Best of British: Prehistoric Britain

Anna Walker

Take a trip back in time and discover the Britain our ancestors knew. 

Jurassic Coast, Dorset

Stretching an impressive 95 miles between Exmouth and Dorset, the Jurassic coast is frequently described as a “walk through time”—and for good reason.

Intrepid walkers can enjoy circular routes of the area, offering dramatic cliff-top vistas and close-up glimpses at the intricate, fascinating rock formations that make the area so
rich in prehistory.

Jurassic coast programme manager, Guy Kerr, favours a trip to the coast’s Lyme Regis port. “It’s perfect for looking for fossils after a storm—you never know what you might find!”

Several beach towns along the way make for a much-needed respite and none better than picturesque Sidmouth. The clean waters are perfect for swimming and the rustic Clock Tower Café, housed in a 17th-century lime kiln right on the seafront, has beautiful views and delicious cakes.

Visit jurassiccoast.org for details

 

Cheddar Gorge, Somerset

There’s something distinctly other-worldly about this dramatic limestone gorge, where caves carved out by an underground river were once used by our ancient ancestors for maturing cheese. It’s not surprising that it provided Lord of the Rings author J R R Tolkien with the inspiration for the caves behind Helm’s Deep in The Twin Towers.

Visitors to the Gorge can explore the stalactite-adorned cave where Britain’s oldest human skeleton, the 9,000-year-old Cheddar Man, was first discovered back in 1903. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first inhabitants of these caves—dubbed the Horse Hunters of Cheddar Gorge—were cannibals who killed and ate their enemies.

Says customer service administrator David Thorpe, “My favourite part of the site is the diamond chamber at the top of Gough’s Cave, and the reaction of the visitors when they first set their eyes on the 90ft-high stalactite ceiling.”

Visit cheddargorge.co.uk for details

 

Great Orme Copper Mines, Llandudno, Wales

The discovery of this copper mine changed much of what we thought we knew of our Bronze Age ancestors. It was previously believed that metalworking had come to England with the Romans, but this Welsh discovery proved that Brits were already working metals 4,000 years ago.

The mines are made up of five miles of tunnels and passageways, some so small that historians think they were dug by children as young as five years old.

Still a working excavation site, the mines are open to the public. Incredibly, archaeologists estimate that they’ve only uncovered three per cent of the mines, so you’ll be walking on even more history than you can see before you.

Visit greatormemines.info for details

 

Compton Bay, Isle of Wight

Compton Bay hasn’t always been a sunny surfer’s paradise. Some 130 million years ago it was a subtropical lagoon roamed by dinosaurs both great and small—the perfect environment for creating fossils.

Take a walk along Compton Bay’s sandy dunes at low tide, and you’ll be able to spot huge dinosaur footprint casts scattered along the coast. Don’t miss the giant three-toed Iguanodon imprints at the base of the cliffs.

Trevor Price, community learning officer at the nearby Dinosaur Isle Museum says, “We still find exciting remains of dinosaurs from Compton and in the last few years the Bay has yielded a number of large bones and partial skeletons. I look forward to finding new fossil dinosaur footprints, preserved in rock, each time that I visit there.”

Visit visitisleofwight.co.uk for details

 

Avebury, Wiltshire

Forget Stonehenge—this quaint village is the proud home of the largest stone circle in Europe, measuring over 1,000 yards around.

Constructed during the New Stone Age (around 3000 BC), archaeologists think it was used to appease the powers of nature.

The nearby Avebury Manor offers hands-on insights into how the village developed over the centuries. Unlike most historical properties, interaction is encouraged, and visitors are welcome to sit on the chairs, lie on the beds and even play snooker in the billiard room.

The Red Lion pub—the only pub in the world to be located inside a stone circle—makes for a convenient pit stop. Says bar manager Richard Bounds, “It’s a very calming area. Outside the circle, I can’t sleep at night but in here I sleep like a log.”

Visit nationaltrust.co.uk/avebury for details

 

Skara Brae, Orkney Islands

Older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza, Skara Brae is unusually well-preserved. So much so that it’s been described as the most remarkable prehistoric monument in all of Europe.

The Neolithic village—which was first occupied around 3180 BC—is made up of eight circular dwellings, connected by a series of small passages. The village was home to farmers, hunters and fishermen and the network of homes includes a workshop and prison.

“Skara Brae dispels many myths about life in the Neolithic age being primitive: in fact is shows quite the opposite,” says tourism director Stephen Duncan. “Visitors can still see the stone furniture of each house, including beds and a dresser. We’ve also uncovered jewellery, pottery and gaming dice.”

Be sure to wrap up warm against the fierce Orkney winds.

Visit visitorkney.com for details

 

Butser Ancient Farm, Hampshire

Experimental archaeologist Dr Peter J Reynolds founded Butser Ancient Farm in 1970 with a singular vision: to create a working ancient farm where fellow archaeologists could explore their theories on how people lived and worked during the Iron Age.

Nestled in South Downs National Park, the farm builds ancient houses based on real archaeological sites from around the country.

Says creative developer Tiffany Francis, “Each house is a time capsule of ancient life, with the senses filled by firelight, the aroma of wood smoke and the crackle of flames. You can really believe that you’re standing in an Iron Age roundhouse 2,000 years ago!”

Among the ancient breeds reared at the farm are Manx Loagthan sheep, which can grow up to six horns and are always happy to see visitors, especially if they’re armed with feed.

Visit butserancientfarm.co.uk for details

 

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