Wiltshire England: Ancient, beautiful, mystical

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The county of Wiltshire, located in the Southwest England, is ancient, beautiful and mystical. Wiltshire encompasses many of England's wondrous Neolithic sites, charming villages and medieval towns. This enchanting countryside of rolling green hills and lush valleys is the perfect destination to escape and explore England's romantic and historical legacy.

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Cotswold Village of Castle Combe

The southern tip of the Cotswolds includes several of Wiltshire's most charming villages, such as Lacock, Corsham and the "prettiest village in England," Castle Combe. The village was once the site of a Norman stone castle in 1135; however, by the 14th century, the ruined castle was used as a stone quarry and building materials for the village houses.

Today, the small village looks as it did centuries ago with quaint, hand-cut stone houses and stone-tile roofs lining both sides of the main road. The house's stone facades are graced with everything from beautiful flower boxes and fragrant, clinging wisteria to mature, flowering English shrubs. You will even find several village houses with fresh-baked goods sitting on rustic tables for sale by the front door. It's like stepping back in time as you stroll along Castle Combe's lanes, without any sign of modern encroachment, save a few cars.

In the center of the village resides the Market Cross. This ancient square stone monument is the site of weekly markets held since the 14th century. Cross the road to find one of the most picturesque medieval churches in Wiltshire, St. Andrews. The 13th century church is surrounded by a parish graveyard straight out of a storybook.

If you visit, make sure to take a peek inside this lovely building with its stained glass windows, arched columns and stunning pipe organ. On occasion, the church has a wonderful honor-system rummage sale with items donated by local residents. It's a great place to find unique books, small china boxes and dozens of other British treasures. In addition, the village has a lovely inn with outside bistro tables to enjoy a steaming morning cuppa, while you immerse yourself in the captivating surroundings. You may even recognize familiar landmarks in the village from famous movies, such as War Horse and Dr. Doolittle.

Wiltshire is renowned for its profusion of Neolithic settlements, especially the World Heritage Sites of Stonehenge and Avebury which is the largest stone circle by circumference in the world.

Mysterious Avebury Circle of Stones

Avebury, located about 28 miles from Salisbury or 20 miles from Castle Combe, is fascinating. Now in the care of England's National Trust, Avebury contains three stone circles. One huge outer ring, about a quarter of a mile across, and two smaller inner rings of standing stones that date back nearly 5000 years ago. The massive Sarsen stones (sandstone and silica) that make up the circles are seven times harder than granite with some weighing up to 40 tons. It took hundreds of people in the Neolithic period to pull these megalithic stones on wooden sledges from a quarry several miles away to the Avebury location. It seems a monumental task if you see these massive stones towering some 13 feet in height above ground.

The Avebury stones are not dressed. Dressed stones, like those in Stonehenge, are worked into a smooth, molded face. These are in their natural state and stand hauntingly amongst green fields and grazing sheep in the pastoral farming village of Avebury. The Avebury circles are thought to have originally been a ceremonial or religious site and are still sacred to modern day druids.

Numerous mesmerizing stories depict tales of spirits and legends associated with the Avebury Circles. Before your tour, find out more about the stones, their history and the artifacts found over the centuries. The Museum Barn and the Alexander Keiller Museum are located in the Old Farmyard complex adjacent to the circles and provide fascinating information.

Stonehenge: Sentinel of the Salisbury Plains

Stonehenge, situated on the Salisbury plains, is located nine miles from Salisbury's city center. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stonehenge is one of the most extraordinary and important prehistoric Stone monuments in the world. It has captured our imaginations and been the source of speculation and controversy since the 12th century. Scientists and archeologists have discovered a great deal more in the past 10 years, shedding light on some of the hard questions concerning the ancient site through radiocarbon dating, laser surveys and archeological excavations.

So, what is Stonehenge? A prehistoric temple that is aligned with the movements of the sun and was built in several stages. The first main activity at the sight began about 3000 BC with the construction of a circular ditch with an internal bank that consisted of 56 holes. The holes or Aubrey Holes, held the remains of about 150 cremated human remains. With this discovery, it appears for the first several 100 years, the site was used as a cremation cemetery. In 2500 BC, huge Sarsen stones from north Wiltshire and smaller bluestones from west Wales were set up in the center of the Salisbury Plains site.

