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West of England

THE REGION IN DETAIL

You may find it helpful to view and print off a copy of the regional map and cross reference with the description below. The letters in brackets correspond to the biking routes.

Bath, the access point for the region, had its origins 2000 years ago as Aquae Sulis, a Roman settlement. The Romans were attracted to the location by Britain’s only natural hot springs, around which they built the famous Roman Baths. However, it is for its abundance of exquisite Georgian architecture that the city is best known and admired. The Royal Crescent, the Circus, the Pump Room and PulteneyWest of England bike tours Bridge are some of the world’s finest architectural treasures, and the entire city has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The city is compact, and is best explored on foot. A full day (at least) is recommended (A, D, K, I, P).

To the west of the city the Bath-Bristol Rail Trail follows the course of the River Avon between the two cities. To the south, Chew Valley Lake is a man-made reservoir that is a haven for many species of wildfowl. At Chew Magna the River Chew is crossed by the medieval Tun Bridge. Cheddar Gorge is a spectacular ravine that was cut through the Mendip Plateau by fast flowing streams during the last ice age. Cheddar Village at the southern end of the gorge is the origin of the rich Cheddar cheesethe caves in the gorge provided the perfect environment of constant temperature and high humidity for storing and maturing the cheese (A).

Wookey Hole is an impressive cave complex deep beneath the Mendips – the entrance is just north of lovely Wells. This small tranquil city is best known for its magnificent cathedral, begun in the 1100s. The city was named after St Andrew’s Well that bubbles up from the ground by the 13th century Bishop’s Palace. The moat around the palace is home to swans that have learned to ring a bell by the gatehouse when they want to be fed (A, B, C).

To the south of Wells, Glastonbury, steeped in Arthurian myth and rich in mystical associations, was once one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in England. The monks who founded Glastonbury Abbey encouraged the association between Glastonbury and mythical Avalon, alleged to be the last resting place of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The Somerset Levels to the west of Wells comprise a unique area of low lying meadows and wetlands. Drained in medieval times, the Levels support a unique array of wildlife and vegetation (B).

The road east from Wells crosses from Somerset into Wiltshire, a county famous for its legacies of ancient civilizations. Besides the mysterious stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury, there are barrows, burial mounds and processional avenues scattered throughout the county. The Wiltshire White Horses are huge figures carved into the landscape, while the ever-changing gallery of crop circles appears at various locations around the county every summer. Speculation on the origin of these magnificent examples of “crop art” has yet to reach a definite conclusion. Most frequently they appear near ancient monuments.

Close to the Somerset Wiltshire border, Stourhead is among the finest West of England bike toursexamples of 18th century landscape gardening in Britain. The Palladian mansion exhibits many treasures including original Chippendale furniture and fine paintings. There are breathtaking views from King Alfred’s tower – a fine folly located close to Stourhead (C, D, E).

The Deverills is the collective name for a string of picturesque history-laden villages to the south of Warminster. The grandeur of Elizabethan architecture is well demonstrated in Longleat House, home to the Marquess of Bath. An area of the grounds, landscaped by Capability Brown, was turned into an expansive safari park to help fund the upkeep of the estate. Close by, Shearwater Lake is a picturesque game reserve (C, D, E).

A succession of picture postcard hamlets lines the beautiful Wylye Valley. Thatched cottages and rose gardens typify the idyllic image of the English village. Wilton House, a former monastery, was turned into a splendid stately home during the 16th century following the dissolution of the monasteries. The house includes one of the original Tudor towers, a fine collection of art and a landscaped park with a Palladian bridge. Salisbury Cathedral, built between 1220 and 1258 is a fine example of Early English Gothic architecture. The spire, at 123m, is the tallest in England (F).

Just north of Salisbury is Old Sarum, a motte and bailey castle built within the massive ramparts of a 1st century Roman hill fort. A little further north, on Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge is Europe’s most famous prehistoric monument. Built around 3000BC it remains shrouded in mystery. The alignment of the stones indicates that the circle is connected with the sun and with the passage of the seasons (F).

The Vale of Pewsey is noted for its picturesque villages and its magnificent vistas. Pewsey village has many half-timbered houses and thatched cottages. Pewsey White Horse, one of eight such giant figures cut into the turf of chalk hillsides in the county of Wiltshire, dates from 1785 (G).

The market town of Devizes, the county town of Wiltshire, is home to the Wiltshire Heritage Museum and to the famous Wadworth Brewery. The Kennet and Avon Canal that links Bristol with the River Thames passes through the town, and the staircase of 16 Caen Hill locks in Devizes is one of its most outstanding features. The Kennet and Avon Cycle Path follows the canal towpath for around 70 miles (G, H, I, J).

The High Street in elegant Marlborough is flanked by splendid Tudor and Georgian buildings. Legend has it that Merlin, King Arthur’s magician, is buried in the town. Savernake Forest to the east of the town, a magnificent expanse of unbroken woodland and open glades, is home to herds of roe and fallow deer. West of Marlborough, Silbury Hill is Europe’s largest prehistoric earthwork – its purpose still remains a mystery. Nearby West Kennet Long Barrow is the biggest chambered tomb in England. Dating from around 3250BC it has numerous stone-lined “rooms” and a monumental entrance (H).

