From Neolithic Avebury to Georgian Bath
Tour Guide: Paul Beston and Dr. Michael Metcalfe
7 DAYS £TBC / Single Supplement: £TBC
Wessex: close to our home base, and close to our hearts. We invite you to join us and see why - in this tour of a beautiful region of England, which perfectly encapsulates the history and culture of the country. From the ancient chalk downlands of Wiltshire, through the lush tree-clad hills and combes of Gloucestershire to the misty beauty of the Somerset Levels, this is the England of the mind’s eye. We will take you to dramatic cathedrals with soaring spires, serene abbeys, elegant Roman villas and into the deep past of Stone Age England, where it all began.
All of England’s history can be seen in this region replete with World Heritage Sites. We begin with the truly ancient landscape of Wiltshire, which still feels indefinably old, even to those familiar with the ancient world. Through encounters with ridge-top sepulchres, the awe-inspiring great stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury and the strange wonder of Silbury Hill, you will see how humanity passed from the Mesolithic and embedded itself in the landscape in the Neolithic, one of the most dramatic eras in England’s history, and nowhere seen better than here. The depth of our story can be appreciated when even the Celts and Romans arrive only at its middle. Once more, this tour introduces you to some of their finest sites and traces, from the fine mosaics of Britain’s second largest Roman town, through the richly decorated and comfortably heated villa at Chedworth to the pious melding of Roman and British religion in the hot springs of the great shrine at Bath with its strange gorgon-like sculpture.
The castles and holy places of the Middle Ages, and the new Kingdom of England, come into view next. We see the powerful castles of the Marcher Lords at Berkeley, meet saints and see a powerful prelate cast down at Old Sarum, and admire the delicate beauty of Salisbury Cathedral, its renowned spire reaching up in adulation to Heaven.
Finally, we come to the periods of turbulence and transformation that made our own world as the old religion is broken. At Glastonbury we see a beautiful monastery suppressed, leaving romantic ruins and enduring myth. We see the varying fortunes of the great families, as some fall in Civil War and others prosper and build great country houses, ready to enter the refined and genteel world of Georgian elegance and high society in the respectable, elevated beauty of Bath.
All of this accompanied by some fine dining, visits to traditional English pubs, locally brewed ales and ciders and tastes of some of the world famous specialities of the region. At night we stay firstly in a beautiful Italianate-style Victorian country house set in wonderful gardens in the heart of the Wiltshire countryside before heading to Bath and an elegant mansion house hotel on the edge of one of the city centre parks and only minutes away from some of Bath’s most famous sights.
From green fields with enigmatic henges, outposts of Roman civilisation in wooded valleys, emblems of Norman power and Georgian taste, there is no finer place to begin your exploration of England’s long and inspiring history.
Day 1: Arrivals and transfer to our Country House Hotel in the heart of Wiltshire and on the edge of the North Wessex Downs.
Day 2: We begin with some of the earliest and most evocative monuments in British history, all set in the beautiful rolling countryside around Avebury. After a short drive, we enter this unrivalled Neolithic landscape at West Kennet long barrow, which looks out from its prominent ridge from behind a great veil of massive sarsen stones. One of the largest and best-preserved of these massive tombs, the dark chambers within were the last resting place for scores of the first generations of people to set roots down here.
Below the ridge we come to the expansive and magnificent Avebury stone circle, perhaps the greatest achievement of the Neolithic, the core of which may be nearly six thousand years old, and the centre of an expansive complex of monuments whose power to awe and inspire is clear, even if their purpose is not.
After a traditional pub lunch overlooking the ancient stone circle, we visit the Keiller Museum to expand our picture of its long-gone makers, before enjoying the afternoon exploring in the house and gardens of the attractive Tudor and Georgian Avebury Manor. Finally, we return to the Neolithic to view the extraordinary Silbury Hill, a massive man-made eminence, as old as the pyramids.
We journey into the Cotswolds - designated as one of England’s ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ - and come to the defining type of Roman site, the villa at Chedworth. One of the largest in Britain, enfolding courtyards and a water-shrine within three wings of mosaics and baths, this spacious and opulent home in isolated and beautiful countryside perfectly expressed the Roman idea of refined leisure. After a short drive through the undulating and verdant Cotswold countryside, we reach to Cirencester. At the acclaimed Corinium Museum, we see the transformation of the land from the Iron Age through the centuries of Roman occupation. In brilliant modern displays, we see some of the finest Roman mosaics in Britain, and fascinating remains that tell of the daily life of ordinary Romano-Britons at the end of prehistory.
Following lunch in a wonderful country pub we return to our hotel for some time to relax before heading to Stonehenge to see the visitor centre and museum in order to set in context what we will experience later in the evening. Leaving the visitor centre we head to an historic eighteenth century Manor, parts of which are five hundred years older, and which numbers Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour and Lord Cardigan as former occupants, for dinner in truly atmospheric surroundings.
We return to Stonehenge as the light begins to fade to enjoy special access to the inner stone circle and view this unrivalled symbol of the Stone Age up close and in the serene atmosphere it deserves. After immersing ourselves in its enigmatic arrangement of Sarsens and bluestones, we return to our hotel.
Day 4: After checking out of our hotel, we drive to Old Sarum, a site with a very long history. An Iron Age fort, into which the Normans set a castle and richly-decorated Cathedral, both are intimately connected with the dramatic rise and fall of the ambitious Bishop Roger in the Twelfth Century, who was dramatically arrested when at the height of his power. After demolition, the Cathedral was moved to Salisbury, visible in the distance. Old Sarum itself declined, and became one of the infamous Rotten Boroughs, with William Pitt long its MP.
