Explore our best ancient sites from Stonehenge to Sutton Hoo

Sunrise at Stonehenge
Sunrise at Stonehenge. Credit: Pixabay

We look at some of our most mysterious landmarks cared for by the National Trust

Stonehenge, the stone circle that has dominated Salisbury Plain for close to 5,000 years, is one of England’s most famous historic monuments. A World Heritage Site for more than 30 years, in 2018 we marked 100 years since Stonehenge was given to the nation by local landowners, securing its place as one of our most significant prehistoric sites.

English Heritage describes Stonehenge as the “most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world”. It’s certainly one of the most dramatic: enhanced by its magnificent setting in what is known as the ‘Stonehenge Landscape’ on Salisbury Plain. The Stonehenge Landscape comprises 800 hectares of rolling hills that is home to more than 300 other prehistoric monuments, including burial mounds, long barrows, and sites such as Woodhenge and Durrington Walls.

Stonehenge. Credit: funkyfood London – Paul Williams/Alamy

The huge site is looked after by the National Trust, which has closed the busy road that ran unpleasantly close to the stones, and has been gradually turning the ploughed elds back to grassland so that visitors can explore the whole area on foot. It provides a great opportunity to absorb both the history and the natural beauty of this ancient space. The earliest structures at Stonehenge are several pits believed to have held large totem poles dating from 8500 to 7000BC. The pits were soon joined by the Cursus, a 1.8-mile-long enclosure dating from 3630 to 3370BC. Next came the circular earthwork built around 3000BC and surrounded by a series of pits that probably held upright timber posts. Then 500 years later the stones themselves were erected.

The giant sarsen (sandstone) stones were arranged in a horseshoe shape and surrounded by a circle of stones linked by a continuous lintel. Smaller arcs of bluestone stone (dragged from the Preseli Hills in Wales) were placed between the two rings – these smaller stones were later slightly repositioned, but this layout is broadly what we see today.

It is still unclear what Stonehenge was actually used for. Over the centuries, there have been various suggestions, from a druid temple to an astronomical computer. Today, the most widely accepted theory is that the stones formed a prehistoric temple, aligned with the movements of the sun.

This is particularly impressive given that its builders only had access to stone hammers and antler tools, but were still able to arrange the stones so that their central axis lined up with winter and summer solstices. This was an extraordinarily sophisticated feat of planning and engineering.

Book ahead: The visitor centre and the stones are open daily, 9.30am-5pm; the Stonehenge Landscape is open to walkers at all times (admission free). The nearest station is Salisbury (there are two direct trains every hour from London Waterloo), from where you can take the Stonehenge Tour bus.

Avebury, Wiltshire

Avebury. Credit: National Trust Images/David Noton

While Stonehenge is the most significant prehistoric stone circle in the world, the largest (measuring 330 metres in diameter) is 20 miles north at Avebury. Built over a period from about 2850BC to 2200BC, Avebury, like its neighbour, is also a ‘henge’ monument – meaning that it’s built around a circular earthwork made up of a deep ditch and high bank.

Inside this giant ring are three stone circles with the great outer circle, originally made up of approximately 100 standing stones, enclosing two smaller circles. The site is so big that during the Middle Ages the village of Avebury sprung up inside the circle, creating a mix of standing stones and village buildings.

Today, you can walk along the top of the huge earth bank and wander around the stones: unlike the ones at Stonehenge that are now fenced off, you can even touch these prehistoric giants, imagining your hand tracing the ghostly handprints of their Stone Age builders.

Book ahead: The stone circle is open at all times (admission free); The Alexander Keiller Museum is open daily. The nearest stations are Swindon and Pewsey.

Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria

Hadrian's Wall and Housesteads Fort
Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads Fort. Credit: National Trust Images/John Millar

Some 300 miles north of Avebury is Britain’s largest heritage site, Hadrian’s Wall. This extraordinary structure runs for 73 miles from Bowness-on-Solway on the west coast across England to Wallsend on the east. Hadrian’s Wall was built on the orders of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who visited Britain in AD122 and, according to his biographer, decided he needed a wall along the northernmost part of his Empire to keep out the barbarians from the north (the Scottish).

