In the rolling chalk hills of the North Wessex Downs, Marlborough is a picture perfect town on the historic road from London to Bath.
Marlborough’s High Street along this old road is broader than almost any in the country, and blends centuries old listed buildings, shops to pique your curiosity, as well as lots of options for dining, a drink or a spot of tea.
West of Marlborough is a once sacred landscape of prehistoric monuments, at Avebury, the West Kennet Avenue and the West Kennet Long Barrow, all part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site as Stonehenge.
The name Marlborough may ring a bell for the prestigious independent school, which counts numerous literary and cultural figures, Members of Parliament and Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine Middleton, among its alumni.
1. Marlborough High Street
Almost all of Marlborough’s history is congregated on the beautiful and unusually wide High Street with a Victorian town hall at its head.
As it happens, this is the second widest high street in the UK and is fronted by many listed buildings dating back to a town fire in the 17th century and clad with tiles.
As well as the 17th-century Merchant’s House, which we’ll talk about below, the stunning Chantry Priest’s House at No. 99 is from the late-1400s.
On the north side many of the shops and inns have elegant porches supported by columns, like the Castle & Ball at No. 118, established around 1745. Most of all, the High Street is a great place to shop, with all the stores and restaurants you’d expect from a UK town centre, as well as plenty of surprises at individual boutiques, gift shops and tea rooms.
On the south side there are a few little alleys leading down towards the River Kennet.
2. The Merchant’s House
The Great Fire of 1653 devastated Marlborough, and a building that sprang up from the ashes in the decades after was this house for the silk merchant Thomas Bayly.
On the north side of the High Street, this building is in a wonderful state of preservation, keeping a lot of its 17th-century fabric in the form of oak panelling, wall paintings and a venerable oak staircase.
Bayly was middle class but wealthy as the high standard of decoration shows.
The collections open a window on 17th-century domestic life, but also cover Marlborough’s 18th and 19th-century history, with silverware, clocks, clothing and farming implements.
At the back is a little Baroque garden as it would have been in the 1600s, while there’s an upmarket shop, and a sweet Christmas Present Room in the advent season selling hand-crafted gifts and decorations.
3. St Peter’s Church
Marlborough’s former parish church was declared redundant in the 1970s and today is an atmospheric setting for a cafe and craft shop selling all sorts of giftable handmade items, from toys, to cards, bags, art and clothing.
St Peter’s is on the site of a Saxon church and in 1460 the Norman building was reconstructed in the Perpendicular Gothic style.
Historians will be intrigued to hear that Cardinal Wolsey was ordained at this very building in March 1498. There’s a great deal of history to be found in the wall monuments, dating from the 1600s to the 1800s, while you can take a tour to climb the 139 steps in the tower.
You’ll visit the priest’s room, ringing chamber (with a small exhibition about the church), the clock room, belfry with bell from 1741 and then the tower roof for a photo-worthy view up the High Street.
4. Savernake Forest
The only privately owned forest in Britain belongs to the Marquess of Ailesbury but is essentially open to the public, closing on just one day a year.
Blanketing 4,500 acres of hilly downland, Savernake Forest is made up mostly of oak and beech, and has dozens of veteran trees and some landscaping from the 18th century.
The famous Capability Brown planted eight radial drives, one of which is the Grand Avenue, a 3.9-mile dead straight artery lined with beeches and officially the longest avenue in the UK.
Many of the grander oaks and beeches were pollarded so their timber could be harvested across hundreds of years.
One such specimen is the stately Big Belly Oak next to the A346. Close to where the Grand Avenue crosses the Three Oak Hill Drive is the Duke’s Vaunt Oak, dating back more than 1,000 years.
And near Tottenham House, the King of Limbs is about the same age, and gave its name to the 2011 Radiohead album, partly recorded at the house.
Part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site as the better known Stonehenge, Avebury is a staggering Neolithic henge monument made up of three stone circles, one of which is the largest megalithic stone circle in the world.
Work took place here across some 600 years during the third millennium BC, and although the meaning of this vast ensemble is unclear, it is thought to have been a place of rituals and ceremonies.
The henge (earthwork bank and ditch) surround the entire site, hemmed by the largest circle more than 330 metres in diameter, with smaller northern (98 metres) and southern circles (108 metres) inside it.
The southern ring is interrupted by the village of Avebury, which cropped up in Medieval times.
As we see it today, Avebury owes a lot to the Scottish archaeologist Alexander Keiller who bought the site and restored it in the 1930s.
6. Avebury Manor & Garden
There’s more recent but no less compelling history at this National Trust manor house, built in the 16th century.
In the early 2010s nine of the manor’s rooms were redecorated in five different period styles: Tudor, Queen Anne, Georgian, Victorian and 20th century.
The Tudor Dining Room for one has rush mat flooring and hand-crafted oak furniture, as it would have done when the widow Debora Dunch married Sir James Mervyn, the High Sheriff of Wiltshire here in the 1590s.
Something to love about Avebury Manor is that visitors are encouraged to feel at home here, lying on beds, sitting on furniture, even using the table in the Billiard Room.
One of the only things off limits is the gorgeous Chinoiserie wallpaper in the Georgian Dining Room.
The formal garden is designed in a series of “rooms”, including a kitchen garden, orchard, topiary garden and a church garden with picnic blankets and steamer chairs that can be borrowed on sunny days.
7. Silbury Hill
In the same UNESCO World Heritage Site as Avebury and Stonehenge is the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe.
