Great West Way Travel Magazine


Where the world-famous rub shoulders with the yet-to-be-discovered

- Words: Helen Ochyra

Where the world-famous rub shoulders with the yet-to-be-discovered

IAM STANDING in a Dickens novel, sipping a pint of ale and feeling the warm glow of the rousing fire in the fireplace on my face, as I imagine a time when this thatched house, The Waggon and Horses, was a coaching inn filled with weary travellers making their way along the Great Bath Road.

I am holding the tiller of a canal boat, watching green and yellow fields slide past on both sides and birds settle in the trees that line the banks of the Kennet & Avon Canal. I plot a course westwards, down a staircase flight of locks and past pub gardens with picnic tables and overnight moorings.

I am exploring the Great West Way, a corridor that runs through the very soul of England, from the vibrant capital of London to the creative city of Bristol (read more in Heritage Meets Hip, p12). This is a touring route that is more a lattice – of paths, trails and tracks, snaking across the countrysid­e from ancient market towns to quaint villages.

Some of these paths are best on two feet, strolling around Bath’s cobbled streets perhaps, or rambling across the green rolling hills of the Cotswolds, England’s largest Area of Outstandin­g Natural Beauty. Others could have been made for cycling - the towpaths alongside the canals from the Thames to the Bristol Channel for example, or the mountain biking trails that wind through the ancient trees of the Savernake Forest. (Find your trail in Discover Your Path, p29.)

Then there are the waterways. There is the River Thames, home to some of the best stretches of water for rowing in the country, not to mention the Henley Royal Regatta, an annual festival of rowing races that brings London society to the river’s banks, Champagne glass in hand. There is also the Devizes Locks, one of the greatest challenges in English narrowboat­ing – 28 locks up (or down!) one very steep

hill. Spend the day tackling that, or get in training for the annual Devizes to Westminste­r Internatio­nal Canoe Race, when canoeists of all abilities paddle their way from the Wiltshire market town to London. (Discover your next water adventure in Your Way on the Water, p21.)

Rather ride the rails? The Great Western Railway runs from London Paddington to Bristol, a modern railway still following the route of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s pioneering line. Brunel designed it to be the longest, most level and broadest railway in Britain, but travellers simply called it the ‘holiday line’, climbing aboard in their thousands to chug out to the coast and countrysid­e for their holidays. (Read more about Brunel in Riding the Rails, p24.)

Climb aboard in London and in under an hour you can be in Windsor, poking your head into the rooms and galleries of the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world – said to be the Queen’s favourite residence. (Enjoy more Aristocrat­ic Acres, p36.)

Spend 90 minutes on board and you could be in Bath, taking the waters at the thermal baths first discovered by the Romans and strolling along Georgian streets, where every building is fashioned from Bath stone and glows the same shade of honey. It pays to take your time travelling along the Great West Way, walking, cycling or narrowboat­ing through the countrysid­e, but it is also possible to drive (plan your route, with Classic Car Tours, p51.) Take a car and you’ll find yourself on one of the first major highways to be built in England, once called the Great Bath Road, and route of the world’s first mail coach service, which ran from London to Bristol from 1784.

Along the way you’ll find old coaching inns serving hearty English meals such as fish and chips and Sunday roast, washed down with local real ale – from Wadworth Brewery in Devizes perhaps (see Drink Like a Local, p54.)

“A corridor that runs through the very soul of England”

Pictured above (then in a clockwise direction): Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle; Tea and cake at a coffee shop in Castle Combe; pretty Wiltshire village of Milton Lilbourne and a smiling florist in Bristol

This route, now the A4, remains a major highway, bringing you to Bristol from the heart of London in just a few hours. And what an exciting city Bristol is. Innovative, forward thinking and vibrant, this western powerhouse has long been at the cutting edge; a major port that is home to both Brunel’s SS Great Britain passenger ship, today a museum, and his lofty Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Bristol is a hotbed of artists and passionate locals, with street art and many independen­t galleries found in the city. Cycling is popular in Bristol too. With cycle paths on most major roads as well as along rivers and into the countrysid­e it is no wonder Bristol was named as the UK’s first ‘cycling city’. So why not let two wheels take you into the city’s secret corners, where you might find an early Banksy (there’s an app for that) or a yet-to-be-discovered fashion designer, musician or artist displaying their creations? However you choose to travel, the web of trails and tracks that make up the Great West Way mean you can meander off the major routes and find your own favourite slice of England.

You might find it in Marlboroug­h, home to one of the country’s widest and grandest high streets, lined with boutiques and cafés; or Malmesbury, England’s oldest borough with a stunning 12th Century Abbey and a Market Cross from 1490.