As well as the wall, the project included guard posts every mile, and 13 military forts along its south side. A later addition to the defences was the ‘vallum’ – a huge ditch running parallel to the wall – and a military road, both running along the south side of the wall. The project took just six years to complete, and although it was abandoned shortly after Hadrian’s death, it defended the borders of the Roman Empire in Britain for 250 years.

Today, large stretches of the wall and vallum can still be seen, especially in the central sections where it snakes across moorland following the craggy line of Whin Sill escarpment. The best place to get its measure is at Housesteads Roman Fort, one of the best preserved military forts on the wall.

The fort sits high up on a ridge and the dramatic views of the wall snaking away in either direction give visitors a great sense of its scale and geography. Like most Roman forts, Housesteads is built on a grid pattern, with a gateway on the south side leading up the hillside to the northern gateway that looks out over the ‘barbarian’ north. On either side of this main axis are the remains of buildings including the barracks and the Commanding Officer’s House. Tucked away in the bottom eastern corner are the latrines.

While the wall shows Roman ambition and military might, the latrines demonstrate sophisticated plumbing and attention to detail (although the fact that the latrines were communal might not impress modern visitors so much).

Although Hadrian’s Wall has been around for nearly 2,000 years, there are several new attractions opening in the area this year. The exhibition centre at Birdoswald, a military fort to the west of Housesteads, reopens after a £1.3 million renovation project. New additions here include interactive displays for younger visitors, as well as trails around the fort. The fort is on one of the longest continuous stretches of the wall so it’s a great section to explore on foot before visiting the new-look café and shop.

The museum at Corbridge, the Roman town just south of the wall, has also been given an extensive makeover for this year. The collection, which includes the famous Corbridge Hoard – a chest containing Roman armour – as well as more homely items such as a gaming board with counters and carved hairpins, has been arranged in a series of new displays designed to reflect the latest research into Roman life in Britain.

Finally, a new gallery is due to open at Vindolanda Fort and Museum. This focuses on wooden artefacts found in the area and includes items such as giant water pipes, a wagon axle and a bread shovel.

Book ahead: The wall is open at all times (admission free). Housesteads Roman Fort is open daily. The nearest stations are Bardon Mill, Haydon Bridge or Haltwhistle. The AD122 Hadrian’s Wall Country Bus runs from Haltwhistle.

Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

Reconstruction of the Anglo Saxon helmet from Sutton Hoo
Reconstruction of the Anglo Saxon helmet from Sutton Hoo. Credit: National Trust / Angus Wainwright

Sandwiched between peaceful farmland and pinewoods, Sutton Hoo is in marked contrast to the windswept grandeur of Hadrian’s Wall. However, the site is equally significant as it was the burial place of the Anglo-Saxon Kings of East Anglia.

Here, in the grassy eld above the River Denham are at least 18 burial mounds dating back to the 7th century AD. The actual mounds are roped off, but you can walk around the site, and a viewing platform allows you look down on these mysterious undulations. The tallest mound is a reconstruction, built in 1992 to see how fast the ground erodes, but it gives a good indication of the original size of the tombs, which would have been easily visible as an impressive symbol of royal power from the valley below.

Many of the mounds were robbed during the Tudor period, but two remained untouched until the archaeologist Basil Brown was asked to excavate the site by the landowner, Mrs Edith Pretty, in 1939. Underneath what is known as Mound One he made an unbelievable discovery: the ghostly remains of a 27-metre long boat imprinted into the soil containing the body of a warrior king surrounded by a hoard of treasure.

The treasure, which includes the magnificent Sutton Hoo helmet, as well as gold jewellery and Byzantine silverware, is now on show at the British Museum, but Brown’s other finds are displayed in the exhibition centre at the site. These include the remains of a young warrior and his horse found under Mound Seventeen along with his comb, weapons and some beautiful gold harness decorations.

The exhibition also includes a fascinating reconstruction of the ceremonial burial chamber showing how the treasures were ritually arranged around the body of the dead king – a moving reminder that these great heritage sites are not just atmospheric ruins, but also places where the people of the past lived and died.

Book ahead: Open daily, 10.30am-5pm, until 30 Sept 2018 when the site will close for renovation until spring 2019. The nearest station is Melton.

Words: Diana Woolf