Over the next 800 years, rearrangement of the stones and construction continued on the site. However, the facts don't alter the wonder and mystery that draw over a million visitors to Stonehenge every year. The minute the ancient stone circle comes into view on the grassy open plains, your breath catches; you're standing in front of pre-history. These incredibly imposing upright stones seem to convey an energy all their own. And, if you're of northern European descent, you suddenly realize your ancient ancestors were the builders of Stonehenge and you, are a living link.

With so much information, new discoveries and much needed restoration to preserve Stonehenge, the English Heritage organization created a remarkable, environmental improvement project and exhibition building plan. In 2013, the first ever and impressive new Stonehenge exhibition and visitor center was opened. There is dedicated space for education, interpretation and museum-quality exhibits. Artifacts, history, discoveries and timetables are on display and even an amazing outdoor gallery of Neolithic houses reconstructed from evidence found near Stonehenge. In addition, the new visitor center is located over a mile away to preserve the site, as is the new visitors' car and coach park as well.

If you wish to book a private or group tour for a more personal experience of the site, you can book a World Heritage Guide. These guides are brilliant at explaining the marvels of this ancient achievement while you discover the mysteries behind one of the most amazing prehistoric monuments on the planet. For additional information on Stonehenge, visit English-Heritage.org - Stonehenge. For information on Heritage guide Mike Robinson, email him -- bravuogn@btinternet.com.

Old Sarum: Iron-Age Relic

Another fantastic site to visit in Salisbury is Old Sarum, located just two miles from the city. This imposing Iron Age hill fort is the original site of Salisbury with ruins dating back to 3000 BC and 1000 AD.

Visitors can explore the prehistoric remains, a Norman palace, a castle and a cathedral. The skeleton of the castle is still in evidence on the top of hill overlooking the beautiful countryside. The Romans, Saxons and Normans re-used old Sarum before it grew into one of the most thriving settlements in Medieval England. It is a perfect place to pack a lunch and admire the scenic views, as you contemplate the tales of William the Conqueror.

Salisbury Cathedral

The city of Salisbury possesses a wealth of historical sites, such as the stunning Salisbury Cathedral. This splendid gothic cathedral's construction began in 1220 and was completed in about 38 years. In addition to the cathedral's magnificent interior stained glass windows, columns, arches and the world's oldest working clock, the church spire, 404-feet high, is the tallest in England. The best way to view the cathedral is to take the Tower Tour for spectacular views into the nave and to see the wood scaffolding that leads from the tower to the spire.

The Salisbury Cathedral displays one of the four original copies left of the 1215 Magna Carta. As one of the most famous documents in English history, the Magna Carta is considered the foundation of liberty that influenced most of the civilized world. This best-preserved copy of the document is impressive to view and is on display in the Salisbury Cathedral's Chapter House. In 2015, Salisbury Cathedral will commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Magana Carta with spiritual and secular celebrations, promoting justice and freedom.

If You Go

No matter where you go in Wiltshire, there are wonderful dining options. One superb recommendation is the Red Lion Freehouse, located on East Chisenbury, in Pewsey, Wiltshire (about 12 miles north of Old Sarum). The Michelin-starred Red Lion Free House, owned and run by top chefs Britt and Guy Manning, offers a fabulous menu of locally sourced and property grown exquisite fare. Menu items, such as their Herb-roast guinea fowl breast with Everleigh Farm asparagus, taste divine and are cooked to perfection. In addition, the Mannings own the adjacent Troutbeck Guest House that features gorgeous rooms with chic, yet comfortable decor that overlooks a serene view of the river Avon with contented sheep grazing in lush pastures just a few yards away.

Wiltshire is one of the best destinations to visit in England for historical attractions/architecture, lovely villages, scenic beauty and cuisine. And, with numerous options for transportation from London's Heathrow and Gatwick or Bristol Airport -- such as the train, bus, shuttles or rental cars -- it is easy to access. Another excellent option for transportation and inclusive or bespoke tours is to book Salisbury, Stonehenge & Sarum Tours that partners with Value Cars. for additional information on tours and Value Cars, visit Salisbury-Stonehenge-Tours

For additional information on Wiltshire, go to VisitWiltshire

Read more about Travel in England, Scotland, and Wales

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Patrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site OffbeatTravel.com and is a regular contributor on travel radio shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her articles and photographs have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: August 30th, 2014

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