The West Country is an unofficial, but popular, name for the South West of England. If you think you know southern England, but haven't ventured beyond the South East, the West Country will be a revelation. It is at once more rural and prettier than its crowded neighbour, offering extensive countryside of hills, forest and moorland, hemmed in on three sides by the sea. From the sandy beaches of Dorset, to the creeks and inlets of Devon, via Somerset's high cliffs and Cornwall's secluded coves, the South West Coast is as diverse as it is long. Large cities are few and far between, but for the cream of the crop, head to vibrant Bristol, historic and up-and-coming Plymouth, beachy Bournemouth or charming Bath.
In addition to city, countryside and coast, the West Country hosts some of the UK's best-known attractions. While no trip to the region would be complete without a visit to Stonehenge, other landmarks include Cheddar Gorge in Somerset and the Eden Project in Cornwall. The region's fauna is impressive. A trip out to sea may permit sightings of whales, dolphins and basking sharks; inland you can seek out England's only wild beavers, plus river otters and kingfishers in Devon, rare butterflies and great bustards in Wiltshire's meadows and reintroduced wild boar in Gloucestershire.
The following counties are generally considered to form the West Country:
Quintessential English countryside; from the honey-coloured villages of the Cotswolds to the ancient woodland of the Forest of Dean, where boar and deer roam.
Britain at its oldest and most intriguing - mysterious circles abound, both of the stone and crop variety. Prepare to meet druids, rub shoulders with pagans and bear witness to strange symbols on the chalk hills.
A diverse landscape of gorges, hills, moors and wetland; Somerset is a haven for birdwatchers, cheese lovers and cider fans alike.
From the Jurassic Coast to sandy Bournemouth, via Portland Bill, Chesil Beach and Poole Harbour, visit one of the UK's finest coastlines. Inland, discover Thomas Hardy's beloved "Wessex".
Two dramatic national parks (Holmesian Dartmoor and misty Exmoor), Exeter's wonderful cathedral and a coastline they call the 'English Riviera' - what better place for a cream tea?
|Cornwall (Kernow) |
Very much separate from the rest of England, Cornwall is the place to go for serious surfing, white-washed fishing villages, tales of pirates, UNESCO mining heritage and Celtic hospitality: Kernow bys vyken!
|Isles of Scilly (Enesek Syllan) |
Beyond Land's End lies a jewel-like archipelago; warmed by the tropical Gulf Stream, these Cornish islands enjoy the mildest climate in Britain
- 1 Bath (Somerset) – With hot springs that have attracted visitors for 2000 years, Bath is, according to its double UNESCO listing, one of the great spa towns of Europe. Marvel at the Roman baths, stroll the Regency resort or take a dip in the curative waters of Sulis.
- 2 Bournemouth (Dorset) – A buzzing beach town with something for all ages, where retirement homes abut student halls and everyone spends their weekends on the sand.
- 3 Bristol – Once a bustling medieval port, the South West's biggest city is both fashionable and colourful, while enjoying interesting topography and a world-famous bridge
- 4 Exeter (Devon) – Devon's county town is blessed with a stunning cathedral and an enviable location between Dartmoor and the sea
- 5 Gloucester (Gloucestershire) – The UK's furthest inland port on its longest river; yet another cathedral city with Roman and Medieval credentials
- 6 Plymouth (Devon) – The "Spirit of Discovery" invites you to the place where the pilgrims of the Mayflower set sail for the New World
- 7 Salisbury (Wiltshire) – "New Sarum" boasts England's tallest cathedral spire, a magnificent structure that evokes the great churches of the Continent
- 8 Truro (Cornwall) – Cornwall's compact and pretty capital sits at the heart of the Duchy. Its narrow streets make it pedestrian-friendly and easily walkable
- 9 Wells (Somerset) – More of a large village than a city, Wells' gorgeousness packs a punch far greater than its size. This most English of settlements surrounds a justifiably famous cathedral
- 1 Cotswolds (Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire) – rolling countryside and chocolate box villages make one of England's most iconic areas of outstanding natural beauty. The region also extends into the South East and West Midlands.
- 2 Dartmoor National Park (Devon) – windswept moors and lonely tors (peaks) that have inspired legend and literature for centuries.
- 3 Exmoor National Park (Devon, Somerset) – the heathland home of the hardy Exmoor ponies and Great Britain's highest sea cliffs.
- 4 Forest of Dean (Gloucestershire) – the "Queen of Forests" hugs the Welsh border and is ideal for hiking, biking, fishing and canoeing.
- 5 Jurassic Coast (Dorset, eastern Devon) – the birthplace of palaeontology and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you can dig fossils out of the beach with your plastic bucket and spade.
- 6 Land's End – where Cornwall tumbles into the Atlantic Ocean, and sells a part of its soul to mass tourism.
- 7 Lundy – a rugged and very scenic island off the north Devon coast, home to 20 people, thousands of seabirds and a surprisingly rich history.
- 8 Stonehenge (Wiltshire) – the most famous prehistoric stone circle in the world is a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site with 9 Avebury, a village built amongst standing stones about 20 miles to the north.
The exact boundary of the West Country is unclear and often a source of heated debate between the different counties, most of which have strong identities. Some definitions exclude Gloucestershire, while others embrace the likes of Herefordshire and Hampshire.
Most of the West Country once formed part of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and Wessex remains to this day a cultural region with which some locals identify. The people of Cornwall sometimes consider themselves separate from both the West Country and England, due to their ancient Celtic heritage.
What can be said is that it is an area that shares many interesting cultural similarities, from accent and dialect, to a shared agricultural and fishing heritage, and a readiness to accept witches, pagans and other freethinkers that might not fit in elsewhere.
