Stonehenge, Avebury and Salisbury: a journey back through time in Wiltshire

Visiting Stonehenge, Avebury and Salisbury, in Wiltshire, is like taking a journey back through time, suggests Tim Locke in this travel feature.

WREN: if you know where to look, you’ll see these surprising letters carved into the most celebrated prehistoric monument in Britain. Stonehenge has been attracting visitors for centuries, and one local who popped over here quite a bit was the great architect Sir Christopher Wren. His little act of vandalism (well, we assume it’s his) is not the sort of thing that’s encouraged nowadays – normally the stones are fenced off and you can only wander round them and admire them from a distance.

You’ll get all sorts of these special details by booking the special one-hour early-morning or evening tour inside the stone circle – before or after the general opening time. Mortice and tenon joints show how the stones were joined together, while lichens growing on the stones do a handy job in protecting them from damage. Among the photo opps of those massive sarsen stone uprights and lintels are close-ups of the smaller bluestones in the centre of the monument, somehow transported from the Preseli Mountains in Wales.

Midsummer celebrations at Stonehenge

At the summer solstice, the place goes bonkers with allsorts celebrating midsummer and there’s free access as crowds gather to see the sun rise over the heelstone as they look down the prehistoric approach route known as the Avenue. But no, that’s all wrong, says guide Pat Shelley, who leads tours of Stonehenge. For a start the Earth has tilted in the past 4,500 years, meaning the alignment no longer works on that precise date. And then it’s thought that it’s more a monument that celebrates the winter solstice, around 21–22 December – as the days begin to become longer – so it may have been more akin to a place of yuletide celebration.

But no one knows anything for sure, which is one reason why Stonehenge is so intriguing: one piece of a huge puzzle. The longstanding joke with archaeologists is that if you’ve no idea what a site was used for then it was a ‘ritual site’. That goes for most prehistoric sites, Stonehenge included. But we know that it’s part of a huge necropolis, which includes hundreds of burial mounds (or barrows), of which 150 are visible in the surrounding area.

Pat Shelley, Stonehenge, Tour Guide

Guide Pat Shelley at the Stonehenge stone circle in Wiltshire, England.

Inside Stonehenge Visitor Centre

In recent years, the whole visitor experience has been improved immeasurably, with the closing of the A344 that ran just to the north, and the opening of an outstanding visitor centre – from where you can explore the archaeological landscape on foot, taking in other sites such as the Cursus or you can hop on a minibus to Stonehenge itself.

Inside the centre, a 360-degree audiovisual show puts you in the middle of the virtual henge on a time journey through the centuries. Outside the building are replicated huts of a kind that would have been at Durrington Walls, in what was the land of the living, a site next to the vanished Woodhenge, now laid out by marker posts.

Stonehenge Visitor Centre, Salisbury, Wiltshire

A delivery from Wales? A display outside of the visitor centre at Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

Visiting Avebury while walking

North of Stonehenge, on the Marlborough Downs, there’s another huge concentration of archaeological goodies in and around Avebury – all accessible by footpaths that combine to make a five-star walk.

We can thank one Alexander Keiller for exploring, surveying and restoring a number of sites around this village. He wasn’t exactly short of a penny or two: he was sole heir to his family’s hugely successful Dundee-based marmalade-making business and used his fortune to acquire land, run excavations and restore the prehistoric landscape in the 1930s. He made over all his lands to the National Trust in 1943.

West Kennet Long Barrow

The West Kennet Long Barrow, photo courtesy of www.visitwiltshire.co.uk.

Avebury is unique in being a village encompassed by a huge stone circle, itself a henge within a circular ditch, built from around 2850–2200BC. Until Keiller acquired it, this was largely lost to view – covered with trees and vegetation, but thanks to his efforts you can now wander round it, free of charge. He resurrected many of the 98 sarsen stones, some of which had been deliberately toppled by superstitious locals in earlier centuries, and marked missing stones with concrete pylons. A stone avenue leads from the henge to the Sanctuary, a complex circle originally formed around 3000BC of timber uprights and replaced with stone ones. This is now marked out with pillars. This too is now marked out with pillars.

Within the village, he restored 16th-century Avebury Manor and Garden (now a National Trust property) and opened the Alexander Keiller Museum to display finds from the area: both are now open to the public.

West Kennet Long Barrow

The West Kennet Long Barrow, photo courtesy of www.visitwiltshire.co.uk.

