EUROPE, Supporting Cast, U.K.

Supporting Cast: Stonehenge’s lesser-known pre-historic neighbours

The Eiffel Tower, The Forbidden City, the Empire State Building – all the world’s tourist destinations have a main course, “must-see,” starring attraction to visit. But have you ever wondered if you’re getting the full picture? In the “Supporting Cast” section of our website, Two Nimble Tourists will attempt to introduce you to the area and attractions surrounding some of these “main characters” – you never know what might be waiting for you just up the road!

There is no doubt that one of the most famous tourist attractions in the UK is Stonehenge. This stone circle, first erected between 4000 and 5000 years ago, is, quite simply, stunning. The famous stone arches, comprising 20-tonne sandstone blocks lifted on top of 7 metre (22 foot) standing stones, are one of the main reasons that millions of tourists flock to England every year.

Visiting Stonehenge is a fascinating and valuable experience. I thoroughly recommend it. However – it will not take you all day to see. There is much else to visit in the surrounding area – while Stonehenge is an extremely popular attraction in its own right, it conceals a wider ancient landscape which is largely ignored by international visitors.

In the Neolithic period, this part of England was clearly quite popular. In the hills and regions surrounding Stonehenge, you’ll find dozens of ancient and medieval sites well worth a visit.

Stonehenge is not the only ancient monument in Wiltshire

Below, I will take you through some of the nearby medieval and ancient sites within an hour’s drive from Stonehenge.

Woodhenge

Only a few miles to the northeast of Stonehenge lies an ancient Neolithic site called Woodhenge. This was an ancient sanctuary made of dozens of tall wooden structures erected in a circle. While the passing millennia have rotted away the wood, the remains of the site are clearly marked with reconstructed stumps.

The remains of Woodhenge today (CC)

As with Stonehenge, archaeologists are uncertain as to its exact purpose, but believe it was constructed by the same people who built Stonehenge.

A more serene, private, yet just as mysterious experience as visiting the famous site down the road, Woodhenge is well worth seeing for those interested in the past.

A mock-up of Woodhenge as it would have originally appeared, 4000 years ago (CC)

Salisbury

Salisbury’s medieval North Gate, CC

Salisbury is a medieval market town about 10 miles south of Stonehenge. It is very popular with tour groups, who are often bused to Stonehenge in the morning and Salisbury in the afternoon. And they have good reason – the town is a great example of a well-preserved medieval town, complete with Tudor houses, narrow streets, old market squares, stone city gatehouses, and English Gothic architecture.

Salisbury Cathedral is especially famous, both for being a beautiful structure, and for owning one of the four original copies of Magna Carta, originally issued in 1215 and widely seen as one of the most important documents proclaiming civil rights in the world. The Cathedral has also been claimant to the UK’s tallest spire since 1549, at a height of 123m (404ft).

Salisbury’s towering, immaculate cathedral, CC

Salisbury would therefore make a great second half of your “Stonehenge day” – whether you are an international visitor, or local to the UK.

Avebury

Avebury (CC, David Liff )

Believe it or not, Stonehenge is not the oldest, nor largest, stone circle in southern England. 30 miles north of Stonehenge lies another formation, called Avebury.

The site is much larger, and more accessible – you can walk up to, touch, and even climb the massive, 4 metre (17 feet) high stones.

Avebury gets it name from the medieval village which was built in the centre of the stone circle about 800 years ago. The village is beautiful, with a manor house and church – but the stones surrounding it are six times older.

Unlike Stonehenge, you can walk right up to the enormous standing stones at Avebury.

The stone circle at Avebury, also a World Heritage Site like Stonehenge, is only part of a larger ancient site of interest surrounding the village.

About one mile to the south of Avebury lie three other ancient sites: a tomb called West Kennet Long Barrow, the site of a holy place called The Sanctuary, and England’s very own Great Pyramid of Giza – a 40 metre-high burial mound called Silbury Hill.

It may not look spectacular, but Silbury Hill is the largest burial mound in Europe and is 4,300 years old (Brian Robert Marshall CC)

These sites, though just as fascinating and completely accessible to the public, are not a fraction as famous as Stonehenge – so you are likely to avoid major tourist crowds.

If you want a quieter, more connected, and more intimate experience exploring ancient Britannia and its peoples’ temples, artifacts, rituals and burial customs, then I would thoroughly recommend you visit the Avebury site, and Woodhenge, in addition to Stonehenge.

Similarly, if you want to visit an archetypal British market town, complete with medieval architecture, narrow cobbled streets, and ancient cathedrals, then a visit to Salisbury will absolutely be worth your time.

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