A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, the area of England that includes the counties of Gloucestershire, Somerset & Wiltshire.
Wiltshire’s Neolithic Landscape
Deep in the county of Wiltshire, you somehow pass through a portal that takes you thousands of years back in time. The wider Neolithic landscape roughly between the A4 and A303 is just teeming with ancient sites all waiting to be explored. For an all-round day-trip experience, I suggest starting in Avebury and ending in Stonehenge, or the other way around, depending on where you are coming from. The most practical way to get around this area is by car.
Via the B4361, you arrive at the spooky village of Avebury. Spooky, as it is locked-in by the largest stone circle in the world, at least 200 years older than Stonehenge. From a modern preservation point of view, it ticks all the boxes. A World Heritage Site, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Site of Specific Scientific interest. There were originally 101 stones on the outer ring. With two inner circles and smaller patterns of stones within. It is surrounded by a sheer-sided ditch 30ft high. Have a good walkabout and discover the Devil’s Throne, where it is said the dark one himself may be summoned, or the murderous Barber Stone, which exacted a terrible revenge on a villager who tried knock it down.
Lunch is an option at a haunted pub, the Red Lion, which is within the Avebury circle, indeed it is the only pub in the UK within a Neolithic circle. The Wagon & Horses on the A4 nearby is also good for food.
Drive along the B4003 from Avebury to the A4 and you cannot miss the West Kennet Avenue, a 75ft wide a mile-long trail of prehistoric standing stones.
Turning westwards onto the A4 from the B4003, you will shortly come across a small layby on your left. In the distance looking south is the West Kennet Long Barrow. A short walk on a public footpath leads you to the largest prehistoric burial mound in the country, where once skeletons of the ancients were laid in its multitude of underground burial chambers. 30 skeletons were found inside the 14 chambers. The 350ft long mound is south-eastern facing and was built around 3700BC, before the Avebury circle.
Also unmissable further along this part of the A4 is Silbury Hill. It dates to c2450BC, so late Neolithic. At 130ft (40 metres) high, it is Europe’s largest prehistoric man-made mound, similar in size to the smaller Egyptian pyramids of the Giza Necropolis. Strangely conical in shape, with a base diameter of 550ft (167m), the flat-top at the summit has a diameter of 98ft (30m). It has been calculated that it would take 500 men working 15 years to deposit & shape. Its exact purpose is unknown. Few prehistoric artefacts have ever been found. It was made unsafe by multiple excavations and thus has kept its secrets as to its use or meaning. My best guess is a beacon mound to alert the people of Avebury about incoming visitors. In 2007, the site of a 12-acre Roman village was discovered at the foot of Silbury Hill. It contained regularly laid out streets and houses.
An eastward turn onto the A4 from the B4003 will will take you to the summit of a hill, and a small parking area. This is the Ridgeway, an ancient trackway at least 5,000 years old and claimed to be Britain’s oldest road. It runs for 87 miles along a ridge to the River Thames at Goring. It is believed to be originally a trade route connecting the Dorset coast to The Wash in Norfolk. Drovers used it for moving livestock right up to 1750. The high dry ground made travel easy and provided a measure of protection. During the Iron Age, hill forts were built to help defend the route. It passes many ancient sites including the Uffington White Horse, Wayland’s Smithy, Grim’s Ditch and the hill forts of Barbury Castle, Liddington Castle, Uffington Castle, Segsbury Castle, Pulpit Hill and Beacon Hill. In 2009, the oldest Roman coin (dating to 207BC) was found here by a metal detectorist.
On the other side of the A4 is the Sanctuary, a series of six concentric rings of timber remains dating to about 3,000BC. It was excavated in 1930, where they found early Neolithic pottery, beaker items and the skeletal remains of an adolescent.
Continue westwards on the A4 to Marlborough and then take the A345 south. Stop at Durrington for the Woodhenge circle and the dip that represents the ancient settlement of Durrington Walls, famously excavated by a team of nearly 500 archaeologists in the recent Riverside Project. Latest finds from digs around this area will help you theorise.
Finally, via the A303, you will enter the mysterious World Heritage site of Stonehenge, an ancient stone structure older than the pyramids of Egypt, and a rare surviving monument of the pre-historic world. It is so well-known it hardly warrants a description, suffice to say that some have a deep fascination with this place, and wonder about its meaning. Those not so swayed by the stones’ magical charms are left pondering the biggest mystery of all – how on Earth did they get there?
Wiltshire’s Neolithic Landscape: when Captain Caveman became Fred Flintstone.
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. More recommendations will appear next week.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)