The 28 acres of the village of Avebury, but not the fine Elizabethan Manor, lie within a late Neolithic circle of vast standing stones or sarsens the largest weighing some 60 tons -which is in turn surrounded by earthworks. Inside the large circle are two smaller, incomplete rings, the stones in all three having been carefully selected from the nearby Marlborough Downs. It has been suggested that the tall, narrow stones represent men and the more diamond shaped ones women, and that the whole thing was an open air temple for fertility rites, but we have no real knowledge of its significance. Many of the stones are missing, destroyed because of medieval superstition or broken up for use in local buildings. The Alexander Keiller Museum, in what was formerly the manor coach-house, contains objects excavated in the village and also at Windmill Hill, Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow. The 50ft-wide avenue of megaliths which apparently ran out past West Kennet to OverburyHill seem to indicate the the Avebury circles were part of a larger scheme, involving a number ot=f these ancient religious sites. The approximate date of this complex of stones, 1500 BC, makes it contemporary with parts of Sonehenge 18 miles to the south.
Bradford on Avon
Bradford on Avon has two medieval arches and a chapel – originally provided for pilgrims travelling between Malmesbury and Glastonbury, but used as the town lock-up in the 17th century. The buildings in the steep winding streets, from medieval cottages to the Georgian mansions of the wealthy cloth-makers, are of Bath stone. The Saxon church in Church Street, lost for centuries among the surrounding buildings but rediscovered in the 19th century, was founded by St Adelin in the 8th century and is one of the finest remaining Saxon buildings in the country. A 14th-century Tithe Barn stands in Barton Farm Country Park, near the river.
The houses here are of honey-coloured Cotswold stone, there is a medieval market cross, a three-arched bridge over the stream which runs through the village, and the church (its tower a gift from the ‘clothiers of the district’) have survived the ravages of well meaning but ill-conceived Victorian restoration. Hardly any traffic passes along the street. Castle Combe is heldthe prettiest village in England. (In 1962, the word ‘probably’ was deleted and the village became officially so.)
An old market town on the edge of Salisbury Plain, set in rich agricultural country near the source of the Wiltshire Avon, Devizes had a Norman castle, built by the Bishop of Salisbury on the boundary between manors, so giving the town its name. The original castle was destroyed by Cromwell: the present one is 19th century. The town has some fine old houses and inns, including the Bear Hotel, which enjoyed such a high reputation in the 18th centun that the landlord put posts across the Plain from Salisbury to guide fashionable travellers.
From Caen Hill, Devizes, the Kennet and Avon Canal descends 230ft, by mans of 29 of Rennie’s locks – the longest flight in Britain.
Lacock is owned almost entirely by the National Trust; the oldest buildings in its twisting streets date back to medieval times and none is later than the 18th century, the village as a whole presenting an attractive blend of grey stone, red brick, whitewashed and half-timbered constructions. There are a 14th-century church and tithe barn, ancient inns and weavers’ houses, a King John hunting lodge, an old lockup, a stepped cross and a packhorse bridge. The most impressive building, however, is the riverside abbey founded by the Countess of Salisbury in the 13th century and converted into a house by Sir William Sharington shortly after suppression of the monastery in 1539. The original sacristy, chapter house and cloisters were preserved and a large courtyard, octagonal tower and twisted chimney stacks were added. A Gothic-style entrance hall and great hall were built on in the 18th century by the Talbot family, into whose hands the abbey had then passed; a museum housed at the entrance to the abbey traces the work of W H Fox-Talbot, the pioneer of photography who produced the first photographic prints in 1838 and was awarded the Royal Society Medal for his achievement.
Longleat House, one of the most visited stately homes in the country, was built in 1568 for Sir John Thynne, an ancestor of the Marquess of Bath, who owns it today.
As a result of 19th-century renovations, the house has exquisite Venetian ceilings and Italian decor, and it contains line paintings, tapesrries and leatherwork. The family’s state robes are on show, together with their state coach and a waistcoat said to have been worn by King Charles I at his execution. There are fully equipped Victorian kitchens. A shop sells culinary goods and gifts. The grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown.
The great attraction at Longleat now, however, is the Safari Park, famous for its lions but also including elephants, tigers, buffaloes and antelope. It is open in summer and visitors can also take a Safari Boat, cruising through groups of sea lions and hippos and passing the ape islands. Additional attractions for children are Leisureland (an exciting adventure playground), donkey and camel rides, and Pets‘ Comer with its chimps’ tea-party.
