Why Vacation in West Country, England?
Legendary King Arthur. James Bond. A murdered king. A steam engine inventor. Ancient castles. Roman baths. An 18th century 1000-foot tower with views of 13 English counties. An unwrapped Egyptian mummy. Celtic ruins. Europe’s largest hot air balloon festival. World- renowned illuminated parades. It’s all here in West Country, England.
Are you planning a vacation of just a few days? How about a year? Because it’ll take you at least 12 months to see all that West Country, England has to offer. This ancient section of England, rich with Roman and Celtic history, lies just west of London, and offers a wealth of things for a newcomer to see and do.
West Country, England is a catch-all term for the English counties in Southwest England. Those counties include Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, and Somerset. Gloucestershire and Wiltshire are also sometimes considered part of West Country, too.
History buffs will be entranced by the ancient ruins and castles. Architectural aficionados will love the churches and cathedrals of the area, like the St. Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol; it’s one of the largest and most famous parish churches in Britain. Art lovers will never run out of museums and galleries.
Those interested in geology and breathtaking landscapes must make the Jurassic Coast a part of their vacation experience. Legend-lovers will thrill to the story of King Arthur, who was believed to have been born in the county of Somerset. And James Bond fans will be delighted to learn that the creator of 007, Ian Fleming, comes from the Dorset area.
The County Areas of West Country, England
The city of Bristol is one of the balmiest and sunniest cities in UK; the popular city was a recent finalist for the title of European Capital of Culture. It lies about 120 miles to the west of London. It is also home to famous Hollywood actor, Cary Grant. Visitors will find Iron Age “hill forts,” Roman baths, and a host of contemporary cultural exhibits and events in this city. Home to about 400-thousand Brits, Bristol also hosts Europe’s largest Bristol International Balloon Fiesta every fall.
Cornwall – Home to the Cornwall Museum and Art Gallery, Cornwall County is perhaps best known for its connection to legendary King Arthur. Cornwall has one city, Truro, which houses a gorgeous old cathedral with three spires. The area is rich with Celtic and Roman History; it’s the homeland of the Cornish and Celtic peoples. Cornwall is famous for “pasties” (a pastry pie made with seasoned beef, onion, potato, and suet or meat fat). Clotted cream is this area’s most famous export. The area is now dependant on tourists who are drawn to the gorgeous ocean scenery and golden beaches like those at St. Agnes, St. Ives, and Fistral Beach.
Cornwall is connected to Cardiff and Swansea, which lie just across the Bristol Channel, by ferry. Visitors can reach the Isles of Scilly from Cornwall via ferry out of the port of Penzance.
Devon – This area birthed the term, Devonian, because of its red sandstone rock. Devon is one of the first areas of England settled following the Ice Age. Devon County’s eastern shore is home to the renowned World Heritage Jurassic Coast, a spot that has drawn professional geologists and tourists for many years. There are many things to do in the Devon area including exploring the area’s many forts and castles.
Dorset – Are you a real history buff who enjoys exploring an ancient graveyard now and then. Dorset has many cemeteries dating back hundreds of years. The county lies along the English Channel home to the famous Durdle Door arch. Because of Dorset county’s unique topography, it has been described as “‘the best of both worlds’.” Author, Thomas Hardy, who was born here, used the Dorset landscape settings in his novels. The county has no major cities; its largest town is Bournemouth. The area is set to host the Olympic sailing event of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Gloucestershire (Gloss-ter-sher) – The name may be difficult to pronounce but the area is easy to love. Perhaps the biggest tourist draw in this county is the 18th century Broadway Tower of Cotswolds. Gloucester is the county’s main town. The county boasts gorgeous cathedrals like the Gloucester and the Bristol, and the Abbey church of Tewkesbury. In addition, visitors will love the area’s castles: Beverston and Sudeley.
Somerset – Besides being noted as the fictional birth place of the legendary King Arthur, the county of Somerset is a tourist favorite for geographical reasons, too. Exmoor National Park is a huge draw in this area as are the Mendip Hills which are famous as a walking site. The county’s main town is Taunton. The area is home to a 200 year old tourist attraction, the Cheddar Caves & Gorge, and also boasts being the site of the sacred 2000-year-old ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.
