Located in the South West of England, Wiltshire is perhaps most famous for Stonehenge, and much of the county is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its large quantities of Neolithic sites. Mostly a rural county, it once formed part of the Kingdom of Wessex, and is home to an assortment of country houses and protected landscapes.
Whilst there’s more than enough historic sites to keep you occupied for days, we’ve picked ten of our favourites as to start your trip off.
1. Salisbury Cathedral
The Anglican cathedral in the south-west county of Wiltshire (eight miles from Stonehenge) is one of Britain’s finest examples of Early English Gothic architecture (established in England with the completion of Canterbury Cathedral in 1175) and interestingly is one of only three cathedrals in England to lack a ring of bells – Ely and Norwich are the other two.
Salisbury lays claim to the UKs tallest church spire (123m), its largest cloister and its largest cathedral close. It is home to the world’s oldest working mechanical clock dating back to c.1386 and has a magnificent collection of medieval stained glass windows including the Rose Window.
Stonehenge in Wiltshire is a world renowned, magnificent site consisting of standing (and lying) stones, some transported from South Wales.
The construction of Stonehenge took place between 3000 BC and 1600 BC and is considered to be one of the most impressive structures of its time, especially considering each stone weighs around four tonnes and that its founders had little by way of technological advances to assist them in moving the stones over the hundreds of miles that they travelled.
The purpose of Stonehenge has remained a mystery, despite extensive archaeological investigation.
3. Wilton House
Wilton House is one of England’s finest stately homes, designed in part by Inigo Jones, it is the seat of the Earl of Pembroke, and has been owned by the family continuously since c. 1544.
Before it was a private residence, there was a priory on the grounds, founded by King Egbert around 871 – over the following centuries, more and more lands were granted until its wealth meant there was a large abbey on the site. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, King Henry VIII granted the remnants of the abbey and its attached estates to William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, around 1544.
Imber is an abandoned village that lies in the middle of Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. It was forcibly evacuated in 1943 to allow American troops to practice street fighting, in preparation for the Allied Invasion of Europe. They did so, under the impression they would be allowed to return in 6 months time, or when the war was over.
Following the end of the ear, the villagers petitioned the government to allow them back: an inquiry into the subject found in favour of Imber staying under military control, but stipulated that the church would be maintained and people would be allowed back on certain days of the year. It is open to the public on limited days each year.
Stourhead is a prominent British stately home set in the Wiltshire countryside which is now run by the National Trust. Stourhead is famous for its impressive 2,650-acre estate and gardens, which attract tens of thousands of visitors every year.
Though much of the house dates back to the early eighteenth century, a devastating fire caused serious damage to the central block of the house in 1902 and therefore what you see today is a mixture of original and restored construction – albeit designed to entirely reflect the original design.
6. Avebury Ring
Avebury Ring in Wiltshire, England, is a stone monument which encircles the town of Avebury and is believed to have been constructed between 2850 and 2200 BC.
Now comprised of a bank and a ditch with a 1.3 kilometre circumference containing 180 stones making up an inner and outer circle, the Avebury Ring is not only fourteen times larger than Stonehenge, but was almost certainly completed before its famous counterpart.
Many of the stones which once formed part of the Avebury Ring were destroyed or buried during the Middle Ages, but the formation of the site is still visible from the remaining stones.
Visitors to Avebury Ring are free to walk up to the site itself at all times and view the monument’s stones. Together with Stonehenge, Silbury Hill and several other prehistoric sites, Avebury Ring is a UNESCO World Heritage site managed by the National Trust.
7. Old Wardour Castle
Wardour Castle is a ruined 14th century castle which was destroyed during the English Civil War. It lies in south west Wiltshire, close to the Dorset border.
Wardour Castle was confiscated in 1461, during the Wars of the Roses: the Lovells fell from favour after they supported the Lancastrian cause. In 1544, it was bought Sir Thomas Arundell: the Arundells held numerous properties and estates across the south west. .
The Arundell family were Catholics, and naturally sided with the Royalist cause when England descended into Civil War in the mid 17th century. Parliamentarian, led by Sir Edward Hungerford, laid siege to the castle in 1643: after 5 days, the castle surrendered and was taken by Parliamentarian forces.
However, Henry Lord Arundell decided to blockade the castle with Royalist forces, and eventually mined the walls, blowing up much of the structure in an attempt to get the Parliamentary garrison to surrender.
The ruins of Wardour Castle were left as a kind of romantic ornamental feature, and the Arundell family later built ‘New’ Wardour Castle north west of the original spot, which is more of a neo classical country house than castle.
Longleat House & Safari Park is the seat of the Marquesses of Bath, as well as being notable for having the first safari park constructed outside of Africa. It is located in West Wiltshire, UK.
Longleat was originally an Augustinian priory: the house was bought for Sir John Thynn in 1541, but burnt down shortly afterwards in 1567. By 1580 the house was rebuilt, mainly to a design by Sir John. The house has remained with the family ever since: Sir James Thynne employed Sir Christopher Wren to work on the house in the 17th century, and his son, Thomas Thynne, commissioned formal gardens and landscaping by George London.
Various other alterations happened in the 19th century under John Crace, adding some Italian Renaissance style interiors. The house was used as a temporary hospital during World War One and was used as a the base for an evacuated school in World War Two.
Woodhenge is an ancient Neolithic site, believed to have been constructed around 2500BC. It lies about 2 miles north of Stonehenge, near Amesbury, in the UK.
Woodhenge was first ‘discovered’ in 1926, through the use of aerial photography. The area was part of a number of wheat fields, and dark spots were detected in these. Further investigation and excavation suggested these were the remnants of a henge or monument: the dark spots had previously held wooden timbers.
The site consists of 168 postholes arranged in 6 concentric rings – in the middle was a child, which was believed to have been a sacrifice as its skull had been split, although the remains were destroyed in the Blitz so this theory remains unsubstantiated. Most of the postholes still had wooden remains in when they were rediscovered, although today they’re filled with concrete to make it easier to see and understand.
Bradford-on-Avon is a picturesque market town in north west Wiltshire, located on the banks of the River Avon.
Archaeological excavations suggest there has been a settlement on the site since Roman times: digs have uncovered the remains of a Roman villa with well-preserved mosaics inside.
The town’s name stems from the fact it was established around a ford across the River Avon: the stone bridge which still stands today was built in Norman times, and remnants of the Norman village can be seen upstream.
Bradford-on-Avon became prosperous because of the Avon – it generated power for wool mills, and weaving was a major source of employment for villagers in the 17th and 18th century. Many of the buildings date from this period, including several weavers’ cottagers.
The Industrial Revolution led to around 30 purpose-built woollen mills being built in Bradford-on-Avon: the last one closed in 1905 as the British wool industry shifted up north, towards Yorkshire.