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If one-of-a-kind historical sites are your thing, and if you are on the lookout for the best of British history, then you won’t be able to do much better than Wiltshire. The county is replete with fascinating sites and unique locations, making it a must-visit destination to check off your list.
A spokesperson for Historic England – the public body that protects England’s historic environment – said the following about Wilshire’s most treasured sites.
“From the largest prehistoric mound in Europe to the soaring spire of Salisbury cathedral and the unforgettable Stonehenge World Heritage Site, Wiltshire is brimming with world-class monuments which have intrigued and delighted visitors for centuries and pay testimony to the most extraordinary acts of human endeavour throughout the ages”.
Whether it is ancient monuments, prehistoric mounds, or Roman earthworks, Wiltshire has it all. So here is a handy list of the top historical sites the county has to offer.
Stonehenge, together with Avebury, forms the ‘Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites’, encapsulating the wider prehistoric landscape of the area. Stonehenge maybe unrivalled in terms of infamy, but the Avebury stone circles are themselves quite remarkable.
Avebury is an ancient monument that contains the largest stone circle in all of Europe. A sacred site to modern day pagans, Avebury was constructed during the Neolithic period thousands of years ago. Containing not one but three stone circles and an incredible bank and ditch which is thought to be only one third of its original depth.
Avebury really is quite a sight. Seeing this ancient formation, containing a number of village houses and a local pub within the stone circles, is a pretty impressive thing. Situated in the village of Avebury, the prehistoric site is truly a marvel of this country’s history.
The remarkable Silbury Hill, located near Avebury and a part of the same Associated Sites as Avebury and Stonehenge, is the largest man-made mound in Europe.
At 130 feet in height, this mysterious hill is truly impressive and is comparable in height to its contemporary Egyptian pyramids. This baffling mound still challenges us with exactly why it was built.
Having stood tall for 4,500 years, this is a truly sophisticated project, containing a series of drums that get progressively smaller as the height of the mound increases. Just how these ancient people had the knowledge to erect such a structure is unknown, and therefore will always be the source of much speculation.
Emma Kirkup from Visit Wiltshire had this to say on Silbury Hill and the World Heritage Site.
“We always suggest visitors to Stonehenge and Avebury make time to explore the wider landscape of the World Heritage Site. Many people don’t realise that there are other timeless places located here, from the mysterious Silbury Hill through to Woodhenge and the West Kennet Long Barrow. It’s well worth putting on your walking boots and making time to discover more, and the staff at the visitor centres at both Stonehenge and Avebury are on hand to be able to show you more about this archaeologically-rich landscape”.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian is famous for his wall in Northern England, but it’s an earthwork built after the Roman’s had departed these lands that is truly the most intriguing.
The Wansdyke Earthwork, constructed possibly up to 120 years after the Romans left, pierces through the Wiltshire and Somerset countryside for a remarkable 35 miles. Assumingly built as some kind of fortification against approaching invaders, Wansdyke in all likelihood had the purpose of protecting native Britons from the ever-expanding Anglo Saxons.
There are other conflicting theories as to why Wansdyke was built, such as Romans trying to protect their diminishing empire, and the Saxons themselves trying to stave off those annoying Britons from taking back their land. But whatever the case maybe, Wansdyke is impressive, intriguing, and a truly mammoth feature of not just Wiltshire’s landscape but our country’s history.
Forget Rome’s Appian Way, The Ridgeway is a road truly worthy of our wonder. This ancient pathway, that starts at Overton Hill near Avebury and ends 85 miles later in Buckinghamshire, has been used for travel for over 5,000 years.
The Ridgeway passes though ancient landscape and was used by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers during prehistoric times. This historic path provided an avenue for trade and during the Iron Age had forts built along its sides in order to help defend this most valuable of routes.
The Ridgeway has been used by all kinds of travellers and invading forces. After the Roman Empire’s collapse in Western Europe, invading Saxon and Viking armies walked its paths. The Ridgeway passes near many other historical sites including Avebury, making it an ideal trail to wander when visiting the area.
The Cathedral at Salisbury permeates all that surrounds it. Boasting Britain’s tallest spire, the cathedral is a prime example of Early English architecture, having being completed in the year 1258.
Salisbury Cathedral wasn’t the first in the area, stemming from deteriorating relations between the clergy and the military at Old Sarum Cathedral, a choice was made to move to a new location in Salisbury.
In a History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 3, available via British History Online, the papal-approved move is described as follows:
“On 28 April 1220 the foundation stones of the new cathedral were laid. Very soon the practice developed of referring to the new cathedral and the new bishop's city growing up round it as New Salisbury; to the royal borough on the mound as Old Salisbury”.
It is truly a remarkable place of worship, also containing the oldest working clock in the world – dating back to 1386 AD – and one of only four surviving copies of England’s most important and sacred legal document, Magna Carta. Created in 1215 to be a document of peace between King John and rebel barons, Magna Carta went on to become a symbol for freedom, liberty, and the restraint of governmental forces.
As the mother church of several hundred parishes in Wiltshire and Dorset, Salisbury Cathedral is a hugely important building and attracts the pilgrimage of hundreds and thousands of visitors every year.
Salisbury really is an historical hub and not far from the cathedral is another majestic site, Old Sarum – a grand Iron Age hill fort.
The site of Salisbury’s earliest settlement, about two miles north of modern Salisbury, this English Heritage property was constructed around 400 BC and is one of the largest in England.
Old Sarum was known for a time as Sorviodunum when under Roman occupation until 410 AD, and William the Conqueror transformed the site with a royal castle just after 1066. Old Sarum was also the site of the Oath made to William in 1086 which swore to him the allegiance of powerful men of the realm.
Seeing various occupiers over the years, the site is a treasure trove of history. Old Sarum has been witness to the best and worst of this country’s development. Romans, Normans, castles and cathedrals, Old Sarum has seen it all, and if you are heading for a Wiltshire holiday, you should too.
The stunning medieval village of Lacock in the north of Wiltshire near Chippenham is the last great historical site on our list, but definitely not the least.
Owned almost entirely by the National Trust, Lacock draws in many a visitor with its picturesque, untouched appearance. Lacock Abbey, founded in the early 13th century as a nunnery of the Augustinian order, is a landmark of this historically affluent town.
The Abbey was dedicated to St Bernard and following its sale from Henry VIII to Sir William Sharington in the mid-16th century for £783, the abbey was demolished and then converted into a house in around 1539.
The village itself has been used numerous time in TV and film, with notable productions such as the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice and the Harry Potter franchise standing out.
There is a myriad of historical accoutrements to Lacock town – such as the 14th century barn, medieval church and 15th century inn – all coming together to form a truly memorable destination for the would-be visitor.