Little England for a big vacation

Avebury Stone Circle. (Fotolia)

Avebury Stone Circle. (Fotolia)

ROBIN ROBINSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:42 PM ET

Poet and painter William Blake once described England as a "green and pleasant land" -- and the description stuck.

And while the sentiment is certainly true, it's also an understatement of mammoth proportions. For a small country England packs an enormous punch for travellers. Every visit brings the realization you have only scratched the surface of this ancient and complex land, and that another trip -- and then another -- will be needed.

Just when you think you've heard of every significant ancient ruin, castle, cathedral, stately home, spectacular garden, fabulous art gallery or museum, another blips across your radar. Mysteries, miracles and endearing English eccentricities await around every corner. Recently, I encountered all three during a short visit to Wiltshire county in England's South West.

THE MYSTERY

Avebury must be the only place in the world where you can sip a beer, shop and attend church inside the boundaries of an ancient stone circle.

In medieval times, the charming village of Avebury took root on the edge of a 4,500-year-old megalithic site of the same name. In the 1300s, devout Christian villagers -- possibly believing the site to have been used for pagan worship -- began knocking down and burying many of the estimated 600 standing stones.

The toppling and burying mission continued until one unfortunate man, believed to be a barber or a surgeon, was crushed and killed by a falling stone. Local lore says the townsfolk were unable to free the horribly injured man, who quickly perished under the stone's great weight and had to be entombed where he fell, says Ros Cleal, museum curator at Avebury.

While the accident halted destruction for a time, the village continued to grow with a pub, a chapel, shops and houses eventually being built inside the ancient site. Later generations of townspeople smashed up and carted away many of the stones that remained standing, and likely used the material for their own building projects, Cleal says.

By the late1800s, historians began to recognize the significance of Avebury, which is the largest stone circle in Europe. Avebury's henge -- an enormous outer stone circle with a huge ditch and bank -- encompasses two additional stone circles, and a long avenue of standing stones leads to the site.

Somewhat older than Stonehenge, only 30 km away, Avebury's stones are not as refined and not topped by lintels. But all of Stonehenge could fit neatly into Avebury's smallest inner circle some 14 times, Cleal says.

In 1934, jam tycoon and amateur archeologist Alexander Keiller used part of his fortune to buy as much of the Avebury site as he could -- some 384 hectares. Determined to preserve and restore Avebury for future generations, Keiller set about righting fallen stones and removing homes and farms from inside the monument. Fortunately there was some early documentation that showed where these massive rock sentinels had originally stood, and many of the felled stones were found buried in pits dug right alongside their original positions.

During future excavations, Keiller also uncovered the skeleton of the unfortunate barber-surgeon -- along with a pouch containing coins from the 1300s, a pair of antique scissors and a medical-looking probe -- proving the veracity of the long ago tale. The massive rock was re-erected and renamed the Barber stone, Cleal says.

But despite several subsequent archeological excavations -- and many expert theories that this was a place where ancient rituals or ceremonies were performed -- the true purpose and significance of Avebury remains a mystery.

Avebury is a popular National Trust attraction (and a World Heritage Site) but is seldom crowded. The grounds include the Keiller museum and galleries, the recently restored 16th-century Avebury Manor and garden, a cafe and shop. You can visit on your own or take a henge tour. Dogs (on leash) are welcome at the museum and on the grounds. Visitors should wear sturdy boots or work-type shoes as sheep graze in the fields and, while it keeps the grass trimmed, there is a fair bit of "residue." There are also many day trips that combine visits to Avebury and other ancient sites in the Wiltshire area.

THE MIRACLE

You may not have been to -- or even heard of -- Salisbury Cathedral, but if you have watched the TV miniseries Pillars Of The Earth or its sequel World Without End, you have seen glimpses of it. This fabulous and well preserved medieval building was one of the inspirations for author Ken Follett's popular novels, and is featured in the two dramatic productions.

But the real history of Salisbury Cathedral is every as bit as dramatic and involved as the fictional Knightsbridge Cathedral it stands in for in the television shows.

A visitor cannot help but be impressed -- first by its square tower and pointed spire that seems to scrape the sky, then by its ornate exterior and awe-inspiring interior, and finally by its long list of of "bests" and "biggests."

