Walled by six chalk hills over the Salisbury Plain, Warminster is a market town much visited for the historic Longleat estate.
Longleat mixes the family-friendly fun of one of the UK’s favourite safari parks with the splendour of an Elizabethan Prodigy House.
The sheer size of the Longleat estate is extraordinary and under its mantle of woodland there’s a Center Parcs resort, home to the luxurious Aqua Sana spa, and the Shearwater Lake.
The National Trust’s Stourhead is a comfortable drive from Warminster, while those chalk hills around the town have been moulded by human hands, building Neolithic burial mounds and Iron Age hillforts thousands of years ago.
The seat of the Marquesses of Bath is a sumptuous 16th-century Prodigy House in 1,000 acres of parkland that was landscaped by Capability Brown in the 18th century.
The estate is much larger and comprises a further 4,000 acres of woodland, along with another 4,000 acres of farmland.
On the estate is the famous Longleat Safari Park and Shearwater Lake, both of which we’ll cover later.
In the meantime we need to mention Longleat Woods, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, as well as the record-breaking hedge maze on the Main Square north of the house.
Made up of 16,000 clipped English yews, this is the longest hedge maze in the world, with 1.7 miles of paths as well as six foot bridges and a central observation tower.
This is all the work of the eccentric 7th Marquess, who has laid out four other mazes on the property.
2. Longleat House
This sensational Elizabethan house was built for John Thynne between 1568 and 1580 on land that had been occupied by an Augustine Abbey before the Reformation.
Set off by that majestic Capability Brown landscaping, the house was one of the first stately homes to welcome the public when it opened in 1949.
A tour of Longleat House is mandatory, to view the Elizabethan Great Hall, the ante-library with stunning Venetian painted ceiling, the Red Library where many of the estate’s 40,000 books are kept, the fabulous State Drawing Room by the feted Victorian interior designer John Crace, and many more.
There’s an trove of decorative arts as you make your way, like 18th-century Meissen porcelain, Flemish tapestries and historic paintings (see the portrait of Henry Frederick, Charles I’s brother in the Prince of Wales Bedroom). The house and gardens are included in the day ticket for the safari park, but can be visited on a separate, cheaper pass.
3. Longleat Safari Park
In thousands of acres of Wiltshire countryside, Longleat Safari Park was the first drive-through safari outside Africa when it opened in 1966. There are 500 animals at the park, that you can see from your car or at smaller enclosures on foot.
The drive will take you past white rhinos, lions, elephants, deer herds that have been on the estate since Elizabethan times, tigers, cheetahs, wolves and mischievous macaques.
You can get close to giraffes and zebras on foot at the African Village and Walking Safari, while the Main Square is more like a conventional zoo.
Here you can board the Longleat miniature steam railway, solve that famous Hedge Maze, meet domestic animals at the family farmyard, hand feed lorikeets and go on a cruise to see the gorilla colony, California sea lions and a pair of hippos.
This is just a brief intro to everything going on at the park, and there are new experiences with each season.
The glorious parkland and mansion at Stourhead is also a must.
This estate has belonged to the National Trust since 1946 and for the previous 230 years the property was the seat of the Hoare family who transformed the house and its Grade I gardens in the 18th century.
Stourhead is an estate where the intricately planned landscaping and lavish follies may be even more splendid than the house.
There’s a grotto decorated with statuary, a pantheon, lakeside temples of Flora and Apollo, a Palladian bridge, cascades, bountiful rhododendrons and the Medieval-style King Alfred’s Tower, 50 metres high and graced with views of the whole scene.
On the high ground, the house itself is also Palladian, from the mid-18th century and holds Henry Hoare’s (1677-1725) art collection, comprising many hand-coloured prints of works by the likes of the Baroque painter Carlo Maratta and Mannerist Daniele da Volterra.
This spellbinding man-made lake is in deep mature woodland close to Crockerton village on the Longleat Estate.
Walking trails set off from the lakeshore and into the woods.
You could hike from here to Heaven’s Gate, about an hour away and where the bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711, a long-term lodger at Longleat after losing his see following the Glorious Revolution, wrote the hymn “Morning”, one of many that he composed on the estate.
There’s a tearoom at Bargate Cottage on the lake’s south-east corner, open in summer, and a boathouse belonging to the Shearwater Sailing Club.
Rambling around the banks you’re sure to encounter people fishing for carp, while the Shearwater Sailing Club organises races on Sundays and Tuesdays evenings in spring and summer.
6. Cley Hill
Looked after by the National Trust, Cley Hill was donated by the 6th Marquess of Bath, Henry Thynne in 1954. The hill is a dominant landmark to the west of Warminster and locally has been a UFO hotspot since the mid-20th century, which isn’t too surprising given the proximity of Salisbury Plain.
Just a glimpse at the contours of Cley Hill will tell you that there’s a lot of history here, at an Iron Age hill-fort, two Bronze Age bowl barrows and rippling terraces hewn in Medieval times.
Cley Hill is covered with chalk grassland, speckled with wildflowers in early summer, and with little ridges sheltered from the breeze for picnics.
7. Arn Hill Nature Trail
On Warminster’s northern edge, Arn Hill rises to 200 metres and was given to the town by the Marquess of Bath in 1920. Up here there’s a two-mile circular trail, weaving through woodland and scenic chalk grassland where a diversity of orchids bloom in summer.
On the route you’ll pass a former lime kiln, as well as the chalk quarry that used to supply it, known as Kidnapper’s Hole, now pasture for sheep.