Must Sees in West Country, England
No visitor will ever be able to take in all the “must sees” in this history-rich area of the world; not on a single visit. Considering King Arthur’s Round Table, the unparalleled views of the rugged Atlantic coastline, gorgeous costal beaches, ancient Norman churches, mysterious old castles like the one where a king was murdered, and Celtic ruins, a visitor may have to plan a repeat trip, or two.
Jurassic Coast – No visit to the southwest counties of Britain would be complete without adventuring along Dorset’s renowned Jurassic Coast in Devon County. This World Heritage site can be accessed via a number of gateway towns, including Exeter and Poole. The Jurassic Coast bus service is an excellent way to see this sight. This handy summer service runs out of numerous towns and villages: Exeter, Sidford, Beer, Seaton, Lyme Regis, Charmouth, Bridport, Abbotsbury, Weymouth, Wool, Wareham and Poole. Five pounds will cover a full day of hopping on and off travel.
Tintagel – In Cornwall County, visitors won’t want to miss the village of Tintagel, the site acquainted with the legend of King Arthur. Tourists have been visiting this area’s attractions, like King Arthur’s Hall and Tintagel Castle, since the early 19th century. Outstanding ocean views and Celtic ruins make Tintagel a favorite spot among travelers.
St. Mary Redcliffe – This 14th century church survived the bombing raids of WWII; it is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in England.
Berkeley Castle – Located in Gloucestershire, this 12th century Norman castle boasts an infamous heritage as being the location where King Edward II was murdered. Guests are invited to participate in medieval feasts at this venue.
Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre – Charm, history and fun all rolled into a delightful package. Don’t pass this up – both young and old will love this site with its National Fairground Collection and thrilling activities.
Cheddar Caves & Gorge – These Ice Age caves are a must see for all ages. Here is where the “Cheddar Man” is housed; Britain’s most ancient complete skeleton.
Royal West England Academy – Be sure to visit the fine art collection housed in the Royal, one of the oldest art galleries in the Bristol area.
The West Country Carnival – This massive Devon and Somerset counties festival is somewhat akin to North America’s Mardi Gras celebration with its huge illuminated parade floats or “carts,” and carnival “clubs.” The carnival five circuit’s parade schedule is intense covering several summer and fall months. Check it first in case there are any cancellations. And a word of warning, don’t throw anything (like coins) at these floats because if you do, you will be arrested and fined.
Glastonbury Abbey – This beautiful site is open year-round but from April through October, the attraction offers its “living history” with performances by actors portraying historical Abbey characters.
Sights & Attractions in West Country, England
There are too many attractions and events in West Country, England to list in a short ramble. Here’s a short list of the most popular sights.
Bristol Zoo – Bristol Zoo Gardens is the fifth oldest zoo in the world; it recently won the “Zoo of the Year” award, in 2004. Attractions include the Monkey Jungle, Gorilla Island, Penguin Coasts, Asiatic Lions, and a “Heap of Trouble,” a mini landfill exhibition designed to teach about recycling.
City Museum and Art Gallery – Bristol shouldn’t be missed with its huge number of museums and art galleries, like the City Museum and Art Gallery. Visitors will be delighted by the beauty of the building itself done in Edwardian Baroque style. Exhibits include ancient fossils and natural history, a freshwater aquarium and artworks of the Masters.
Royal Cornwall Museum – Located in Truro, Cornwall, the Cornwall museum comes highly acclaimed and shows world class exhibits on an ongoing basis. Its most famous exhibition may be its Egyptology collection with its unwrapped mummy.
Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre – You will find this popular attraction at Lifton, Devon, just a short driver from Exeter. The fair is open April through October and offers a stunning array of activities and events including Brett’s Ghost Train, Ling’s Moonrocket, and Edwards’ Golden Gallopers Carousel. Make room on your travel itinerary for this attraction.
Crealy Great Adventure Park – Located in Exeter, in Devon County, this award-winning family park has much to offer including rides like the Wave Log Flume and the Queen Bess Pirate Ship. The park is broken into 7 indoor and outdoor “realms” each with an exciting attraction. The park offers virtual tours.
Outdoor Recreation in West Country, England
There is a huge range of activities offered in the southwest counties of England including: Walking tours, birdwatching, cycling tours, quad biking, camping, hot air balloon rides, heritage tours, art and archeology walks, boating and luxury charters, diving, kayaking and sailing.
