England’s West Country is a land of granite promontories, windswept moors, hideaway hamlets and, above all, the sea. Leafy, narrow country roads lead through kilometres of buttercup meadows and cider-apple orchards to heathery heights and mellow villages. With their secluded beaches and dreamy backwaters, Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall can be some of England’s most relaxing regions to visit.
The south, made up of Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire, is host to a huge range of attractions, and not a few quiet pleasures. Two important cathedrals, Winchester and Salisbury, are here, as are stately homes, such as Longleat, Stourhead, and Wilton House. Intriguing market towns with a tumble of antique shops abound, and hundreds of haunting prehistoric remains, two of which, Avebury and Stonehenge, should not be missed.
Beautiful Bath, on the cusp of the rolling Cotswolds, is an utter delight. A spa destination for hundreds of years, the elegant architecture and relaxing atmosphere will charm your socks off, as will the surrounding rustic farmland and riverside villages.
Now that the city’s industries no longer rely on the docks, the historic harbour along the Avon River has been given over to recreation. Arts and entertainment complexes, museums and galleries fill the quayside. The pubs and clubs here draw the under-25 set and make the area fairly boisterous on Friday and Saturday nights.
Bristol also trails a great deal of history in its wake. It can be called the ‘birthplace of America’ with some confidence, for John Cabot and his son Sebastian sailed from the old city docks in 1497 to touch down on the North American mainland, which he claimed for the English crown. The city had been a major centre since medieval times, but in the 17th and 18th centuries it became the foremost port for trade with North America.
The city centre and quayside are both fantastic retail havens, offering a surprising range of high fashion and budget options, while the markets are a fantastic place to pick up something unique to take home with you.
Bath, among the most alluring small cities in Europe, lies on the cusp of the Cotswolds, surrounded by idyllic, shingled-roofed villages and lush fields, patchworked by ancient stone walls.
Since pre-Roman times, people have visited the revitalising natural hot springs that bubble from the earth here. It was the Romans who turned this marshy swamp into a fashionable destination for rest, relaxation and religious observation with the construction of a glamorous bathing complex and temple to the goddess Sulis Minerva.
After a period of decline, the 16th and 17th centuries heralded a renewed interest in the health-giving properties of the hot springs, and Bath became the spa-town of choice for fashionable Regency and Georgian aristocrats who visited from their country houses during the summer season.
Immortalised in literature by the likes of Jane Austen, Bath remains one of the country’s best-loved cities, offering stunning architecture, iconic attractions, a huge range of shopping, as well as countless spa retreats, all set amidst the verdant and impossibly charming Somerset countryside.
An important provincial base for more than a thousand years, the city streets tell an architectural timeline from ancient foundations and Roman walls, to wooden Tudor homes and stately Victorian manors. The architectural prize, however, is undoubtedly Salisbury Cathedral, one of the grandest and most spectacular ecclesiastic buildings ever created. Its elaborate exterior bears all the hallmarks of Gothic splendour, while the interior boasts a treasure-trove of its own. The north aisle holds a clock dating from 1386, believed to be the oldest functioning timepiece in the world. Wander the aisles and take in the eerie and sometimes ghoulish carved tombs. The cathedral is home to one of only four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, and the document has been beautifully preserved.
A few kilometres outside of Salisbury is the world’s most famous group of rocks: Stonehenge. Despite the millions of pilgrims who have flocked to see this mysterious ancient monument, the site still maintains a haunting, other-worldly atmosphere. Not far away is the ancient hill fort of Old Sarum, which offers the most magnificent views of the area.
Winchester is among the most historic of English cities, and as you walk the graceful streets and wander the many gardens, a sense of the past envelops you. Although it is now only the county seat of Hampshire, for more than four centuries Winchester served as England’s capital. Here, in 827 AD, Egbert was crowned first king of England, and his successor, Alfred the Great, held court until his death in 899 AD. After the Norman conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror had himself crowned in London, but took the precaution of repeating the ceremony in Winchester.
