Stonehenge, Avebury & Salisbury Sightseeing…
Well, what do you do when your thru-hike falls through? It might sound simple – but when it comes to hiking, always assume your Plan A won’t work – and have a Plan B that you can fall back on should things go awry! Weather, illness, injury, equipment malfunction and logistical challenges are all factors that can end a thru-hike prematurely no matter how well planned and prepared you are.
Being well accustomed to the changeable English weather, and having to survive camping in harsh conditions during our overland trip of South America a couple of years ago, we did not envisage that wind and rain would put paid to our plans of hiking the Beacons Way in south Wales. But seeing as ‘Storm Katie’ was raging straight through our path, we had little choice but to flee from the mountains and put our Plan B into action.
Our idea was to go on a road trip of sorts, visiting new places in south west England that we’d always said we’d like to go to, but never made time for. (As we usually head north west for the lakeland fells.) So therein was the makings of a mini history tour of Britain, that began with us exploring several mysterious monuments in the county of Wiltshire…
Stonehenge is one of the wonders of the world and the best-known prehistoric monument in Europe.
From Wales to Wiltshire…
After leaving Wales in a hurry, we stopped at the quaint little market town of Ross-on-Wye located in south eastern Herefordshire. It was raining so we popped into a café for a pot of tea for two to consider our options for ‘Plan B’!
A traditional café in Ross-on-Wye. Tea and cake always help with decision making.
On driving into Wiltshire we saw some wonderfully charming traditional thatch roof cottages, such as this.
Visiting Avebury Stone Circle
Contained within a giant circular henge about 430 metres across, is the site of Avebury. Built and much altered during the Neolithic period, roughly between 2850 BC and 2200 BC, the henge survives as a huge circular bank and ditch, encircling an area that includes part of Avebury village. Within the henge is the largest stone circle in Britain – originally of about 100 stones – which in turn encloses two smaller stone circles.
There is much debate about its purpose but while Stonehenge was dedicated to the worship of the sun and moon, Avebury seems to have been dedicated to more human themes. In conjunction with elaborate funeral celebrations, the way that the stones are paired together shows that the cycle of birth, life and death was very important in Neolithic times.
Within the Avebury Word Heritage Site – a pretty village has grown up at the heart of the monument. This is the only place in the world where you’ll find a pub and a chapel inside a stone circle.
Originally erected about 4,500 years ago, many of the stones were re-erected in the 1930s by Scottish archaeologist Alexander Keiller.
The pre-historic site at Avebury consists of a deep ditch, a huge circular embankment and stones that are dauntingly massive.
It has been estimated that originally there were 400 standing stones within the henge and forming the great avenues at Avebury, with the heaviest, the Swindon Stone weighing about 65 tonnes.
The initial phase of the construction involved the excavation of the ditches, or henge. Using the most basic of implements such as antlers, shoulder blades of cattle and mass human effort, this massive ditch and bank was constructed.
Maybe not as well-known as Stonehenge, yet Avebury Stone Circle is the largest stone circle in the world and free to enter and explore. (There is a parking fee at the National Trust Car Park, which is £7 for the day or £4 after 3pm.)
Traditional British icons – a red postbox and telephone box – A perfect place to pose for international tourists!
Stonehenge World Heritage Site – A Wonder of the World
After leaving Avebury we drove 25 miles south towards Salisbury. Luckily, there is more than one ancient site in this area. Using the wonders of technology once we had a signal and the internet again, we booked two night’s camping at the aptly named Stonehenge Campsite that is situated just a few miles from the Stonehenge monument. However on arrival, we were reliably informed that ‘Storm Katie’ would be passing over Wiltshire that coming evening, and even more alarming was the fact that the campsite was directly in its path! So rather than attempt to camp and test the mettle of our new tent, we sensibly upgraded from a tent pitch to a cheap and cheerful festival pod in the hope that it would see us through the impending storm!
Conveniently located close to Stonehenge, this campsite is the ideal touring base for South Wiltshire.
