Welcome to Part 1 of my series exploring the amazing history of the English countryside in Hampshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire. These counties are packed full of incredible historical sights ranging from mysterious stone circles built 5,000 years ago, to medieval castles and cathedrals, and finally to more recent historical buildings and monuments from the 18th and 19th centuries.
If you want to explore several different historical sights in England within a few short days, you have many options, but a cluster of counties in the south boast some of the most spectacular sights all within easy driving distance of each other. Cruising through Wiltshire, Somerset, and Hampshire counties you can contemplate celestial events at Avebury, wonder at the incredible craftsmanship of Stonehenge, marvel at the majesty of Winchester, live the legend of King Arthur at Glastonbury, and stand in awe of the massive cathedral at Salisbury. While you may not be covering many miles, your trip will span thousands of years and take you through some of the most amazing periods in English history.
To get the most out of your time in the area it is best to base yourself in the central county of Wiltshire, near the town of Salisbury. From here, a drive to most locations in either neighboring county will be a maximum of 90 kilometers (55 miles), or approximately one hour away. Salisbury is a great place to base yourself to explore this area, and most people choose to stay there, but we did not. We were looking for more budget-friendly options and found a cute little hotel called the Old Bell Inn in a very small town called Warminster about twenty miles outside Salisbury. Since we were renting a car we weren’t concerned about the extra distance, and we were quite happy with our choice. Warminster is a lovely little town (and when I say little I really mean it: one main street, a few shops and restaurants, and that’s about it). And the Old Bell Inn is a fantastic hotel, where much of the night life in Warminster occurs. They have a lively restaurant and bar with music and various events every night until around midnight (later on the weekend), so keep that in mind if you go to bed early and can’t take the noise. This traditional coaching inn was built in 1483 so provides a historical locale in and of itself to complement your trip. The hotel also serves up a great English breakfast (with vegetarian options) in the morning! Check out their website here.
Also, you may want to look into becoming a member of the National Trust (through the U.S. Royal Oak Foundation) and English Heritage. Many of the locations you will visit in this area are National Trust or English Heritage sites, and becoming a member comes with great benefits, including free or discounted admission to many sites, and free parking.
The National Trust has a relationship with the Royal Oak Foundation in the U.S., which seeks to raise awareness and promote the work of the National Trust from the U.S. As a U.S. citizen you can join the Royal Oak Foundation and receive the benefits of a National Trust membership. Visit the National Trust website for more information. Details about the Royal Oak membership can also be found on their website. English Heritage provides an overseas visitors pass which may likewise be of interest, especially if you plan to visit Stonehenge. Get more information on their website.
Day 1: Chawton and Winchester
Jane Austen’s House Museum, Winchester Cathedral, Wolvesey Castle ruins, Winchester Castle Great Hall and Round Table
As I mentioned above, we stayed in Warminster and rented a car to drive around the countryside. On the morning of our first day we took the 7:30am train from Bath to Salisbury. It was a pleasant two hour journey. The train had a breakfast car and lovely views of the rolling countryside. Out the windows there were views of endless fields of yellow flowers. These plants are called rapeseed and are quite common in the English countryside. Rapeseed is cultivated for the oil it produces, serving as a main ingredient in vegetable oil.
Once we arrived at the train station in Salisbury it was a bit of a hike to the rental car location, but doable. We picked up our rental car, a nice little red Clio, and began our day’s journey. We rented a manual shift car because it saved us hundreds of dollars, but that meant that not only did Brad have to drive on the opposite side of the road and do so from the opposite side of the car, but he also had to shift at the same time. He mastered it quite quickly (roundabouts are the worst; just hug the curb).
From Salisbury we drove east for about an hour to a small town in Hampshire called Chawton, which is where Jane Austen lived and wrote for the last several years of her life (her final days were actually spent in Winchester, which we visited later in the day). The house where Jane Austen lived in Chawton has been transformed into Jane Austen’s House Museum. This house is where Jane Austen wrote and had published all six of her major novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion.
The museum is home to several artifacts of great interest to Austen fans, including her famed writing desk.
The current fee for the museum is £8.50. There are several rooms to explore, including a sitting room, dining room, and bedrooms. Bookcases in these rooms house early editions of Austen’s works, as well as the works of her contemporaries. The house also boasts a modest but spectacular garden. Find more information on their website here.
After your visit I recommend you stop for lunch at Cassandra’s Cup Tea Rooms & Bistro just across the street (aptly named after Jane Austen’s eldest sister). The food was absolutely delicious (and vegetarian-friendly), and the atmosphere was superb. It was a warm sunny day so we we able to sit outside in the lovely garden patio.
Next, make your way back to Winchester, just a short thirty minute drive away. This small hamlet quickly became my favorite English town. The town is small and walkable, and full of that old English charm. I’m not sure exactly what it was that made it so special, but it had a happy and lively atmosphere along with classic charm. The remnants of the old castle and city can be seen everywhere, adding to its allure.
Winchester is a very walkable town. Park your car, get out, and wander. At some point make your way over to the ruins of Wolvesey Castle. Wolvesey was the main residence of the powerful and wealthy bishops throughout the Middle Ages. It was built in the 12th century and was one of the most important Norman palaces in England. The palace remained in use until the 1680s, with the last major occasion on July 25, 1554, when the East Hall was decorated with silk and gold hangings for Queen Mary and Philip of Spain’s wedding banquet. Though now only ruins, the impressive remains still expose remnants of their former grandeur.
On the other side of town stands the Great Hall, all that remains of Winchester Castle. The castle itself was founded in 1067 by William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England who ruled from 1066 until his death in 1087. The Great Hall was built in the 13th century, and is one of the finest surviving medieval aisled halls of that time. The hall also houses the famous Round Table, which originally stood on legs but has been hanging on the wall for nearly 500 years, possibly explaining its survival. The Round Table is believed to have been made in about 1290, for a “Round Table” tournament. It is a 13th century recreation of the legendary table of King Arthur and his knights. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the table was painted with the Tudor Rose and is thought to portray Henry as King Arthur on his throne, surrounded by 24 epigrams bearing the names of the legendary Knights of the Round Table.
You may also want to pay a visit to Winchester Cathedral. There is a fee for entrance, currently at £8.00. Jane Austen is buried within the cathedral. Three memorials honor her in the cathedral: a brass plaque memorial written by her nephew Edward, a public memorial window, and her original, simple gravestone.
After exploring the town a bit, head back towards Salisbury to take a look at the impressive cathedral there. We arrived too late to go in, but viewing this cathedral from the grounds all lit up at night was quite amazing itself. Salisbury cathedral is absolutely enormous. Photos do not do it justice. It is incredible to stand at the foot of this gigantic building and imagine what it must have taken to build it, and ponder how it is still standing after all these years.
If you are able to visit during the day, Salisbury cathedral houses one of the original copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. You can also ascend the 332 steps to the cathedral spire. Climb even higher and you can enjoy spectacular views over the city of Salisbury. Salisbury has a similar charm to that of Winchester, but it has the feel of a bit of a larger town.
After finding a nice spot for dinner head back to your hotel for some rest because you have a big day ahead of you tomorrow!
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Check back soon for Part 2 where we visit a traditional village founded in the 13th century and two Neolithic stone circles built around 5,000 years ago.