Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
South West England has two main draw-backs: it is popular and, as it’s on the west, it can suffer from wetness – particularly at its extremities. Other than that, it has pretty much everything, including mystery, prehistory, history, cuteness, grand vistas, impressive buildings and plenty of things to do. For an introduction, see A Bit About South West England. It’s hard to pick just ten suggestions for things to see, but let’s make a start:
The Jurassic coast
England’s Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site encompassing 95 miles of lovely coastline from Exmouth in East Devon to Old Harry Rocks in Studland Bay in Dorset. It actually covers three geological time periods – the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous which together make up the Mesozoic Era, from around 250 to 65 million years ago. The coast includes some wonderful geological features, like Durdle Door and Chesil Beach, dramatic views and seaside towns and resorts such as Bournemouth, Poole, Swanage, Lyme Regis and West Bay. My personal jury is still out on Swanage, but anyway – walk, bathe and hunt for fossils!
One of Britain’s national parks, Dartmoor is a place for walkers, geologists, history enthusiasts, campers – or anyone who likes being outside. It is a sometimes mysterious, sometimes beautiful, sometimes harsh landscape, an upland area of granite heather-covered moorland. Its most famous natural features are its tors – classic examples of exposed intrusive vulcanicity. It also boasts wild ponies and an extraordinary number of prehistoric remains – standing stones, stone circles, rows and settlements – such as those at Grimspound and Hound Tor. Remote Wistman’s Wood is a frankly weird oakwood, with stunted trees growing on a moss-covered landscape. There are pretty villages too, such as Lustleigh, Widecombe in the Moor and Postbridge (above, with its 13th century clapper bridge). Parts of Dartmoor are used by the armed forces for training, but there’s plenty of room for everyone else.
Glastonbury reeks of legend and mythology. Glastonbury Tor is certainly a magical place, with links to our Celtic past and the legend of King Arthur. Some say this conical hill, rising from the Somerset levels, is the Isle of Avalon. Now topped with the roofless tower of 14th century St Michael’s church, there is evidence of other structures on the site since at least the 5th century – but it has been used by man since prehistoric times. At the foot of the tor, in the town, are the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, at one time said to be the richest monastery in England. Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury in the 1st century AD, planting his staff nearby, which grew into a thorn tree. And the Abbey has a grave that was claimed to be the burial place of King Arthur and his Queen, Guinevere (though that might have been a commercial ploy). The monastic community was dissolved on the orders of Henry VIII in 1539 and the last abbot, Richard Whiting, was hanged, drawn and quartered on the top of the Tor. Also at the foot of the Tor is the Chalice Well, a natural spring with a red hue to the water and which has been in use for at least 2,000 years. According to one legend, Joseph of Arimathea hid the Holy Grail, the chalice that had caught the blood of Christ at the crucifixion, in the Chalice Well – hence its rusty colour. The Well is now surrounded by peaceful gardens.
Nearby Worthy Farm is of course also home to The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, first held there in 1970.
The southwest can boast some major museum attractions. Not far from St Austell in Cornwall is the Eden Project, an astonishing garden (or gardens) conceived by Tim Smit and located in a former china clay pit. The focal points are two biomes, one tropical the other Mediterranean, housed inside two giant geodesic steel domes covered with EFTE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene). For something completely different, in Yeovilton, Somerset, you’ll find Europe’s largest naval aviation museum, the Fleet Air Arm Museum, which tells the story of the Royal Navy in the air. There are over 90 aircraft, from biplanes to supersonic jets, plus thousands of other artefacts, on show in four exhibition halls. Among the exhibits is the first British Concorde, which you can board. Across the border into Dorset is the Tank Museum at Bovington, which has more than 300 vehicles and the largest collection of tanks in the world (presumably, that excludes ones collected by armies). Enormous displays include the fascinating story of the tank, plus events and demonstrations of tanks in action.
Devon and Cornwall’s coast
The exceptional coastline of Devon and Cornwall can be dramatic, with high cliffs, tantalising romantic coves, verdant river valleys and picturesque harbours. Visit old fishing villages like Clovelly and Polperro, the beautiful St Michael’s Mount with its castle and sub-tropical plants perched in Mounts Bay opposite the village of Marazion, explore the Lizard Peninsula, Lynton and Lynmouth on Devon’s north coast and the wide sandy beaches around Woolacombe.
“Who can ever be tired of Bath?” Jane Austen enquired. Apart from being a favourite of one of England’s most-loved novelists, Bath is probably most famed for its Roman and Regency heritage. The Romans built extensive baths there and called the town Aquae Sulis (the waters of Sul, a local Celtic deity similar to Minerva). The remains of the complex were discovered in the 18th century, by which time the healing waters of Bath had again become fashionable, with the help of the dandy, Beau Nash, and the town evolved into a go-to Regency place. Thus Bath is also loved for its surviving sometimes honey-coloured Georgian architecture, not least its elegant Royal Crescent and unusual Pulteney Bridge over the Avon, designed by Robert Adam and containing shops built across its full span. Among Bath’s many other attractions is the Gothic 15th century abbey, where a monastery was founded in the 7th century. Bath is a World Heritage Site, one of Britain’s tourist magnets and features heavily on overseas visitors’ itineraries, as well as being a desirable romantic weekend destination.
