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Out and About - Wiltshire

[County sign]Wiltshire is a county on the border of the south west of England. It is landlocked and borders the counties of Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Wiltshire is characterised by its high downland and wide valleys.

Wiltshire is notable for its pre-Roman archaeology, Salisbury Plain is famous as the location of Stonehenge stone circle and other ancient landmarks. The Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age people that occupied southern Britain built settlements on the hills and downland that cover Wiltshire. Stonehenge and Avebury are perhaps the most famous Neolithic sites in the UK or the World.

Information on the 261 civil parishes of Wiltshire is available on the Wiltshire Community History website run by the Libraries and Heritage services of Wiltshire County Council. This website includes maps, demographic data, historic and modern pictures, thumbnail histories, FAQs, and information on schools and churches.

Avebury and surrounding ancient monuments

This area in Wiltshire is a large Neolithic landscape which includes the sites of Avebury, Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow, The Sanctuary and The Avenue.

There are facilities in the Village of Avebury but I suggest you plan a day to look around these sites with some stout boots and a packed lunch. You can park your car for free if you are a member in the National Trust car park at Avebury. You can get to most of the sites by footpath but be careful of the A4 which is busy when going to the long Barrow as you have to cross it, so be careful.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 173 or Explorer Map 140


[welcome sign]This is the site of a large henge and several stone circles in Wiltshire surrounding the village of Avebury. It is one of the finest and largest Neolithic monuments in Europe dating to around 5,000 years ago. It is older than the megalithic stages of Stonehenge, which is located about 32 kilometres (20 miles) to the south, although the two monuments are broadly contemporary overall. It lies approximately midway between the towns of Marlborough and Calne, just off the main A4 road on the northbound A4361 towards Wroughton. The henge is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a World Heritage Site. Avebury is a National Trust property.

Many of the original stones were destroyed from the early 14th century onwards to provide local building materials and to make room for agriculture. The stones were also destroyed due to a fear of the pagan rituals that were associated with the site. Only 27 stones of the Outer Circle survive and many of these are examples re-erected by Alexander Keiller in the 1930s. Concrete pylons now mark the former locations of the missing stones and it is likely that more stones are buried on the site. There is a brilliant website about Avebury and I would recommend you look at this site before you visit.

I would also recommend you try to visit this site close to dusk as the long shadows from the stones make the place so atmospheric! This area has several other sites very close and the area is worth a "day out".

Silbury Hill

[the hill]The largest man-made mound in Europe, huge and mysterious Silbury Hill, which is managed by English Heritage,is comparable in height and volume to the roughly contemporary Egyptian pyramids. Probably completed by about 2350 BC and part of the Avebury 'sacred landscape', it apparently contains no burial or shrine, and was clearly important in itself. But its purpose and significance remain enigmatic.

Composed principally of chalk excavated from the surrounding area, the mound stands 40 metres (130 feet) high and covers about 5 acres (2.2 hectares). It is a display of immense technical skill and prolonged control over labour and resources. Archaeologists calculate that when Silbury Hill was built that it took 18 million man-hours, or 500 men working 15 years to deposit and shape 248,000 cubic metres (8.75 million cubic feet) of earth and fill on top of a natural hill. The base of the hill is circular and 167 m (550 ft) in diameter. The summit is flat-topped and 30 m (100 ft) in diameter. A smaller mound was first constructed, and in a later phase much enlarged. The initial structures at the base of the hill were perfectly circular and surveying reveals that the centre of the flat top and the centre of the cone that describes the hill, lie within a metre of one another.

The first phase, carbon-dated to 2750±95 BC, consisted of a gravel core with a revetting kerb of stakes and sarsen boulders. Alternate layers of chalk rubble and earth were placed on top of this, the second phase involved heaping further chalk on top of the core, using material excavated from an encircling ditch. At some stage during this process the ditch was backfilled and work was concentrated on increasing the size of the mound to its present height using material from elsewhere.

You can view the Hill from a car park on the A4, but because of possible damage through erosion you are not allowed on the hill.

West Kennet Long Barrow

[public notice board]On the other side of the A4 not far from Silbury Hill there is the West Kennet Long Barrow is a Neolithic tomb or barrow, situated on a prominent chalk ridge, one-and-a-half miles south of Avebury .This site is managed by English Heritage. Archaeologists classify it as a chambered long barrow and one of the Severn-Cotswold tombs. It has two pairs of opposing transept chambers and a single terminal chamber used for burial. The stone burial chambers are located at one end of one of the longest barrows in Britain at 100 m: in total it is estimated that 15,700 man-hours were expended in its construction. The entrance consists of a concave forecourt with a facade made from large slabs of sarsen stones which were placed to seal entry.

