A Weekend in Wiltshire
Attraction-packed Wiltshire cuts a verdant swathe through southern England - 40 per cent of the county is classed as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. High chalk downs and gentle valleys characterise the landscape, which is home to chocolate box villages (Lacock, Tisbury, Castle Coombe) charming market towns (Malmesbury, Devizes, Bradford-on-Avon) and a top-notch cathedral city (Salisbury).
Wiltshire is famous for its ham, white horses and, above all, for its many prehistoric monuments. In fact, it's got more than any other county in England. In this guide, we'll explore some of these places that shine a light on our ancient past, visit a couple of castles, and point out a few other fascinating places along the way.
Day 1 - Avebury and Devizes
The remarkable village of Avebury can be found between Swindon and Devizes. It's part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site as Stonehenge.
The main stone circle here is around 4600 years old, and it's the largest in Britain. It's thought that it would have taken 1.5 million man hours to construct the ditch and bank and to transport the stones.
Today, the vision of its original builders can be hard to appreciate. The circle is bisected by roads, and the stones rub up against a medieval church, a timber-framed pub, rose-covered cottages and flocks of friendly sheep. But this jumbled palimpsest is part of Avebury's unique charm.
And we're lucky that there's anything to see at all. In medieval times some of the stones were pushed over or buried, and in the 18th century many of those that survived were broken up for building materials. Alexander Keiller restored some of the stones in the 1930s, and he gives his name to the village's museum, which tells the story of Avebury and its nearby monuments. The National Trust has also recently refurbished and opened up part of Avebury Manor.
There are toilets, a shop and a café near the museum. On the high street you'll find a quirky gift shop, a community store and the Red Lion - quite possibly the world's only pub inside a stone circle.
You can walk around Avebury's stone circle and see the museum in about an hour and a half. But it's worth exploring some of the other sites around Avebury to really get a sense of how important this place was to our prehistoric ancestors.
The oldest site in the area is Windmill Hill. It's a 'causewayed enclosure', built around 3675 BC. It's thought that people gathered here for trading, festivals or feasts, or all three. Much later, Bronze Age barrows were built on the hill.
West Kennet Avenue joins the stone circle at its southern edge. Once, 100 pairs of stones lined a 2.3km course joining Avebury to the Sanctuary. Today there are 27 upright stones, again restored by Keiller. The Sanctuary itself was begun in about 3000BC, and its purpose is unclear. Circles of timber posts once stood here, and human bones and food remains have been found buried beneath, suggesting that perhaps funeral ceremonies took place here.
West Kennet Long Barrow is one of the best examples of a long barrow in the country, and you can actually get inside it. This was the resting place of at least 46 people, buried here between 3000 and 2600 BC.
From the top of the barrow you can see East Kennet Long Barrow, and also the enigmatic Silbury Hill, one of the most mysterious remnants of prehistoric Britain. 30 metres high, it's the largest man made mound in Europe, and was built around the same time as the pyramids of Egypt. There's a viewing area next to the car park, but to protect the site, you can't walk on the hill itself.
Wiltshire Museum, Devizes
One of the best places to dive into the prehistory of this part of the country is the brilliant Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. It tells 500,000 years of Wiltshire's story, and it contains two thirds of all the Bronze Age gold found in Britain.
Its stand-out treasures were excavated from the Bush Barrow, half a mile from Stonehenge. It's Britain's richest and most important prehistoric burial. An adult male was buried in a crouched position with spectacular grave goods, including a dagger with 140,000 tiny gold studs in its handle, a mace made from rare fossil stone, and an exquisite sheet gold lozenge.
But just as fascinating as the Bronze Age bling is what the finds tell us about the people of Stonehenge. Cases tell the stories of characters like the Shaman and the Marlborough Lady, pieced together from their burials. These small glimpses into the lives of our ancestors help us remember that prehistory isn't just about pots - it's about people.
Other galleries cover the later history of Wiltshire and Devizes. Children can follow a stamp trail, dress up in period costumes and get hands on with interactive exhibitions dotted throughout the galleries. There's a small shop selling gifts and books.
Devizes itself is a pretty market town, with over 500 listed buildings and the largest market square in the west of England. There are plenty of shops, cafes and restaurants. You can also visit the red brick Victorian Wadworth Brewery, where shire horses still deliver beer to the town's pubs every morning.
Seated high above the bustling city of Salisbury, Old Sarum, with its origins as an Iron Age hillfort, is almost brand spanking new compared to Avebury and Stonehenge. The Romans used it as a fort and as a temple, and William the Conquerer built a motte and bailey castle here, and a town grew up around it. A cathedral was also built within the banks of the original hill fort, but it moved down the hill, to Salisbury, in the early 13th century.
Salisbury attracted more trade and more people, and was the largest town in Wiltshire by the 14th century. Old Sarum dwindled in size and importance until it gained widespread notoriety in the 18th and 19th centuries for being a 'rotten borough' - it still sent two MPs to the House of Commons, despite being almost entirely abandoned.
Today it's the perfect spot for a picnic, a walk, or even a spot of kite flying. There are 29 acres of rare grass chalkland to explore, with wildflowers and ancient trees. The outline of the old cathedral is still visible, and the castle, although well ruined, is still impressive. You'll get the most out of your visit with a guidebook in hand, but it's worth the trip alone for the stunning views over Salisbury.
There's plenty of free parking at the site and a small shop by the entrance, selling gifts and refreshments.
