The South West is one of Britain's most popular holiday destinations. The combination of better-than-average climate, a fascinating history and exceptional natural landscapes make the counties of Hampshire, Dorset, Devon, Somerset, Avon and Wiltshire well worth exploring. Cornwall, at the far south-west of England, is worthy of a whole trip in its own right, so we will exclude Cornwall from this circuit. Stay tuned for the Cornish Experience!
Where does the West Country begin? Our definition is Winchester. As the capital of Wessex, that in itself gives it "western" credentials. On a more prosaic note, the A34 Winchester-Manchester route provides a clearly delineated modern east-west boundary. The landscape on each side of this road is different, although obviously there is a slight overlap on both edges of the boundary. But you know for sure you're in the West Country as soon as the buildings start looking older, the countryside wilder, the hills higher and the roads emptier (with some notorious exceptions...yes A303, that means you!).
This long tour could take anything between a few days and a few weeks, if not more. Because it is such a long circuit, unlike the other tours which feature tiny country lanes, this one sticks mainly to A and B roads. That said, an A road in Devon is not much wider than an alleyway in Greater London so be prepared for some pretty demanding driving, especially along the northern coast of Somerset! And where the car can drive no further, the walking can begin...
ARRIVING AT THE SOUTH WEST
The M3 is the main motorway link between London and Winchester. The A30, which runs parallel to the motorway as far as Popham near Basingstoke, is the historic Great South West Road. As we're heading south-west, let us do it how the Romans would have done it.
The Great South West Road forks off the Great West Road (the A4) at Hounslow and immediately skirts the eastern edge of Heathrow Airport.
The original route crosses the River Thames at Staines. Despite the town's grim reputation, there is a lovely riverside section of Staines.
After the military town of Camberley we cross into Hampshire. The countryside starts to open up around the village of Hartley Wintney.
The rather unpleasant New Town of Basingstoke marks the last bastion of the London commuter belt. After Basingstoke, the A30 continues on its long trek to Land's End, whereas we swing south onto the A33 towards Winchester.
We arrive at Winchester, a delightful traditional English city with impressive cathedral and highly prestigious public school.
CIRCULAR STAGE 1: WINCHESTER - SANDBANKS
A good way of easing into the delights of the West Country is by leaving Winchester to the south-west and driving through the New Forest. There is an unavoidable stretch through the rather dreary suburbs of Poole, after which things suddenly become much more exciting!
It doesn't take long for the difference between east and west to make itself apparent. Hursley is a sleepy village full of ancient buildings. It wouldn't have been quite so sleepy before the M3 rerouted London-Bournemouth traffic away from the main street.
After Romsey the New Forest begins. Rather than getting stuck in a queue of holidaymakers on the A31 to Bournemouth, our route chooses a more northerly path through the heart of the forest.
We cross into Dorset near Cranborne. The remains of a church at Knowlton Henge make a strange sight in the pastoral countryside.
Suburban Poole won't win any prizes for beauty, but as soon as the road hits the seafront at Lilliput it's a different story.
Sandbanks lies at the end of a narrow spit. Lucky homeowners are blessed with sea views from both the front and back of their houses! This stage ends at the Sandbanks car ferry, gateway to a different world...
CIRCULAR STAGE 2: SANDBANKS - WEYMOUTH
The Isle of Purbeck is an immensely fascinating part of the world, much beloved of school teachers for its unique geography. From Studland Bay to Weymouth is an astounding array of textbook coastal phenomena: rocks, cliffs, coves, arches, stacks...you name it!
Swanage is a delightful seaside resort overlooking the Isle of Wight. The beaches are sandy and there's even a nudist beach up the road at Studland if that's what takes your fancy.
Corfe Castle is hugely impressive, a hilltop fort overlooking a gorgeous village of the same name.
The Purbeck Hills are used by the military as firing ranges, but the road across the hills is open to the public most of the time. It leads to Lulworth Cove.
A mile west lies the amazing arch Durdle Door.
Weymouth is part typical South Coast seaside resort, part continental-style marina and part local retail/administrative centre.
CIRCULAR STAGE 3: WEYMOUTH - EXETER
A long stage with most of the drama in the first half, although the second half offers plenty of opportunities to deviate from the route onto the relatively little-known byways of East Devon.
