What do we know about Wiltshire? we asked one another as we headed off for a weekend break.
And, to our shame, the answer was little.
As one of the country’s lesser known counties, Wiltshire had us stumped for its list of attractions much beyond Stonehenge.
But there are parts of the county you’ll already know well, even if you don’t know their names.
From the chocolate-box village of Lacock– location for Meryton in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – to Mompesson House in Salisbury – used in the Emma Thompson film of Sense and Sensibility – there are places period drama fans at least will know very well.
Other draws – not just Stonehenge, but Swindon, Salisbury Cathedral, the sweet little village of Bradford on Avon, and stately homes aplenty – are here too, making Wiltshire a perfect destination for an attractions-packed short break.
We were taking in the county from the stress-free comfort of a coach, safe in the knowledge negotiating a route and finding somewhere to park would be taken care of for us, and we’d be able to really see the scenery, not just the road ahead.
A packed itinerary made for a whistlestop tour – quite literally at our first stop, Swindon and the Great Western Railway Museum STEAM, where our guide spoke with such passion about the heyday of the railway you could almost hear the pistons and smell the coal.
It was here thousands of men once toiled, making Swindon the locomotive manufacturing capital of the world – and where, tragically, all that now remains is a poignantly moving museum, and replica period platforms with carriages from through the ages to wander through and explore.
Onwards to Stonehenge we explored history of an altogether vintage.
We were surprised by the 4,500-year-old stone circle’s scale – smaller than we had imagined – and a little underwhelmed by its acclaimed new ‘world class’ English Heritage open air visitor centre which, on the wet and blustery day we were there, allowed the rain to lash in.
But we could not fail to be impressed by Stonehenge’s enduring enigma – and, as a British ‘must see’, we were pleased to have seen it.
There was history of yet another kind at Salisbury Cathedral – home to the finest of the four surviving original 1215 Magna Carta documents, marking their 800th year in 2015. A major new anniversary exhibition explores one of the most celebrated documents in English history and it was spine-tingling to see the parchment skin and tightly-packed Latin script up close.
Salisbury has been ranked the seventh best city in the world to visit during 2015 – and the Magna Carta is one reason for that, but there are plenty of others too.
The cathedral itself is full of interest, explained to us by an extremely enthusiastic guide. Afterwards we found Chorister’s Green, the beautiful lawned square outside the cathedral, to be the city’s prettiest spot.
It was here scenes for Sense and Sensibility were filmed in 1995, at the calm and elegant Mompesson House – a Queen Anne townhouse of perfect proportions and symmetry, its interiors decorated as they might have been in the 1700s.
A few doors along, we visited Arundells, the home of former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, whose wish was ‘for the public to share the enjoyment’ of his house after his death. We were given a tour by his clearly devoted former landscape gardener, now the house’s manager and curator, whose personal anecdotes added a unique intimacy and depth to rooms still furnished with Sir Edward’s furniture, ornaments, ceramics and books.
In the National Trust village of Lacock we wandered pretty winding streets, popped into perfect pubs and gazed at timber-framed 13th century cottages so unspoilt by the modern age it’s obvious why they were chosen as a backdrop for Pride and Prejudice and the Harry Potter films.
Charles visited Wiltshire as a guest of the Coach Tourism Council – www.findacoachholiday.com – and Visit Wiltshire – www.visitwiltshire.co.uk
Grays Luxury Travel: 01226 743 109 or graystravelgroup.co.uk of Barnsley has a four-day tour with dinner, bed and breakfast, departing August 17 which visits Stonehenge and Salisbury (as well as Gloucester and Winchester) and stays at the Holiday Inn Salisbury near Stonehenge – from £309pp.
Shearings: 08448 226 866 / www.shearings.com – has five-day tours from Yorkshire running monthly from May to September including a day trip to see the Magna Carta and Salisbury Cathedral – from £329pp for four nights half board.
WILFREDA beehive: 01302 330330 / www.wilfreda.co.uk – has departures in April and October to Wiltshire for three-day tours, staying for two nights at the Hilton Swindon and including visits to Stonehenge and Salisbury as well as the Cotswolds and Banbury – from £159pp.