Water sports are big in the Dorset area, where people flock to the sheltered waters of Poole Bays and Weymouth.
In Cornwall, sunbathers flock to this county’s “Riviera” lying along its southern coastline. Surfers hang out at Newquay and Porthtowan.
Festivals, Fairs, and Concerts in West Country, England
This old world area abounds in festivals and celebrations, especially during the summer months.
Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts – Join the tens of thousands of music and culture lovers who visit Pilton, near Shepton Mallet in June, to be entertained by some of the world’s finest musical performers.
Visitors attending the Daphne du Maurier festival have a number of areas to choose from for accommodations:
- Fowey - (01726) 833 616
- St Austell - 0845 094 0428 (local call rate)
- Lostwithiel – (01208) 872 207
- Mevagissey – (01726) 844 857
- Newquay – (01637) 854 020
- Bodmin – (01208) 76616
- Looe – (01503) 262 072
The Trevithick Day festival celebrates steam engine inventor, Richard Trevithick (1771 – 1833) with a day of dance, steam engine exhibitions, vintage vehicles, a children’s fairground, and more.
In addition, there is the Falmouth Oyster Festival in October and the Newlyn Fish Festival at the end of August, to name only a few.
In Bristol, Ashton Court hosts the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, hot-air ballooning every August. The area also hosts the Ashton Court Festival every summer music festival.
Dining in West Country, England
Dining opportunities are endless in this British locale. The best advice is to step outside of your norm and sample local fare like meat pasties, clotted cream fudge, scones and jam, cheese, and British ales like Cornwall’s “Swanky” beer.
Visitors, with a bit of the pirate in their soul, should be sure to visit Queen Square in Bristol, with its aged taverns; these buildings acted as the models for the taverns written about in fictional adventures like Treasure Island. In the area is also the 15th century Merchant Venturers Almshouse.
When to Visit West Country, England
As with all tourist areas in the Northern Hemisphere, summer is always the best time to visit. But because of Southwest England’s temperate year-round climate, an off-season trip may be just the thing for those on a budget.
All areas of the West Country experience a very temperature tourist-friendly climate. Snowfall, if there is any, is minimal.
Getting to and Around West Country, England
Southwest England is served largely by autoroutes or motorways.
The city of Bristol has its own public transport bus system, First Group. The city doesn’t have light rail transit, unfortunately, leading to heavy congested car traffic. But Bristol does have three park and rides within city limits. There is also water-based transport via the Bristol Ferry Boat. In addition, Bristol is popular among bikers; the city maintains links to the National Cycle Network.
Each county has its own commercial airport, some much smaller than others. In Dorset, the commercial airport is Bournemouth International. In the Cornwall area, visitors will arrive at either the airport located in Newquay or the one situated in Plymouth. The city of Bristol is served by its own airport, the Bristol International (BRS) at Lulsgate. Newquay Airport serves the Devon County area.
Many airlines fly into the Southwest England or into London and then make connections.
- Air Canada
- Air France
- American AirlinesAmerica West
- British Airways
- Continental Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- KLM Royal Dutch
- Northwest Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- United Airlines
- US Airways
- WestJet Airlines
Arriving by Car
You simply will never be alone while traveling around the West Country area of England. Many tourist centers are available to assist you with your travel plans.
You will travel via major autoroutes (highways) like the M4 and M5 motorway which are major roads leading into Bristol.
Travelers will more than likely need a rental car, since a car is the most efficient way to tour around this predominantly rural area.
Be aware, that English driving differs from American driving. First, you’ll be driving on the LEFT side of the road. Secondly, you’ll be traversing odd intersections known as, “roundabouts”; in some cases, you may even encounter a “double” roundabout. It’s best to bone up on some safe driving tips specific to driving in England, before heading out. The good news is that you can use your own country’s driver’s license to drive on British roadways. This area is well populated by major car rental companies.
There are plenty of railway lines running into all the West Country counties of England. The area of Dorset is connected to London by two railway lines: West of England Main Line and the South Western Main Line.
Bristol is served by two railway stations: Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads, and two railway systems: Severn Beach Line and the Portishead Railway.
West Country, England Tourist Brochures
Map of England
History of England (This a terrific site covers a vast amount of information: the Monarchy, including the legend of King Arthur, prehistoric Britain, the Knights Templar, Scotland, churches of England, and historical maps.)
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