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Wiltshire - Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral, & Much More

Wiltshire is a large English county situated in central southern England. Although it does not boast any coastline, it is crisscrossed by beautiful rivers teeming with rainbow trout.

As in many other English counties the capital, Salisbury, is not the largest city. That honour now belongs to the sprawling town that is Swindon, but it is in Salisbury that we will start our tour.

You cannot think of Salisbury, you cannot visit Salisbury, without paying your respects to the magnificent Cathedral. It boasts the tallest spire of any English cathedral at 404 feet and indeed it was the tallest building in all of Britain for an amazing 700 years. The spire was added around 1300. See www.salisburycathedral.org.uk for more details. And yet it was not the first cathedral in the area, the previous one was began in the eleventh century out at Sarum, on a windswept site. Not surprising then that when the time came to replace it, those in positions of power chose a more amenable site down in the valley close to the river.

Salisbury has always attracted artists, John Constable's famous paintings of the Cathedral from the water meadows among the most famous, and you can still sit in that very spot and paint if you so desire, and the picture you will see will be almost identical to that he saw in the nineteenth century.

They chose to build near the river, not solely for the ample supply of drinking water, but also for transportation. The local rock being chalk that is singularly unsuitable for building, all the harder stone necessary to construct the new building had to be brought in, and it seems likely that most of it came on the water.

Swindon is north of Salisbury situated close to the fast M4 motorway that runs between Bristol and London. Traditionally it was a railway town, indeed there has been a railway works in Swindon almost from the days that railways were first invented. Today its manufacturing base is much wider spread. The huge sprawling Honda works is the largest employer in the town where they churn out Honda Civics that are exported all over the globe, including to Japan and the United States. But there are many other high tech employers in Swindon too, such at Intel, and this concentration on high tech industries has fuelled the city's growth and prosperity.

Between Salisbury and Swindon is the pretty ancient town of Marlborough, famous for its street market that fills the main road every Wednesday and Saturday. Marlborough received its charter allowing a market here from King John in 1204 and there has been a market here ever since. The town attracts visitors from afar all the year round to browse in its antique shops, and look at the famous school that bears its name that sits right in the town centre. South of the town is the Savernake forest where deer roam wild in great numbers. Drive through late at night and look out for the stubby ancient oak that still grows beside the road, but keep a sharp lookout for night grazing animals.

Wiltshire is still primarily a rural county, featuring huge windswept treeless areas of chalk downland much of which is sown to cereals. No surprise then that Sting wrote "Fields of barley" here, staring out from his house at the swaying corn. Visit in early August to see the grain before it is harvested. Madonna owns an estate here too, and it has become an in place for pop and rock stars to set up home. But large areas of Wiltshire are also set aside for another purpose. The army have been here for centuries and their firing ranges up on Salisbury plain still span a vast area of the county.

Many of the surrounding towns rely on the army and large bases at Tidworth, Devizes, Warminster and others fill the county with military men. It is never a surprise when driving across Wiltshire to be temporarily delayed as a convoy of exercising tanks bursts across the road from one field to the next.

The county is also crossed by the Kennet and Avon canal as it wends its way from Bristol and Bath in the west, to London in the east. The best place to see the canal, which is still in full working order more than two centuries after its construction, is probably at Devizes, another interesting country town. Marvel at the banks of locks as the long narrowboats rise and fall hundreds of feet. Indeed take a boat ride, or a holiday on a barge, because the canals are now almost exclusively cruised by leisure and holiday craft.

But of course the single most famous structures in Wiltshire are still the ancient monuments of standing stones at Stonehenge and Avebury and others. When the Romans came to Britain two thousand years ago Stonehenge had been standing on Salisbury plain for some two thousand years before that. It would be interesting to know what the Romans made of it. A visit here is an absolute must, as is the standing stones at Avebury. It is generally accepted that Avebury is the older, approximately 3000 BC while Stonehenge is believed to be have been built around 2000 BC, though no one can be certain. Current thinking has it that the stones were dragged from Wales more than a hundred miles away, there is certainly no local stone like this, but how ancient man managed the feat still baffles historians.

But only visit on the night of the summer solstice if you enjoy crowds of people as varied as druids, new age travellers, gypsies, mystics, traditional celts, and people from cults and pagan religions far too many to mention by name.

To the west of the county nuzzling up against the Somerset border you will find numerous small country towns, such as Melksham, Warminster, Westbury, Trowbridge, Devizes, Chippenham, Calne, and especially Bradford on Avon. You are only eight miles from Bath here, and in many ways Bradford on Avon is a miniature copy of Bath. The mellow Cotswold stone is much in evidence, as are mock Italianate villas. All of these towns are worth a visit, if you have the time. Devizes housed large American bases and thousands of German POW's during and after the Second World War, indeed some of them are still living here, now happily integrated into the community.

Places to stay? Salisbury of course, though it can be expensive in the summer, Marlborough for sure, and indeed any of the westerly towns. People have lived happily in Wiltshire for more than 5,000 years, and will go on doing so as long as history itself. It is a fine place to live, and a fine place to visit, and at only two hours from London by rail or road it is but a short trip from the capital. But perhaps you might prefer to travel by canal. Set aside three days for the same journey, and I know which method of transport I would enjoy the most. Check out my web site www.pebblebeachmedia.co.uk to view more than 6,000 holiday cottages and villas worldwide. Do enjoy your stay, till next time.

David Carter has written hundreds of published articles. His latest work is the 240+ page property letting and management handbook Splam! See http://www.splam.co.uk for details. He also runs a holiday cottage website, http://www.pebblebeachmedia.co.uk where you can browse through over 6,000 holiday cottages, villas and apartments throughout the world. For homemworkers check out http://www.homemax.co.uk. You can contact David on any matter at supalife@aol.com

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