The largest of the nine official regions in England, the South West comprises some of the UK’s most popular holiday destinations (Cornwall, Dorset and Devon), as well as the picturesque counties of Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. Characterised by sweeping coastlines, the finest of ciders, Poldark’s chiseled abs (no swooning at the back!), and ancient folklore, this outstanding area is awash with excellent adventures.
Here, we’ve attempted to pick one highlight from each county to give you a flavour of what you can expect on an expedition to the South West…
Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire
Nestled in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds, Sudeley Castle has quite the story. Dating back to 1442, the castle has played its part in the history of England for centuries: it was visited by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, it acted as a home and resting place for Catherine Parr, and it was a temporary shelter for King Charles I during the Civil War – after which the castle was abandoned for over 200 years.
Today, Sudeley Castle is both a private home and museum, with a revered rose garden (there are thought to be in excess of 80 different varieties here!), a private pheasantry, historical exhibitions and a castle-inspired adventure playground all in its grounds! And, if you’re looking for somewhere to stay on your travels, you’ll find a series of charming cottages available too – how’s that for a royal getaway?
An oldie but a goldie (as they say!), Stonehenge is an absolute must for anyone visiting Wiltshire, or passing through on their way to the rest of the South West. One of the UK’s undoubted icons, this mysterious edifice has been the centre of historical investigation for years, while also being a site of pilgrimage and conspiracies.
Each monolith stands at a height of around four metres, and weighs approximately 25 tonnes – a remarkable feat of engineering for the people who constructed the site between 3000 BC and 2000 BC. The exact intention is yet unknown, as the civilisation that built the structure left no written records, but some theories suggest that it was a burial ground, a market place, or a sacrificial site – other more outlandish arguments propose that it is the site of an alien visitation!
Although the Stones are cordoned off from the general public for the majority of the year, visitors are able to walk among them on significant dates during the pagan calendar, such as the solstices and equinoxes, when revellers celebrate the passing months and await the sunrise. Whether you make it a day trip or a stop-off on your continuing journey, Stonehenge is always worth a visit.
Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset
Remember how we said that South West England was awash with ancient folklore? Well, it’s rumoured that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere’s tomb was uncovered deep in the earth beneath an oak tree in the 12th century, and that their remains were finally interred in Glastonbury Abbey itself in the presence of King Edward I. Does this, then, make Glastonbury the mythic realm of Avalon? What we know for certain is that Glastonbury Abbey was one of the most powerful Christian sites in England, and was the second richest abbey in the land after Westminster.
During the reign of Henry VIII however, the abbey was destroyed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the last abbot was hung, drawn and quartered as a traitor on neighbouring Glastonbury Tor. Today, there’s less hanging and demolition to speak of, and Glastonbury Abbey acts as both a historical day trip and place of pilgrimage for Christians worldwide. Within the acres of parkland that surround the abbey, seek out the Holy Thorn, the Abbot’s Kitchen, the two chapels and the cider orchard.
Aerospace Bristol, Bristol
A bit of an unlikely choice for this county, we admit, but hear us out – where else can you see (and board!) the final Concorde to be built and flown? We reckon it’s not just the little ones who will be excited by this highlight! As well as the Concorde herself, you can also navigate your way through one hundred years of aviation history in a first world war aircraft hangar – discover the efforts behind those first tentative steps towards the sky, to the super computers that dominate commercial flying today.
There aren’t just international exhibits on display, Bristol-specific creations also make up the fabric of the museum. Why not swing by the Bristol Tram or the Bristol Boxkite on your way to the cafe? All this flying can make you parched after all!
Dartmoor National Park, Devon
Covering an extensive swathe of Devon, Dartmoor National Park is a rugged landscape prime for outdoorsy explorations. In between the expansive moorland terrain, outcrops of the underlying granite bedrock protrude, making for impressive natural waymarkers on the horizon. Many walkers choose to make the most of these indicators, known as tors, by making their way from one to another on rambling excursions across the countryside.
Whether you’re a hiker, climber or mountain biker, you’re likely to be accompanied by a four-legged friend at some point on your journey: the sturdy Dartmoor pony has resided in the area for over 3000 years, and they keep the natural habitat in check with their year-round grazing. If the weather should turn (this is the UK after all!), make for the intriguing Castle Drogo, a medieval-inspired home from the last century, or pop along to Pennywell Farm for hands-on activities with some of the cutest inmates.
Durdle Door, Dorset
If you’re looking for stunning holiday snaps, Durdle Door will provide an excellent photo opportunity. One of the country’s most famous examples of coastal erosion, the limestone arch has been created over thousands of years, becoming an icon of the Jurassic Coast in the process! Easily accessed via a set of gentle steps, holidaymakers often choose to set up camp on the shingle shoreline for a picnic with a view; numerous walking trails bypass Durdle Door too, so you’ll probably find hikers resting their weary feet on the way from A to B. During the summer holidays, the beach can get busy, so photographers are advised to visit early in the morning or in the evening for the most spectacular shots of the archway in all its glory.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall
In between eating fish ‘n’ chips on the coastline and overindulging in the county’s ice cream, make your way to one of Cornwall’s most surprising gems: The Lost Gardens of Heligan. Originally created in the 18th century, the garden flourished until the onset of the first world war when it was abandoned due to a failing estate and lack of workmen, many of whom had gone to the trenches.
Rediscovered in the 1990s, the oasis has since been returned to its former glory, drawing visitors throughout the year as a result. Along the verdant pathways, tourists can enjoy mud-made giants nestled in the grass, the aptly-named Jungle, and Europe’s last-remaining pineapple pit. Elsewhere on the estate, the farm is home to numerous pigs, sheep, chickens and cows, while the extensive Kitchen Garden still provides organic, fresh produce for those in search of a little refreshment after their botanical wanderings.