PHOTO BY CHRIS CIOLLI
Experience the magic of these English towns.
In England’s southwestern counties of Somerset and Wiltshire, the stone circle at Stonehenge and thermal waters at Bath seem to get all the press. People rush in from London, pose with the monuments, briefly soak in healing waters and head on to see the sights in Cardiff, if not straight back to the capital.
It’s a shame really, because there’s so much more to see in this corner of England: lesser-known Neolithic sights, mystic and charming villages, and what may be the coordinates of the mythical Avalon. The best way to experience them all? By car.
Day 1: Glastonbury
In this cute, smallish English town, climb hills that were once islands, wander into witchy shops, and explore the holy places said to have been frequented by the likes of Joseph of Arimathea, and King Arthur of Round Table fame.
Start your tour at Wearyall Hill. Here, legend has it Joseph of Arimathea (AKA Saint Joseph) stuck his staff in the ground and curled up for a nap. When he awoke, his staff had sprouted into the Glastonbury Thorn, a rare variety of a middle-eastern tree that flowers (some say miraculously) twice a year. The original tree was hacked down during the English Civil War, and another one was replanted in the 1950s. While all that’s left is a stump after vandals repeatedly sliced off its branches in 2010 and 2012, from the top of this long and skinny ridge, you can get a good overview of Glastonbury and beyond, not to mention the iconic Glastonbury Tor.
Afterwards, get a closer look at a living thorn at Glastonbury Abbey. Search out the spot where medieval monks claimed King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were buried among crumbling medieval ruins.
Warm up with fair-trade coffee and organic local eats at Hundred Monkeys (52, High Street) or veggie-friendly bites at Blue Note Café (4a, High Street). Then stroll High Street, popping into interesting one-off shops along the way, like celebrated fantasy artist Linda Ravenscroft’s Mystic Garden Gallery, award-winning artisan bakery Burns the Bread, and raw vegan sweet shop, the Chocolate Love Temple (86 High St.).
Just off the main drag, don’t miss the Glastonbury Experience. In this quirky Courtyard, you can pay your respects to the Lady of Avalon at the UK’s only temple dedicated solely to the worship of the goddess, and learn about Neo-Pagan traditions and beliefs at Library of Avalon’s reading room. Or just browse healing crystals, incense, candles, and the striking esoteric art and handicrafts at The Stone Age.
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If the elements allow, soak up what’s left of the mid-afternoon sun on a relaxing ramble through the lush gardens of Chalice Well, a living sanctuary created around one of the oldest wells in Britain. When clouds threaten, as they sometimes do, grab your umbrella and go anyway. There’s something peaceful and satisfying about following the path of its orange-tinged, iron-rich waters through the gardens until you arrive at the lower fountain, no matter the weather.
For a sunset you won’t soon forget, trek up the steep, terraced hill to the top of Glastonbury Tor. Theories about the terraces abound. A particularly popular one holds that the Tor was a ritual maze used for religious ceremonies. Through the lone tower at the top—all that remains of St. Michael’s church—you can snap shots of green fields speckled with clusters of cottages and sheep at twilight. If you’re lucky (we weren’t), the rain and damp weather will collaborate with the low light to create an effect called Fata Morgana, wherein mist makes the Tor seem to float above the fog.
Rest up for tomorrow in one of the witchcraft-themed rooms at Covenstead.
Day 2: Wells and Stanton Drew
If you’re interested in England’s medieval heritage, Wells can’t be missed. Home to the only completely preserved medieval street in the UK, the Vicar’s Close, this picturesque community is England’s smallest city. Start your tour at the city’s Gothic cathedral. Check out the Church’s 14th century stained-glass collection, a miraculous survivor of multiple wars, and the ancient Wells Clock before you head to the Vicar’s Close for a look around.
When you need a break, grab a coffee and a pastry, or sit down to a mushroom and Stilton puff pastry tart with a Somerset cider at the Square Edge Café (2 Town Halls Buildings, Wells).
Twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, barter for local wares at the open market in the Wells Market Place, between the two medieval gateways, Penniless Porch and the Bishop’s Eye. Then have a walk around its unusually fortress-like Bishop’s Palace, complete with fortified walls and a moat. Nearby in Wooky, watch the 150-year-old Burcott Mill in action, producing organic whole-grain flour the old-fashioned way.
Cruise a few miles down the road towards the Stanton Drew Stone Circles. There are three here, the largest of which is 122 yards, or more than half a mile in diameter—the second biggest in the UK after the large stone circle at Avebury. Many of the stones are overturned, but the site is open to the public, free of charge, and off-the-radar for most tourists. Local legend has it the circle is the result of a wedding party gone wrong where the Devil fiddled and turned all the guests to stone.
Day 3: Roman Baths and Stone Circles
Before you leave Bath, take the morning to get a closer look at its history with a tour of its Roman Baths. Before you go, gather your strength with a sip of its mineral rich water.
Carry on to Stonehenge for a look around England’s most famous prehistoric monument. It’s small but iconic, crowded for good reason. Book a ticket ahead of time, and show up early, or risk not getting in. Next to the visitor center, step inside replicas of Neolithic houses and picture of how people lived over 4,000 years ago.
Next head to Avebury and hike around the UK’s biggest stone circle. Unlike at Stonehenge, here you can get up close to the massive stones. Of course, like with so many things, the further away you are, the easier it is to see the big picture and the harder it is to capture on film. Hop in the car or take a short hike over to Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe, roughly the size of Egyptian pyramids.
Sleep at the Lacock Pottery B&B. Before you turn in for the night, explore the village—this well-preserved rural community dates back to the Middle Ages and was used in the filming of two Harry Potter movies and The Other Boleyn Girl.
Seven Practical Tips for Trip Planning:
1. If you can, fly into Bristol. It’s much closer to Somerset and Wiltshire than London. It’ll save you a few hours in the car.
2. Avoid visiting the area around the Glastonbury Festival, usually held around the end of June, unless you’re actually attending. Although the festival takes place in Pilton, not Glastonbury proper, it can mean crowds, and more expensive, harder-to-come-by accommodations. Spring and Fall Equinox, Winter and Summer Solstice, and Halloween are also busier times here.
3. Remember that whatever your feelings on esoteric arts and Neo-paganism may be, for lots of locals and visitors to this area, particularly in Glastonbury, it’s a sincere belief system to be respected as such. You'll see strange stuff; keep it to yourself.
4. All crowds and entry-fees aside, make time to see two of the most visited attractions: Bath—known for it’s 18th century architecture and hot springs and Stonehenge, perhaps the world’s best known stone circle. The crowds are there for a reason. Avoid them somewhat if you visit during low season (November through March).
5. Reserve tickets to busy attractions and B&B’s (rooms are usually pretty limited) as far ahead as you can manage.
6. Bring weatherproof shoes and an umbrella, and plan to dress in layers. The weather in this part of the UK tends to change quickly, and the easiest way to stay dry and comfortable is to be prepared.
Excited to plan your own Somerset and Wiltshire itinerary? See our Somerset & Wiltshire Trip Plan.
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