Cathedrals, stately homes, stone circles—the South, made up of Hampshire, Dorset, and Wiltshire counties—contains a variety of notable attractions as well as several quieter pleasures. Two important cathedrals, Winchester and Salisbury (pronounced sawls-bree), are here, as are classic stately homes such as Longleat, Stourhead, and Wilton House—and remarkable prehistoric sites, two of which, Avebury and Stonehenge, are of world-class significance.
These are just the tourist-brochure highlights. Anyone spending time in these parts should rent a bike or a car and set out to discover the back-road villages and larger market towns. Close to London, the green fields of Hampshire divide the cliffs and coves of the West Country from the sprawl of the suburbs. Even if you have a coastal destination in mind, hit the brakes—there's plenty to see. Originally a Roman town, historic Winchester was made capital of the ancient kingdom of Wessex in the 9th century by Alfred the Great, a pioneer in establishing the rule of law and considered to be the first king of a united England. The city is dominated by its imposing cathedral, the final resting place of notables ranging from Saxon kings to the son of William the Conqueror to Jane Austen. It’s a good base for visiting the villages associated with several of England's literary greats, for example Chawton, home to Jane Austen.
North of Hampshire and the New Forest lies the somewhat harsher terrain of Salisbury Plain, part of it owned by the British army and used for training and weapons testing. Two monuments, millennia apart, dominate the plain. One is the 404-foot-tall stone spire of Salisbury Cathedral, the subject of one of John Constable’s finest paintings. Not far away is the most imposing and dramatic prehistoric structure in Europe: Stonehenge. The many theories about its construction and purpose only add to its otherworldly allure.
Other subregions have their own appeal, and many are of literary or historical interest. The Dorset countryside of grass-covered chalk hills—the downs—wooded valleys, meandering rivers, and meadows, immortalized in the novels of Thomas Hardy, is interspersed with unspoiled market towns and villages. Busy beach resorts such as Lyme Regis perch next to hidden coves on the fossil-rich Jurassic Coast. Just off Hampshire is the Isle of Wight—Queen Victoria's favorite getaway—where colorful flags flutter from the many sailboats anchored at Cowes, home of the famous regatta.
The South has been quietly integral to England's history for well over 4,000 years, occupied successively by prehistoric man, the Celts, the Romans, the Saxons, the Normans, and the modern British. Though short on historic buildings due to wartime bombing, the port cities of Southampton and Portsmouth are rich in history itself; the Mayflower departed from the former, and the latter is home to the oldest dry dock in the world—Henry VIII’s navy built its ships here. Portsmouth was also the departure point for Nelson to the Battle of Trafalgar, Allied forces to Normandy on D-Day, and British forces to the Falklands.