This stunning long-distance hiking trail might be young in years – it was created in 2014 – but it visits numerous epic, historic sites. From Iron Age hillforts, burial chambers and ancient stone circles to medieval cathedrals, 17th-century thatched cottages and gorgeous stone bridges, history seeps out of the ground on the Great Stones Way.
Prehistoric monoliths and stone circles aside, the landscape on this expedition is endlessly charming. You tread centuries-old pilgrimage paths, cross chalk downlands, the vast Salisbury Plain and hug the River Avon’s vibrant banks where kingfishers, reeds and weeping willows are commonplace. Quaint villages and Norman churches punctuate the route’s patchwork farmland.
The first half takes you through the western reaches of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and includes part of the ancient Ridgeway trail and a visit to Avebury’s UNESCO World Heritage site: Avebury Stone Circle. You pass two chalk horses carved into hillsides and descend to the Vale of Pewsey before hiking up onto Salisbury Plain and following the River Avon. Although not on this itinerary, once you reach Amesbury you can easily add in a detour to nearby Stonehenge. The Avon leads you south to Old Sarum and Salisbury Cathedral.
With a few short detours to intriguing sites and taking in the trail’s full length from Swindon to Salisbury (the core route is shorter, from Barbury Castle to Old Sarum), this itinerary totals 50 miles (80 km). I’ve broken it down into four stages and whilst all have undulations, the terrain is fairly gentle on the thighs. Gravel tracks, footpaths, lanes and bridleways make up much of the route.
Each stage starts and ends either in a settlement with transport, food and accommodation or I’ve noted in the description how to get somewhere that does. There are several well-served towns on the route but, largely, it’s rural with little in the way of shops. You’re never too far from a pub but it’s important to plan your food and accommodation well in advance.
You can hike the trail in either direction and at any time of year. To make the most of the daylight and flourishing nature in Wiltshire, I’d advise that you hike the trail between late spring and early autumn. The stages almost make wonderful day hikes on an individual basis, and there are often buses that will take you back to the beginning if you choose to do them in isolation.
Swindon is easy to reach by train as it sits on the mainline with direct connections to Bristol, Gloucester, Reading and London. Equally, Salisbury is well connected by train, with mainline links to Southampton, London, Exeter and Bristol. As a result, you can drive to the end you wish to start at and catch a (non-direct) train back via Reading or one of the western train stations such as Chippenham and Trowbridge.
This first stage leaves the hustle and bustle of Swindon and leads you into the ancient surroundings of the North Wessex Downs. The first 6 miles (10 km) are gentle …
This stage heads more or less due south as it leads you across more ancient downland, across the majestic Vale of Pewsey and to the very edge of Salisbury Plain. …
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This stage sees you cutting through the heart of Salisbury Plain, picking up the River Avon and following it south. The history you encounter on this expedition dates back to …
The final stage of the Great Stones Way sees you following the River Avon’s meanderings through ancient landscapes to Old Sarum and Salisbury itself. A low-lying route, it’s a gentle …