Ancient Wessex Stones & Bones Tour

Ancient Wessex Stones & Bones Tour

Enter a world of ancient wonders, sites of prehistoric rituals, burial chambers and stone circles. Combine this with a visit to a number of England's finest medieval cathedrals and beautiful villages on a rewarding and informative journey around the historic kingdom of Wessex.

One can leave either London on the M3 in a south westerly direction or from Southampton on the M3 in a north easterly direction until you arrive at the historic city of Winchester, leaving at Junction 9 if coming from London or Junction 10 from Southampton.

Head to the Brooks Shopping Centre parking area as this will get you closest  to the city centre. A short walk will take you to the magnificent cathedral, built from 1079 in the early Norman period. It was built near the site of an earlier Saxon cathedral in the heart of a very important community, at one point capital of the Kingdom of Wessex in the Ninth and Tenth centuries and thus the most important city in what is now England. The city even goes back to Roman times when it was known as Venta Belgarum, meaning "Market Town of the Belgae" and founded in AD 70. At one point the fifth largest Roman town in Britain. 

However it's the Norman cathedral that attracts the majority of visitors, and for many it's to view the grave of the novelist Jane Austen who died in a house nearby on 18th July 1817. Nearby the bones of Saxon Kings lie in wooden chests above the altar,  alongside those of King William II who died in a hunting accident near Winchester in the year 1100. The wedding of Mary Tudor to Philip II of Spain took place here in 1554 and at 169 metres (554 feet) you will be able to walk through the longest medieval cathedral in the world, still boasting many of its original tiled floors.

A short walk up the High Street takes you through the 12th century West Gate to the remains of Winchester Castle. Essentially all the buildings here are 19th century and it actually doesn't resemble a castle at all. But one part goes back to the 13th century and that is the Great Hall, built in the 1220s and containing the famous King Arthur's Round Table. In truth the table dates from around 1270 to 1290 and had a repaint in 1522 when Henry VIII had himself decorating the centre as "King Arthur" to impress the visiting Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

If you walk back down towards the parking area you could also take a side trip down College Lane, via St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, a rare surviving example of a 13th century church built above an arch in the city wall, past the house where Jane Austen died, along the road that passes the entrance to the famous boys school, Winchester College, founded in 1382, to the ruins of Wolvesey Castle, the former Bishops Palace, explore the ruins of this 12th century building then journey down to the River Itchen to walk back to the parking area via the statue of the famous King of Wessex, Alfred the Great which stands in the middle of The Broadway on top of two huge blocks of Cornish granite. It was designed by Hamo Thorneycroft and erected in 1899 commemorating a thousand years since the death of Alfred, who died here in Winchester in 899 at the age of 51.

Leave Winchester along the B3049 Stockbridge Road towards Stockbridge, this road will eventually become the A30 which you follow to Salisbury. Just a few miles before Salisbury take a right turn signposted Figsbury Rings then head up a rather bumpy dirt track to a small parking area. Here you will get dramatic views of the local landscape and visit an important Neolithic and Iron Age site. Figsbury Rings is a collection of earthworks, the outer ditch, which is the first one you will see, is part of an Iron Age hillfort with ramparts 18 metres wide and 3.4 metres high dating from around 500BC. Further inside is another older earthwork dating from the late Neolithic period, around 2,500 BC. This ditch and circle is contemporary with Stonehenge, its just that there are no stones here, but at one point it is suggested that there may have been a timber circle.

Returning back down the dirt road, return to the A30 and head onwards to the city of Salisbury. The 404ft (123 metre) medieval cathedral spire will come into view long before you reach the edge of the city.

Upon reaching Salisbury you arrive at a roundabout joining the A36 ring road, head towards the west by turning right and moving on to the second roundabout, then head left under the railway bridge along Castle Street to the Maltings Car Park. From here it is a short walk along the banks of the River Avon to the cathedral. Walk through the ancient High Street Gate and into the walled Cathedral Close to the open grassed area where one can admire the wonderful building across its entire length. Built from 1220 to 1258 in such a short number of years, this Cathedral has a sense of uniformity that very few Medieval cathedrals can share. A work in Early English Gothic with the exception of the tower added about a hundred years later which features the Decorated style of Gothic.

Inside the cathedral, just off the cloisters, one can view a copy of Magna Carta, one of only four dating from the time of its inception in the year 1215, and the one in the best surviving condition. There is also an adjacent exhibition about the history of Magna Carta and this country's road to democracy. Inside the main body of the cathedral, along the north aisle one can see possibly the world's oldest working clock, dating from 1386, a mechanism that worked the bells in the old bell tower that was demolished in 1792. The cafe in the cloisters is a good stop for refreshments and the glass roof gives great views looking up at the tower and spire.

Leaving Salisbury on the A345, it is a short journey to Old Sarum, views of these earthworks can be seen long before the signpost to the site is reached. A sharp turn left up a single track road takes you through the Iron Age ditch to the parking area. This ancient hill fort dating from around 500BC was also the continuing site of the original Salisbury before the community gradually moved down the valley to the river and water meadows by the 13th century.  Here one can explore the Iron Age fortifications and the remains of the Norman Castle and Cathedral.

