Unesco world heritage wonders on our doorstep

Angela Youngman


Salisbury Plain is one of the most enchanting and impressive sacred landscapes in the UK. It contains monuments dating back thousands of years, linking us to our earliest ancestors. It is a place to explore and meditate for this a landscape which contains more than the well known Stonehenge. The entire area including Avebury is a World Heritage Site, one of the very first to be inscribed on the UNESCO list. There have been suggestions that Stonehenge lies at the centre of a network of ley lines crossing the area, and it is still used for religious rituals today. As a place to walk, hike and meditate, this is one of the best locations in the UK.

Majestic and iconic, Stonehenge dominates the landscape. The great circles can be seen for miles around. Isolated from the car park and visitor centre, a long walk is needed to reach and an equally long walk through woodland to circle them. The biggest stones are the horseshoe of Sarsons measuring up to 30 feet high, and weighing 25 tonnes each, with interconnecting tops. The main stone circle involves stones brought from over 140 miles away in Wales, and each of those stones measure over 13 feet high, seven feet wide and weigh over 25 tonnes. This is the only surviving lintelled stone circle in the world, and the most architecturally sophisticated. It is totally unique.

No one knows exactly why Stonehenge was built, it seems to be a place of ritual with stones exactly placed to mark the Midsummer sunrise and the Midwinter sunset. Archaeological investigations have shown that this was a sacred area long before Stonehenge was constructed, with evidence dating back over 10,500 years. Visitors are not allowed to enter the stone circle, viewing it from a distance as you walk around the exterior. This does provide a really impressive view of the stones and their sheer size. 

The acres of land surrounding Stonehenge contain countless burial mounds, including 17 circle shaped shrines. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people are believed to be buried here. There are other prehistoric monuments hidden in the landscape such as a long avenue, a cursus and a circle known as Woodhenge. At Dorrington, there seems to have been a massive feasting area, and was possibly home to people building Stonehenge. 

Over 23 miles away is the village of Avebury, nestled within the largest stone circle in the world constructed over 6,000 years ago. Incredibly awe inspiring, it takes over an hour walk round its circumference. It is an incredible sight as the mist rises on the early morning to see the huge circular bank and ditch containing weathered stones around the village. Although not all the 100 stones have survived, it is still possible to trace their locations, together with the two smaller inner circles.

Other monuments in the area include the majestic Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe. No one knows why it was built, for it was not a burial site, but in height and volume it compares in size to the pyramids. Even today, it remains a perfectly made mound, with smooth sides and a flat top. Not far away is West Kennett Long Barrow, which rises equally dramatically out of the landscape. This large Neolithic chambered tomb was built around 3650 BC. To reach the tomb, you have to park in a layby on the A4, then walk uphill across farmland. Once there, the looming dark mysterious entrance, high sides and immense size is extremely impressive.

Thousands of years ago, there was a 1 ¼ mile ritual route highlighted by a series of standing stones between Avebury and an area known as the Sanctuary, marked by tall stones. West Kennet Avenue marks this important prehistoric monument, while a further 1 ½ mile walk from Avebury brings you to Windmill Hill. This enclosure would have covered 21 acres, marked by ditches and surrounds a massive hill. 

Exploring this sacred landscape is intensely atmospheric, no one can fail to be touched by its impressive beauty and serenity creating a sense of continuity between past, present and future.

Stonehenge, Avebury and the various monuments can be seen all year round. Booking is recommended if you want to visit Stonehenge itself as it is extremely popular. Large crowds gather at Midwinter and Midsummer to celebrate the solstice. Views of Stonehenge can be enjoyed for miles around, as this is a very open landscape containing numerous walking trails – as long as you avoid the Ministry of Defence land! Parking at Åvebury provides access to various trails including routes to the Sanctuary and Windmill Hill, together with the field paths around Avebury stone circle. 

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