Wiltshire: Moonraker country

Wiltshire natives refer to themselves as ‘moonrakers’, originating from a time when smuggling was big business in this sleepy county. Today the smugglers have gone but the white chalk horses, rolling countryside and pretty stone villages of years past remain in an England unchanged for generations

The Abbey House
The Abbey House © Jane Gifford

Almost half of Wiltshire is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and it’s a large county. Situated in England’s mainly rural West Country, Wiltshire is made up of young rivers, medieval towns and villages, high plains and extensive rolling downs, all flanked with white horses and topped with old drovers’ roads where you can walk for miles under wide open skies. This pleasant green county is criss-crossed by over 8,200 paths for walkers and cyclists, as well as hundreds of bridleways. It encompasses numerous prehistoric hill-forts and hundreds of tumuli, those ancient burial mounds which dot the skyline all over the county.

Picture-perfect manor houses and historical rural churches abound. And where there is an interesting church, there is usually an excellent country inn not far away. Potential paradise for the keen angler and you can spend hours relaxing on a riverbank, where the water is clear and fast moving and there are plenty of healthy fish. The water meadows are peaceful and just the rustle of wind in the willows and the occasional birdcall punctuate the silence. The downs, although not high, often completely block out the sound of traffic. They also block your mobile signal. But if you were to receive a text message, it would say “relax, you’re in Wiltshire”.

Wiltshire cottages
Wiltshire cottages © Jane Gifford

You can catch a glimpse of some of Wiltshire’s deeper secrets through the window of a railway carriage or while driving on the main (and small) roads, that weave through the county, from which many tourist hotspots are well sign-posted. Some of Britain’s most iconic and most loved visitor attractions are in Wiltshire. Clad in mystery, the prehistoric megaliths and stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury may rekindle the pagan in you in Salisbury Plain. For early risers a surreal experience awaits on Longleat Estate as the lions on the Safari Park, safely penned, join in the morning chorus of birdsong. Not far away, hidden amongst the gentle wooded hills at the head of the River Stour are the lakeside walks and sweeping lawns of one of the most beautiful and famous gardens in Britain – Stourhead. Now cared for by the National Trust, somehow the gardens manage to absorb thousands of visitors each year and still retain their serenity.

Signed from the M4, Bowood has been the family home of the Marquis of Lansdowne for the past 250 years. Here an adventure playground will entertain the children, leaving you time to appreciate the house and gardens. Two of Wiltshire’s most celebrated Cotswold villages are an easy drive away. Lacock on the River Avon (that’s the Malmesbury Avon) where William Henry Fox Talbot famously discovered the negative-positive process of photography at Lacock Abbey. And the charming village of Castle Combe, where the By Brook, a tributary of the Avon, glides under the old bridge. You will discover that most Wiltshire towns and villages have a river at their heart. These two will be familiar from TV dramas and movies – Dr Doolittle and War Horse featured Castle Combe while Cranford, Pride and Prejudice and the Harry Potter films used Lacock.

A cricket match being played with Salisbury Cathedral in the background
A cricket match being played with Salisbury Cathedral in the background © Loop Images/Steve Bardens

On route to Avebury from London, affluent Marlborough in the northeast of the county is famous for its school and is the market town most visitors associate with Wiltshire’s charms (the High Street’s market day is Wednesday and Saturday). The River Kennet, the other half of the Kennet and Avon Canal, rises on the Marlborough side of Salisbury Plain and flows east out of the county.

Wilton House, in the south near Salisbury, has been the family home of the Earl and Countess of Pembroke for over 460 years. The house stands on the site of a 9th-century nunnery founded by Saxon King Alfred the Great. The neighbouring town of Wilton has a history going back 2,000 years and lays claim to the title Ancient Capital of Wessex. It is also said to have given its name to the county. ‘Wilton’ is of course synonymous with luxury woollen carpets too. In Wiltshire there was always plentiful water for the mills and plenty of excellent pasture for sheep. Most of the region’s considerable wealth came historically from wool.

