.

 



Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UKThe Mystery of Stonehenge’, while sounding like an old-fashioned late-night horror movie that’s scares only the weakest of hearts actually rings true in this instance. The mighty stones that scatter across the Wiltshire plains don’t seem to have any conclusive creator, although many have taken guesses. The foremost theory is that the pattern of standing stones were created as part of a druidic plan that included burial grounds and earthworks, similar to the ones at Avebury.


Other claimants to the name of Stonehenge’s founder are the Romans, the Saxons, the Danes, Egyptians, a couple of Giants under Merlin’s instructions and various aliens and supernatural entities. It is, of course, now accepted that it was not impossible to lug tonnes of upright stone across miles of varied geography, but in those days it seemed something that was too impossible to believe, therefore spawning all sorts of outlandish creation myths.


The foundations of the stones had been laid nearly 5000 years ago by whichever mysterious patron of the mystics it proved to be. At this stage it was being used for cremations and other rituals. The great stones only made an appearance at about 2150 BC, when the first of them were dragged nearly 240 miles from Preseli Hills, Wales to its current home. There were several stages to the creation of the Stonehenge that we see today, the last taking place in 1500 BC, when even by then some of the stones had eroded or broken. The pattern of a horseshoe within a circle was formed from the rearrangements of that age.
Situated within Wiltshire, Stonehenge is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site and is managed by English Heritage. This means that it has actual closing and opening times, as well tickets to be bought. So for those of you who had thoughts of waltzing about after dark amongst the ruins of ancient druids, this sadly will definitely not be the case. Nevertheless, the closing times will give those fortunate enough time to see an awesome sundown before leaving, and it’s open every day of the year except on Christmas Day and Christmas Eve.


Stonehenge’s location away from civilisation also ensures that accommodation won’t be found just across the street from it. Suggestions of places to stay that allow both sightseeing of ancient monuments as well as appreciation of English village ambience are usually either Amesbury or Salisbury, with accommodations that can be anywhere between five minutes to half an hour away from Stonehenge.
Even without the heavy paint of history, Stonehenge is a sight to behold. Standing as if against the sky, the monument lays its shadows across the earth, symbolizing a sort of barrier between it and the rest of the world. Standing mighty and unencroached by civilisation, it often feels as if the isolation of Stonehenge is what makes it seem so majestic
.

 



Salisbury Cathedral at nightThe name Salisbury (pop. 39.300) has such an English ring to it it’s surprising to know that there are many other states around the world – from America to Africa – named after it, perhaps because of its iconic status. Beginning life as an iron age fort at Salisbury Hill, it was then abandoned in the sixth century after the Saxons and Celts fought a massive battle on the same hill.


Salisbury had its church beginnings in the 13th century when the Bishop made it the centre of his administration, and began the construction of the Salisbury Cathedral. At that time it was known as New Sarum, to differentiate it from the original site of the fort at Old Sarum. Situated along a heavily traveled road, Salisbury received a fair amount of travelers throughout the year, as well as a booming wool trade
After a decline in development, Salisbury settled into its role as a market town, and in the 1900s it became a tourist attraction due to its rich history and gorgeous architecture.

Salisbury’s greatest attraction is no doubt Salisbury Cathedral. This fantastic Anglican relic is the proud owner of the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom. Built when the seat of bishopship moved from Old Sarum to New Sarum (Salisbury) to cement its standing as the center of the bishop’s power, Salisbury is a well-conserved and much-loved symbol of England. If you happen to be traveling this way, a stop by the Cathedral is an absolute must. Even discounting the rich history and meaning of this massive church, the architecture on display is truly awe-inspiring. The pearl ceilings of the South Cloister, the lovely St Margaret’s Chapel in the South Transept, the fantastically gothic West Front, the vaulting in the north aisle – the number of things to see is almost endless, and lovers of beauty and serenity will surely enjoy it.

Wilton HouseWilton House is a grand old country house with 21 acres of well-tended garden. It was once an abbey until King Henry VIII granted it to William Herbert. It’s been hit with misfortune several times, what with the original grandiose ideas for the landscaping having to be reduced and a fire destroying part of the south side of the house. Nevertheless, what is left of the modern building now is a stunning example of a combination of English architects – Isaac de Caus, John Webb and the ninth earl of Pembroke. The house and grounds are currently open to visitors with an admission price. Once you’re there, don’t forget to stop by the immaculately restored dining room and have a bite in old-fashioned ambience at the restaurant.

The Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum is located on the grounds of the Cathedral Close, in a grade I listed building called, quite suitably, the King’s House. Known for its collection of archaeological artifacts and studies, the museum has collections that will satisfy hardcore historians as well as those who are merely curious for something interesting. Those seeking answers for the mysterious Stonehenge can come here, where the finds from excavations and Stonehenge-based artwork is displayed. Aside from their mainstay of Stonehenge, the museum’s other collections range from medieval and Roman, to costumes and artwork depicting the surrounding areas and local personalities.

Old SarumThere are still ruins at Old Sarum that are open to visitors for an admission fee. Located more or less two miles from Salisbury itself, it provides an interesting view for those who have a deep appreciation for history. It is advised that those planning to go there should read a little about what happened in the past, and why Old Sarum gave way to the rise of New Sarum – Salisbury.