Wiltshire

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County-landscape

. Wiltshire is a land-locked county in central southern England, influenced by both Somerset to the west and Dorset to the south.

. At its heart is Salisbury Plain, the vast expanse of chalk uplands, stretching roughly 20 miles from east to west and 12 miles from north to south. Modern farming has reclaimed much of the historic plain huge fields of corn reaching unbroken to the horizon. The plain is fringed by attractive river valleys, such as those of the Avon, the Bourne and the Wylye.

. In the west the countryside has a rustic feel to it - low- lying agricultural land watered by the Lower Avon - while in the north it reverts back to quiet water meadows fed by streams leading into the Thames.

County-facts

Origin of name: Anglo-Saxon, derived from West Saxon settlers known as the Wilsaetan who lived along the Wylye valley; Saetan means settlers. Their main village, Wilton, "farmstead on the banks of the Wylye", became the first centre of Wiltshire.

Name first recorded: 878 as Wiltunschir.

COUNTY TOWN

AMESBURY Ancient town that predates its Roman links by over 1000 years. Legend has it that Queen Guinevere came here when she had been unfaithful with Sir Lancelot.

Other Towns

TROWBRIDGE Attractive stone town that once flourished as a cloth-making centre (check out Fore Street) and still produces for the clothing industry. Other Towns:

BRADFORD-ON-AVON Exceptionally pretty stone- built town across the Avon with an ancient bridge preserving a rare chapel converted into a small lock- up. With its twisting narrow streets and air of wealthy cloth- making, this is a place to linger.

CHIPPENHAM Before the war Wiltshire bacon was known and prized the whole country over, with Chippenham being a great bacon-curing centre.

DEVIZES Gracious old town where flax-growing and linen-spinning still continue. Ornamental Market Cross and Georgian Bear Hotel of particular note.

LACOCK Has a fascinating museum dedicated to William Henry Fox Talbot, the founding father of photography. A picturesque village, swarming with visitors in the summer.

MALMESBURY Highly attractive hilltop town which grew up around the remains of a 7th-century Benedictine abbey; many of its streets are lined with 17th-century golden Cotswold stone houses.

MARLBOROUGH The Polly Tearooms are wonderfully English, with scones and jam . . . and cream!

SALISBURY Perhaps the most painted spire in the country, but why not see it for yourself in all its Gothic splendour, it is said the steeple was set on fire by lightning the day after it was consecrated (not long after the Norman Conquest in 1066).

SWINDON Biggest town in the county and with much modern development. The old GWR train workshops may be gone but there is a fascinating rail museum; after trains, Swindon is football mad with an ambitious club for its fans to follow.

WILTON Once a county town itself, and a bishopric and a royal residence. Wiltshire is derived from Wilton-shire and Alfred founded an abbey here in 871.. You might know the name better if you link it to carpets - perhaps the first place in Britain to manufacture them. The Royal Wilton Factory can be visited.

. Calne . Cricklade . Melksham . Mere . Pewsey . Tisbury . Warminster . Wootton Bassett

COUNTY RIVERS

Avon, Wylye, Kennet, Nadder, Bourne

HIGHEST POINT

Milk Hill, near Alton Barnes, at 9648 feet.

county-calendar

. March-June: Salisbury Arts Festival of music, comedy, literature and visual arts.

.July: Bradford-on-Avon regatta.

. Many events at Lord Bath's Longleat throughout the

famous-names

. Pop star Peter Gabriel's recording studio is at Box, and Sting has a home in West Wiltshire.

. Some scenes from Pride and Prejudice were filmed in the county at Lucklngton and Lacock.

. Former prime minister Edward Heath has a house in Cathedral Close, Salisbury.

. Some scenes from the Oscar-winning film Sense and Sensibility took place at Mompesson House in Salisbury.

. Sir John Betjeman went to school at Marlborough College and despised it!

local government

A two-tier structure, apart from Thamesdown, a unitary council opting out of Wiltshire County Council control. The two-tier structure is Wiltshire County Council along with four district councils: Kennet, North Wiltshire, Salisbury and West Wiltshire. Wiltshire detached in Berkshire at Wokingham, Twyford and Swallowfield is administered by Wokingham Unitary Council. Parts of Wiltshire which protrude into Hampshire are governed by that county's council and Test Valley or New Forest District Councils.

intro

THE SMOKE AND noise of the once vast rail workshops of Swindon have long gone to be replaced by high-tech Japanese and other trans-global businesses but once you leave this M4 corridor town you find yourself in the northern rolling, smiling country which I always associate with butter and milk ads. This is a dairy and arable farming county and it produces fine butter and cheese or brings it fresh from New Zealand, in fact the expression 'as different as chalk and cheese' originates from this West Country land - the rolling chalk downs lie to the south and east where Salisbury Cathedral's spire beckons you for miles around.

