Britain is famous for its ancient sites, from the mystery of Stonehenge to the majesty of Hadrian’s Wall. Almost wherever you go there is some reminder of thousands of years of history. Here are our must-see ancient sites, all set in the stunning British countryside.
■ Stonehenge & Avebury – World Heritage Sites
No journey into Britain’s past is complete without a visit to Stonehenge, one of the best-known prehistoric monuments in the world. It was built between 3,000 and 1,600 BC, about the same time as the Pyramids, for Neolithic farmers to celebrate the rebirth of the seasons at midwinter and midsummer. A five-metre high outer circle of monoliths capped with stone lintels forms a screen around a horseshoe of even taller trilithons. To really appreciate the scale and location of Stonehenge, either walk towards it along the Avenue to see it appear dramatically on the horizon or book a limited-number visit inside the circle outside normal opening hours.
Equally as impressive is Avebury, a contemporary of Stonehenge, which is so large that a village fits inside it. Many of the massive standing stones of its three circles have been re-erected after villagers smashed some to use as building stone in the 1600s. Avebury is one part of a Neolithic ritual landscape that includes Silbury Hill, the tallest prehistoric mound in Europe, and West Kennet Long Barrow, where the bones of over 46 individuals were buried.
■ Burgh Castle
The Romans didn’t rule Britannia for ever, and their Empire eventually collapsed under civil war and attacks during the 5th century AD. Saxons began raiding Britain at the end of the 3rd century, so the Romans built a chain of forts along the south coast in defence. They housed cavalry who could quickly ride out to confront enemy landing parties pillaging coastal towns and farmland. Burgh Castle in Norfolk is one of the finest examples of these ‘Saxon’ forts. Three of the fort’s walls remain to full height above Breydon Water estuary, a navigable route for raiding parties as far inland as Norwich. An evening visit can be rewarded with sunlight shining through.
■ Neolithic Orkney – World Heritage Site
Orkney’s Neolithic monuments easily hold their own against Stonehenge and Avebury. A good place to begin is at the Stones of Stenness, with its four towering standing stones, and the nearby Ring of Brodgar, whose jagged circle of stones is silhouetted on the skyline. You can enter the reconstructed houses of Barnhouse village, while recent excavations at the Ness of Brodgar have unearthed even more stone buildings. Maes Howe chambered tomb is a large mound covering a square chamber with honey-coloured stone walls lit by the sinking light of the midwinter sunset. No visit to Orkney is complete without a visit to Skara Brae, a remarkably preserved underground Neolithic village, or chambered tombs such as Midhowe.
■ Maiden Castle
Maiden Castle hill fort links the Iron Age with the Romans. This tranquil flat-topped grassy hill is the largest and most complex Iron Age hill fort in Britain, once home to a large population who lived in round houses packed inside the ramparts over 2,000 years ago. The Iron Age occupants transformed the sides of the hill by constructing vertiginous ramparts separated by deep ditches. Like other nearby hill forts in Dorset, such as Hod Hill, Hambledon Hill and Bradbury Rings, the sheer scale of the ramparts was designed to put off potential attackers. They weren’t proof against the Romans however, who easily took the Castle during their invasion of 43 AD. The Romans rehoused the tribe in a new town below the hill – the origin of modern Dorchester.
■ Hadrian’s Wall
If Rome’s military might really grabs your attention, then feast your eyes on Hadrian’s Wall. Originally spanning 80 miles between the North and Irish seas, it defended the north of Britannia behind an imposing stone and turf wall linked to a chain of milecastles and forts. The most evocative place to visit is where the wall traverses the Whin Sill, a dramatic escarpment of hard rock with never-ending views north across the apparently empty Northumbrian moors. The Wall survives to its highest here, along with some of the best-preserved forts, including Housesteads and Vindolanda. Finds on display at Vindolanda paint a vivid picture of life on Rome’s northern border. They include leather shoes, a woman’s wig and letters. Other must-see forts along the Wall include Chesters and Corbridge.
■ Caerleon Roman Fort
Roman Britain was also a military province protected with forts and where towns were defended with city walls, some of which still survive in Chester and York. Caerleon legionary fort in Gwent shows what life was like in the Roman military. You can wander around its defences, bath houses, barracks and a rare example of a surviving British amphitheatre. You can also still walk through the same entrances used by spectators to attend gladiatorial combats over 1,800 years ago.
■ Fishbourne Roman Palace
The Romans introduced many home comforts into Britain, including vast villas for the rich, resplendent with underfloor heating, bathhouses and ornate mosaics. Fishbourne Palace in Sussex is home to some of Britain’s best Roman mosaics, preserved after a fire left the villa in ruins in 270 AD. Excavated mosaic floors and a reconstructed Roman garden are on display. Another large group of mosaics is on display in Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, where you can also visit a reconstructed Roman garden.
■ Glenelg Brochs
While there are many hill forts in Scotland, what makes the Scottish Iron Age unique are the tall stone towers known as brochs or duns. Two imposing brochs can be found in narrow Glen Beag, near Glenelg. Dun Telve and Dun Troddan are typical brochs only 500 metres apart, suggesting two locally important families with grand designs desperate not to be out-done by each other. Each broch is a dry-stone circular tower protecting a ground floor barn and upper storeys for the family.
Pre-eminent amongst the prehistoric sites of Scotland’s Western Isles is Callanish stone circle. Its position above sea lochs coupled with the twisted, textured gneiss stones, carefully height-graded towards its central monolith, gives it an otherworldly feel. Neolithic farmers converged on Callanish for ceremonies along its main stone avenue on the opposite side of the circle from the visitor centre. You can visit another 11 smaller circles orbiting around Callanish. Castlerigg stone circle in Cumbria is built in as impressive a location as Callanish, making it one of the most photographed prehistoric sites in Britain. There are stunning views of some of the finest northern Lake District fells, including Blencathra, Helvellyn and Skiddaw. Castlerigg is also a great launch pad to visit the fells’ other stone circles including Swinside and Long Meg and Her Daughters, where carved prehistoric cup and ring marks can be seen.
■ Tre’r Ceiri
Leaping forward in time to the Iron Age brings us more hill forts. Tre’r Ceiri in north Wales is one of the most spectacular – yet is relatively unknown. Massive stone walls enclose one of the summits of Yr Eifl, 450 metres above sea level, to protect a village of stone-walled round houses. You can wander through original doorways into houses with walls surviving to waist-height. What makes a visit to Tre’r Ceiri truly spellbinding are the views. On a clear day you can see along the Llyˆn Peninsula, east to Snowdonia, south down the Welsh coast, north to Anglesey and west to the Irish Sea. Other hill fort eyries can be found at British Camp in the Malverns and Mam Tor in the Peak District.
■ Kilmartin Glen
One of the few other places to see rock art carved on a standing stone is at Nether Largie Stones in Kilmartin Glen, Argyll and Bute. This pretty glen ringed with wooded crags is home to over 150 prehistoric monuments, including rock art, burial chambers, standing stones, crannogs, hill forts and brochs. A vast ceremonial complex was laid out along the glen floor 5,000 years ago and remained in use for over 1,000 years. It has the most prehistoric rock art to be found anywhere in Britain, with exceptional carved outcrops easily visited at Achnabreck.
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