Venture into one of the most mysterious landscapes of the world, retracing the footsteps of our ancestors as they paid homage to both the sun and the moon. Beginning at Amesbury, discover the Iron Age hillfort which stood guard over the River Avon and the end of Stonehenge’s ancient Avenue. Pass the remains of a medieval abbey, its gardens and the resting place of Lady Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife and Lancelot’s lover. Cross the mighty A303 to join a dismantled railway connecting the military to the main line. Enter into the iconic landscape of Stonehenge to approach the stones just as the ancient people did. Join the old Drove to meet the older and more elusive Cursus. Skim long barrows and modern houses to arrive at Woodhenge, believed to celebrate life, and the neighbouring, once densely populated, Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls. Return via the dismantled railway back to the A303 and the old drive to Amesbury Abbey.
***There is no cost for the car park or stones on this walk!***
Duration: 3-4 hours
Max Height: 375ft.
Min Height: 215ft.
Total climb: 188ft.
Terrain: Tracks, paths, roads and open access land.
Map: OS Explorer 130 Salisbury and Stonehenge
Start Point: Amesbury Recreation Ground, Amesbury. (Postcode: SP4 7BE, Grid Reference: SU149411, What Three Words: mistaken.recur.charted). Alternatively the walk can be started from the stones at The Drove.
How to Get There: From Salisbury travel north on the A345 into Amesbury. Continue straight over the first two roundabouts and take the first exit at the second onto Salisbury Street. Turn left onto Church Street to cross over the River Avon and onto Recreation Road at the bend. Curve to the left to find the car park.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route. The National Trust may also enforce further restrictions, currently they are not permitted in the fields closest to the stones.
It has been claimed that Amesbury is the oldest settlement in the country, with evidence dating back nearly 10.000 years. It is placed in unique position on the River Avon, providing an easy crossing point for those travelling east to west as well as further links via the river itself. Ignoring the more famous, wider landscape locally Amesbury has its fair share of ancient monuments. These include a, now lost, henge known as Bluestonehenge or West Amesbury Henge, a magical, bubbling spring known as Blick Mead, surrounded with a plethora of offerings and tools, and the discovery of the Amesbury Archer, a middle aged man who died around 2300BC. Activity extended into the Iron Age with the development of a hillfort and evidence of Roman activity has also been found. In the 5th century it is believed that the land was a stronghold of Ambrosius Aurelianus, King Arthur’s uncle and a leader of the resistance against the Saxon settlers. But, by the 6th century, the Saxons had cemented the settlement near the old hillfort and gushing spring. The name developed from the Saxon word ‘burgh’ for fortification and the Ames could be connected to Ambrosius. The town has continued to be an important crossing point over the river with the A303 now passing just to the north of the town. This commuter belt has also encouraged development with a new services, business park and a collection of residential developments, some adopting the names linked to the past including Archer’s Gate. The town hit the headlines in 2018 after a couple were poisoned by Novichock nerve agents; the house in which they were found was later demolished.
Enter the recreation ground, which was opened in the 1920’s, and turn right for a brief diversion to the western course of the river. Cross over the first two wooden bridges to meet the Ham Hatches. The hatches are drowning sluices for the water meadows, built from limestone and raised on seven piers. Hidden from the town of Amesbury they cross a beautifully peaceful part of the river.
Retrace your steps to the river bank and fork left back to the car park. Join Recreation Road and follow the lane out to Stonehenge Road. This road was the turnpike road, introduced in 1773, and continued up into Stonehenge Bottom where no previous road had been. The road continues as earthworks through the landscape of Stonehenge, skimming the stones to the north. To the left the road follows the river downstream passing the southern edge of the hillfort and on to West Amesbury.
Continue straight ahead to pass Little Thatch on the right hand side, built after the turnpike was introduced, and onto Queensbury Bridge. Queensbury Bridge was built in 1775, replacing an existing stone bridge that was no longer adequate for the increased level of traffic on the turnpike. It was named after Charles Douglas, the 3rd Duke of Queensberry, who owned Amesbury Abbey at the time.
