Being landlocked is not a major hardship. Just look at our review of the marvellous city of Prague, in the Czech Republic. The country is surrounded entirely by other nations. So it is with the county of Wiltshire, at one time named after the ancient town of Wilton. With its borough capital of Swindon in its north-eastern corner, it is surrounded by Oxfordshire in that same direction,
Hampshire to its east and south, Dorset to its southwest, North-East Somerset to its west and Gloucestershire to its north and north-west.
Naturally, all of them lend some character to the borders of the region, not least the blend of charming English country accents. However, as a county, Wiltshire has a long and illustrious history and, if you take its various historical and geographical features into account, from mystical stone circles, iron age forts, castles through the centuries, to some of the most fascinating prehistoric mounds and an area criss-crossed by Roman roads (see pages 19 to 22 of this issue, which concentrates on Roman Britain), you will appreciate that its appeal to day-trippers, weekend warriors and longerterm vacationers is immense.
Something Wilts for all
Whether started as a young farmers’ publicity stunt, or just to have a joke with low flying air force jets, the crop circle phenomenon, which hit our television news headlines a few years ago, started in Wiltshire. Some of the mildly spooky geometric impressions crushed into crop fields are actually so marvellously beautiful that it is little wonder that they have drawn so much attention.
While local artistic pranksters have admitted to creating some of the formations, there is still a great mystery attached to others that, by their very complexity, would have taken a lot more than just a couple of alcoholically-infused enthusiasts, with planks on their feet and a flagon of cider flung over a shoulder. If you want to focus on one particular pub in the area, try the
Barge Inn at Honeystreet (postcode: SN9 5PS). Cropcirclers, or ‘croppies’, meet here regularly to discuss the latest happenings and to make their plans.
Known as ‘the most famous pub in the universe’, you will be guaranteed a warm welcome, some warm local beer, or cold cider, and a tongue planted firmly in the cheeks of most locals. It is located in the lee of the chalk horse, alongside the towpath of the Kennett and Avon Canal. Of course, the canal is renowned for its own contribution to the infamy of canoe racing. Every yearsince 1948, held at Easter, is the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race. Competitors not only have to endure the 125 miles, which is a real test of paddling capabilities, but also to haul their boats from the water, no less than 77 times, to avoid locks and to reach the River Thames. Visitors can watch some of the action from The Barge Inn.
Blending new with ancient
The magic of Wiltshire lies in being the epicentre of ley-lines and strange, otherworldly forces that have been recorded over thousands of years. Take one of the county’s most stunning landmarks as an example. Standing 130 feet high, with a base circumference of 1,640 feet, it consists of more than 12 million cubic feet of earth. Silbury Hill was constructed in several stages, the last one consisting of six concentric steps covered in chalk rubble and soil. Its top surface is completely flat.
While plenty of folklore surrounds its existence, some devil-related, with other stories surrounding the symbolism of a pregnant Mother Earth, the fact that it lies on a significant ley-line that has links to Stonehenge suggests that some truth might reside in the earth’s electrical charges and discharges. Of course, it could have been a burial mound for an ancient leader but that is the fun of archaeology, when they finally decide what Silbury’s true purpose was.
Of course, Stonehenge is probably one of the most world-famous and most visited ancient sites anywhere. With the structure already confirmed as being around 5,000 years old, although it is suggested that an even older structure exists buried beneath it, with some stones that are said to have originated in the Middle East, the bulk of the inner ring of blue-stones is said to have been
transported from the Preseli Mountains in Wales. Once again, thanks in part to it being the spiritual centre forthe nation’s Druids, a lot of mystery surrounds its existence and, while a visit will not provide many answers, you can still marvel at its construction.
Above Swindon, like an overlord viewing his dependency, is the ancient Iron Age fort of Barbury Castle (2500 years old). You can understand why those early settlers should select such a magnificent spot, with its all-round views of the area and, while not much remains of the original buildings, at least the double lines of earthworks and still discernible entrances on its eastern and western sides maintain historical interest. Its close proximity to The Ridgeway, said to be the oldest road in Great Britain, adds further fascination.
Each of this famous roadway’s 85 miles, which follows the chalk hills between Overton, near Avebury, to Ivinghoe Beacon, in Hertfordshire, can unearth a mine of prehistoric information. Unfortunately, being open to motorised transport over the years has brought about additional wear and tear, which has meant that some sections are presently closed and undergoing essential repairs. It does seem, in some respects, as though mankind is not very good at nurturing its past, although The Ridgeway has been in almost constant use for at least the past 4,000 years, so perhaps some roadworks are more than slightly overdue. Many of the crop circles are visible from The Ridgeway, although they are invisible from other routes.