Day 2 - Salisbury and Old Sarum
Salisbury - Cathedral and Museum
Venture down the hill to Salisbury itself to the Cathedral Close and you'll find an array of attractions - the most obvious being the Cathedral itself, which houses the best-preserved of the four surviving copies of Magna Carta. English Heritage members can get two for one entry on Tower Tours on weekdays.
A variety of impressive buildings line the close, including the National Trust's Mompesson House, Arundells (the former home of Sir Edward Heath) and The King's House, which now houses the Salisbury Museum.
The museum is another fantastic repository of prehistoric finds. Its new Wessex Galleries contain objects from Stonehenge and the surrounding area. Don't miss the jadeite axehhead, coins from the Bowerchalke Hoard and watercolours by JMW Turner. There's also a brilliant interactive exhibition that explores how archaeology has shaped our understanding of the past.
Other galleries explore the town's more recent past..Highlights include a surprisingly interesting collection of objects found in the city's drains, and the remarkable 3.6m tall Salisbury Giant, a towering figure used in pageants for hundreds of years.
The museum puts on temporary exhibitions and hosts events and talks - check the website for details. There are interactive exhibitions and trails for kids.
The King's House Café can be found inside the museum buildings, and Salisbury city centre is a few minutes' walk away.
Day 3 - Stonehenge and Old Wardour
Famous across the world for its iconic stone circle, Stonehenge is a real Wiltshire must-see.
Its visitor centre has a short but sweet exhibition introducing the development of Stonehenge and putting the stones into their prehistoric context. Have a go a moving one of the huge sarsen stones, and poke your head into the Neolithic houses, similar to the ones lived in by the people who built Stonehenge. You can then walk the one and a half miles to the stones themselves, or catch the bus. It's well worth plugging into the audio guide as you walk around the stone circle - you can borrow a headset at the visitor centre or download the app from Google Play or the App Store.
The monumental mystery of Stonehenge has fascinated us for thousands of years, and it's impossible not to be drawn in by it as you get close to the stones. Some try to solve the puzzle of the circle's purpose, or to imagine the immense effort that went into its construction. Others ponder its perfect alignment with sunrise at the solstices, or simply marvel at its survival through thousands of years of change.
Back at the visitor centre you'll find a café serving up locally sourced food and drinks. We serve our snacks and lunches in sustainable takeaway packaging, making it perfect for picnicing.
The Stonehenge Landscape
Many people who visit Stonehenge are happy to see the stones and take a few selfies, but you'll be missing out if you don't explore the surrounding landscape and its monuments. Barrows, henges and earthworks fill the fields, and visiting them helps give you a better understanding of just how important this area was for our ancestors. We've created a walk that takes in most of the key sites in the area, but feel free to head out into the fields and wander around at any time of day. The Stonehenge visitor centre gives a great overview of the story of the landscape, and you can use our interactive map to orientate yourself before your visit.
The National Trust owns most of the land and looks after the monuments in it. Take care with dogs, as livestock grazes in the fields, and check their pages for restrictions.
Day 3 - Old Wardour Castle
Old Wardour Castle is hidden at the end of a single track lane, deep within a lush, secluded valley. It's a world away from the wide open spaces of Salisbury Plain.
Perhaps surprisingly, Old Wardour has been a tourist attraction for longer than it was a working castle. It was built in the 1390s after John Lovell found favour with Richard II. He built his unusual hexagonal castle to confirm his status. In 1596 the godson of Elizabeth I called it 'the wonder of the west', but a large chunk of it was blown up during the Civil War in the 1640s.
It was never rebuilt, and 100 years later the owners decided to build a new, grander house a mile away. Old Wardour was preserved as a folly for the enjoyment of the family and their guests. Members of the public probably started visiting from the 18th century, and people have been flocking to Old Wardour ever since.
To this day, these are ruins to have fun in. Over the last few decades, we've restored floors and staircases so that you can wander the castle's rooms and towers, and poke around its nooks and crannies. A brilliant audio guide breathes life back to the ruins with characters and stories from the past. There's a shop selling gifts and refreshments and plenty of space for picnics. It's also a good base for walks through the local countryside, which is part of the Cranborne Chase Area of Natural Beauty.
Getting here and around
The M4 skirts the north of the county and the M3 connects London to the A30 and A303 in the south. There are mainline rail stations in Salisbury, Swindon, Chippenham, Tisbury, Bradford on Avon, Trowbridge, Westbury and Warminster.
There are plenty of places to stay in Wiltshire, but Salisbury is a particularly good base for exploring many of our sites. By rail it's just an hour and twenty minutes away from London, or an hour and ten from Bristol.
You can get buses to Avebury from Swindon or Trowbridge. Buses connect Devizes with Bath, Chippenham, Swindon and Salisbury, and there's a coach from London.
Old Wardour Castle is not too far from Tisbury, which is ten minutes from Salisbury by train. You may be able to get a taxi to the castle. Alternatively, Discover Nadder have designed a circular 5.5 mile walk from the village to the castle.
More in Wiltshire & Beyond
If you're in Wiltshire for longer you can dive even deeper into the past.
Beautiful Bradford-on-Avon has a spectacular medieval tithe barn you can visit for free. Just over the border with Somerset is Farleigh Hungerford Castle - we've come up with a great circular walk that joins the two, making this a great car-free day out. Bratton Camp and its famous White Horse is also nearby.
We also look after the picturesque remains of Ludgershall Castle and Cross, one of the largest Neolithic henges in Britain at Hatfield Earthworks, the thatched Chisbury Chapel and the 18th century Netheravon Dovecote.
English Heritage Members can get two for one entry at Wilton House, as well as discounts at Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury Museum and the Wiltshire Museum.
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