Take time out to enjoy the shopping destinatio­ns too, from the iconic Jolly’s in Bath, one of the oldest department stores in Europe to the Oracle shopping centre in Reading, a hub for visitors throughout the Thames Valley. (Enjoy more Shopping Destinatio­ns, p62.) Or at the prehistori­c and deeply mysterious Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe, which covers some five acres, reaches about 130 feet high and has no discernibl­e purpose (read more in Nature in High Definition, p41.)

Wherever you choose to stay (see A Warm Welcome, p68) you’ll find friendly family-run hotels and boutique B&Bs. Perhaps five-star grandeur at

The Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa, proud to describe themselves as “the only landmark building in the world you can sleep in”, located in the historic centre of Bath is for you, or check in to Whatley Manor in the heart of the Cotswolds and cosy up to watch a film in the cinema or immerse yourself in tranquilli­ty at their wonderful Aquarias Spa.

Like gardens? Call in to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, home to the world’s most extensive and diverse plant collection. Here in London’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site you can stroll through an arboretum that is like a living library of more than 14,000 trees and step into a rainforest in the Victorian-era Palm House, a stunning glass structure that shelters endangered and otherwise-extinct tropical tree species.

Seven miles further south in East Molesey, you will find the magnificen­t royal splendour of Hampton Court Palace, the home of Henry VIII, his wives and children. Walk in the footsteps of kings and queens at the Chapel Royal, experience the splendour of the Great Hall, and lose yourself in the spectacula­r 60 acres of formal gardens with over 8,000 trees and Britain’s longest flower-filled border. Summer is a

fabulous time to wander in the rose garden, see fruit and vegetables growing in the kitchen garden as they were for 18th century kings. There’s also the world’s largest grape vine planted in 1768 and still producing black grapes, which you can buy from onsite shops from early September.

From the 19th century, wind your way along the Great West Way further and you’ll wind the clock back too. In Wiltshire you’ll find many pretty towns and villages to explore. Stroll through the beautiful park in Trowbridge, the county town, and saunter past the independen­t shops, well-known High

Street outlets and a multitude of cafés, pubs and restaurant­s. There are also a number of convenient­lyplaced hotels in Trowbridge which could make a great base for your Great West Way journey. Calne is another great historic town from which you can discover the timeless wonders of Wiltshire - and also the place where the traditiona­l English technique of curing ham and bacon – the Wiltshire Cure - was invented by the Harris family.

There’s also Lacock Abbey, a Tudor family home that started life as an abbey and nunnery in the

13th century. You’ll almost certainly recognise the medieval cloisters here – from Wolf Hall or Harry Potter and the Philosophe­r’s Stone – then step outside and into a film set. The ridiculous­ly picturesqu­e village of Lacock is the darling of TV producers. Look up and you’ll see why the British TV networks love Lacock

– or, rather, you won’t, as it’s the lack of TV aerials and phone cables that have made this National Trust village the perfect backdrop for everything from Pride and Prejudice to Cranford. (Discover Great West Way places you can step on set in As Seen On Screen, p33.)

Travel further back in time and further west again, into Roman Britain and the well-preserved baths of Bath. See the original Roman bathing pool surrounded by gorgeous 18th and 19th century buildings at The Roman Baths, and don’t miss taking a dip yourself, at the modern Thermae Bath Spa. Here the rooftop pool sends curls of steam up above the skyline of this elegant Georgian city and where you can rest your arms on the side of the pool, look up through the heat haze and stare straight at the Victorian Gothic Bath Abbey, the work of another great English architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott.

It may only be 125 miles from London to Bristol but the Great West Way can take you all the way back to prehistori­c. At Avebury you can touch the ancient standing stones of Britain’s largest stone circle, part of a sacred landscape that dates back to around 2850BCE. There are some 42 remaining stones here, each one weathered and wizened into a different shape.

And then of course, there is Stonehenge. This masterpiec­e of ancient engineerin­g is one of the icons of England, and part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site as Avebury. (Discover more heritage in Marvellous Museums, p59.) This may be one of the planet’s most important ancient sites but it’s just one small part of England’s story, and of your journey on the Great West Way. It’s time to head out there and to start making your own memories.

 ??  ?? Pictured left-right: Gardens and woodland at Stourhead, Wiltshire; Hampton Court Palace; The Roman Baths; Calne and the Marden river; Trowbridge, Wiltshire’s county town
Pictured left-right: Gardens and woodland at Stourhead, Wiltshire; Hampton Court Palace; The Roman Baths; Calne and the Marden river; Trowbridge, Wiltshire’s county town
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