Silbury Hill, the tallest prehistoric chalk mound in Europe
Silbury Hill, the tallest prehistoric chalk mound in Europe © SuperStock

Salisbury, Wiltshire’s only city, boasts a fabulous medieval cathedral, built from 1220, which still holds the record for the tallest spire in Britain. Not bad for a building constructed on marshland fed by three major rivers. There are some fine old houses on Cathedral Close. Leave by the North Gate to explore this attractive rural city. For a change of pace, seek out Heale House and its eight acres of beautiful riverside gardens, hidden away amongst the downs above Salisbury. The house is little changed since King Charles II hid here in 1651. Also well worth exploring is the Chalke Valley where watercress is still farmed and the Wylye Valley, where you can fish in Langford Lakes Nature Reserve.

Castle Combe
Castle Combe © Jane Gifford

To best appreciate the full flavour of Wiltshire-proper, you must take your time. Many born here simply don’t see the need to travel much outside the county. Wiltshire natives refer to themselves as ‘moonrakers’, a name originating from the end of the 18th century when smuggling was big business. French brandy would pass through the county on its way from the south coast to the Midlands. Legend has it that one night the excise men caught the smugglers raking out contraband hidden in a village pond. Aware that ‘towny types’ considered all those with a Wiltshire accent to be stupid, the smugglers laid it on thick and, pointing to the moon’s reflection in the water, made out that they were attempting to rake out a cheese. Feeling greatly superior, the excise men left the yokels to their madness.

There are two rivers with the name Avon in Wiltshire and, given that avon is an old Celtic word for river (afon still means river in Welsh), this can be confusing in a fashion greatly appealing to the local sense of humour. One Avon rises near Malmesbury in North Wilshire District and flows west through Bradford-on-Avon. The other rises in the Vale of Pewsey, where two tributaries, also both called the Avon, join forces and flow south towards Salisbury. So strictly speaking Wiltshire has several rivers named ‘River River’.

You could avoid getting lost (at least when on the water) by hiring a narrowboat. Enjoy slowly gliding through the countryside along the Kennet and Avon Canal. The 29 lock-gates at Caen Hill near Devizes might present a challenge but Honeystreet, a tiny village on the canal, is a perfect place to moor up. You have a view of the White Horse on Pewsey Downs and you are alongside The Barge Inn, built in 1810 to coincide with the opening of the canal. Also, look out for summer crop circles in the Vale of Pewsey.

Westbury White Horse
Westbury White Horse © Jane Gifford

Westbury White Horse (1778) is Wiltshire’s oldest, carved out of the chalk hillside below an Iron Age hill-fort. Not far away is Bradford on Avon, a busy historical market town, where you can enjoy both the canal and the (Malmesbury) Avon. The old bridge spanning the river is the centre-piece of the town, featuring an 18th-century ‘lock up’ at one end. Nearby, Avoncliff aqueduct carries the canal over the river.

In the neighbouring valley, medieval Iford Manor makes the perfect English country home. Renowned architect and garden designer Harold Peto thought so too. He chose Iford as the ideal location in which to settle down. Today’s owners have added delicious home-made cakes and cream teas and a summer music festival in the Cloisters to its charms.

Avebury stone circle and village
Avebury stone circle and village © SuperStock

Malmesbury, now a sleepy market town, was once of major importance. The first king of all England, King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, made Malmesbury his capital in 925. The present abbey with its impressive Norman porch dates from 1180. Neighbouring Abbey House – part 13th century, part Tudor – was rescued from ruin by the Pollard family in 1994. They have created a beautiful garden with some unexpected twists. Find Pan amongst the topiary and see the abbey ruins reflected in the cauldron. Close by is The Smoking Dog, one of numerous excellent country pubs in Wiltshire.

Year round, Wiltshire always has something special to offer. From March to September the lanes are a floral paradise and cowslips and orchids, wild roses and honeysuckle mark the ebb and flow of the seasons. Wisteria flowers in cottage gardens in spring, old-fashioned English roses in summer. Hares box in the fields in March and in winter long avenues of trees stand out against the frosty plain. So if simply pottering about – known locally as ‘going for a bimble’ – appeals, then Wiltshire will not disappoint.

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