Our little festival pod (that reminded us of a glamping dog kennel), but thankfully remained intact and kept us dry during the storm!
This is what £30 a night gets you. We were very grateful of the beds after the problems with our inflatable sleep pads.
The ‘Camper’s Kitchen’ is one of the best features of this campsite. It is always a plus point to have somewhere dry and sheltered to cook when the weather is bad. They even offered free tea and coffee and had fresh eggs for sale – perfect as we love eggs for breakfast!
Walking To The Stones…
We decided to take a walk to see the stones as the weather forecast was much better the following day. We set off from the campsite around midday as we had pre-booked tickets for a 5pm entry (the last admission of the day as the site closes at 7pm during winter months), whereby we were hoping to get some sunset shots of the stones. The campsite offers a walking route map, however we devised our own route as we did not want a large section of the walk to be by the roadside. Following a public bridleway for the most-part, it took us less than an hour to reach the entrance to the Heritage Site, which was quicker than what we expected. So after some helpful advice from a friendly steward, we looked around the Visitor Centre, got a map, then decided to walk to the stones via ‘The Avenue’ instead of using the shuttle bus service that runs between the two.
The Stonehenge Campsite is located between Berwick St James and Winterbourne Stoke. Again there are some fine examples of traditional thatch roof cottages in the village.
The parish church of St. Peter in Winterbourne Stoke.
Posing at the entrance sign. The walk from the campsite to the new Visitor Centre did not take us as long as we had anticipated.
Opened in December 2013, the new visitor centre houses permanent and temporary exhibitions, including nearly 300 archaeological treasures found buried at the site – from jewellery to pottery to human remains. There is also a gallery, a gift shop and café that serves hot and cold food using locally-sourced produce.
Standing in the stones? – Since 1978, when damage to the stones was increasing by way of erosion from touching, as well as graffiti on the stones, the number of people given access has been carefully controlled in order to preserve and protect the monument. Therefore the new Visitor Centre provides an interactive experience whereby you can watch the seasons pass and take a trip through time with an incredible audio-visual 360 degree view from inside the Stones to give you a sense of what it would be like.
During normal opening hours visitors are restricted to an outer path around Stonehenge, with closer access on the west side. This gives uncluttered views of the stones with very few ropes and no modern surfaces, which is great for photographs! We read that there are opportunities to go inside Stonehenge during special Stone Circle Access visits, which must be booked in advance and take place before and after normal opening hours, should you want to get closer to the stones and stand in them.
Just outside the visitor and exhibition centre, there are five Neolithic houses furnished with replica Neolithic axes, pottery and other artefacts.
The model dwellings reveal the type of homes that the builders of the ancient monument might have lived in four and a half thousand years ago.
The Neolithic houses help to reconnect the ancient stones with the people that lived and worked in the Stonehenge landscape. Visitors can step through the door of these houses and get a real sense of what everyday life might have been like when Stonehenge was built.
Taking a walk through the Stonehenge landscape along the Stonehenge Cursus. Cursus is the Latin name for racetrack or hippodrome. Here it runs for 1 and 3/4 miles. (There are several other walking routes to enable you to explore the area.)
Passing the Cursus Barrows.
The Cursus Barrows are an impressive row of sixteen assorted barrows that form a line nearly a kilometre in length that starts close to the western end of the Stonehenge Cursus, passes through Fargo Plantation and ends in open fields about 700 metres north west of Stonehenge itself. (A long barrow is a prehistoric monument traditionally interpreted as a collective tomb.)
Reflections! Although ominous clouds were rolling in, we enjoyed blue skies for most of the day.
The routes are well signposted. We took a detour to the garrison town of Larkhill as we needed to stock up with some groceries.
After rejoining the trail at King Barrow Ridge, we headed for the Stonehenge ‘Avenue’.
The Avenue leads directly towards the entrance of Stonehenge. Along this final stretch it is aligned on midwinter sunset and midsummer sunrise.