The Isle of Portland lies to the south of Weymouth. More than just a peninsular, but not quite a true island, Portland almost resembles Gibraltar in that it is essentially a huge rock in the sea. Portland Stone is known worldwide.
Chesil Beach is an incredible tombolo stretching for 18 miles.
Abbotsbury Abbey stands high on a hill overlooking Chesil Beach.
Lyme Regis is a charming little seaside resort with steep, narrow streets.
Almost immediately after Lyme Regis the circuit enters Devon. Although not the largest city in the county (which is Plymouth), Exeter is home to the cathedral.
CIRCULAR STAGE 4: EXETER - TAVISTOCK
The first half of this stage follows the coast southwards to Torquay, after which we swing inland and upwards into the wilds of Dartmoor.
South of Exeter lies some of South Devon's best coast (and virtually all of Devon's coastline is astounding). The main railway line to Cornwall runs between the cliffs and the sea at Dawlish.
No trip to this part of the world would be complete without paying tribute to Basil Fawlty. But there's much more to Torquay than one rather badly-run hotel!
Our route crosses Dartmoor, although most of the best scenery is miles away from anywhere accessible by car. The further you trek from the road, the better the views!
Dartmoor is a National Park, the nearest you'll get to the Peak District in the south. Although reaching nearly as high altitudes as the Peak District, Dartmoor's tors are generally less steep and mountainous, more barren and expansive.
Tavistock lies at the west of Dartmoor, a handy place to get refreshments and fuel on a stretch where these facilities are few and far-between.
CIRCULAR STAGE 5: TAVISTOCK - BARNSTAPLE
The furthest west we get on our circuit and a rather more down-to-earth run across the peaceful river valleys of central Devon. The stage ends just inland of the Atlantic coast at Barnstaple.
We cross our old friend the A30 at Okehampton, although the new route bypasses the town alleviating horrendous holiday-time traffic jams.
There is a long stretch through the Devon countryside. No towns, probably more cows than people, nothing but relaxing pastoral scenery.
The first settlement larger than a small village for miles, Great Torrington is a very pleasant, old-fashioned little town.
Bideford Bridge crosses the River Torridge in style.
Barnstaple, the largest town in North Devon, sits on the estuary of the River Taw.
CIRCULAR STAGE 6: BARNSTAPLE - MINEHEAD
We start meandering home, but the roads take a turn for the narrower and windier, especially the infamous A39 which makes up the bulk of this stage through the heart of Exmoor.
Although smaller and lower altitude than Dartmoor, Exmoor has one great advantage: a stunning coastline possibly even more dramatic than Dorset's. The Valley of the Rocks makes a startling introduction to the National Park.
Lynmouth lies at the bottom of a steep valley. Lynton sits above it. Between the two is a funicular railway and ridiculously steep road (1 in 3). One of the most special locations in England.
The steepest section of any A road in Britain, Porlock Hill descends 1200 feet in two miles via some seriously sharp bends and 1 in 4 gradients. Porlock village lies at the bottom of the hill.
Dunkery Beacon is the highest point of Exmoor at 1705 feet. South Wales can be seen across the Bristol Channel from the summit.
The circuit has by now passed into Somerset, and Minehead is one of the county's best seaside resorts.
CIRCULAR STAGE 7: MINEHEAD - GLASTONBURY
The remarkable A39 continues on its convoluted trek eastwards and our circuit sticks to the main road all the way to Glastonbury (unless of course you have time to explore the side roads, in which case feel free!)
Just outside the Exmoor National Park, the Quantock Hills are nearly as high and equally pretty.
Bridgwater is one of the larger towns in Somerset, and although the place feels slightly run-down and neglected, it is not without its charms.
The Somerset Levels present a much flatter landscape east of Bridgwater, across which the A39 heads towards Glastonbury. The tor stands out for miles around.
It's even more impressive up close. Bands performing onstage at the Glastonbury Festival can see the tor looming high beyond the massive crowds.
The village of Glastonbury has a unique hippie atmosphere even when the festival crowds have packed up and gone home. It's certainly a good place to get smoking paraphernalia! Glastonbury Abbey is at the centre of the village.
