On the trail of Victorian litterbugs

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, poor woman, spent her last night of liberty under the shelter of Stonehenge.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, poor woman, spent her last night of liberty under the shelter of Stonehenge.

By the time Hardy was writing, Stonehenge was already a notable romantic symbol. Victorian charabancs crowded the route from Salisbury to Stonehenge, passing via Old Sarum, the site of the original cathedral, and local worthies complained bitterly about litter left by the day-trippers (in those days, the straw and mess left behind by horse-drawn transport).

Even earlier, the contrast between the elegant cathedral and the rough-hewn standing stones had been noted: Dr Johnson called them "two eminent models of art and rudeness [that] may show the first essay, and the last perfection, in architecture".

Starting from Salisbury, as did the Victorians and earlier travellers (including Daniel Defoe and James I): the cathedral is particularly visitor friendly, the guides, easily identified by their sashes, do standard tours, but also wait around for visitors' random questions, which are answered with knowledge and wit. We heard about the strain put on the structure by the addition of the outstanding 404ft spire, and our guide pointed out not just the strainer arches, put in to absorb the weight, but also drew our attention to the noticeable dip in the triforium (the walkway that runs around the height of the cathedral) which shows how the spire caused the whole fabric to bow.

Salisbury itself merits a good day or so, but if you're serious about following the Victorian trippers on their tour you'll have to pass up a whole network of enticing little shops. For lunch, we ate in the cathedral's own restaurant, under a spectacular atrium in the shadow of the spire itself; prices were extraordinarily cheap for huge portions of more than reasonable food.

Old Sarum itself has lost some of its gravitas. You can be there in just 15 minutes from the main car park in the town centre. The ancient ruins are now surrounded by suburban villas and the grassy mounds are a place for dog-walking. But a certain grandeur still clings to the site: an Iron Age earthwork later occupied by Romans, Saxons then Normans, until the cathedral was moved from here in the 13th century (a vision of the Blessed Virgin told the bishop where to build) to its current location.

It's worth noting that they sit bang on a classic "ley line" – one of the most celebrated in England, running dead straight from Stonehenge through both churches, old and new. However sceptical, from the ruins on Old Sarum you can view the alignment through Salisbury's spire to the wooded hilltop fort of Clearbury Ring beyond.

On to Stonehenge, which stands alone on Salisbury Plain, stark against the skyline. Part of its appeal still lies in the fact that no one knows how and why it was built (Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, in the cathedral close, is excellent on the theories so far, none of which are conclusive).

Victorian trippers used to take hammers to take a chip of genuine Stonehenge; I have a photo from about 30 years ago of me, a chubby toddler, with my mum and dad, actually sitting on one of the fallen sarsens. These days you can't get close enough to touch, unless you're a Druid at the summer solstice; but the minimalist approach adopted here (no museum on site, basic facilities only) actually enhances the experience. The stones, whatever they're saying, are ancient and huge enough to speak for themselves.