The river flows upstream to pass the eastern slopes of the hillfort known as Vespasian’s Camp; despite it having no direct connections to the Romans. The fort dates back to 500BC with its mighty ramparts still clearly visible on its western edge. However, alongside the older burial mounds in the interior even older potholes and tools have been discovered including thousands of struck flints, antler bone and slate from outside the area. The 37 acre camp could have housed up to 1000 people and is considered to have been such an efficient stronghold that it was possibly a precedent for Old Sarum. The fort was pretty much ignored by the Romans but evidence of a Romano-British settlement was discovered in the 1990’s to the east of Amesbury.
Cross over the bridge to arrive at the church and the gates to Amesbury Abbey, private grounds today. A 6th century legend claims that Lady Guinevere retired to Amesbury after her husband, King Arthur’s, death in 542 AD. It was also seen as an escape from her love affair with Lancelot. It was then believed that she was buried in the grounds, by Lancelot himself, and later moved to Glastonbury to be with her husband. However, during the 1600’s a noblewoman’s grave was discovered during work. Everyone was convinced it was Guinevere and visitors flocked to the site for pilgrimage. The site of her grave today is marked with a modest cedar tree. The Abbey Guinevere knew was destroyed by the Saxons but in 979 AD a Benedictine abbey, the Abbey of St Mary and St Melor, was founded, by Queen Ælfthryth. Only 4 years earlier King Edward the Martyr had been murdered and the finger was pointed fiercely at his step mother, Ælfthryth, and it is possible she founded the nunnery as a penance. In 1177 the Abbey was dissolved by King Henry II, the nuns had been reported to be immoral (the abbess herself a mother of three children), so he replaced it with a convent of nuns and monastery of men of the Fontevraud order. It grew into a wealthy Priory with frequent Royal visitors and residents, including Catherine of Aragon as she travelled up from Spain to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales (King Henry III’s older brother) in 1501.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries many of the buildings were demolished and the estate was handed to Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford (Jane Seymour’s nephew). His son William proceeded to build a new house, including the two lodges of Diana’s House and Kent House, the building complete by 1661. In the 18th century the house was passed to Charles Douglas, 3rd Duke of Queensberry who went on to develop the gardens. He introduced a number of different elements including a Chinese temple or summerhouse, built in 1748. In 1755 he added the ornamental Baluster Bridge. His son William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensberry, continued his father’s passion landscaping the hillfort and introducing a grotto called Gays Cave, named after the poet John Gay, a close friend of the Duchess of Queensberry, who wrote at Amesbury Abbey. A Chinese-style water garden was laid out in 1987 when the Chinese House was restored. In 1824 the estate moved into the hands of Sir Edmund Antrobus who decided to completely rebuild the mansion into what we see today. A century later the estate, including Stonehenge, was split and sold at auction to private bidders. The house remained with the Antrobus family until 1975 when it was developed into a nursing home.
The church of St Mary and St Melor dates back to the 12th century. It is not clear if the church also acted as the priory church or if the Priory has its own which was demolished after the dissolution, however, the size alone may reflect its importance.
Walk straight up Church Street passing the Antrobus Arms where The Beatles stayed while they filmed their music video ‘Help!’ on Salisbury Plain.
Merge onto High Street to pass the New Inn and The George Hotel. In 1751 a fire destroyed nearly 25 buildings on High Street, meaning the majority now date from this period. The George, which managed to escape the flames, was first mentioned in 1522 but claims to be founded by King Henry II (1154-1189). It is associated with the sad tale of Sir George Rodney who committed suicide at the Inn in 1601, aged 33. Broken hearted he wrote a letter in his own blood to Lady Frances Howard then ran upon his sword. In contrast, the hotel was adapted by Charles Dickens into the ‘jolly’ place known as The Blue Dragon in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit.