Briefly rejoining the A345 northwards, turn left almost straight away down Philips Lane following the northern ramparts of Old Sarum towards the Avon Valley. At the junction at the end of the lane first turn left then immediately right over the river, noting the old wooden signpost marked Stonehenge. This is a charming and delightful country lane to journey along to this most famous ancient monument. It really is such a peaceful way to get there, away from the busy roads that other travellers use. Often referred to as the Woodford Valley after the three villages of thatched cottages you pass through, Lower Woodford, Middle Woodford and Upper Woodford, truly a very rewarding drive to Stonehenge. Once you arrive at the head of the valley turn left on Stonehenge Road, join the A303 and you will get your first glimpse of the stones on the horizon ahead of you as you follow the crowds to the parking area and ticket office.

Since 2013 access to the monument has changed, you will park, get tickets then join a shuttle bus that takes you on a five minute journey up to the stones. Alternatively if the weather is pleasant you can take a 40 minute walk through the woods and fields past burial chambers and the huge earthwork known as the Cursus which pre-dates Stonehenge. Although recent digs suggest this landscape had been settled long before Stonehenge, the work at the moment seems to have started around 5,000 years ago with a circular bank and ditch with the stones arriving some 400 to 500 years later. The two types of stone are a volcanic Dolerite known as Bluestone, found largely in Wales some 150 miles away, and the more local sandstone known as Sarsen. An included audio tour will fill in more of the details as you walk around the site before taking the shuttle bus back to the museum, gift shop and cafe.

Head back to the A303 and head east towards Amesbury, alternatively drive along the B3086 via Larkhill army barracks along a road known as The Packway, as the A303 is often congested with rubberneckers passing the site of Stonehenge and slowing down!! Either route will get you back to the northbound A345 so you can pause at Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, the ancient site where the communities that worshipped at Stonehenge would have performed additional rituals and where they possibly had their settlement.The avenue that leads from the Heel Stone at Stonehenge continues via the River Avon to this point. It's a very rarely visited site but a very important part of the Stonehenge landscape.

Continue up the A345 passing villages of thatched cottages, through Netheravon and Upavon to the junction at the Woodbridge Inn pub at North Newnton, leave the A345 which will head away from you to the right, instead drive straight onwards towards Woodborough. After a short winding drive through a number of pretty villages you will go over a humpback bridge crossing the Kennett and Avon canal. It is at this point the Alton Barnes White Horse hill carving will come into view. One of eight White Horse Hill figures in the county of Wiltshire. None of them are ancient, this one dates from 1812 and stands 166ft (51 metres) tall and 160ft (49 metres) wide. It is purely decorative and certainly worth a stop to take a photograph.

Continue past the hill figure, rising up to the high downlands with lovely views back down the Avon valley to your right side. Continue on this road to Lockeridge. This attractive village has within its environs an important archaeological site, that of Lockeridge Dene, large areas of the valley floor where boulders can be found lying all over the place, they are found all over the village and it is believed to be the source of stone for the larger uprights and lintels at Stonehenge and for the construction of the stone circle at Avebury. These are the sandstone Sarsens and were dropped here when glacial fields melted at the end of the last Ice Age.

At the end of the village join the A4 and turn left. After a mile Silbury Hill will come into view, an absolutely jaw dropping site, as you come out of the woodland into a clearing you come face to face with an ancient pyramid. Pull over at the lay-by to the left. Alternatively there is a parking area a bit further up but the first lay-by makes it easier to access West Kennett long barrow, a burial chamber that dates from around 3650BC. You can take a 15 minute uphill walk up to this ancient tomb and look inside the five chambers that are accessible. About 46 bodies were placed in this barrow and the large stone used to seal the chambers can still be seen. It also gives you fine views of Silbury Hill, constructed over four and a half thousand years ago of chalk and clay, 130ft (40m) high, it is said it took 18 million man hours to complete. Its purpose is still a mystery. However, its presence is truly awe-inspiring.

Follow the A4 a short distance further west to Beckhampton and just past the very photogenic Waggon and Horses pub, go around the roundabout and head right towards Avebury. You will be able to drive right up into this collection of huge stone circles, standing on a 26 acre site with a 55 foot ditch surrounding the other monuments and the village of Avebury itself with its collection of thatched cottages and 12th century church.

Avebury is magnificent and mysterious. Huge sarsens stand in various configurations around the village. The outer circle is said to number 98 stones, though many are missing. The stones here were not cut into shape or carved to lock together with each other like at Stonehenge, but they may have been chosen for the shape they possess, possibly masculine and feminine shapes, giving rise to the theory that Avebury was built to celebrate fertility. 

You can park in the National Trust car park on your left before you enter the village or the car park of the Red Lion pub right at the heart of the monument if you are buying a drink or having food. Stroll around the stones, visit Avebury Manor House, spend time in the museum and remember you have total access to the stones, they are not roped off like Stonehenge.

After leaving Avebury drive along the A436, this is the main road that cuts right through the stone circles and village, head northwards then take a left turn on the B4005 towards Royal Wootton Bassett to gain access to the M4 motorway to London.