William also commissioned the local monastery to produce the Domesday Book, a record of the general census, begun in 1085. The city remained the centre of ecclesiastical, commercial and political power until the 13th century, when the court shifted to London.
The city’s rich history has left a fascinating architectural legacy. A visit to Winchester Cathedral will immerse you in ancient history and intrigue. King Arthur’s legendary round table is another must-see. It may be England’s ancient capital, but Winchester is also a thriving market town living firmly in the present, with a fair share of shops and eateries on High Street.
Boasting one of England’s richest maritime histories, the passenger port of Southampton has played a role in some of the country’s most notorious events. It was the home port of Henry V’s fleet bound for Agincourt, the Mayflower, the Queen Mary, and the ill-fated Titanic, along with countless other great ocean liners of the 20th century.
The new SeaCity Museum tells the tale of Southampton’s long-standing history as Europe’s busiest passenger port. Explore the 1:25 scale interactive model of the Titanic, which departed from here over one hundred years ago. Of the 1517 lives lost in the tragic sinking of the ship, 549 were Southampton locals – almost all crew members. There is a walk linking the various memorials to those who perished in the disaster which takes visitors to the Musician’s Memorial, the Engineer Officers Memorial, the memorial to the stewards and firemen inside the ruins of Holyrood Church, as well as the docks, the Maritime Museum and the Grapes Pub where four would-be sailors were lucky enough to have dawdled for so long, they missed the boat.
To experience Southampton’s medieval past, visit the Tudor House Museum, Medieval Merchant’s House, Netley Abbey and the Bargate Monument.
With 11 kilometres of broad sandy beaches and some of southern England’s most pristinewaters, the seaside resort of Bournemouth offers a grand waterfront and pier, along with a diverting festival atmosphere.
The resort was founded in 1810 by Lewis Tregonwell, an ex-army officer. He settled near what is now the Square and planted the first pine trees in the distinctive steep little valleys – or chines – cutting through the cliffs to the Bournemouth sands. The scent of fir trees was said to be healing for consumption (tuberculosis) sufferers, and the town grew steadily.
Today, the city has expanded to swallow up neighbouring settlements, making it a somewhat amorphous sprawl on first view. Its stodgier, more traditional side is kept in check by the presence of a lively student population – partly made up of foreignlanguage students from abroad. Gardens laid out with trees and lawns link the Square and the beach. This is an excellent spot to relax and listen to music wafting from the Pine Walk bandstand. Regular musical programs take place at the Pavilion and at the nearby Winter Gardens.
Take the zig-zag path through the leafy public gardens and descend to the seafront to enjoy the kilometres of beaches tucked beneath the Bournemouth cliffs.
Sitting on the western-most part of the south-west peninsula of Great Britain, Cornwall has a lot to fall in love with – rugged and dramatic coastlines, stunning beaches and, of course, their famous Cornish pasties.
The geographical isolation of Cornwall has allowed the region to maintain a very distinct culture, and indeed, ethnic identity. As one of the Celtic nations, the region proudly stands by itself as a culturally unique destination, that offers something a bit different to the rest of Britain.
Surrounded on three sides by the English Channel and the Celtic Sea, Cornwall has hundreds of kilometres of breathtaking coastline and pristine beaches. This contrasts beautifully with a heartland that boasts the lush, green hills in the Tamar Valley and rugged wildlands of the Bodmin Moor.
The abundance of coastline also means an abundant maritime legacy and fresh seafood. The region’s reputation for top-quality cuisine is growing, with seafood the main player in many local dishes. The famous Cornish pasty also now has protected geographical status, meaning it has to be produced in Cornwall to be labelled Cornish.
Historically, Cornwall is home to megalithic stone sculptures, like the Men An Tol, and the rumoured birthplace of King Arthur – Tintagel Castle.
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