The best English castles in Wiltshire will make you think about what a castle really is. Forget about fairytale castles with round towers, turrets, a clanging portcullis and a moat. Think instead of fortified places where people have lived, worshipped and defended themselves for thousands of years. If you look at things that way, you will find a feast of mysterious, ruined landmarks across the county. It is, home, aftervall, Stonehenge and the even larger Avebury Stone Circle with its ceremonial avenues of standing stones.
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Something's Rotten in Old Sarum
Old Sarum is a monumental, almost circular Iron Age hill fort with the further ruins of a church and another round, fortified Norman castle on top of it. Romans and Saxons used Old Sarum long before the Normans built a curtain wall and motte and bailey castle on top of it. In fact, there are signs that Old Sarum was occupied at least three thousand years ago. The views take in all the surrounding countryside including the steeple of Salisbury Cathedral.Today it is managed by English Heritage and is open during daylight hours most of the year. Hours change seasonally so check the website before visiting.
- Claim to Fame: Old Sarum's place in history is assured by its notorious role as the worst of England's political "Rotten Boroughs" - places that were entitled to send more members to Parliament than their population justified, or whose members were virtually "owned" by a local aristocrat. Old Sarum sent two representatives to Parliament until the Reform Act of... 1832 - even though the population was ZERO for about 500 years.
- Best for families Longleat Safari Park One of the UK's best family attractions is about 25 miles away in Warminster
- Must Visit Stonehenge What can you say? This iconic monument is a mere eight miles away.
- Stop and Stay: The nearby city of Salisbury has one of England's finest cathedrals and an "old town" with plenty of evocative, half-timbered dwellings and pubs. It has a good choice of places to dine or stay.
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Silbury Hill is a gigantic and mysterious hill, squatting on the flat Salisbury landscape not far from Avebury. At about 100 feet tall and 525 feet in diameter it's comparable in size to the Great Pyramids. All that's known about it is that it was built about 2,400 BC and took about 4 million man-hours to move the 500,000 tonnes of material it's made of, mostly locally quarried chalk. Nobody knows what it is or anything about the society that built it. If you can get there early in the morning, when there is still mist in the air, it is a spookily impressive presence. Or visit on a late summer evening when the sky is clear and the sun has dipped low on the horizon. Bring a camera but keep Fido on a leash as sheep graze nearby.
- Claim to Fame: Silbury Hill is Europe's largest man-made mound. It has resisted all archaeological attempts to excavate it but English Heritage, who manage it, are still exploring its purpose and use. One theory suggests it might have been created... by accident.
- Best for families Savernake Forest - This privately owned 4,500 acre forest is leased to the Forestry Commission and offers extensive public access. The Forestry Commission manages an area where camping and barbecues can be arranged. It's an ancient forest and a great place to go blackberry picking in season. Look for the 1,000 year old "Big Belly Oak" on the western edge of the forest. You'll think you've encountered an Ent.
- Must Visit Avebury - Adjoining Silbury Hill, the Avebury estate managed by the National Trust includes an enormous prehistoric stone circle and associated museum. If you've been watching the BBC program "The Manor Reborn", you've probably seen Avebury Manor rise virtually from the ashes. It's now open to the public.
- Stop and Stay: Marlborough, about eight miles away,is a pretty market town on the old coach road between London and Bristol.