Lydiard Park is a pleasant, mainly Georgian manor house, for generations the home of the St John family but now the property of Thamesdown Borough. It has fine rococo ceilings and there is a small agricultural museum in the stable block. In the park stands St Mary’s, the parish church of Lydiard Tregoze, dating back to the 14th century and rich in memorials to the St Johns. Particularly striking are the Golden Cavalier, a gilded life-size figure of Edward St John, killed in the Civil War, and the vast canopied tomb of St John, his two wives and thirteen children. The church also has ancientstained glass and a triptych cabinet.
Marlborough College, the famous public school attended by Sir John Betjeman and William Morris, to name but two ex-pupils, is said to be the burial place of King Arthur’s magician, Merlin. The wide High Street of the town is particularly attractive, with its handsome colonnades and a church at either end. In the 17th century Marlborough suffered a series of disastrous fires which caused the local authorities to ban the use of thatch.
Some time in the 14th century, Heale House at Middle Woodford was built. Charles II took shelter there five days after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. But many years later, in 1835, a fire broke out. Parts of the building survived; others have since been restored. Nowadays, it looks much as Charles II found it. The gardens, covering five acres, are attractive especially the water garden with its magnolias and acers, which surrounds a Japanese teahouse and is spanned by a nicely designed bridge.
Remains of the castle, cathedral, and traces of the surrounding wall are now all that remain of Old Sarum, a site that was inhabited in the Iron Age and became in medieval times a flourishing town and an important Episcopal See. However; a bitter feud broke out between the clergy and the military at the castle, and there was a serious water shortage, so Bishop Herbert Poore decided to move himself and his cathedral. He died before he could accomplish this plan, but his brother and successor, Richard, began to build the new cathedral in 1220 and by 1258 it was finished. A new town, Salisbury, grew up around the cathedral and by the 19th century Sarum had dwindled to a hamlet. It was one of the most notorious of the ‘Rotten Boroughs’, returning two MPs to parliament, although there were only ten voters, until the Reform Bill of 1832. Among these was William Pitt the Elder the 18th-century Prime Minister.
The ‘new’ city of Salisbury dates back to the 13th century when Bishop Poore decided to move his clergy and cathedral from Old Sarum, where lack of water and quarrels with the military governor of the castle were making life difficult. There is a story that the new site for the cathedral was chosen by an arrow shot from a bow drawn at a venture, but all the evidence points to a decision taken after long and careful planning and the site, in the middle of the fertile plain and at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Nadder, was an obvious choice. The foundation stone of the cathedral was laid on 28 April 1220, and the building, one of the finest expressions of Early English architecture in the country, was completed, apart from the spire, cloisters and chapter house, by 1258.
The city grew up around the Cathedral Close, its streets laid out on the usual medieval grid plan, intersecting to form square blocks or ‘chequers’ where the old houses were packed tightly together. This old plan can still be seen in the streets around The Close, where many historic timbered buildings have survived. The finest of them is probably the 17th century Joiners’ Hall, with its intricately carved woodwork; and the most unusual is certainly the house of the wealthy 15th-century wool merchant, John Halle, which is now the foyer of a local cinema.
Salisbury was granted its first charter in 1227 and, thanks to its farsighted bishops, who bridged the rivers and diverted the road to the west country to run through their new town, it became a thriving market and wool centre. There is still a twice weekly market in the spacious market square, and the handsome stone Poultry Cross, dating from the 15th century when fowl were sold there, still stands.
In 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh managedto delay his return to London and certain punishment by staying here, following his. failure to discover gold on his expedition to Guiana. Feigning illness, he appeared to eat nothing but was secretly supplied with food from the White Hart Hotel.
Salisbury reached the height of its prosperity in the 18th century from which era many of the most elegant houses in the beautiful, walled Close survive. Although Salisbury owed much to its bishops, in the past, relations were not harmonious, and the clergy had to protect themselves by building a wall, and fortified gateways, still the northern and eastern entrances to the Close, for protection. By the 18th century, however, behaviour was more civilised, and the Close assumed the aspect it has today, of tranquil lawns shaded by trees and ringed by handsome mansions, many of which were formerly the town houses of the wealthiest citizens.
Stonehenge is one of the world’s great mysteries. We know that it was built in three phases; that its construction covered a period between 2200 BC to 1300 BC – from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age; that its axis is aligned with sunrise on the longest day of the year 21 June. What we do not know is precisely why it was built. It certainly had nothing to do with Druids: they hadn’t yet arrived in Britain when work was in progress; it may have served as a sort of calendar, as well as for religious purposes, but there is no evidence that Stonehenge was ever a place of human sacrifice. The most intriguing problem of all is how those enormous stones were transported to Salisbury Plain from their points of origin on the Marlborough Downs and even further away in the Prescelly Mountains of Pembrokeshire.