The construction of the West Kennet Long Barrow commenced about 3600 BC, which is some 400 years before the first stage of Stonehenge, and it was in use until around 2500 BC. The mound has been damaged by indiscriminate digging, but archaeological excavations in 1859 and 1955-56 found at least 46 burials, ranging from babies to elderly persons. The bones were disarticulated with some of the skulls and long bones missing. It has been suggested that the bones were removed periodically for display or transported elsewhere with the blocking facade being removed and replaced each time.

The latest excavations also revealed that the side chambers occur inside an exact isosceles triangle, whose height is twice the length of its base. Artefacts associated with the burials include Neolithic Grooved ware similar to that found at nearby Windmill Hill.

It is thought that this tomb was in use for as long as 1,000 years and at the end of this period the passage and chamber were filled to the roof by the Beaker people with earth and stones, among which were found pieces of Grooved ware, Peterborough ware and Beaker pottery, charcoal, bone tools, and beads. Stuart Piggott, who excavated this mixture of secondary material, suggested that it had been collected from a nearby 'mortuary temple' showing that the site had been used for ritual activity long after it was used for burial.

You can walk inside the Barrow as they have clared the entrance and you can walk in about 20ft, they have made some small holes in the roof to allow some natural light in-really spooky but fun. :o)

Windmill Hill

Windmill Hill is a Neolithic causewayed enclosure situated around 1 mile (2 km) north west of Avebury.This site is managed by English Heritage. It is the largest example of its type in the British Isles enclosing an area of 85,000 square metres.

The site was first occupied around 3800 BC although the only evidence is a series of pits apparently dug by an agrarian society using Hembury pottery. During a later phase, circa 3300 BC, three concentric segmented ditches were placed around the hilltop site, the outermost with a diameter of 365 metres. The causeways interrupting the ditches vary in width from a few centimetres to 7 metres. Material from the ditches was piled up to create internal banks, the deepest ditches and largest banks are on the outer circuit. The site was excavated in 1926 by Harold St George Gray whose work established it as the type-site for causewayed camps as they were then called.

Pottery from the bottom of the ditches was also the type style for the Windmill Hill culture. Later occupation layers contained early Peterborough ware then the later Mortlake and Fengate varieties. Large quantities of bone, both human and animal were also recovered from the ditch fill. The camp remained in use throughout the rest of the Neolithic with Grooved ware and Beaker potsherds having been found in later deposits. A Bronze Age bell barrow was later built between the inner and middle rings.

The Sanctuary and The Avenue

[stones from the Avenue]The Sanctuary is a prehistoric site on Overton Hill located around 5 miles west of Marlborough in Wiltshire. This site is managed by English Heritage. It is part of a wider Neolithic landscape which includes the nearby sites of Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow and Avebury, to which The Sanctuary was linked by the 25m wide and 2.5km long Kennet Avenue. It also lies close to the route of the prehistoric Ridgeway and near several Bronze Age barrows. The Sanctuary is open to the public, with concrete posts used to mark the positions of the stones and timbers.

The first stage of activity at the site consisted of six concentric rings of timbers erected around 3,000 BC. When the site was first excavated by Maud and Ben Cunnington in 1930, they were interpreted as a timber equivalent to Stonehenge. 162 postholes were excavated, some with double posts and the remains of postpipes still visible. Later interpretations have made much of The Sanctuary's link with Avebury via the Avenue and suggested that the two sites may have served different but complementary purposes. The timbers may have supported a roof of turf or thatch and been a high status dwelling serving the ritual site at Avebury, although this can only be conjectural. Another interpretation is that it served as a mortuary house where corpses were kept either before or after ritual treatment at Avebury. Neolithic pottery and animal bone were recovered by the Cunningtons, indicating that the site saw some degree of occupation activity. Recent excavation by Mike Pitts has given greater credence to the Cunningtons' original interpretation of freestanding posts.

What was probably a series of three increasingly large timber structures was eventually superseded around 2,100 BC by two concentric stone circles of different diameters and numbers to the preceding timber circles. Stuart Piggott has suggested that the stones stood within the third larger contemporary timber building. The Cunningtons excavated Beaker items from this phase including the remains of an adolescent interred with a pot.

The site was largely destroyed in 1723.