A short journey brings us to the lovely town of Salisbury. After seeing some of the finest remains from the age of Stonehenge, we pick up the story of Old Sarum and visit the exquisite and fragile beauty of Salisbury Cathedral. Here we see ‘Magna Carta’ one of the most celebrated documents in English history, and a founding influence on the American colonies and Constitution. Only four copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta have survived the ravages of time and Salisbury Cathedral is home to the best preserved. Afterwards there is free time to have lunch and explore the town’s mediaeval and Georgian splendour.
After lunch, we drive to the famed site of Glastonbury Abbey, whose picturesque ruins are surrounded with a haze of mediaeval legends connecting it to Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail and King Arthur, Camelot and The Knights of the Round Table. This wonderfully atmospheric site is a fine way to end the day before we check into our hotel in Bath.
Day 5: Today, we visit two large sites which reveal the changing fortunes, lives and taste of the aristocracy from the marcher lords of the mediaeval period through the tempestuous era of the Civil War to the gentility of Georgian Britain. In the morning, we drive to Berkeley Castle, where the mighty walls of a vast and powerful mediaeval fortress rise steeply from the green surroundings of the Berkeley Vale. The forbidding walls and towers of this huge castle mutely testify that this was once frontier country, and that its lords were among the greatest powers in the land, later prominent in the colonial history of Virginia. The great windows show that it has been triumphantly transformed into a stately home. Its thick walls now house tastefully-decorated halls hung with tapestries, fine rooms bedecked with paintings and the great kitchens to service a fine aristocratic home. Outside, the delightful terraces of the pretty gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll descend artfully and accentuate the castle’s loftiness.
After lunch, we visit the Georgian finery of Bowood House. Through the efforts of both Robert Adam and Capability Brown, Bowood has been graced with some of the finest interiors and most ethereal gardens in the country. A green sward sweeps down to the beautiful lake from a hill crowned by a beautiful and palatial classical house, a living landscape painting by a master. You’ll be free to wander through its grottoes, gaze at its dainty lakeshore temple folly and bask in the colourful prettiness of this Enlightenment jewel. The visual experience is matched by an impressive history: the house was once owned by the Earl of Shelburne, an opponent of Lord North who negotiated a more conciliatory peace with the new American Republic at the end of the War of Independence, and it was here that Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen in 1774. Few places bring the political, aesthetic and scientific achievements of the Age of Enlightenment together so well.
Day 6: A whole day in the magnificent World Heritage Site of Bath brings some of our earlier experiences together in some of the most perfect vistas Britain boasts. This exceptionally beautiful city combines a long and extraordinary history with rich connections to some of England’s greatest writers and artists, and a breath-taking sweep of delectable Palladian architecture in warm bath stone with a forest of neo-classical columns. Bath offers the most perfect image of the heights of Georgian sophistication to be seen in the whole country and is a transporting experience for our final day.
We begin with a visit to the Roman Baths, where a Celtic sacred spring with naturally warm and sulphurous gushing waters was turned into a vast Roman religious complex, with its famous ‘gorgon’ image, exquisite bronze head of Sulis Minerva and the lead tablets that sought divine aid for those writing them – and punishment for transgressors. We visit the fine modern museum with its extraordinary array of remains, including thanksgiving altars offered by those saved by the goddess’ power, and view the miraculous spring itself, its naturally heated and sulphurous gushing flow still inspiring awe today. Finally, we visit the celebrated icon of the King’s Bath, opened to the heavens in Mediaeval times, the steam now rises skyward from the warm waters.
The healing reputation of waters brought Bath a second period of fame inspired by Queen Anne’s visits and the Georgian and Regency Bath of Jane Austen, when the city became a fashionable draw for refined society. Jane Austen lived here for five years and set Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in its magnificent streets, just as Charles Dickens would later use them for The Pickwick Papers. Bath’s position as the epicentre of Georgian taste and society saw Gainsborough join the array of talents in residence. We follow in their footsteps through the ordered and mathematically-perfect yet delightful streets from which it is difficult to choose from among so many superlative highlights. Robert Adam’s perfect Pulteney Bridge, shop clad, spans the Avon and its rushing weir in one of the city’s most pleasing sights. The vast bow of the Royal Crescent, complete with a deep Georgian ha-ha, where the elegant bought measures of frontage to tailor to their exacting requirements, and the serene classical magnificence of The Circus, testify to the rarefied society of this most attractive city. The air raid damage both suffered within living memory reminds us how fortunate we are to experience such jewels and their tremendous setting on this truly memorable day.
We have our final meal in one of the city’s best restaurants, an unforgettable way to end a delightful encounter with England’s riches.
Day 7: Departures
Arrival and Departure Information for our Exploring Wessex tour
Arrival Airport – Bristol International Airport
Departure Airport – Bristol International Airport
Arrival Railway Station – Bath Spa
Departure Railway Station – Bath Spa
Our transfer vehicle will collect from Bristol International Airport at 16.30, and Bath Spa Train Station at 17.00, should you wish your arrival at your hotel to be organised by us. If you prefer to arrange your own arrival, check in time is set for 14.30 on July 1st. Check out time on the July 7th is 10.30. We will arrange a transfer from your hotel to Bath Spa Train Station or Bristol Airport on July 7th, leaving from your hotel at 09.30.
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If you are thinking of extending your trip to the United Kingdom to include visits to London, South-West England, Wales or further afield, please contact our office for advice and suggestions for bespoke travel plans.