Wells, the second-smallest city in England (after the City of London) is often missed in favour of larger attractions. Bamber Gascoigne once referred to it as being renowned for “the unspoilt perfection of a range of ecclesiastical buildings” – and he was right. Wells’ crowning glory is probably its extraordinary cathedral, with its amazing west front depicting the hierarchy of heaven with some 300 individual statues, and the astonishingly modern-looking scissor arches added to the nave in the 14th century to strengthen the tower. On the north transept is a 24-hour astronomical clock, also 14th century, with knights striking the hours; and the octagonal chapter house is stunning. Outside is peaceful Vicars Close, an entire street of 14th century houses. The nearby moated and medieval Bishop’s Palace is surrounded by near-idyllic gardens and swans on the moat ring a bell when they think it’s time for food.
Most visitors to Britain, if they escape London, hop on a tour that takes in Stonehenge; maybe Windsor and Bath too. Nothing wrong with any of that – they are all special places. But Stonehenge can’t help being a little over-visited and sanitised. Avebury, on the other hand, about 20 miles to the north, is less perfectly formed but offers an entire village within a Neolithic stone circle. In fact, the whole area was a hub of ancient activity three and a half thousand years before Roman legions tramped along the route of the A4 between London and Bath. Nearby is the mysterious Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, and West Kennet Long Barrow, the most impressive of 14 long barrows within a 3-mile radius of Avebury. Despite the wear of centuries, barrows are often easily spotted in the fields. There are glimpses of strange standing stones, simultaneously inappropriate yet curiously at home in the chalk downland. To the north lies Windmill Hill, a site dating from 3,500 BC. Many call this a sacred landscape – and it is – though I suggest ’sacred’ in this context should refer to reverence for our ancestors rather than to any divine adoration, because we simply do not know all the facts. The entire Avebury complex, if it can be called that, shares World Heritage Site status with its more famous neighbour, Stonehenge.
Cheddar Gorge is a breathtaking limestone gorge located in Somerset’s Mendip Hills, near the village of Cheddar. It is roughly 3 miles long, around 400 feet deep, England’s largest gorge and one of the country’s most popular natural tourist attractions. It was formed about one million years ago during the last Ice age from glacial melt-water, which created a cave system. Prehistoric remains have been discovered in the caves, both human and animal, and inside Gough Cave was found Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton, Cheddar Man, who lived around 7150 BC and whose descendants still live nearby. Seriously. Other human remains are some 5,000 years older and the evidence is that this lot were cannibals. Gough’s Cave is a spectacular show cave, with fabulous formations of stalactites and stalagmites (remember, tites are the ones that come down). And, somewhere round here, you should find some cheese.
The village of Corfe Castle would qualify as one of the most interesting, if not attractive, villages in Dorset. But it’s the ruined castle, once one of the mightiest Norman strongholds in the land, that make it. Originally a Saxon fort, the present castle dates from the 11th century and was built in a commanding gap in the hills, guarding the entrance to Purbeck. It became a Royal fortress and has a dark and murderous past which makes you think that maybe the place isn’t quite as romantic as it looks. In 1203, King John had 22 knights starved to death there – a hideous crime, even in medieval England. Corfe Castle is also the supposed location of the murder of teenage King Edward the Martyr many years before, in 978, cruelly done away with, allegedly, on the orders of his wicked step-mother. During the English Civil War, Corfe was a Royalist stronghold which eventually fell to Parliamentary forces, who ‘slighted’ (partly demolished) it. This to an extent explains the ruinous state it is in today. The most compelling reason to visit, though, is that some believe Corfe Castle was Enid Blyton’s inspiration for Kirrin Castle in the ‘Famous Five’ books. Don’t forget to take Timmy the dog when you go.
The village boasts an interesting church, unsurprisingly dedicated to St Edward, as well as, joy of joys, a wonderful model village depicting the whole place as it was in 1946, complete with a model of itself – which of course has a smaller model of itself…and so on. There’s a couple of pleasant places to eat and drink in Corfe, so at this point it’s worth mentioning that the Swanage Heritage Railway has a station there, enabling transportation from Wareham or Swanage under the magical power of a steam locomotive (until it’s replaced by a wind-powered version, of course). The Purbeck Way footpath runs through Corfe too, so you could arrive by train and walk back (or vice versa). Heading east, Purbeck Way joins the South West Coast Path and it’s a shortish hop from there to Old Harry’s Rocks at the start (or end) of the Jurassic Coast. And as that’s where we came in, it’s a convenient place to stop.
Helpful links to more information have been included in this piece. You will find further inspiration from ‘Places to Visit’ on the main menu, as well as by browsing articles categorised ‘south west’ on the website.