Wiltshire, England, UK
Created | Updated Oct 21, 2014
The county of Wiltshire is situated centrally in the South of England. Bordered by the counties of Gloucestershire to the North, Oxfordshire to the northeast, Berkshire to the east, Hampshire to the southeast, Dorset to the south and Somerset to the west, it occupies an area of some 1,345 square miles. Wiltshire also encompasses the upper reaches of the River Thames at Lechlade in the North, and the New Forest and Cranborne Chase in the South.
Wiltshire consists mainly of undulating chalk upland, with Salisbury Plain in the centre, and higher downland in the south and northeast. It is bordered by lowlands to the northwest and southeast, and an area of clay to the west. The chief lowlands are round Salisbury, in the vale of Wardour and along the River Avon. The chalk plateau, which occupies about two-thirds of the county and includes the Marlborough Downs and Salisbury Plain, provides open rolling countryside with poor soils and drainage, few trees, but excellent grazing land for sheep.
Besides the River Avon, other rivers include the Kennet and Wylye.
The county boasts many National Nature Reserves, nature trails and country parks and, indeed, almost half of the county (mainly in the south) is designated as an 'area of outstanding natural beauty'.
The county enjoys a moderate climate, with an average annual rainfall in the region of 760-1,000 mm (30-40 in).
The population of Wiltshire in 2002 was 439,000. The average population density of Wiltshire is 135 persons per sq km, reflecting its rural and market town character.
Although the largest town in Wiltshire is Swindon, the administrative centre is Trowbridge; and principal towns include Devizes, Chippenham, Marlborough, Warminster and the cathedral city of Salisbury.
The town of Malmesbury (population about 6000) in the northwest of the county is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in Britain. It is the seat of a famous Benedictine monastery, which was founded in the 7th Century, and was a prosperous wool town in the Middle Ages.
The Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett (population 12,500) has achieved particular fame for the reception it gives to our fallen heroes as their funeral cortèges pass through en route from RAF Lyneham, near Swindon, to the mortuary at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford.
Wiltshire returns six Members of Parliament, two of them from constituencies in Swindon.
Industry and Farming
Wiltshire is primarily an agricultural county and about 80% of its land area is used for this purpose, wheat and barley being the main crops. Pig and sheep farming are also important. Dairy farming predominates in the lowlands and valleys, with livestock and arable farming elsewhere.
The industries of Wiltshire are diverse, and include railway engineering, car manufacturing, rubber, tanning, textiles, food-processing (especially pig and bacon products) and other light industries. Quality carpets, famous throughout the world, have been made at Wilton since the 17th Century, thus making the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory the world's oldest carpet factory still in use.
Swindon developed as an industrial centre around the Great Western Railway (GWR) workshops which were established there at the beginning of the 20th Century. Many fine locomotives were built at Swindon, a few of which may be seen in the GWR Railway Museum. This also contains a room dedicated to the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Since the 1950s, Swindon has grown considerably, when it took overspill population from Greater London. In more recent years, Swindon has had one of the fastest-growing local economies in Europe. Its industries include car manufacturing, food production, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and finance.
Tourism is also an important source of revenue in Wiltshire.
Pre-History and Archaeology
Wiltshire is unrivalled throughout the UK for the richness of its prehistoric monuments.
Foremost among these is the prehistoric megalithic monument of Stonehenge, the finest Bronze Age monument in Europe and one of the world's most famous ancient structures. Stonehenge was built in several stages dating mainly from the early bronze age (1800-1400 BC), and comprises concentric circles of dressed stones surrounded by earthworks. The outer boundary consists of a low circular bank and ditch with an entrance gap in the northeast from which The Avenue leads to the river Avon some two miles away. In The Avenue is the Heel Stone and at the entrance there is a stone known as the Slaughter Stone. This, together with another stone, now fallen, probably formed a ceremonial entrance.
Of the stone circles, the outer Sarsen stones (a type of sandstone from the Marlborough Downs about 20 miles to the north) form a circle of about 100 feet in diameter. This circle originally consisted of 30 uprights, each weighing about 25 tons and surmounted by lintels. Within the circle of Sarsen stones stands another circle of blue stones, brought from the Preseli mountains in Pembrokeshire, west Wales. This encloses a horseshoe of five lintelled pairs of five Sarsens. Within this again there is a horseshoe of blue stones and in the curve of this stands the 16-foot-long sandstone altar stone, brought from Pembrokeshire.
Just how the bluestones were transported from the Preseli mountains to the site at Stonehenge has been the subject of much speculation and unsuccessful re-enactment.