A path south leads from the village for an easy mile, past the enigmatic Silbury Hill – the largest prehistoric manmade hill in Europe, its Christmas-pudding appearance quite unlike any of the other slopes around. It dates from around 2400BC and its purpose continues to baffle archaeologists. No burial has been found within it, and it’s now known to have been constructed in several stages over a long period. Just beyond, you can cross the A4 and follow the path uphill to West Kennet Long Barrow – which predates Silbury Hill by more than a thousand years and where nearly fifty people were buried. You can walk right inside it, but it’s decidedly spooky at dusk.

Two further-flung sites here justify a full day’s walking to explore the area in full. Windmill Hill, northwest of Avebury, rises to no great height but is hugely significant as one of the very first sites to be excavated that told us about the first farming communities in Britain. Keiller worked on this from the 1920s to the Second World War. Grassy lumps and ditches on top are remains of burial mound and what archaeologists call rather unglamorously a ‘Neolithic causewayed enclosure’ dating from around 3675BC and in use for just over a thousand years; Keiller found evidence of feasting on cattle and sheep, and a mortuary enclosure where corpses would have been left to the elements before some bones would have been interred. And finally do try to walk up onto Fyfield Down, up a track east of the village, where you’ll see dozens of sarsen stones – the type used in Avebury and Stonehenge – scattered across the downland, placed by nature rather than man. It’s a fittingly windswept, primeval-feeling place to finish a day’s explorations.

The Avenue, Avebury

The Avenue, Avebury, photo courtesy of www.visitwiltshire.co.uk.

Detour into Marlborough

The conspicuously handsome market town of Marlborough has another archaeological curio in the form of a mound, known as Merlin’s Barrow within the grounds of Marlborough School but visible from the street. For long it was assumed that this little hillock was built as the motte for a Norman castle, but only in 2011 was it realised that its history goes back three millennia before that, as radiocarbon dating of charcoal samples taken from the hill push back its origins to around 2400BC. So it’s roughly contemporary with its larger neighbour, Silbury Hill. And there it was, under everyone’s noses all that time.

Marlborough, Wiltshire,

Buildings on the High Street in Marlborough, which has one of the broadest high streets in England.

And while you’re in Marlborough on the history trail, have a peek into the fascinating Merchant’s House, built for a wealthy silk merchant in 1656, three years after a massive fire destroyed most of the town. The timber-framed house is a charmingly wonky warren of creaky rooms, with not a right angle in sight, and is being meticulously restored to something like its original appearance and filled with period furniture. Here and there you’ll spot patches of the original internal painted walls, and some rooms are repainted in what to us can be quite a shock when we’re used to seeing old buildings with faded hues rather than bright colours. The house has a refreshing absence of labels and roping off, and the enthusiastic volunteer guides will talk you through the story.

Four Poster, 4-poster, Bed, Bedroom, The Merchant's House, Marlborough, Wiltshire

The bedroom at Ther Merchant’s House in Marlborough.

Heading back to Salisbury

Salisbury’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons in 2018, but happily it’s back on its feet and very much welcoming visitors. If you’re visiting from Salisbury you’ll certainly want to look around the city as well.

Chronologically you should begin with Old Sarum, the predecessor to Salisbury. On the edge of the (comparatively) modern city, it’s several things in one. Formidable grass ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort dating from 400BC encompass a huge circular site, within which are remains of a Norman castle, built around 1070 on the orders of William the Conqueror, and the foundations of the original cathedral. From these breezy heights you look across the city, with the sea and the Isle of Wight within squinting distance on a clear day.

Old Sarum

Old Sarum, photo courtesy of www.visitwiltshire.co.uk.

Into Salisbury itself, the cathedral is the obvious focal point – rare among medieval cathedrals in that it was built over just 38 years, between 1220 and 1258, with the soaring spire added a century later. Look down its nave and you can’t fail to be struck by the orderly uniformity of the Early English Gothic look of it all, punctuated by a stunning recent addition in the form of a cruciform, water-filled font installed in 2008 and designed by British water sculptor William Pye. Climb 332 steps up the tower for astonishing views of the interior of the roof timbers and wooden scaffolding within the spire, to be rewarded a far-ranging panorama over the city and its trademark water meadows. In summer you have peregrine falcons for company, as they take up residency on the south side of the spire.

Salisbury Clock, Clock, Time, Time keeping

Still keeping time: The world’s oldest clock at Salisbury Cathedral.