Walk to the end of the High Street and turn left at the crossroads. In just over 100 metres you arrive at Kent House, constructed in 1607 as the farmhouse for Park Farm as well as a gate house to the Abbey. Opposite is Lord’s Walk, an avenue planted by Lord Carleton in the early 1700s. The Avenue was the formal approach to Kent House but the gateway on the western side is now overgrown, the route fading into the landscape. Walk on up the road to meet Diana’s House, built in 1600 as a second (lower) gatehouse to Amesbury Abbey. The old road slips down to the river to cross it via Grey Bridge, now hidden by trees and the development of the A303 roundabout.
Cross over the river to reach the roundabout on the A303. Keep right to slip down the subway and under the road. The A303 is a critical link to the West County and there is no motorway to provide an alternative. This monopoly has caused the area, especially around Stonehenge, to become a notorious bottleneck. In 2023 the green light was finally given to a drastic scheme to tackle the problem of congestion. A two mile tunnel will be dug 50 metres south of the current route. The proposal has been extremely controversial with arguments for and against coming from all corners of conservation and development. more recently UNESCO. Nevertheless, work is due to start imminently and will change the landscape forever.
Emerge from the subway at the roundabout and turn right, with the 17th century Countess Farm opposite. After 350 metres or so, take the track on the left through a gate, signposted for Stonehenge.
There has been a military presence in this area since before 1897, introducing firing ranges, barracks, hospitals, railways and airports. In 1917 Stonehenge airfield, to the south west of the stones, was opened for training bomber pilots in the First World War; a second was on Boscombe Down and a third at Larkhill. The airfield was closed in 1920 and buildings flattened, only lumps and bumps now survive in the landscape straddling the A303. In 1939 the military Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment arrived on Boscombe Down. Its work continues today following privatisation as part of the technology company QinetiQ testing aeroplanes and weapons.
In 1902 the Railway was built to connect Amesbury to the South Western Line. The line was extended to the north and, running from a camp on Countess Road, a number of spurs were introduced. Each diverted off connecting the airfields, including, in 1917, Stonehenge airfield, to the varied army camps. Use was not restricted and the public often took advantage of the service. After the end of the First World War and the decommissioning of the airfields, the spurs were closed and dismantled by 1923. The railway connected Amesbury was dismantled in 1963.
On meeting a track coming from the left, turn right and immediately turn left to trace the route of the dismantled railway. After about 200 metres, veer off to the left and follow the track to the right along the edge of Half Moon Clump.
Stonehenge is one of the World’s most mysterious and iconic landmarks. It has always been and always will be an enigma.
The earliest recorded name of Stonehenge was The Giant’s Dance. The legend claims that Ambrosius Aurelianus had met with the Saxons on Salisbury Plain in a moment of peace. However, the truce was not obeyed by the enemies and Ambrosius’ men were attacked, the Saxons killing thousands. Ambrosius wanted to honour his men, who had been killed so treacherously, so Merlin set about magically transporting Stonehenge from Ireland to be the memorial. The Wizard then enlisted the Cangick Giants to help with the construction. In 1500 a 9ft skeleton was found and in 1719 a 14ft 10in skeleton was found, buried in a huge oak coffin with an ancient book filled with elaborate inscriptions. Stories were also spread of a 21ft skeleton being unearthed, filling the locals with dread!
