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Compton Bassett - at the heart of Wiltshire 


Built on a human scale and remaining true to their roots, Wiltshire's settlements fit comfortably into the surrounding landscape. Many of the county's market towns started life in Saxon times: Chippenham was founded over 1,000 years ago when Alfred the Great built his hunting lodge there; the pretty village of Pewsey was once owned by King Alfred; while Trowbridge - Wiltshire's county town - grew from humble Saxon beginnings to a more elevated status in the Georgian era.

Known as 'the city in the countryside', medieval Salisbury is steeped in history and heritage, its magnificent 13th century cathedral a masterpiece of Early English Gothic architecture.

At the opposite end of the county, Swindon enjoys a colourful and vibrant nightlife and a unique industrial heritage courtesy of the Great Western Railway. The 9th Century Saxon Town of Cricklade stands on the River Thames, just north of Swindon, whilst the historic market town of Wootton Bassett has been serving the surrounding community since Saxon times.

Malmesbury is England's oldest borough. Set high on a hill on the edge of the Cotswolds, its prominent skyline is dominated by its medieval abbey. From here, the town spreads southwards, past the elaborate Market Cross, to houses and lanes rich in period detail. The prehistoric monument of Avebury is a near neighbour with the equally famous Stonehenge being just a short drive away.

Hidden away in a wooded valley carved out by the river from which it takes its name, Bradford-on-Avon is a remarkable little town with charming, honey-toned streets and a strong sense of place. The handsome old staging post of Marlborough has evolved into a stylish and cosmopolitan town. Even today, as you stroll along its broad main street you can feel a sense of harmony, balance and proportion; of everything being in its rightful place. And the same is true of Devizes - follow its medieval town trail and note the number of small, family-run businesses that still thrive in this appealing little town.

Corsham is home to a wealth of historic buildings, many of them built of the attractive local stone; Calne combines interesting architecture, antique shops and old coaching inns with charming river- and canal-side walks; while Melksham once lay within a vast forest favoured as a hunting ground by the Tudor Monarchs.

On the edge of Salisbury Plain, Westbury gives its name to one of Wiltshire's iconic white horses, carved into the chalk hillside and Warminster, at the head of the beautiful Wylye Valley, offers excellent opportunities for walking and cycling.

The small town of Amesbury is situated just two miles from Stonehenge and within easy reach of other important archaeological sites including Woodhenge and Durrington Walls. Wilton is the ancient capital of Wessex, and with a history spanning more than 2000 years, the town gave its name not only to Wiltshire, but also to the famous Wilton Carpets and the spectacular stately home of Wilton House. A few miles from the celebrated landscape gardens at Stourhead, the town of Mere nestles beneath the downs just a stone's throw from the borders of Somerset and Dorset.

Wiltshire's hidden villages are a medley of thatch and warm local stone, gable and half-timber, flint and red brick. The jewel in this rural crown must surely be the National Trust village of Lacock. Familiar to many as a setting for the Harry Potter films, and many period costume dramas such as Cranford, its 700-year old collection of buildings have been cocooned from the modern world, yet this remains very much a living village with a bakery, church, craft shops and pubs.

With its low-slung, honey-coloured cottages set beside a babbling brook, the quintessentially English village of Castle Combe is another contender in the 'almost too good to be true' category. It was the setting for the film version of Dr Dolittle and, more recently, Stardust. Other villages worth seeking out include Sherston, with its wide main street, maze of smaller lanes, quaint village shops and period houses or Ashton Keynes, Biddestone and Easton Grey - all fine Cotswold-style villages that have successfully kept modern development at bay.

Keep an eye out for The Deverills - the collective name for a group of history-laden villages in the downs just south of Warminster - and don't miss the idyllic string of settlements along the Chalke and Woodford Valleys.