Bentley Wood

[bentlywood1]Bentley Wood (grid reference SU250295), together with the adjacent Blackmoor Copse, form one of the largest contiguous areas of woodland in Wiltshire, England. The area of 665 hectares of the wood was notified as a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1985 and is truly a wonderful place. More than 35 butterfly species are recorded there regularly, including every woodland species resident in central southern England. Silver-washed Fritillary can be abundant, and there are good populations of White Admiral, Purple Hairstreak, Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, with Marsh Fritillary, White-letter Hairstreak and Duke of Burgundy also retaining a presence. However, it is for the magnificent Purple Emperor that Bentley Wood is perhaps best known - indeed it is considered one of the best sites in the country to observe this species.

If your visit is not particularly aimed at a particular species, but simply because Bentley Wood is such an excellent woodland butterfly site, then just enjoy your visit - it is a special place. The different areas of the wood have their own unique characteristics, which reflect in their butterfly populations, and exploration of some of its more remote areas will rarely disappoint.

The car park is small and can be difficult to park in busy times, the tracks and pathways are good and well maintained and if you like butterflies then this is the place for you ;o)

The woods are not very well signposted from the road and the entrance is easily missed so be prepared.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 184

The Great Bustard Group

[bustards]The Great Bustard Group aims to establish a self-sustaining population of Great Bustards in the UK and create practical conservation measures for Great Bustards in Saratov, Russia. Great Bustards were formerly very much part of British wildlife before they were finally hunted out of existence in Britain by the 1840s.

Great Bustards for the UK reintroduction come from the population in the Russian Federation. This is the second largest population in the world, estimated at 8,000 individuals.

You can visit this exciting Reintroduction Project at its home in the rolling Wiltshire countryside. The Great Bustards here are wild and free-flying and catching your first glimpse of them I found was a great experience.

Salisbury Plain is owned by the Ministry of Defence and is a live artillery training area with very restricted access for the public. The Great Bustard Site is situated on private property adjacent to the MoD Range Danger Area. Please refrain from searching for Great Bustards yourself - they are typically shy birds, notoriously difficult to see and can roam widely across the MoD ranges. During these early stages of the project, small flocks are very susceptible to disturbance and should flocks fragment, single birds become more vulnerable to predation. To avoid these problems please join a tour.

I've seen these birds, both on a tour and seen single birds that have flown to areas such as the Somerset Levels. The best place to see these is on a tour and you need to arrange this through their website. If you visit on a cold day try and take a flask and wrap up and there are few photographic opportunities as the birds are at a distance and you don't get a chance to walk around the pens.

I think the Group are missing some money making opportunities here. They could provide hot drinks in the hide and charge a small fee to photographers who want to get closer. I know they have a tame bird that is often used for publicity - this has got to be worth looking into?

I will be visiting again and if you get the chance book on line at the Great Bustard Group website.

Savernake Forest

[forest sign]Savernake Forest is on a Cretaceous chalk plateau between Marlborough and Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire, England.

This fantastic area of woodland is a real treat to walk around, May for Bluebells and October to see the Autumn colour, while there are plenty of Birds and Mammals, it's the trees that I go to see!

It is privately owned by the Earl of Cardigan and his family, and is administered by trustees. Since 1939 the running of the forest has been undertaken by the Forestry Commission on a 999-year lease. The private status of Savernake - Britain's only privately owned forest - is maintained by shutting the forest to the public one day per year.

The royal forest was established in the 12th century, and it covered an area of some 150 square miles (390 km2). As such it would have extended to the villages of East Kennett, Inkpen and the Collingbournes (west, east and south) while the River Kennet was its northern delimiter. But it was not continuously wooded. Early Royal Forests were a mixture of woodland, copses, common land and rough pasture.


[Stonehenge]Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument located in Wiltshire, about 3.2 kilometres (2.0 miles) west of Amesbury and 13 kilometres (8.1 miles) north of Salisbury. One of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world, Stonehenge is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones. Archaeologists had believed that the iconic stone monument was erected around 2500 BC, although this has since been advanced to 2400-2200 BC. The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC. The site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1986 in a co-listing with Avebury henge monument, and it is also a legally protected Scheduled Ancient Monument. Stonehenge itself is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage while the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust.

The whole area I find has a mystical and romantic air about it. It's a place I visit on a regular basis and continue to look upon it with awe. There are numerous books and websites dedicated to the site so I won't bore you with details, but I would advise you go to the English Heritage website.

Stonehenge is very easy to find and there are good facilities there, including free car park, toilets and hot food. There is free entry for members of English Heritage and the National Trust. Also another website that might be of interest is Visit Wiltshire.

© Simon Thurgood 2024
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