Built around 2500BC, the Avebury Stone Circle is one of the most important megalithic monuments in Europe. The Alexander Keiller MuseumWest of England bike tours provides an excellent interpretation of the stones and the associated landscape around Avebury (G, H).

West of Devizes, Lacock Abbey is a 17th century abbey with fine cloisters and a courtyard later converted into a country house. William Henry Fox Talbot, a one time resident is considered the father of photography. The Fox Talbot Museum of Photography is fascinating, while Lacock village itself is a photographer’s delight (I, J).

The southern slopes of the Cotswolds escarpment lie to the north of Lacock. With its villages of honey-coloured cottages, beautiful old mansions, atmospheric churches and traditional ale houses set amidst a stunning landscape, the region just oozes “olde worlde” English charm.

The impressive market house in the centre of Tetbury is a reminder of the town’s history which can be traced back to the 7th century. The Tetbury Police Museum is housed in the original cells of the old police station. At Westonbirt, near Tetbury, the National Arboretum has the finest collection of trees and shrubs in Europe on a 600 acre site of glorious Cotswold countryside (J, K).

North of Tetbury, Chavenage House is a historic Elizabethan manor house built in 1576. It has tapestry rooms, furniture and relics of the Cromwellian period. The River Windrush bubbles through the centre of Bourton-on-the-Water, the low stone bridges being an especially attractive feature of the village. There is a scale model of the village as it was in 1937, built in Cotswold stone. The Cotswold Motor Museum has a fine collection of vintage cars and motorcycles. The Slaughters (Upper and Lower) are much photographed villages close to Bourton (L).

The hilltop settlement of Stow-on –the-Wold is a historic wool town, now better known for its antique shops. The impressive market square once hosted the largest sheep fairs in the Cotswolds – the medieval market cross is a reminder of those times (L, M, N).

Just north of Chipping Norton are the Rollright Stones. These prehistoric standing stones are believed to have been put into place more around 4000 years ago. There are two circles – The King’s Men and The Whispering Knights. Moreton-in-Marsh is the site of the largest open-air street market in the Cotswolds (every Tuesday). The town has some fine buildings, including the rare Curfew Tower. The High Street is lined with shops and houses dating back to the 18th Century. Nearby attractions are the Wellington Aviation Museum, the Cotswold Falconry Centre and Batsford Arboretum. The arboretum has a large variety of trees and shrubs – and magnificent views over the Evenlode Vale (M).

Chipping Campden, sometimes described as the “jewel in the crown” of Cotswold towns is also one of the best preserved and historically most important. Broadway and Snowshill are fine examples of unspoiled Cotswolds villages. Snowshill Manor is filled with the spoils of a lifetime of collecting by its eccentric one time owner. From the Broadway Tower folly there are views over thirteen English counties. The Cotswold Farm Park has over 50 breeding flocks and herds of British farm animals (M).

In Burford the steep main street runs down to the medieval bridge over the River Windrush. Relics of the town’s great days as a major wool market include the 16th century Tolsey, now a museum. Northleach’s magnificent church is a fine example of 15th century Cotswold Perpendicular, with some of the best wool merchants’ brasses in the country. The town also has the Cotswold Heritage Centre, a fascinating West of England bike toursmuseum of Cotswolds country life, and the World of Mechanical Music, with a huge collection of music boxes, organs, pianos, gramophones, self-playing instruments and clocks (N).

At Chedworth is one of the best preserved examples of a Roman Villa in Britain (N).

The Coln Valley hides several wonderfully quaint villages – Bibury vies for the title of “most beautiful English village”. The 14th century weavers’ cottages of Arlington Row, now owned by the National Trust, are beloved of photographers. Bibury Trout Farm is also well worth a visit (O).

Cirencester, a lively market town, is the unofficial 'Capital of the Cotswolds'. It was one of the regional capitals of Roman Britain. The town’s Corinium Museum has one of the finest collections of antiquities from Roman Britain, including several full-scale reconstructions (N, O, P).

South of Cirencester, Malmesbury was originally a Saxon settlement and has a distinguished history, claiming to be the oldest borough in England. It has medieval defences and street plan, with a large open market place and a 15th century market cross. The magnificent remains of Malmesbury Abbey include one of the finest Romanesque stone carvings in Britain, depicting the apostles. Adjacent to the abbey, the gardens have Britain’s largest private collection of roses, with 2000 different varieties (P).

Castle Combe with its 13th century market cross is yet another claimant to the title of 'prettiest village in England'. The stream running through the village gives it a special charm. The village was the setting for the film version of “Doctor Dolittle” (P).

Gallery

  • Avebury
  • Balloons Over The Avon Gorge
  • Bluebells
  • Cotswold Cottage
  • Cotswold Resident
  • Glastonbury Tor
  • Ivy
  • Royal Crescent In Bath
  • Somerset Cottage
  • Somerset Levels
  • Stonehenge
  • Wells Cathedral
  • Wessex Countryside
  • Windmill
  • Wookey Hole
 

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