The cathedral dominates the loveliest of all English cathedral closes, a grassy expanse lined by a host of architectural set pieces from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Among them is The Salisbury Museum, where the outstanding Wessex Gallery has a host of archaeological material found locally, including at Stonehenge and Old Sarum. They’ve updated the gallery to what was according to one staff member ‘the avocado bathroom suite of museum displays’ to a brilliantly laid out floor of history, journeying back in time from 1220AD to the earliest human activity. You start with Turner’s watercolour of Old Sarum and the 9th-century Warminster Jewel, then you’ll encounter a Roman sarcophagus and 3200-year-old skeleton both from Amesbury (the longest inhabited settlement in Britain) and a fanciful model of Stonehenge as someone in 1824 thought it originally looked. You really get the feeling of Wiltshire being at the hub of an archaeological world.

Font, Reflection, Salisbury Cathedral

A woman arranges flowers by the font at Salisbury Cathedral.

Where to eat, drink and stay in Wiltshire

The Red Lion in East Chisenbury (SN9 6AQ ) is tucked away in a tiny village half-an-hour’s drive south from Avebury or Marlborough, this cottagey rural freehouse has justly won accolades far and wide for its food, gaining a Michelin star and three AA rosettes. Inside it’s pubby and unpretentious, with low beamed ceilings and bare bricks. Food has the emphasis firmly on local: own-reared pigs and chickens, and veg from the garden, as well as several local ales on handpumps. Food might be the likes of blanquette of pork with slow-cooked winter vegetables, January King cabbage and chervil, followed by poached Passe Crassane pear with Madagascan vanilla custard, espresso syrup and almond praline. They have nicely appointed boutique-style bedrooms in a separate riverside guesthouse.

Pear, Desert, The Red Lion, Chisenbury, Wiltshire

Lovely pear: A dessert served at The Red Lion at East Chisenbury.

Ramsbury Brewery at Stockclose Farm, in Aldbourne (SN9 2NN, northeast of Marlborough). Pop here for the brewery shop and you’ll find a lot more than just the excellent bottled beers such as Ramsbury Gold and 25 Pigs Stout: they also sell you their own-distilled, highly distinctive gin and vodka, and own-smoked fish and game. The brewery tour (11am, Wednesday and Friday) is an eye-opener as a model of environmental correctness in managing a 6,000-acre estate. They’ve replaced non-native trees with broadleaf woodland. And they’ve got expert help from the Wildlife and Wetland Trust to install a reedbed for filtering the nasties from the distillery and brewery effluent into a lake, and everything apart from the hops are from the estate. ‘We could do things cheaper, but feel this is the right way to go.’ And the resident buzzards, barn owls and hares are thriving too.

Welcome, Sign, Ramsbury Brewing and Distilling Company

You’re welcome! A welcome sign at the Ramsbury Brewing and Distilling Company of Wiltshire.

Pear Tree Serviced Apartments Salisbury. Just a few steps from the entrance to the station and a ten-minute walk to the cathedral, this is super-convenient for everything, with parking on site and spacious, comfortable apartments well equipped with kitchen, wi-fi and laundry room. Breakfast is included.

How to visit Wiltshire

Salisbury rail station has direct services on Southwest Trains from London Waterloo. From the station entrance frequent tour buses take you into Salisbury for the cathedral and to Stonehenge and Old Sarum on the Stonehenge Tour, which covers entrances to the cathedral and Stonehenge. Avebury sites are free, except for Avebury Manor (National Trust) and the Alexander Keiller Museum (English Heritage); there’s no direct service from Salisbury, and it’s much better to start from Swindon and take a bus from there (journey time about 30 minutes).

The National Trust have published an online archaeology walk around Avebury which takes in the main sites.

Find lots of useful information on where to visit, stay and eat, events and planning a visit is on the Visit Wiltshire website.

Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, Silhouette

The silhouetted form of Salisbury Cathedral, which has England’s tallest spire.

Photos illustrating this feature are by Stuart Forster of Why Eye Photography unless stated. The other four photos,  tagged #TimeForWiltshire were supplied courtesy of www.visitwiltshire.co.uk.

About the author

Tim Locke is a freelance writer and editor based in Lewes, East Sussex. He is the author of the Bradt’s Slow Travel guide to Sussex.

Disclosure: Tim Locke travelled as a guest of Visit Wiltshire and is grateful for their assistance.

Books about Wiltshire

If you are planning on visiting Wiltshire, you may find the following books useful:

Intriguing Wiltshire by Kenneth Glyn Jones.


The Pathfinder Short Walks book Wiltshire: from Salisbury to the Kennet.

Wiltshire: A Dog Walker’s Guide by Nigel Vile.

 

If you want a novel about Stonehenge, rather than a history book, take a look at Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell, who is also the author of the Sharpe series of books.

Disclosure: The books are available via the Amazon website and a small commission will be sent this way, at no extra cost to yourself, if you purchase any of the books after clicking on the link. 

 

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