Stonehenge is surrounded by a 'ceremonial landscape' and forms part of a much larger World Heritage Site which covers some 2,600 hectares and includes Durrington Walls, Woodhenge and some 300 burial mounds.
Just recently (in 2002) the grave of a man, since dubbed 'The Amesbury Archer', dating to around 2300BC, was discovered three miles from Stonehenge by staff from Wessex Archaeology. This grave was the richest ever discovered in Britain from this period (the early Bronze Age) and contained the UK's earliest gold objects. It is thought that this person could have been involved with the creation of Stonehenge.
At Avebury, the largest Stone Age monument in the world, there is a huge ditch enclosing some 11.5 hectares (28.5 acres) within which there were once 100 standing stones; inside this ring there are vestiges of two smaller circles. An avenue of paired stones, now partially restored, once ran southwards for about 2 km (1 mile) to meet a double circle of stones on Overton Hill (originally called the Sanctuary, but now sadly destroyed).
Nearby is Silbury Hill. At 130 feet and conical in shape, this is Europe's largest artificial prehistoric hill.
In addition to these major monuments, there are numerous Neolithic long barrows, burial chambers from the Bronze Age, and Iron Age hill forts. Old Sarum, the site of the original city of Salisbury, was originally a hill fort, modified in turn by the Romans, the Saxons and the Normans. The ancient grass track now know as the Ridgeway once ran from Avebury northeastwards to the Uffington White Horse (in Oxfordshire) and the Berkshire Downs.
The county name Wiltshire means the Shire of Wilton and indeed the small country town of Wilton, three miles to the west of Salisbury, has a history stretching back longer than that of its more illustrious neighbour.
Wilton itself was once the administrative centre (villa Regalis) of the Wilsætas tribe, who settled in this area in the 5th and 6th centuries. They arrived during the migration from Europe of Germanic tribes as the Western Roman Empire1 was falling. The name Wilton therefore loosely translates as 'settlement of the Wilsætas'.
During Saxon times, Wilton was one of the most important towns in Wessex, and had its own royal palace and an important nunnery. The royal palace was built in the 9th Century by King Egbert.
The ancient kingdom of Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons, was reputedly founded by Cerdic and included much of what is now Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset and Devon.
During the 8th Century, Wessex came under the rule of Mercia, whose kings Ethelbald and Offa controlled virtually all the English provinces south of the Humber estuary. This Mercian ascendancy came to an end when King Egbert of Wessex, who ruled from 802 to 839, not only gained control of Devon and Cornwall but also (in 825) scored a major victory over Beornwulf of Mercia and brought Surrey, Sussex, and Kent into his kingdom. From 825 onward, Egbert had the whole of southern England as a base from which to resist future aggressors, thus marking the beginnings of the English realm.
The document proclaiming the union of the two ancient kingdoms of Wessex and Cornwall, dated 838, still exists.
That part of Wessex now known as Wiltshire was the site of several ferocious battles with the Danes. King Alfred, having won a major battle over the Danes, founded an important Abbey in Wilton in 878; on the site of the present Wilton House. This abbey remained powerful and rich for the next 600 years. Some sources think that the White Horse cut into a chalk hillside at Westbury, may originally have been cut to celebrate this victory. The White Horse that exists there now is very different in shape.
Wiltshire Hill Figures
Including the White Horse at Wesbury, Wiltshire is famous for its eleven chalk hill carvings; indeed Wiltshire is sometimes referred to as the 'White Horse County'. The rolling chalk downs of central Wiltshire make it an ideal place for such carvings.
There is evidence for least 24 of these hill figures throughout Britain, and originally Wiltshire had 13 of them. Only eight are still visible, while others have either been destroyed or are just overgrown.
Besides the White Horse at Westbury, the others are at:
- Alton Barnes
- Broad Town (3 miles south of Wootton Bassett)
- Devizes (which has two, designated as 'old' and 'new'. The 'new' white horse is also known as the 'Millennium White Horse' as it was cut in 1999 to mark the new millennium. It is the only white horse in Wiltshire and one of only four in the country to face to the right)
- Cherhill (2nd oldest in the county)
- Hackpen (near Winterbourne Bassett)
- Ham Hill (also known as Inkpen. This is one of two that have been totally lost)
- Pewsey (has two, designated 'old' and 'new')
- Tan Hill. There is a possibility that the 'white horse' at Tan Hill may be a donkey.