Moving through time
Not all of the historic sites in Wiltshire are tumbledown, or in desperate need of repairs. In fact, an old favourite is the sometime hill fort at Old Sarum, which sits just north of the cathedral and market town of Salisbury. Naturally, the magnificent medieval church of The Blessed Virgin Mary, with its tower and Britain’s tallest spire, which is visible from many parts of the county, is worthy of a longer visit. From the bus station, you can take any of the specially liveried orange and black Stonehenge Tour buses, simply hopping off at Old Sarum (every 30 minutes in summer, on the hour the rest of the time), which was one of the ‘rotten’, or ‘pocket’, boroughs so-called because, even with a very low population, a patron could gain undue and unrepresentative influence in the unreformed House of Commons.
Amazingly, from its original Iron Age build, the Romans, Normans and Saxons all left their marks on the hilltop fort. It is a marvellous place to visit, not least for its spectacular view of the cathedral in the centre of Salisbury. Self-explanatory panels are sited around the area to explain the relevance of the ruins. The shop is worthy of a visit (which is not something that you will hear me saying too often), for its replica artefacts, wooden archery sets and a wonderful range of books. If you can wait until latespring, or next summer, I can also recommend strongly taking a picnic and just spending a day at the fort.
If you enjoy walking and can tolerate the ghost stories (of headless horsewomen and so on), then the ancient woodland of Savernake Forest is well worth a visit. Not being owned by the Crown, means that access is much easier. Places worth seeking out include the 1,000 year old Big Belly Oak, which is very close to the A345, at the western edge of the forest. Dance naked around that tree and it is said that you might be able to summon the devil!
Henry the VIIIth met Jane Seymour in this forest. The famous 18th Century garden designer, Capability Brown, was responsible for laying out the Grand Avenue, which is three miles in length and, from its centre, an amazing eight walks radiate outwards into the surrounding forest. However, be careful not to pick the flowers, as the entire forest has been designed as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).
Finally, for this review, there is always the magnificence of Salisbury Plain. Although located some twelve miles away from the cathedral town, the 300 square miles of downland, chalky plateau are under the control of the Ministry of Defence, so you do need to take care, in case you wander off-track, not least because you might get mowed down by a charging tank. Yet not all of it is controlled by the MoD and there are innumerable walking routes, some of which pass through villages, like the WW2-evacuated Imber, which opens its pretty St Giles Church to the public several times a year.
The big skies are a major attraction to this area and it is criss-crossed by several open roads, so you do not need to worry about entering a military exercise illegally. In the vicinity of Tilshead, there are several long barrows (prehistoric earth mounds), viewing hides for the great bustards, a phoney Iraqi village and even a German village, all of which can be accessed easily.
Regardless of your level of interest, there are geographical, picturesque, romantic and just plain photogenic areas, as well as historical sites, all over Wiltshire. It is a county of tremendous diversity and, should you venture into Swindon, apart from marvelling at the Honda car factory, you might even discover how to circumnavigate its mystical magic-roundabout roadways
that even bamboozle me.
Getting there: naturally, by car is always going to be the most convenient and possibly the most cost-effective way to Wiltshire, although, once there, parking charges can soon build up. If you are travelling to Salisbury, there are direct trains from London , with National Express coach services available daily. It only takes 90-110 minutes driving from London to reach Salisbury. Mind you, parking is painful in the town, so it might be best to use the Park & Ride service (www.parkandride.net).
Getting about: should you decide that public transport should take the strain, Wiltshire is very well serviced. However, two of
London’s best coach tour operators (www.goldentours.com and www.evanevanstours.co.uk) visit Bath, Stonehenge and Salisbury (with/without lunch) at around £70 per head. Should you take the special buses from Salisbury, they will charge you £24 to visit Stonehenge and Old Sarum, including th entrance fees (www.english-heritage.org.uk).
www.barge-inn.com (the pub can be reached by train from Paddington, London, to Pewsey, Wiltshire) www.nationaltrust.org.uk (for information around the stone circles at Avebury) www.savernakeestate.co.uk- (the only privately-owned forest in the UK, worth a visit) www.visitwiltshire.co.uk (for hotels attractions and things to do)