Last Updated on
Including Bristol and Bath, the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and the Isles of Scilly.
I keep returning to the West Country. Somerset’s worth visiting for the place names alone – where else would you find such choice tongue pleasers as Wyke Champflower, Huish Episcopi, Shepton Beauchamp, Great Shitting (I made that one up) and the intriguing Mudford Sock?
There’s a recurring sensation whenever you visit South West England – a frisson of enchantment. This is a place of myth and magic, with tales of mermaids, lost lands and the old people who inhabited these islands before the Romans came. The old people have certainly left their mark in hill forts, barrows and inexplicable stones which pepper the region. Who hasn’t heard of Glastonbury? Before the festival, this is one of the places associated with the legendary King Arthur, who will come galloping out of some hillside to rescue Britain from disaster. The South West is certainly the heartland of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, where Alfred the Great hid from the Danes in the marshes around Athelney and eventually beat them hollow at Ethandun. Without Alfred, there would be no England.
South West England has the longest coastline of any region in England. You can walk most of it – the South West Coast Path is 630 miles long and runs between Poole Harbour in Dorset and Minehead in Somerset; not quite all the way – but not bad! And it is a hugely diverse region. The Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, hiding place for Hermione, Ron and Harry Potter, also conceals ancient iron workings, while the Cotswolds, which grew fat on wool, feature picturesque limestone villages, glowing in the sunlight. The Mendip Hills – a range of limestone famous for ancient caves and Cheddar Cheese (because that’s where Cheddar Cheese comes from) – roll south of Bristol (the region’s largest city) and Bath to the Somerset Levels, once a sea, a marshy and watery home to people in ancient times. It is still an area prone to extreme wetness and, sadly, flooding. The name ‘Somerset’ is derived from ‘Sumer Saeta’ – land of the summer people. Wiltshire and Dorset offer a completely different landscape of chalk grassland, the soaring steeple of Salisbury Cathedral, the enigma of Stonehenge and the wonderful Jurassic Coast – where, allegedly, you can find more fossils than in Bournemouth’s hotels.
At the very western tip of England, Devon and Cornwall are renowned for their beaches and bays, where you can surf, paddle – or gaze down in trepidation from towering granite cliffs on the frothing waves far below. And take cream teas in little fishing villages. ‘England’s Riviera’ is Torbay. Dartmoor, lonely and full of mystery, is grand walking country and a favourite place. It is one of two National Parks in the region, the other being Exmoor. Devon is more wooded than Cornwall, with fascinating valleys; Cornwall’s interior can be quite uninteresting – but the coastline is very special indeed. And there’s a different feel to Cornwall: it was an independent kingdom right up to the 9th century, the Cornish language (an ancient Celtic tongue similar to Welsh or Breton) was still spoken up to the early 20th century and efforts to revive it continue. Finally, it might be worth mentioning that Devon is home to Westward Ho! – which the writer Bill Bryson declined to visit because he couldn’t face spending the night in an ejaculation.
Mainland rail serves all major places like Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance. There’s one motorway, the M5, snaking down from Birmingham to Exeter and the best route from the east is probably the A303. After that, you’re on your own. Drives: take the A429 north from Cirencester through the Cotswolds; the A4 between Marlborough and Chippenham; the A39 between Midsomer Norton and Glastonbury; the B3387 out of Bovey Tracey onto Dartmoor; virtually any coastal route!