The popular belief is that these hill figures are pre-historic but, in fact, most of them date from the last 300 years or so. The White Horse at Westbury is the oldest in Wiltshire, and only the White Horse at Uffington, which is just over the county border in Oxfordshire, dates from pre-historic times. Indeed, research commissioned by the National Trust and English Heritage in the early 1990s showed that this horse dated from 1400-600BC, in the late Bronze Age
For some reason, Wiltshire has become the world's epicentre for crop circles, and they appear particularly frequently around pre-historic sites such as the Avebury/Silbury Hill complex. Indeed, of the 175 crop circles recorded in England in 2000, 70 were found within a 15 mile radius of Avebury.
The circles have often appeared in the vicinity of Winchester, Warminster and Marlborough, the so-called 'Wessex Triangle'. For some this is no coincidence, as this area was also renowned for sightings of UFOs, particularly during the 1960s2.
Although the numbers of reported sightings has mushroomed since the 1980s due to hoaxers, they are by no means a new phenomenon. The earliest representation of a crop circle is in an English woodcut of 1687 which depicts the 'Mowing Devil' reaping a field of corn into a flattened circle. It is said to relate to a farmer who refused to pay the amount asked by a reaper, muttering that he'd 'rather the Devil took his oats'. The following day he found part of his crop lying in circles.
Nowadays circles appear in various media (for example, in the soot of railway tunnels) all over the world. Many sorts of origins have been suggested, from hoaxes to fungi (creating fairy rings) and even extra-terrestrials.
An analysis of the scientific theories surrounding crop circles is beyond the scope of this Entry. Suffice to say that one of the theories involves electrical discharges. Backing up this theory is the claim that when lightning strikes grass vertically, it causes the grass to bend in a particular way, in narrow strips in a clockwise direction. These patterns are called 'Lichtenberg figures'3, and it is claimed that these are what is observed in genuine crop circles. It is of relevance to note that the area within the Wessex Triangle is mainly chalk downland, under which lie aquifers - underground water sources – which could attract electricity.
Legends and Folklore: Moonrakers
People who are born and bred in the county are called 'Moonrakers'. This is due to the fact that during the 16th Century, all roads across the county were contraband routes for the smuggling trade between the West Country and London. On one occasion, the smugglers, having revictualled and changed horses in Devizes, set off on the London road alongside which was (and still is) a pond known as the Crammer. The excise men, who were in the town at the time, heard of this and gave chase. Friends of the smugglers gave them forewarning and so the smugglers offloaded their kegs of brandy into the Crammer. Once the excise men had gone past, the smugglers attempted to retrieve their kegs using hayforks, by the light of the full moon which was reflected in the waters of the pond. At this point, the smugglers were surprised by the excisemen returning, and who enquired of the 'yokels' as to the purpose of their activity. The smugglers, with great presence of mind replied, 'We be raking in that there big cheese, Zur'. Thinking that the locals were silly bumpkins attempting to fish the reflection of the moon out of the water, the excisemen went on their way…
Notable Buildings and Gardens
The notable buildings of Wiltshire include Salisbury Cathedral (which at 404 feet, boasts the tallest spire in England), the Saxon church at Bradford-on-Avon and several country houses, especially those at Longleat and Wilton. These two stately homes, Longleat House4 (home of the Marquess of Bath) and Wilton House (home of the Earl of Pembroke), are among the finest in England. Longleat House is a superb example of a great Elizabethan property built in the early Renaissance style, whilst the grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown. The Marquess of Bath created the first of Britain's safari parks at Longleat in 1966; and there is now a Centre Parcs holiday resort at Longleat Forest.
Three miles north west of Mere stands Stourhead House and Gardens, now owned by the National Trust. Stourhead House was begun in 1722 and was one of the first Georgian style great houses. It is described as a Palladian Mansion and it contains some fine paintings, porcelain and a collection of Chippendale furniture.
Stourhead Garden is Britain's foremost landscaped garden, containing a lake, temples, grottoes and bridges. One of the best times to visit Stourhead Garden is considered to be when the azaleas and rhododendrons are in bloom.
On Kingsettle Hill on the north west corner of the estate, right on the Wiltshire and Somerset border, stands Alfred's Tower. This 150 foot high landmark demarks the spot where King Alfred raised his standard prior to commencing battle with the invading Danes in 878.
Lacock is a medieval stone village owned entirely by the National Trust. The village of Lacock has featured in numerous films including Pride and Prejudice, Emma and the first two Harry Potter films. In the village stands Lacock Abbey, founded in in 1232 by Ela, Countess of Salisbury. The Abbey was converted to a country house after 1539 and is open to the public.