Stourhead is a beautiful 18th century Palladian mansion situated in what must surely be one of the most imaginatively embellished parks in the country. Near the gates stands a 13th century stone cross that was removed from Bristol, where it used to mark an intersection of two roads. In its niches are small statues of eight kings of England. The circumference of the lake is about a mile. Walking round it, the visitor comes across a grotto and three little temples one of them copied from the Pantheon in Rome.
But, wherever one walks, there are pleasant new vistas.
The coming of the Great Western Railway did much for Swindon. In 1835, it became the site of a station on the route from London to Bristol. Four years later, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Daniel Gooch the visionary mechanical engineer – chose it as the location for the company’s main locomotive depot. Nowadays, the GWR museum is housed in a converted Methodist chapel. The first major locomotive used by the Great Western Railway was the North Star originally built for the New Orleans railway but never used in America.
In the pretty, wooded Nadder Valley, the twin villages of Teffont Evias and Teffont Magna stand by the River Teff, which is crossed by many small stone bridges. Teffont Evias’ turreted manor, Tudor and early 17th-century, and St Michael’s Church (rebuilt in the early 19th century), with lts graceful spire, together make a lovely sight. The cream Chilmark stone from the local quarry, now closed, was used for Salisbury Cathedral. Teffont Magna is a little more modest, with thatched cottages and a medieval church.
Tisbury, an ancient settlement . traversed by an Anglo Saxon track, is more a town than a village. It is poised on a steep slope by the River Nadder, in the rich valley farmlands of Wiltshire. The church has a lovely panelled and carved roof, and memorials to Lady Blanche Arundel, who defended nearby Wardour Castle in the Civil War, and to Catherine Howard’s sister. Rudyard Kipling and his parents are buried in the churchyard. The yew tree, 36ft in circumference, is believed to be 1000 years old. There are two Wardour Castles: the Old, a 14th-century ruin with 16th-century additions; and the New, an 18th-century house designed by James Paine, restored for Cranborne Chase School in 1960. Pythouse, is a fine Palladian mansion.
Tollard’s right to call itself Royal was granted by King John, who stayed here to hunt in Cranborne Chase. Despite disafforestation, some attractive woodlands survive, that can be surveyed from 911ft Win Green Hill. Gardiner Forest, 1800 acres, was endowed by Balfour Gardiner, the composer. King John’s House, originally 13th-century, was restored by the archaeologist General Pitt-Rivers. He lived in Rushmoor House, now a school, and worked on several sites in its grounds. Pitt-Rivers was responsible for the restoration of Larmer Gardens, named after the larmer tree ~ wych-elm -under which King John would supposedly meet his huntsmen. Here too the Court Leets were held. The old tree blew down in 1894 and was replaced by an oak tree.
Trowbridge is the administrative centre of Wiltshire; a touring centre for the Wiltshire Downs and the Cotswolds; and a centre of the weaving trade since the 14th century. West of England broadcloth is still made here. Among the legacies of Trowbridge’s cloth-based prosperity is the clothiers’ group of stone houses in the Parade, and it was a clothier who in 1483 endowed the Perpendicular church of St James.
The beautiful houses and attracrive cortages of Warminster, together with two fine inns, are a legacy of the prosperity it gained in the 18th century as a wool town and corn market. The church, though much rebuilt, retains a 14th-century nave, and the grammar school (founded in 1707) numbers Dr Arnold of Rugby and Dean Stanley among its former pupils. Two miles to the west, 800ft Cley Hill rises on the Ridgeway, the prehistoric route which ran from South Devon to the Wash.
Moated Palace Green is believed at one time to have been the site of the residence of the Kings of Wessex. Georgian houses set round the market place reflect a later period of prosperity, when the town was involved in the weaving industry and was famous for its glove-making. The restored Perpendicular church has a central tower and contains a chained New Testament, 17th and 18th century monuments and an interesting modern screen. Above the town stands the oldest White Horse in Wiltshire, probably cut originally in the 9th century but remodelled to a more ‘elegant’ shape in the 18th century. Chalcot House is a charming Palladian villa just over two miles away near the village of Dilton Marsh.
Wilton is famous for the fine carpets that have been made there since the 17th century. Before that time, however, it was a town of note, the capital of Wessex, set at the point where the Rivers Wylye and Nadder meet. Wilton House, with its well-known double cube room, was originally Elizabethan; Holbein, Inigo Jones and his son-in-law, John Webb, all contributed to it and the collection of paintings is magnificent.