Britain's Finest Ancient Monuments

By Richard Moss
a photograph of standing stones against an orange sunset

Photo: the greatest Stone Circle in the world? Stonehenge was voted Britain's finest ancient monument. Picture © English Heritage.

A World Heritage site that continues to throw up new insights into our ancestors, Stonehenge is one of the most important and certainly the most famous set of standing stones in the world.

The debate still rages as to who constructed the monoliths and for what purpose, (although a general consensus has settled on 2,700 BC as a rough date), but today they remain situated in a vast plain for all to see, surrounded by the remnants of a rich megalithic landscape.

The enigmatic stones engender a sense of reverence in the millions of people who visit them. It's a truly impressive sight - the closer you get to the huge standing stones the more incredible the feat achieved by our ancient ancestors appears.

For some, Stonehenge is a place where the imagination can be fired, whilst others hold it to be a sacred place. But whatever your viewpoint and whatever its original purpose, Stonehenge remains as one of our most intriguing ancient monuments.

shows a picture of the central bath at the Roman Baths at Bath

Photo: a visit to the Roman Baths reveals more than just the bathing habits of the Romans. Picture © The Roman Baths, Bath.

Jumping forward just a few thousand years, another great favourite with the British public is the Roman Baths, in Bath. Main sights to see include a Sacred Spring, a Roman Temple, a Roman bathhouse and a selection of finds from the Roman-era city. A visit here offers unparalleled insights into the life of a Romano-British town.

It is in fact the best-preserved Roman religious spa this side of the Alps, offering an insight into a sacred site and an incredble feat of Roman engineering.

The centre piece is a pool, lined with 45 sheets of lead, and filled with hot spa water, but at the very heart of the site is the Sacred Spring, where hot water at a temperature of 460c rises at the rate of 1,170,000 litres (that's 240,000 gallons) every day - something it's been doing for thousands of years.

The complex is also home to one of only two truly classical temples known from Roman Britain. Extensive excavations spread out underneath the city streets and an excellent museum tells you everything you need to know about the people of Roman Bath.

Photo: Chesters Roman Fort; just one of the many forts and towers to be explored along Hadrian's Wall.

Another famous Roman legacy, this time at the opposite end of the country, Hadrian's Wall is the most impressive if not the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain.

The mighty wall once ran uninterrupted across the whole north of England from Newcastle to Carlisle and today its impressive remains draw visitors from all over the world.

As a reminder of the sheer power of the Romans in Britain, Hadrian's Wall has no equal. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1987, visitors are treated to museums, forts, milecastles, temples and turrets all along its 74 miles.

Visitor centres also help with the interpretation and whilst the ruins are sometimes stark and inspiring, elsewhere they have mellowed into the landscape or are tucked into hidden corners of today's cities.

With the recent addition of a National Trail on the Hadrian's Wall Path, the wall is now even more accessible than before, allowing us the chance to explore every inch of an important piece of our national heritage.

photo of a coastline with a neolithic barrows and stone tombs

Photo: the whole Isle of Orkney boasts many perfectly preserved megalithic sites. Picture © Historic Scotland.

Moving even further back in time and further north of the border, the Isle of Orkney is home to one of the most important ancient heritage sites in the world.

The village of Skara Brae lies on the shore of the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Orkney's Mainland and is believed to be over 3,000 years old.

Today it remains an astonishingly preserved ancient settlement. Thanks in part to Orkney's lack of natural building materials (such as wood), the stone settlements can be viewed complete with their stone beds and dressers - giving us an unparalleled and surprisingly vivid insight into the lives of our ancestors.

shows a mosaic from Fishbourne Roman Palace

Photo: the Roman Palace of Fishbourne is one of the best places to see Roman mosaics in the UK. Photo © Fishbourne Roman Palace.

It's back into Roman times for the next on the list and anyone wishing to explore the Roman occupation and influence in Britain can do no better than visit the Roman Palace of Fishbourne near Chichester.

Discovered in 1960 during the digging of a water trench, this great Roman palace continues to throw up new insights into the nature of Romano-British culture.

Visitors to the site can view the remains of the palace (preserved under a special covering) and marvel at some of the finest mosaics in-situ anywhere in the British Isles. There is also a museum and a preserved Roman garden.

shows the majestic and mysterious stones at Avebury in Wiltshire, a World Heritage Site.