The Stone Circle
An iconic symbol of Britain, a walk around the Stone Circle is the centrepiece of any visit to Stonehenge. Although it is no longer possible to walk amongst the stones during normal visiting hours, the experience of walking down the Avenue and around the stones is still well worth the admission price tag. (£15.50 per adult without Gift Aid, when pre-booked online via the English Heritage website.)
So what is Stonehenge? To put it simply – it is a masterpiece of engineering, and building it would have taken huge efforts from hundreds of well-organised people using only simple tools and technologies. Raised about 4,500 years ago, it is a prehistoric temple where the stones have been carefully arranged to line up with the movements of the sun.
The ruin that we see today is the end result of many different stages of construction and rebuilding in prehistory. The first major event, 5,000 years ago, was the construction of a large circular enclosure. About 500 years later, enormous sarsen stones were raised in a horseshoe and circle, with smaller bluestones (they have a bluish tinge when wet or freshly broken) placed between them. Later the bluestones were rearranged.
The bluestones weigh up to 4 tonnes and come from several different sites in western Wales, having been transported as far as 140 miles (225 km). It’s unknown how people were physically able to move them that far. Scientists have raised the possibility that during the last ice age glaciers carried these bluestones closer to the Stonehenge area and the monument’s makers didn’t have to move them all the way from Wales. Water transport through raft is another idea that has been proposed for the movement of the stones.
Our best shot without people! Speculation on the reason it was built ranges from human sacrifice to astronomy. It has been estimated that the construction took more than thirty million hours of labour!
Our view from the end of ‘The Avenue’.
You cannot access the stones from here as this area is open to the public who have not paid the admission fee. Therefore you have to walk around to the entrance area to have your ticket checked by a steward. (There were plenty of people stood along this fence line trying to get some freebie shots, but it is impossible to get a good one with so many others in the shot.)
Following the boardwalk to the outer path around the stone circle. Since construction activities at Stonehenge ceased in the early Bronze Age, some of the stones have been removed from the site and may have fallen. Some were re-erected during restoration which started in 1919, and completed in 1964.
Lots of people line the west side for a better angle of the stones and closer photographs.
What remains of the stones after 5,000 years. The biggest of Stonehenge’s stones, known as sarsens, are up to 30 feet (9 meters) tall and weigh 25 tonnes (22.6 metric tons) on average. It is widely believed that they were brought from Marlborough Downs, a distance of 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the north.
We asked a passer-by to take a photo of us!
Moody skies… Rain was imminent!
Framed by the stones! Two people walking on the other side of the outer circular path to help put into perspective how large the stones are.
Our final view of the stones before the storm caught everyone off guard. Everyone then ran for the shuttle bus back to the Visitor Centre en masse!
We headed for the café and enjoyed a much needed hot chocolate, whilst waiting for the rain to pass before we set off for the campsite returning via the same route to Winterbourne Stoke. Take a look at our route and track data below.
You can export a GPX/KML file from this by clicking on the Stonehenge link below.
A Stroll Around Salisbury…
Named as one of the best cities in the world to visit in 2016 by travel guide Lonely Planet, the Wiltshire city is described as “quintessentially English”, and was the only UK entry in the top 10 list.
“It’s been an important provincial city for more than a thousand years, and its streets form an architectural timeline ranging from medieval walls and half-timbered Tudor townhouses to Georgian mansions and Victorian villas. Salisbury is also a lively, modern town, boasting plenty of bars and restaurants, plus a concentrated cluster of excellent museums”. Lonely Planet
So of course, we had to visit!
To explore Salisbury we decided to camp within walking distance of the city centre, and in fact stayed at the Caravan & Camping Club site that is opposite the Old Sarum – discovered to be the earliest settlement of Salisbury. Today, people visiting Old Sarum can see the earthworks of the Iron Age hillfort, the inner stronghold of the Norman castle on the motte at its centre, and the remains of the cathedral. (But as little of the castle and second cathedral buildings exist beyond an outline of the walls on the grass, and because we were pushed for time, we decided not to visit on this occasion.)
