These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Wessex.
England is endowed with countless stunning churches, but few can hold a candle to the grandeur and sheer spectacle of 13th-century Salisbury Cathedral. This early English Gothic–style structure, built between 1220 and 1258, has an elaborate exterior decorated with pointed arches and flying buttresses, and a sombre, austere interior designed to keep its congregation suitably pious. Its statuary and tombs are outstanding. Highlights of a visit here are the cathedral’s original 13th-century copy of Magna Carta, and taking a tour of the tower. Inside the cathedral Beyond its highly decorative West Front, a small passageway leads into the 70m-long nave, lined with handsome pillars of Purbeck stone. In the north aisle look out for a fascinating medieval clock dating from 1386, probably the oldest working timepiece in the world. At the eastern end of the ambulatory the glorious Prisoners of Conscience stained-glass window (1980) hovers above the ornate tomb of Edward Seymour (1539–1621) and Lady Catherine Grey. Other monuments and tombs line the sides of the nave, including that of William Longespée, son of Henry II and half-brother of King John. When the tomb was excavated a well-preserved rat was found inside Longespée's skull. The spire Salisbury's 123m crowning glory, its spire, was added in the mid-14th century, and is the tallest in Britain. It represented an enormous technical challenge for its medieval builders; it weighs around 6500 tonnes and required an elaborate system of cross-bracing, scissor arches and supporting buttresses to keep it upright. Look closely and you'll see the additional weight has buckled the four central piers of the nave. Sir Christopher Wren surveyed the cathedral in 1668 and calculated that the spire was leaning by 75cm. A brass plate in the floor of the nave is used to measure any shift, but no further lean was recorded in 1951 or 1970. Despite this, reinforcement of the notoriously "wonky spire" continues to this day. Tickets and other information Timed tickets must be booked in advance via the website. These are valid for repeat visits for 12 months after purchase. Tickets include access to the Chapter House where you can view Magna Carta. Check the website for the availability of tours, including the very popular tower tours. The cathedral really comes into its own during evensong. Again, you will need to book your visit in advance.
The massive, shattered ruins of Corfe Castle loom so dramatically from the landscape it's like blundering into a film set. The defensive fragments tower over an equally photogenic village, which bears the castle's name and makes for a romantic spot for a meal or an overnight stay. Corfe Castle hosts events in the shadows of its atmospheric ruins, including outdoors theater in the summer, and festive events in December. History The startling, fractured battlements of one of Dorset's most famous landmarks were once home to Sir John Bankes, Charles I’s right-hand man. The Civil War saw the castle besieged by Cromwellian forces; in 1646 the plucky Lady Bankes directed a six-week defence and the castle fell only after being betrayed from within. The Roundheads then gunpowdered Corfe Castle apart; turrets and soaring walls still sheer off at precarious angles – the splayed-out gatehouse looks like it's just been blown up. Tickets and other information Corfe Castle is managed by the National Trust, and booking in advance of your visit is strongly recommended (this includes NT Members). The car park is around 0.4 miles (700m) from the site, and the castle grounds are uneven with cobbles and steep sections. There's a cafe onsite along with pubs and tea rooms in the village of Corfe Castle that will ensure you're well fed.
Durdle Door is the poster child of Dorset's Jurassic Coast. This immense, sea-fringed, 150-million-year-old Portland stone arch was created by a combination of massive earth movements and erosion. Today it's framed by shimmering bays, with a long sand-and-shingle beach and high limestone cliffs behind. A swim here is unforgettable, but there are no lifeguards. The route from the car park You can park at the top of the cliffs (four hours £5). Make the most of the facilities here as there is nothing down at the beach. The path to Durdle Door is around 0.5 miles (900m) and very steep with over 140 steps. Wear appropriate footwear, and be prepared to carry all your belongings and trash back up the path with you on your return. Alternative routes The route from Lulworth Cove follows a section of the South West Coast Path (approx 1 mile). A quieter and much more rewarding (if testing) walk is east along the coast from Ringstead, or from the car park 0.5 miles northeast of that village (7.4 miles return).
Magna Carta on display in Salisbury Cathedral's Chapter House is one of only four surviving original copies. A historic agreement made in 1215 between King John and his barons, it acknowledged the fundamental principle that the monarch was not above the law. It's a still-powerful document, beautifully written in Latin and remarkably well preserved. It's displayed in an interactive exhibit in the 13th century Chapter House. There's also a high-resolution facsimile in the North Transept.
An ultramodern makeover at ancient Stonehenge has brought an impressive visitor centre and the closure of an intrusive road (now restored to grassland). The result is a strong sense of historical context, with dignity and mystery returned to an archaeological gem. A pathway frames the ring of massive stones. Although you can't walk in the circle, unless on a recommended Stone Circle Experience tour, you can get fairly close. Admission is through timed tickets – secure a place well in advance.
One of southern England's most awe-inspiring buildings, 11th-century Winchester Cathedral boasts a fine Gothic facade, one of the longest medieval naves in Europe (164m), and a fascinating jumble of features from all eras. Other highlights include the intricately carved medieval choir stalls, which sport everything from mythical beasts to a mischievous green man, Jane Austen's grave (near the entrance) and one of the UK's finest illuminated manuscripts. The excellent Tower and Roof Tours get busy – book well ahead.
With a diameter of 348m, Avebury is the largest stone circle in the world. It's also one of the oldest, dating from 2500 to 2200 BC. Today, more than 30 stones are in place; pillars show where missing stones would have been. Wandering between them emphasises the site's sheer scale, evidenced also by the massive bank and ditch that line the circle; the quieter northwest sector is particularly atmospheric. National Trust–run guided walks (£3) are held on most days.
Dorset's must-see stately home looks every inch the setting for a period drama. It overflows with rich decor, most famously in the Spanish Room, which is smothered with gold and gilt. Other highlights are the hieroglyphics in the Egyptian Room and the elegant marble staircase and loggia. Artworks include the overwhelming ceiling fresco The Separation of Night and Day, by Guido Reni, and paintings by Rubens, Titian and Van Dyck. Kingston Lacy is 2.5 miles west of Wimborne.
Portsmouth's blockbuster draw sees you gazing at the evocative hulk of Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose, and jumping aboard Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar warship HMS Victory. Then there's the Victorian HMS Warrior , the WWII-era submarine HMS Alliance and a wealth of imaginative museums and harbour tours. Visiting more than one exhibit makes the All Attractions ticket, not single issue tickets, the best value (although it now excludes entry to the Mary Rose Museum). There's a 20% discount for buying online.