The distant past is perhaps more tangible in Hampshire (often abbreviated to “Hants”), Dorset and Wiltshire than in any other part of England. Predominantly rural, these three counties overlap substantially with the ancient kingdom of Wessex, whose most famous ruler, Alfred, repulsed the Danes in the ninth century and came close to establishing the first unified state in England. And even before Wessex came into being, many earlier civilizations had left their stamp on the region. The chalky uplands of Wiltshire boast several of Europe’s greatest Neolithic sites, including Stonehenge and Avebury, while in Dorset you’ll find Maiden Castle, the most striking Iron Age hill fort in the country, and the Cerne Abbas Giant, source of many a legend.
The Romans tramped all over these southern counties, leaving the most conspicuous signs of their occupation at the amphitheatre of Dorchester – though that town is more closely associated with the novels of Thomas Hardy and his distinctively gloomy vision of Wessex. None of the landscapes of this region could be described as grand or wild, but the countryside is consistently seductive, not least the crumbling fossil-bearing cliffs around Lyme Regis, the managed woodlands of the New Forest and the gentle, open curves of Salisbury Plain. Its towns are also generally modest and slow-paced, with the notable exceptions of the two great maritime bases of Portsmouth and Southampton, a fair proportion of whose visitors are simply passing through on their way to the more genteel pleasures of the Isle of Wight. The two great cathedral cities in these parts, Salisbury and Winchester, and the seaside resort of Bournemouth see most tourist traffic, and the great houses of Wilton, Stourhead, Longleat and Kingston Lacy also attract the crowds; but you don’t have to wander far off the beaten track to encounter medieval churches, manor houses and unspoilt country inns.