In the West Country, Wiltshire is a county of chalk downs that meet the Cotswold Hills on the boundaries with Somerset and Gloucestershire.
As one of the most fertile regions in England there’s abundant farmland in Wiltshire, interspersed with well-looked after towns, and villages prized for their cute thatched cottages.
The county’s hilltops are crowned with former Bronze age forts and burial mounds, and there also Neolithic monuments like the world-famous Stonehenge or the stone circles at Avebury, which are all part of a World Heritage Site.
Safe to say there was a lot happening in this part of England thousands of years ago.
One of the things that makes Wiltshire so quiet now is the restricted Salisbury Plain in the middle of the county, a gigantic tract of military land with army bases and airfields.
Historic Salisbury is a beautifully-presented city drenched in medieval heritage, and one of the main ports of call for tourists in Wiltshire.
And this is no mystery when you see the cathedral and uncover the riveting history within its walls.
This sensational 13th-century building has the oldest working clock in the world, from 1386, and it has the best-preserved of the four copies of the Magna Carta.
The cathedral is compulsory, but just one of many things to get excited about.
The Salisbury is a great accompaniment to nearby Stonehenge and Wiltshire’s Bronze Age monuments, while on a hilltop north of Salisbury is Old Sarum, where the old city and cathedral once stood.
There had been a settlement here from the Bronze Age to the 13th century when the cathedral was moved to its current location.
2. Bradford on Avon
The west side of the county is in the lower reaches of the Cotswold Hills, and the combination of that mellow limestone and Bradford’s historical wealth makes Bradford unmissable.
The town got rich from the woollen textile trade in the 1600s when a lot of its present architecture was built, and with its winding topography it’s a very rewarding place to see on foot.
The loveliest sight of all is the medieval bridge, which has a chapel that was later converted into a lockup to hold troublemakers overnight.
There’s a surprising amount to get through in Bradford, but the 10th-century Saxon church of St Laurence, the 14th-century Tithe Barn and the Arts and Crafts-style gardens at Iford Manor, need to be in your plans.
There’s evidence of human settlement going back more than 10,000 years at Amesbury, which makes it by far the oldest settlement in the country to have been continuously inhabited.
If there’s one thing to see around Amesbury it has to be Stonehenge, which hardly needs introducing.
This ring of monumental stones goes back to 3000 BC and it’s mind-boggling to think that these enormous stones travelled from as far as Pembrokeshire in Wales.
Be sure to linger in the town for a while to see the Church of St Mary and St Melor, which was once Amesbury Abbey, founded in the 10th century and the burial place Henry III’s wife, Eleanor of Provence who died in Amesbury in 1291.
For a small village in the middle of the downs, Avebury has got a lot going for it.
First up are the Neolithic stone circles, which are part of the same World Heritage Site as Stonehenge.
This henge dates back 5,000 years and took centuries to complete.
The stones hold a lot of significance for modern paganists, and it’s not uncommon to see people dressed as druids here! But for everyone else they’re a mysterious and enthralling monument to a time when people were first joining together in farming communities in one of Britain’s most fertile regions.
Avebury Manor is right by the stone circles and is a delight, dating to the mid-1500s and with wood-panelled rooms and walled formal gardens outside.
Even in a county replete with fetching market towns Devizes will stay with you after you leave.
The centre is very well-preserved, with more than 500 listed buildings.
So you can pick up many different threads to learn more about the town and Wiltshire’s past.
One of these is the Wadworth Brewery, still delivering ale by shire horse after almost 150 years and happy to show you around the brew house.
Then there’s the Georgian industrial engineering of Caen Hill, where a flight of 16 locks conduct canal traffic up or down the hill.
And the Wiltshire Museum is a fab attraction that will bring you face-to-face with the Bronze Age treasures buried with chieftains in their barrows.
This old and distinguished market town is a dream to explore and has a singular appearance because of its very wide high street.
This is the second-widest in the whole of England, in fact, and this provides and ample berth for the weekly markets that take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Just wandering around Marlborough’s well-preserved streets, home to pubs, tea rooms and antiques shops, it’s not hard to tell that the town has enjoyed long periods of wealth.
The silk trade is to thank for one of these, and you can drop by the Merchant’s House on the high street to learn how a wealthy 17th-century businessman would have lived.
The River Thames flirts with the northwestern corner of Wiltshire, and passes the town of Cricklade when it is little more than a stream.
Even a town as small as Cricklade has enough history to put together a heritage trail, which will show you around some interesting sights like two medieval churches, a 13th-century priory, the Jenner Hall which is from the 1600s and a strange-looking clock designed to commemorate Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in the late-1800s.
The countryside is as beautiful here as anywhere in Wiltshire, and in early Spring the North Meadow National Nature Reserve erupts into bloom thanks to its many, rare wild snakeshead fritillaries.