CIRCULAR STAGE 8: GLASTONBURY - BRISTOL
You would never guess from the beginnings of this stage that by the end it will reach one of the country's major cities. The Mendip Hills act as a natural barrier, north of which the countryside gradually drops down to the Avon conurbation.
The smallest city in England, Wells has a cathedral that is unfeasibly large and impressive for a place with a population of only 10,000! Of the three cathedrals we have now passed (Winchester, Exeter and Wells), Wells is the most breath-taking.
One of the most spectacular natural features in the country, Cheddar Gorge lies north of the cheese-making town. There's nothing cheesy about the sheer rock faces that tower ominously over the deep gorge below.
The northern slopes of the Mendips are gentler than the scarp face of the south. Chew Valley Lake lies just to the north of the hills.
Eventually the circuit reaches Bristol. The Clifton Suspension Bridge is an iconic landmark.
Bristol City Centre combines old and new, with stunning redevelopment of the old docks providing even more glitz to what has always been an exciting city.
CIRCULAR STAGE 9: BRISTOL - MARLBOROUGH
Our journey started on the Great South West Road (the A30) where it branched off the Great West Road (the A4) in West London. Now we have looped around to the far west of the A4, we start heading back eastwards. As befits a road of such historical importance, the towns along the way each have immense history and character.
The Roman baths at Bath. It's astonishing to think just how long Bath's history dates back (the resort Aquae Sulis was established by the Romans in AD 43).
The Buxton of the South West! It's probably fairer to describe Buxton as the Bath of the north rather than the other way round, because Bath is older, bigger and more of an internationally-known world heritage site. Bath Crescent is probably the finest in the country, if not the world.
Our circuit enters Wiltshire east of Bath. Chippenham is the first of several coaching towns we come to on this stretch of the Great West Road.
Between Calne and Marlborough lies the village of Avebury with its intriguing stone circle.
Marlborough is still very much a busy market town, litle changed over hundreds of years (apart from the cars).
CIRCULAR STAGE 10: MARLBOROUGH - WINCHESTER
Salisbury Plain is the final highpoint of a never boring circuit. We head south to Salisbury and then east for a last quick sprint back to Winchester.
If there was an icon to sum up the image of Salisbury Plain, it would of course be Stonehenge. The real thing is actually rather over-commercialised and frankly a bit of a letdown to anyone who has just enjoyed all the uncorrupted wonders of The South West Experience. However Stonehenge is still worth checking out, just to say you have been there and bought the t-shirt.
Woodhenge is the connoisseur's choice over Stonehenge. Located just a mile or two away, there are no barbed wire fences or turnstiles to herd tourists rapidly around the attraction. Just a collection of concrete posts marking where the original Woodhenge used to stand. What it lacks in iconography, it makes up for in atmosphere.
The final cathedral on the circuit, Salisbury's spire is the tallest in England at 404 feet. The city centre is full of history and character.
We head east out of Salisbury, once again on the A30, a road we have crossed several times on our journey. This stretch is pure Roman Road: long, straight and picturesque. Stockbridge is located near one of the few bends in the road, where the Roman Road veered north-easterly. We turn onto what used to be the A272 for the last leg of the journey.
The statue of King Alfred in the centre of Winchester officially marks the end of the loop.
LEAVING THE SOUTH WEST
The A31 provides an easy-going, lightly used route back towards London.
Alresford is a small, now bypassed, coaching town. The Watercress Railway is a steam line operating from Alresford Station.
The other end of the Watercress Railway is at Alton Station, where it's possible to change from a steam train to an electric train and continue your journey to London. Alton is a nice, essentially country town, lying at the absolute outer edge of the London commuter belt.
We cross into Surrey, by now well and truly in commuter-land. Farnham is a pleasant town located underneath the North Downs.
The Hog's Back. Didn't know he'd been away etc etc...In fact, the Hog's Back is a strange whaleback-shaped ridge topped by the A31. There are great views both north and south.
At Guildford the A31 hits the A3. The largest town in Surrey, Guildford has a cathedral but for some reason isn't classed as a city. Not to worry, London is only a few miles up the road.