The cathedral was built from 1220 to1258, but the 123-metre-high spire -- the tallest in the United Kingdom -- was added in the 1300s.

Adding a spire -- especially one of such enormous proportions -- to an existing building also adds a lot of weight, which puts extra stress on a structure and its foundations. Over the centuries, this has proved to be the undoing of several churches in Britain, which collapsed, says Sarah Flanaghan, the cathedral's public relations manager.

Salisbury's spire added 6,500 additional tonnes of building material but fortunately experts were consulted over the centuries -- including St. Paul's architect Christopher Wren in 1668 -- and the building was shored up several times with flying buttresses, anchor irons and bracing arches, Flanaghan says.

Inside the cathedral, Paul Smith, the head tower guide, points out where some of the structure's long support pillars bow into the corners.

While it's certainly not leaning as much as Pisa's famous Leaning Tower, Smith says the spire is 75 cm off-centre.

The cathedral itself is considered a masterpiece of early English Gothic architecture and is adorned with turrets, gables, elegant lancet and soaring stained glass windows, trefoil and quatrefoil motifs, ornate columns, and multiple niches filled with statues of angels and archangels -- 73 on the building's west front alone.

Led by a guide, visitors can climb the tower to a viewing balcony up the spire and take in a magnificent view. (See Josh Robinson's account of the tower climb.)

Salisbury Cathedral's 32.5-hectare close is the largest in Britain. It also has the largest cloister and oldest working mechanical clock, dating to 1386. In addition, it is home to the best surviving copy of the Magna Carta (one of only four still in existence), and it remains a vibrant religious community with an active Anglican congregation.

The city of Salisbury rests on low-lying land near the confluence of five rivers. The area is prone to flooding and because of the high water table, the cathedral was built on foundations that would be considered woefully inadequate today. Given the shallow foundations, the high water table, and alternating layers of sand, gravel and water flowing underneath, the true miracle is that after more than 750 years, Salisbury Cathedral still stands today, Smith says.

THE ECCENTRIC

When someone recommended the Lazy Cow hotel in Salisbury, I was prepared for a cutesy farmyard vibe. But the Lazy Cow takes the bovine theme over the top in the best tradition of English eccentricity.

While the Lazy Cow describes itself as a place "where Grace Kelly meets Lady Gaga," I would have to say it's more of a Lady Gaga-Hopalong Cassidy kind of encounter, so be prepared for lots -- and lots -- of cow hide (on chairs, pillows, rugs, etc.), rustic wood (walls, furniture and floors), and many quirky design elements such as lamps made from twigs lashed together with leather straps and chandeliers constructed from empty milk bottles.

The staff are down-on-the-farm friendly and cheerfully help guests with everything from carrying luggage up the stairs to logging onto the free Wi-Fi.

The country-cozy restaurant, which is popular with locals, is excellent from both food and service perspectives. Well prepared steaks and other traditional beef dishes -- what else -- are house specialities. We also tried the very tasty Sticky Beef With Shanghai Noodles, and there are quite a few seafood dishes on the menu as well.

Travellers who prefer the uniformity of a large hotel chain should give this small hostelry a pass as certain types of guests might find some of the quirks a little irksome. The hotel's 17 rooms are all individually decorated, and quite charming, but I found a few less tchotchkes on table and dresser tops would have left more room for my belongings. The hotel occupies an old building, and the tilt of the floor of my room was quite pronounced.

These things aside, it is a fun place to stay for those who embrace creativity and eccentricity. Moooo.

NEED TO KNOW

-- Air Canada flies to London from many Canadian cities. See aircanada.com. There are multiple trains per day between London's Waterloo Station and Salisbury. Travel time is about 90 minutes. Once there, we picked up a pre-arranged rental car. Avebury is 47-km from Salisbury but allow extra time for driving on local roads.

-- For travel information on England, contact visitbritain.com. For details on the Wiltshire area, see visitwiltshire.co.uk. For Avebury, visit nationaltrust.org.uk/avebury. For Salisbury Cathedral, see salisburycathedral.org.uk. Rooms at the Lazy Cow start around $140 per night (but check for specials), thelazycowsalisbury.co.uk.

Read more: Salisbury Cathedral tour a holiday highlight


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