Instead we opted to do our own walking tour of Salisbury centre, as we were particularly interested in seeing the city’s ornate 13th-century cathedral which has a 123 metre spire – the tallest in England, a working 14th-century clock, and an original copy of the Magna Carta, meaning ‘The Great Charter’, agreed by King John of England in 1215 AD, which is one of the most famous documents in the world.
We camped at the Salisbury Caravan & Camping Club site for a hefty £28 a night as non-members. But we did have a large patch of grass!
View of the Old Sarum from our campsite. (Here lies the remains of both an Iron Age fort, Roman settlement and medieval city.)
We passed several more beautiful thatch roof cottages before we walked alongside the River Avon into the bustling city centre.
The Clock Tower, Fisherton Street, Salisbury.
United Reformed Church, Fisherton Street, Salisbury.
Queen Elizabeth Gardens, showing part of the River Avon diverted through the gardens.
Old meets new… Salisbury city centre.
Enjoying the calm of ‘The Close’ on a lovely Spring day.
Salisbury Cathedral sits in the spectacular setting of the largest and most lovely Cathedral Close in Britain (80 acres). Within its historic walls there are four other attractions which are well worth a visit: Arundells – home of the former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath between 1985 and 2005, with collections of his sailing and musical memorabilia, Oriental and European ceramics, paintings, original political cartoons, bronzes and photographs; Mompesson House – a perfect example of a Queen Anne style town house with fine period furniture, charming walled garden and tea room; The Rifles (Berkshire & Wiltshire) Museum – a splendid Grade 2 listed building, which tells the story of the County infantry regiments of Berkshire and Wiltshire; and Salisbury Museum – home of the Stonehenge Gallery, Warminster Jewel and Monkton Deverill Gold Torc, with displays of pre-history, Romans, Saxons, the medieval history of Old Sarum and Salisbury, the Pitt Rivers collection, ceramics and costumes.
A beautiful and historic building, Salisbury Cathedral is an impressive 13th century Gothic Cathedral built between 1220 and 1258. The spire is Britain’s tallest and weighs 6,500 tons!
The Cathedral was built in just 38 years in a single architectural style, (early English Gothic) using 70,000 tonnes of stone, 28,000 tonnes of oak and 420 tonnes of lead.
Exploring the cathedral.
Capturing the sun.
Salisbury Cathedral is home to the best preserved of only four surviving original Magna Carta (AD 1215) which is listed on the UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ register.
Famous as a symbol of justice, fairness, and human rights, only four original 1215 copies of the Magna Carta remain, and to view the best preserved of these you need to visit Salisbury Cathedral’s Chapter House. Translated from Latin, ‘The Great Charter’ is one of the most celebrated documents in English history. At the time it was the solution to a political crisis in Medieval England but its importance has endured as it has become recognised as a cornerstone of liberty influencing much of the civilised world.
The document is housed in the cathedral’s newly restored Chapter House which also has a unique 13 century stone frieze of bible stories in it.
(If you do not want to pay £12.50 admission for a tour of the spire, or the £7.50 suggested donation to enter the main part of the cathedral, you can enter this area free of charge.)
There are many beautifully carved monuments and tombs and much to explore in the unique atmosphere of this ancient place of worship, whether you are religious or not.
As you can see, it was a good ‘Plan B’ – and we still got some walking in as the weather significantly improved as the week went on! It was only a whistle-stop tour of Wiltshire however as we decided to continue on our exploration of south west England and venture further into the Cotswolds, another large area of our home country that neither of us had much visited. Defined by its rolling hills, or ‘wolds’, this picturesque region runs through six counties – Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire – and offers a host of activities and attractions, perfect for continuing our mini history tour of Britain.
Find out where we visited next in ‘Part Two’ of our English Road Trip adventure, coming soon…