Just shy of 40 metres high and 160 metres wide, Silbury Hill was completed around 2350 BC and though it was obviously an important site, its exact purpose is unknown as there is no sign of a burial here.
The mound was formed over the course of just over 100 years, and would have required an amazing amount of coordination.
It is thought that four million man-hours went into its construction, as well as half a million tons of chalk and soil.
8. Church of St James, Avebury
Also essential in Avebury is the parish church, which has an Anglo-Saxon nave from around the turn of the 11th century.
High on the nave’s north wall you can see a row of three round-arched windows dating to that time.
The Saxon chancel was demolished in the 13th century and then rebuilt in the 1870s, but an exquisite and rare detail survives at its entrance in the form of the 15th-century rood loft.
This has painted and gilded panels, with trefoil arches holding steep crocketed gables and friezes depicting grapes and leaves.
Ornamentation in this part of a church didn’t usually survive the Reformation, but the rood loft was kept hidden from the 16th century until 1810. Also worthwhile is the oak parish chest and the tub font, which may have Saxon origins but features 12th-century carvings showing a bishop (possibly Christ, but wearing a crosier) trampling two dragons.
9. West Kennet Avenue
Linking the stone circles at Avebury with Overton Hill, 1.5 miles away, is an epic corridor of sarsen stones.
Twenty five metres wide and originally made up of 100 stones, the West Kennet Avenue connects Avebury with another Neolithic site, the Sanctuary, and is a little younger than both monuments, dating back to around 2200 BC.
The stones are lined up in pairs and you’ll notice that there are two basic shapes, cylindrical and triangular.
It is thought that the cylindrical stones represent males and triangular females, which explains why they stand in pairs.
The avenue has a winding course, as it snaked between settlements and buildings that stood here 4,000 years ago.
10. West Kennet Long Barrow
One of the most magnificent Neolithic graves in the UK can be found close to Silbury Hill.
The West Kennet Long Barrow is posted on a high chalk ridge, with stone burial chambers at one end of a 100-metre passage.
The barrow goes back to 3650 BC and would have been used for about a millennium.
The remains of 46 people of all ages have been unearthed inside, as well as beads, pottery and stone implements like a dagger.
At roughly 2000 BC the passage was filled with rubble and both the entrance and forecourt were blocked off with sarsen stones.
As with all the Neolithic history around Avebury, the West Kennet Long Barrow is managed by the National Trust under the guardianship of English Heritage.
11. Crofton Beam Engines
The highest point of the Kennet and Avon Canal passes Marlborough to the south-east.
This section required an independent source of water, as boats entering and leaving lock 60 here would cause water to drain.
A spring was found close by, and the Crofton Pumping Station was completed in 1812. This now uses electric pumps, but has kept hold of two formidable steam engines.
Number 1 engine, built by Boulton & Watt has been in place since 1812 and is the oldest functioning beam engine in the world still capable of performing its intended task.
Number 2 engine goes back to a modernisation in 1846, and was originally a combined cylinder engine, but was turned into a single-acting Cornish engine for the sake of efficiency in 1905. The station is open Tuesday to Sunday from early April to October, and on select weekends you can see the engines in action, fed by coal-fired Lancashire boilers on Steaming Dates.
12. Devil’s Den
If you still have an appetite for Neolithic history there’s another monument on Fyfield Hill close to Marlborough.
Devil’s Den is a dolmen left over from a passage grave and would have formed its entrance.
Millennia ago there would have been a mound more than 70 metres long, but what’s left is some fallen stones, a pair of standing stones and a capstone thought to weigh 17 tons.
The monument got its name after the arrival of Christianity and comes from a legend that if water is poured into the cavities on the capstone a demon will come out at night and drink it.
13. West Woods
A convenient location for walks just outside Marlborough, West Woods is almost 1,000 acres of magical beech forest managed by the Forestry Commission.
In April and May people flock to West Woods for a sea of bluebells, but the woods are so large that they never feel crowded even at this time of year.
At other times you can enjoy perfect seclusion, and if you go quietly you’ll have a good chance of sighting deer or maybe a badger, especially later in the day.
14. Ridgeway National Trail
Overton Hill, site of the wooden circle at The Sanctuary and a series of barrows, is the western trailhead for the Ridgeway National Trail.
This 87-mile path incorporates a section of the Ridgeway, a prehistoric path over the chalk ridge to the Thames at the Goring Gap.
From there it picks up another ancient path, Icknield Way, until journey’s end at Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns.
Once you’re up in the chalk hills the Ridgeway is a rollercoaster walk, traversing prehistoric hillforts and diving into peaceful wooden valleys, although getting down from the ridge and back up again can take some effort! For a two-day adventure you could walk to the Iron Age Uffington White Horse, spend the night in Wantage and return to Overton Hill the next day.
15. Marlborough Open Studios
The countryside around Marlborough has a sizeable arts and crafts community, and if you visit the town in on a July weekend you’ll be able to visit their studios and workshops or browse pop-up galleries.
The event casts a large net, taking in Marlborough as well as the towns of Pewsey, Hungerford, Devizes, Calne and Wroughton, including all the little villages and hamlets in between.
So as well as sampling and supporting local sculpture, ceramics, photography, painting, jewellery, textiles and printmaking you can appreciate the stirring and ancient scenery of the North Wessex Downs.
There’s an artists’ directory on the Open Studios website, giving complete with opening times.