You’ll emerge from the woods to be greeted by a panorama that encompasses the Salisbury Plain, Dorset to the south and low-lying Somerset in the west.
Arn Hill teems with wildlife in summer, like small blue and fritillary butterflies, as well as birds like chiffchaffs, meadow pipts, skylarks and tree-creepers.
8. Lake Pleasure Grounds (Warminster Town Park)
A source of pride for Warminster, the Lake Pleasure Grounds is set around a long rectangular body of water.
There’s a cafe in the pavilion selling bird-feed for the ducks, as well as a children’s play area, a paddling pool, tennis courts and a skate park from 2019. The park has been designed to attract as much wildlife as possible, so there’s a chance you may see a heron, kingfisher or otter while you relax on one of the benches.
You can hire a rowboat or canoe for half an hour at a time in the summer; a buoyancy vest is provided.
9. Battlesbury Camp
West of Warminster, rising above the MOD land on the Salisbury Plain is Battlesbury Camp, an Iron Age hill-fort with a double circuit of defensive earthworks (bivallate). At sites like this it’s worth remembering how little of what you see is natural.
The ditch between the two sets of ramparts feels almost like a valley and was cut by human hands a little under 3,000 years ago.
The crest of this hill would have felt well protected for the community that lived here as it is still almost inaccessible from the north-east and west sides.
Battlesbury Camp was occupied until the 1st century BC, and most likely came to a violent end, as many graves with men, women and children have been found beyond the north-west entrance.
10. Westbury White Horse
White Horses are a Wiltshire signature.
These massive equine figures can be seen on hillsides, created by removing the upper layer of grass to reveal the chalk below.
The tradition is mooted to go back to Anglo-Saxon times and was revived in the 18th century.
The Westbury White Horse is the oldest in the county, carved around 1742 on the edge of the Bratton Downs and holding sway over the Salisbury Plain.
The image is 55 metres tall and 52 metres wide and according to tradition is a restored version of a white horse created in the 9th century to mark Alfred the Great’s victory at the Battle of Edington in 878. A modern stone on the hilltop commemorates the battle.
There’s even earlier history at Bratton Castle, where the double ramparts of yet another Iron Age hill-fort are unmistakable.
The closest of Warminster’s six hills is just to the north of the town a few steps from the train station.
Copheap was bought by the council just after the Second World War and turned into a memorial.
Heading from Copheap Lane there’s a traditional timber lych gate, with benches below and an inscription on its lintel beam.
From there you’ll have access to woods and chalk grassland with a preserved Neolithic barrow on top.
The scenery is fabulous in the clearings, with vistas over Salisbury Plain to the west and over Warminster to Cley Hill in the west.
12. The Athenaeum Centre
This handsome Jacobean Revival building on the High Street is a theatre built in 1858. In its early years the Athenaeum was a literary institution and the current auditorium was a lecture room, converted into a stage in 1912. The venue was rescued by a charitable trust in the late-90s and is a community-oriented amenity, putting on plays by resident theatre groups, and booking musicians from the area or making national tours.
The Athenaeum is a cosy place to watch a new Hollywood release and organises children’s activities in the school holidays as well as a variety of workshops for grown-ups, from yoga to watercolour painting.
13. Smallbrook Meadows Nature Reserve
Wetland habitats like these are quite rare among Wiltshire’s chalky grassland but there’s a sizeable patch on the Rivers Were and Wylye, beginning at the far end of the Lake Pleasure Grounds.
Broken up into six smaller meadows, this reserve is just over 30 acres and encompasses a series of ditches and a pond excavated in 1989. One of the curious things about Smallbrook Meadows is that three of the six field are on former farmland that was fertilised, so don’t produce wildflowers in summer, as opposed to the three “unimproved” fields, which are constellated with water avens, ragged robins, cuckooflowers, marsh marigolds and yellow irises in May and June.
The riverbanks and pond are a key habitat for water voles, declining around the country, but doing well here.
Kingfishers are never far away in early summer, while later in the season the dragonflies and damselflies are out in full force.
14. Aqua Sana
Hiding in a valley among giant redwoods on the Longleat Estate is a luxury spa resort that caters to day guests with a wide choice of packages.
In fact the trickiest part will be picking the experience and treatments right for you.
For example, the “Brighten and Glow” day offers an Elemis facial and Frangipani hot stones, while the “Re-energising Spa Day” entails a Decléor Mind and Body Re-energising treatment.
And if you can’t make up your mind, the “Luxury Spa Experience Day” involves more than 15 different spa experiences and two hours of treatments from top to toe.
For those pushed for time there are morning escapes, afternoon teas and twilight spas to bring a relaxing end to the day.
15. Dents Museum and Factory Shop
One of Warminster’s most prestigious long-term residents is Dents, a glove manufacturer that has been here since 1777. Dents has been making luxury gloves for royalty since the reign of George III, and produced the gloves for Elizabeth II’s coronation.
This pair is kept at the company’s museum, which is closed for general visits but can be seen on a pre-arranged private viewing.
You can also peruse gloves to commemorate Victoria’s diamond jubilee, and a collection not made by Dent.
Among these is a pair attached to gauntlets and worn by Charles I, fine wool gloves worn by Victoria and a left-hand glove for Elizabeth I’s coronation, embellished with silver thread and sequins.
Monday to Saturday you can also drop by the Factory Shop, selling expertly crafted belts, purses, wallets, bags and hats, to match its huge range of gloves.