Photo: the standing stones of Avebury in Wiltshire cover an area of 28 acres - even entering the village of Avebury itself.

If there's one aspect of ancient heritage that Britain is particularly blessed with it is stone circles and, after Stonehenge, the Avebury Stone Circle is one of the best examples to be found anywhere in the world.

This stone circle, nestling amidst the ancient landscape of Wiltshire is, like its slightly more famous neighbour, another World Heritage Site but as a Neolithic site it is actually more complex and extensive.

It is also wonderfully open, you can actually wander between the stones quite freely and take your time to explore the quarter mile area they cover. There are also two smaller circles within the outer circle and some of the larger stones are to be found in the village of Avebury.

It makes for a fascinating tour and taken together with the fascinating landscape that surrounds it, Avebury is one of the most rewarding places to investigate the rituals of our ancestors.

Photo: with its massive earthworks and dramatic history Maiden Castle in Dorset is still an imposing site today.

Another ancient site that flourished before the Roman invasion of Britain Maiden Castle in Dorset is an ancient hillfort and one of the largest and most impressive fortifications of the Ancient Britons. It's an immense earthwork with ramparts enclosing an area of 45 acres whilst its inner circumference runs to one and a half miles.

Flint tools and bone implements found at the site suggest the hill was first occupied around 3000BC, when it would have afforded protection to a cluster of late Stone Age and early Bronze Age settlements nearby.

The fort finally succumbed to a Roman Legion under the command of Vespasian in AD43. Visitors today may marvel at the sheer size of the ancient castle walls that only fell after a siege led by one of Rome's finest soldiers.

shows an aerial shot of Uffington White Horse

Photo: Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire is reputed to be Britain's oldest hill figure. © Vale and Downland Museum

The Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire is 374 feet long and at roughly two to three thousand years old is Britain's most ancient hill figure.

Theories abound as to the meaning and origin of this strange horse - from Celtic fertility symbol, to a commemoration of St George's slaying of the dragon (incidentally the adjacent Dragon Hill is one of the best vantage points to get a good view of the horse).

But whatever its meaning or origin, the horse and surrounding landscape is one of the favourite ancient spots in England. Perhaps it's something about the timeless quality of the view afforded from the top of White Horse Hill with the trees and meadows mingling with the imagination to offer a glimpse of an ancient landscape.

A photo of an entrance to a stone tunnel.

Photo: the ancient passage grave of Maes Howe is the second ancient monument form the Isle of Orkney to appear in 'Britain's Finest'. Picture © Historic Scotland.

For our next ancient monument it's back up to the unparalleled iron-age landscape of Orkney to take in another of the area's astonishingly preserved monuments. Maes Howe is an ancient passage grave dating to around 3000 BC - and once inside a megalithic marvel awaits.

The tomb is entered through a low 9m long passage, with a large swivelling blocking stone still in place in its outer end. Climbing gently uphill you eventually enter the main chamber, which is roughly square in shape and about 4.5m on each side.

The sides are made up of gently corbelled flat blocks, fitted superbly closely together, with huge buttresses at each corner. Here and there you can see Viking runes - graffiti from a tomb raiding party that left their calling card.

In the winter, around the time of the winter solstice, the setting of the sun lights the interior of the tomb as it reaches its zenith. It makes for a moving experience in one of the most remarkably preserved passage graves in the world.

shows an aerial shot of of the Cerne Abbas Giant

Photo: another favourite hill figure makes the grade as a favourite heritage site

For our final ancient site, we visit another giant figure scored into the landscape by our ancestors. But unlike the White Horse of Uffington it is somewhat easier to make a stab at the ritual purpose of the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset.

With his huge club and phallus, there is no shortage of theories to explain the powers and meaning of this giant who has has bestrode the English landscape for centuries.

As to his precise origin, one of the more popular theories has the figure as the Greek-Roman god Hercules. This would place his first appearance at the end of the second century AD, when the Emperor Commodus, who believed himself to be a reincarnation of Hercules, revived the worship of the god.

However, that's just one theory and there remains some considerable conjecture as to when this virile giant began his life, but local folklore is certain of one thing - a night spent on the hill, preferably within the confines of the phallus, is a sure way to secure fertility.

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