towns-and-villages

Wiltshire is one of Britain's best-kept secrets and although the north is on the M4 and the Paddington to Bristol rail corridor it can be remote. The feeling of isolation is heightened by the awesome presence of Salisbury Plain, the eerie 100,000 acres of chalk upland, now largely owned by the Ministry of Defence, where man has worshipped since the dawn of history. Wiltshire has few remarkable places, but two it does have are truly remarkable: Stonehenge, the abstruse prehistoric monument in the middle of the plain, with its icon-like image of summer solstice; and one of the nation's finest cathedral cities, glorious Salisbury. The cathedral spire, at 404 feet the tallest in England, is a graceful centrepiece for a unified city in which a medley of different architectural styles blends in seemingly perfect harmony. The city, where the three rivers the Avon. Bourne and Nadder meet, was the natural capital for the wealth generated by the farming lands stretching out on all sides. Here, in a riverside setting, you'll find medieval gabled houses, old timber-framed inns where you can break your tour of the city for a refreshing pint and elegant Georgian houses.

Even Salisbury's modern shopping centres don't seem too much out of place in a city that is a stepping-stone of time. Perhaps because of Salisbury Plain and the scarcely picturesque railway workshop town of Swindon, Wiltshire isn't famous for its wild scenic beauty. But, in addition to Stonehenge and Salisbury, there are many other places worth visiting. East of Salisbury, the river Bourne wends its way effortlessly through wooded downs and picturesque villages like Winterbourne Earls and Wmterbourne Dauntsey. To the west of the city lie the valleys of the Wylye and the Nadder, both fine fishing rivers. The Wylye delighted Izaak Walton, the 17th- century author of The Compleat Angler, and the light reflected from the river's waters provided inspiration for landscape painters, notably John Constable. The town of Wilton, on the Wylye, was once the capital of Saxon Wessex and Wilton House, the home of the earls of Pembroke, stands on the site of an abbey founded by Alfred the Great. Much of the original house was destroyed by fire in 1647, but it was reconstructed by the architect Inigo Jones.. Today the house, which is open to the public, contains a fine collection of paintings and furniture, as well as some 7.000 19th-century model soldiers..

Tucked in the gently undulating Marlborough Downs lies Marlborough. with a truly sumptuous main street, partly arcaded and full of Georgian buildings; it is one of the broadest in Britain. Mere, a grey-stone town in the lee of Salisbury Plain, also has a number of fine buildings. including the atmospheric Ship Inn, a 17th-century mansion with a fine early timbered dining room. Just outside Mere are the National Trust mansion and landscaped gardens at Stourhead. The 18th-century house, which faces on to the last slopes of Wiltshire chalk, contains fine furniture and paintings. The gardens, laid out by Henry Hoare in the 18th century, contain a number of rare shrubs and trees. House and gardens are open to the public between April and the end of September. An all- year-round attraction finally must be Castle Combe, frequently voted the prettiest village in England. It has been the setting for many films, notably Doctor Doolittle, starring Rex Harrison. year.

local-history

Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain is not just at the heart of Wiltshire, it is at the heart of England and civilization, too. The gigantic stones, placed in position some 3,800 years ago, are the country's most potent, yet enigmatic, symbol. Stonehenge has mystified archaeologists and other scholars for centuries, as it did the poet Wordsworth, who described it as 'innate of lonesome Nature's endless year'. The explanation seems to be that it was a temple or perhaps seat of government of a New Stone Age and then Bronze Age kingdom. Companions of the Most Ancient Order of Druids still keep a dawn or midnight vigil at Stonehenge at the time of the Summer Solstice.

To the south of Stonehenge lies Avebury - Old Sarum - which is believed to be even older than its more illustrious neighbour and is regarded by some experts as the most important early Bronze Age monument in Europe.

It comprises about 100 great sarsen (local sandstone) stones, standing like a group of old men encircling an area some 450 yards across. Many of the stones weigh more than 40 tons. They are easy to walk around (or were until someone started daubing supposedly New Age symbols on them) and some are in people's gardens! Close by is the attractive village of Avebury, which has a church that partly dates back to Saxon times.

There's no escaping history or mystery here. Malmesbury was a borough before the time of Alfred the Great. In fact. from medieval times until the Industrial Revolution, the county made its money from weaving and many of the fine buildings reflect these prosperous times. Bradford- on- Avon's tithe barn is one of the best preserved in the country. Built in the 14th century by the Abbess of Shaftesbury, it has a massive stone-tiled roof covering a granary more than 167 feet long by 30 feet wide.

A couple of centuries later came Longleat, the home of the marquesses of Bath near Warminster. Set in grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, the magnificent mansion was built between 1559 and 1578 and it is one of our most important Elizabethan buildings. Today history goes alongside public entertainment. Capability Brown's grounds have been re-landscaped to include a famous safari park, through which lions roam. Another concession to modern tastes is the juke box in the in old stables.

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