Wiltshire is a county that is rich in the monuments of prehistoric man; it also boasts one of the highest concentrations of historic houses and gardens in the country, which makes it a great place for the tourist. It’s also a perfect choice for walkers, cyclists and lovers of nature, with wide open spaces, woodland and downland and a number of chalk streams that are home to a huge variety of wetland wildlife.
The industrial heritage is also strong, taking in Brunel’s Great Western Railway and the railway town of Swindon, brewing at Devizes and carpet-making at Wilton. And the county has many surprises, from the white horses carved in hillsides and the mysterious crop circles, to the ancient hill forts and the greatest mystery of them all, the stone circles of Stonehenge – how did those stones get from the Marlborough Downs and the mountains of Pembrokeshire and what was their use?
The jewel in the crown of Wiltshire is the city of Salisbury, at the confluence of the rivers Avon, Wylye, Bourne and Nadder, with its glorious cathedral, a masterpiece of the Early English style, and many other fine buildings. The cathedral for the episcopal see stood originally at nearby Old Sarum, a flourishing town in medieval days that lost its status when a 12th-century bishop moved flock, stock and barrel down the hill to the more amenable surroundings of Salisbury and began to build a new cathedral. Atmospheric ruins are all that remain of Old Sarum.
Westbury, at the western edge of the chalk downlands of Salisbury Plain, was an important centre of the medieval cloth and wool trades and still boasts some handsome buildings from its days of great prosperity. Like Old Sarum, Westbury was formerly a rotten borough, returning two MPs until the 1832 Reform Act stopped the cheating (Old Sarum was the more notorious, having two MPs at a time when it had no voters). Stourhead, a beautiful Palladian mansion full of treasures, stands in magnificent grounds laid out by Henry Hoare; Longleat is another house filled with wonderful things, whose grounds contain the famous safari park. The National Trust village of Lacock, the market town of Devizes with its extraordinary flight of locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal, the historic abbey town of Malmesbury, the lovely Vale of Pewsey and the ancient 4500-acre Savernake Forest, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, are other attractions that no visitor to this wonderful county should miss.
Westbury, at the western edge of the chalk downlands of Salisbury Plain, was a major player in the medieval cloth and wool trades, and still retains many fine buildings from the days of great prosperity, including some cloth works and mills. Westbury was formerly a rotten borough and returned two MPs until 1832, when the Reform Bill put an end to the cheating. Scandal and corruption were rife, and the Old Town Hall in the market place – a gift from a grateful victorians candidate in 1815 – is evidence of such goings-on. He was Sir Manasseh Massey Lopes, a Portuguese financier and slave-trader who ‘bought’ the borough to advance his political career.
All Saints Church, a 14th-century building on much earlier foundations, has many unusual and interesting features, including a stone reredos, a copy of the Erasmus Bible and a clock with no face made by a local blacksmith in 1604. It also boasts the third heaviest peal of bells in the world.
On the southern edge of town is another church well worth a visit. Behind the simple, rustic exterior of St Mary’s, Old Dilton, are a three-decker pulpit and panelled pew boxes with original fittings and individual fireplaces.
To the west of the town, at Brokerswood, is Woodland Park and Heritage Centre, 80 acres of ancient broadleaf woodland with a wide range of trees, plants and animals, nature trails, a lake with fishing, a picnic and barbecue area, a tearoom and gift shop, a museum, a play area and a narrow-gauge railway.