William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 - 1877), the person credited with the invention of the photographic fixing process, once lived in Lacock Abbey and so the village of Lacock contains the Fox-Talbot Museum of Photography.
The Marquis of Lansdowne's home at Bowood House nr Calne is renowned as the place where Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen. Set in 2000 acres of Grade 1 listed parkland designed by Capability Brown, its gardens are renowned for their display of autumn colours.
Some Famous Personalities
Best-selling author of political and historical fiction, Michael Dobbs, lives with his wife and four sons 'near a church and a pub' in a village just outside Salisbury. He is perhaps best known for his Westminster-based novel, 'House of Cards' which was dramatised on BBC TV in 1990.
Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII5, was born at East Knoyle, Wiltshire circa 1509. Sir Christopher Wren, the architect, scientist, and mathematician, most famous as the designer of St Paul's Cathedral, was also born in East Knoyle, on October 20, 1632.
Since 1992, rock superstar and keen environmentalist Sting (and his partner, actress and film producer, Trudie Styler) has lived at Lake House, in the picturesque hamlet of Wilsford-cum-Lake, just outside Salisbury in the Woodford Valley. Sting was formerly lead singer and bass player in a band known as The Police.
Pop megastar Madonna and her ex-husband Guy Ritchie had a home at Ashcombe House, near Tollard Royal on the Wiltshire/Dorset border from 2001 until their separation. This house was the former home of fashion-photographer Cecil Beaton.
Former teen pop star Billie Piper - now perhaps best known for her role as Rose Tyler in the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who - was born in Swindon in 1982.
The former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath had a home, Arundells in Salisbury Cathedral Close, from 1970 until his death in 2005.
Best-selling author Sir Terry Pratchett6, best known for his satirical Discworld novels, lives with his wife Lyn and daughter Rhianna in the Chalke Valley, near Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Daily Mail pocket cartoonist Jonathan Pugh, latterly of The Times newspaper, lives in Salisbury with his wife Anna and children Tom and Phoebe.
Polar explorer David Hempleman-Adams was borne at Mordon, Swindon in 1956.
At the end of the 19th Century, large areas of Salisbury Plain were acquired for use as training grounds for the military. During World War I and World War II, thousands of British, Commonwealth, and American soldiers and airmen received special training in Wiltshire. On the chalk downs to the south of Fovant can be seen the regimental badges cut by soldiers who were stationed on Salisbury Plain during World War 1. Today Salisbury Plain is still a military training area of national importance.
Because of its geographical isolation and proximity to military units, a number of defence research facilities were set up on Salisbury Plain from World War I and onwards. Principal among these were the two establishments at Porton Down, one to research defence against chemical weapons and the other to research defence against biological weapons. Although originally having an 'offensive' remit, their roles have been purely defensive since the 1950s, when the UK unilaterally abandoned all offensive chemical warfare (CW) and biological warfare (BW) programmes. The former Chemical Defence Establishment (which in 1979 also took on the biological defence role to become the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment) is now known as DSTL, Porton Down and contains two organisations, QinetiQ, a private company, and DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory). The former Microbiological Research Establishment of the Ministry of Defence is now entirely civilian and is operated by the Health Protection Agency.
Salisbury Plain is also the home of the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment, located at Boscombe Down near Amesbury, and operated by DSTL. This airfield has one of the longest runways in the United Kingdom and the establishment evaluates all military aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary, prior to their deployment.
Corsham's Cold War City
100 feet beneath the surface of Corsham is a complete underground city that few people even know about. The 35-acre bunker - code-named 'Burlington' - was built in the 1950s to act as Britain's main emergency headquarters in the event of a nuclear war. Designed to accommodate the then-Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, as well as the Cabinet Office, top civil servants and domestic staff, the complex could house over 4,000 people, although many of the individuals who had been allocated positions within the bunker had not actually been informed of the fact. The complex had its own telephone exchange, hospital, power station, kitchens, air conditioning... and a BBC studio to enable the Prime Minister to address what was left of the British population.
Burlington was maintained for over 30 years. When the Cold War ended in 1991, the Ministry of Defence took over the bunker, which remained on standby until it was finally decommissioned in December 2004. In 2005, a small BBC team were allowed access to the Burlington underground city to record video footage of its labyrinthine tunnels.
...and Another Thing
In 2002, the view of Salisbury Cathedral from the water meadows, a view immortalised in several paintings by John Constable, including his 'View from the Meadow' was voted as 'The Best View in Britain', in a competition run by Country Life magazine.