In fact, activity began here over 10.000 years ago. During the Mesolithic period Southern England was carpeted in wild woodland, but the chalk down land of today’s Stonehenge was open. Large gullies had been carved into the chalk by the gushing glacial waters creating natural features. The parallel channels, travelling from the north east to the south west, magically lined up with the summer solstice. It is believed that this unique environment is what attracted the ancient people to the site; where the earth, sky, moon and sun can be seen as one. In about 3000BC the first henge was created, a large circular earthen bank and ditch. This was soon developed with the addition of Welsh Bluestones around its outer edge. The site was being used for cremations with 150 individuals found to date within the interior, making it the largest Neolithic cemetery in the country. The stones were rearranged a number of times until the larger sarsen stones were introduced around 2600BC. The builders at the time were going through great changes. Elements found in burial mounds suggest a greater movement of trade and skills, as well as the development of metalworking, with the cultural identity becoming more about farming than hunting. During the Bronze Age the landscape remained a spiritual place to remember the dead with a huge concentration of round barrows surrounding the stones for example at Normanton Down. Those at New and Old Kings Barrows sit high on the ridge within full view of the stones, cementing this consistent spiritual connection. Despite little direct Iron Age activity found in the area, a number of the Roman and Romano British objects have been discovered raising the possibility that it was a place of ritual importance to them also. One Saxon burial has been found of a decapitated man, thought to be a criminal who was punished in a tragic way, or, maybe, just an unlucky Saxon in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The stones maintained their mystery, often portrayed as a dark, mystical and magical place, bathed in cloud, by authors throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Thomas Hardy chose the stones to be the tragic scene for Tess of the d’Urbervilles to spend her last night before she is taken away and hung for the murder of Alec Stoke-D’Urberville. The introduction of the turnpike road brought the visitors and by the 1880s the stones were being supported by timber poles to prevent any damage. In 1918 Cecil Chubb, who had purchased Stonehenge from the Antrobus family three years previously, gave the site to the nation. Through careful management by English Heritage and The National Trust, the landscape is gradually being returned to what it was thousands of years ago, or at least to our best knowledge!
Follow the track to the bend and curve to the right to then take the next left, entering the land of Stonehenge. Curve again with the bend to make your way through Old King Barrows. About half way between Old and New King Barrows, turn right to follow the course of The Avenue, thought to be the processional route to the stones. Head through a wooden gate and curve with the Avenue to the left. The stones of Stonehenge come into sight high on the ridge above, walking in alignment with the sunrise of the Summer Solstice and sunset of the Winter Solstice.
The purpose of the stones is thought to be either a holy site or a scientific observatory. Either way the theories are both based on alignments to the sun and moon and the ever changing seasons. It has clear associations with the dead but it is also possibly a site to come and be healed. This is due to the presence of the bluestones and the magical healing properties they were believed to contain.
On approaching the isolated Heel Stone, turn right to circle the site of the old visitor centre and up to The Drove. Turn right to gently climb the hill, most likely passing many campervans taking advantage of the allowable and unique park up. Just as The Drove bends to the left it meets the colossal, but silent, Cursus. This is a large rectangular earthwork that stretches for almost 2miles (3km) along the northern landscape of Stonehenge. It dates to much further back, by almost 1000 years, to the stones but its purpose is completely unknown. A smaller second cursus sits just to the north west while across the border in Dorset is the biggest cursus of the country, covering 7 miles (11km). Veer off to the right to cut straight over the cursus and follow its northern edge, through a number of gates, to its eastern end, marked by a Long Barrow.
Leave through either the stile or gate to join a gravel track. Cross over the path to the Long Barrow to join a bridleway running along the edge of Durrington. Bear to the left when guided to merge back onto the dismantled railway and turn right. At the bend, turn left to divert briefly to Woodhenge, passing the lonely, sarsen Cuckoo Stone on the way.
Woodhenge is a timber henge, constructed around the same time as the Sarsen stones were brought to Stonehenge. It consisted of a six concentric circles with a burial discovered in the centre. After investigations it was identified as a young child, its skull split in two and thought to be a sacrifice. Unfortunately the bones were taken to London and were destroyed during the Blitz so no further study could be carried out. The design shows striking similarities to Stonehenge including an avenue leading to the river. Recent theories present the idea that Stonehenge was site for the dead and Woodhenge the site for the living, the route between connecting life and death.
On the northern edge of Woodhenge is Durrington Walls. This is a large, circular earthwork believed to be one of the biggest Neolithic sites in Britain. It is thought to be an enclosure to a settlement, possibly filled with the builders of the henges. It may have been home to over 4000 people but was abandoned shortly after Stonehenge was constructed.
Return to the dismantled railway and turn left, following the route all the way back to Countess. Turn right at the end to retrace your steps past Countess Farm to the A303. Dive back under the road and over the river to the crossroads in Amesbury. Turn right, crossing the river for the final time to arrive back to Little Thatch on the bend. Continue straight ahead to return to the recreation ground and your vehicle.