The closest thing in Wiltshire to an urban centre, Swindon differs from the rest of the county as it’s a modern-looking hub for business and education, and has an industrial legacy.
The acclaimed Museum of the Great Western Railway is on the site of the Swindon Works, which is what kept this famous line operational, at one time producing three new steam locomotives every week.
The museum charts the age of steam travel, with a fleet of engines including the GWR Star Class North Star, designed by Robert Stephenson himself in 1838. The hi-tech businesses based around Swindon make it an appropriate location for the Museum of Computing, but if you can’t do without a hit of old-school glamour Lydiard Park is in the grounds of a regal Palladian manor house.
You’ll have to go a long way to find a prettier village than Lacock in Wiltshire’s Cotswolds.
You may wonder if you’ve walked into a fairytale, as every house brims with rustic charm.
This ensemble of timber-framed and weathered limestone buildings is under the care of the National Trust, and it won’t be news to hear that a lot of TV shows and movies (including two Harry Potter films) have been filmed here.
Lacock Abbey is a nunnery that became a stately home after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1500s.
Also belonging to the National Trust, this exquisite stone building is an engaging melange of styles and has loads of its original features, like a bakery and brewery in its Tudor courtyards.
In the West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Tisbury is an endearing village on the Nadder River, a crystal-clear chalk stream noted for its brown trout.
Tisbury flourished in the middle ages when its quarries provided the stone for Salisbury cathedral.
There are lots of curious sights to keep in mind, like the Grade I-listed parish church, which has a 4,000-year-old yew, the second oldest tree in Britain, in its yard.
Then you have the 13th-century Tithe Barn, which has the largest thatched roof in England.
But if you see only one thing in this area it has to be the 14th-century Wardour Castle, damaged during a five-day siege in the Civil War and now a romantic and well-formed ruin that often appears in movies and TV shows.
The town of Warminster in the southwest of the country has lots to recommend it and owes a lot of its present character to the corn trade and one George Wansey, a wealthy cloth merchant who donated a fortune to have Warminster spruced up in the early 1800s.
The town has more bustle and nightlife than all of the surrounding villages put together, but Warminster’s allure comes from its proximity to two of rural England’s favourite days out.
Stourhead is a country house and garden par excellence, while the Elizabethan Longleat Manor is also outstanding, but also includes Longleat Safari Park, the award-winning and hugely popular wildlife attraction.
Moated by two branches of the River Avon, Malmesbury is another of northwestern Wiltshire’s Cotswold towns, and is equally historic and beautiful.
This was one of Alfred the Great’s main fortifications against the Vikings in the late-9th century, while Malmesbury Abbey has been here since the 600s and was in constant use until it was dissolved by Henry VIII. The abbey is the burial place of Athelstan, King of the Anglo-Saxons up to 939. Right next to the abbey and incorporating some of its buildings after the monastery was dissolved is the Old Bell Inn.
This is the oldest hotel in England, catering for guests since 1220.
Just west of Salisbury, Wilton has a genteel air for its quoined 17th and 18th-century buildings, and a church that almost seems extravagant for such a small place.
As the name will tell you, Wilton was once Wiltshire’s county town, a role it played until the 1000s.
And the reason for so much grand Georgian architecture is the weaving industry, which boomed in the town for hundreds of years.
Valuable Wilton Carpets are still weaved in the town today, even it’s on a smaller scale than in old times.
For some sightseeing, Wilton House is unbelievably lavish, with State Rooms decorated with portraits by Anthony van Dyck of the landed Herbert Family in the 17th-century.
For centuries the grassy hillsides in England’s West Country have been decorated with monumental works of art by exposing the white chalk below.
In Wiltshire they take the form of a white horse.
There are eight around the county, and one of the more recent is the Pewsey White Horse, which rises above the cornfields in the bucolic Pewsey Vale.
With its thatched cottages, the small town of Pewsey is a very agreeable place to spend an afternoon, connecting with a few public rights of way and with a clutch of friendly pubs to call in on.
Follow the Kennet & Avon Canal east to the Crofton Pumping Station, which is more than 200 years old and uses a functioning beam engine to pump water from a stream to replenish the canal.
15. Castle Combe
A fitting place to round off the list, Castle Combe is billed as one of the prettiest villages in England and an essential stop in the Cotswolds.
When you take in the scene on the By Brook it may be hard to disagree.
Castle Combe is a lovely jumble of cottages made from rusticated Cotswold stone.
Many of these were built for weavers during the days of the wool trade in the 1600s.
The Grade I listed parish church here has an effigy of a Sir Walter de Dunstanville from 1270, and his crossed legs indicate that he fought in the Crusades.