West Country people are widely seen as warm, welcoming, forgiving and easy going folk, and certainly this reputation has helped enhance the tourism industry. Other aspects of the culture include an almost religious obsession with strong farm-produced cider. Many folk songs about the juice of the apple are widely known and will be readily performed by local musicians, in a style jokingly referred to as "Scrumpy & Western".
The West Country is known for its distinctive accents, which vary from county to county, but share many common traits, most notably rhoticity — i.e. the R in words like "butter" and "farm" is pronounced the same as in "rabbit" or "arrange" — a feature shared with most Scottish, Irish, Canadian and American accents, but in contrast to most accents from elsewhere in England. In media, you may recognise these accents from Robert Newton's seminal portrayal of Long John Silver in the 1950 film adaptation of Treasure Island, or else as similar to those used by Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings or Rubeus Hagrid in Harry Potter.
Cornish, a Celtic language related to Welsh, is spoken by a tiny minority in Cornwall; see the county article for details.
The M5, M4, A303 and A31 provide motorway and trunk road access to South West England.
Great Western Railway operate most services into the region from London, the South East and Wales. South Western Railway (who mainly cover the east of the region) also connect the West Country to the South and South East. CrossCountry provide long distance services from the Midlands and North.
Bournemouth, Exeter and Newquay[dead link] all have airports with services from elsewhere in the UK and abroad. Southampton Airport, in the neighbouring South East region, is very well placed for Dorset and Wiltshire.
Otherwise, the greatest number of international (and particularly long-haul) flights will be found at the various London airports, which are all within a day's drive of practically anywhere in the West Country. Heathrow Airport is about 2 hours' drive from Bristol.
Within the West Country itself are two seaports offering international ferry services: Plymouth receives ferries from Roscoff and St Malo in France, and Santander in Spain, while Poole receives ferries from Cherbourg and St Malo in France, plus Santander and the Channel Islands.
- Stonehenge, One of the world's most famous prehistoric monuments, located in the county of Wiltshire.
- Chalk figures – the grassy chalk downland of eastern parts of the region has long been used as a canvas for huge white figures - most often human figures or horses. Many of these are centuries old with obscure origins. Famous examples in the region include the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset and the Westbury White Horse in Wiltshire.
- Roman Baths in Bath, a Roman spa complex constructed on hot springs and now a museum.
- The Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape — a UNESCO World Heritage site
- The Jurassic Coast (East Devon coast and Dorset cost)
The South West with its long coastline is a haven for tourists and so many tourist attractions can be found here. Eastern Dorset has a number of popular seaside resorts, the biggest of which is Bournemouth. The 'Jurassic Coast' (so named for the abundant dinosaur and prehistoric fossils found along the beaches) runs through western Dorset and eastern Devon. The Cornish coast is famous for its mining heritage, fishing villages and surfing beaches. One of that county's most popular modern attractions is the Eden Project in St Austell, huge glass biomes containing plants from across the Earth.
- The Prehistoric Wessex Trail suggests a drive around the Saxon landmarks of Dorset and Wiltshire.
- The South West Coast Path is a glorious 1000-km hiking trail around the entire peninsula, from Minehead in Somerset via Land's End to Poole in Dorset.
- The Two Moors Way crosses Devon coast to coast via Dartmoor and Exmoor, along 188 km of walking paths.
Cream tea wars
Devon and Cornwall are divided not just by the Tamar, but by the proper way to prepare scones: the heathen Cornish maintain the jam should go first and be slathered with cream on top, whereas the borderline psychopathic Devonians argue the cream should be spread first, with the jam dolloped on top. The rest of the country may laugh, but they still haven't settled whether it's pronounced "scone" or "scone".
Local specialities include:
- Clotted cream is popular throughout the region. This extremely thick and fatty cream is served with cakes, most often with a rich berry jam on fruit scones as part of a cream tea.
- Cheddar cheese - popular cheese named after Cheddar in Somerset.
- Cornish pasty - regional food of Cornwall.
- Somerset casserole - meat or a meaty fish cooked in cider with potatoes, onions and mushrooms.
- Seafood, and lots of it! Lyme Bay crab, Brixham fish soup, stargazy pie, Cornish mussels, mackerel in mustard sauce... And there are wet fishmongers and markets all over the region.
- Wiltshire cured ham
- Tewkesbury mustard - mustard named after Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire.
- Dorset apple cake
The region is most famous for production of farmhouse cider (nationally known as a "scrumpy"). This is generally assumed to be alcoholic (and frequently much stronger than supermarket cider!) and apple-based, although perry from pears and ciders from other fruits are also produced.
The rural West Country is generally an extremely safe area with low crime rates - the sort of place where locals may leave houses unlocked, although of course this is not advised; and as usual, towns and cities should be treated with more vigilance.
Perhaps the biggest potential danger for a visitor is on the country roads, which are frequently narrow, with very poor visibility as they wind between high hedges, and always the risk of a tractor, horse rider or cyclist around the next corner. Drive carefully!
In addition, the highlands of Dartmoor, Exmoor etc can be very exposed to bad weather, so although they are not particularly mountainous in sheer height or relief, they should be treated with similar respect. Similarly, all usual respect should be paid to coastline safety as the sea can be rough and many opportunities exist for getting cut off by the tide.
When West Country people are portrayed in media, several tropes are frequently used. Either they're simple country folk - usually farmers or fishermen - or they're pirates, or similar roguish outlaws. These portrayals have a basis in historical reality; the soil and the sea are important to the local economy, while the South West has always harboured alternative lifestyles and an independent spirit. It also won't escape your notice when visiting that the tropes are often played up in the region for tourists.
However, don't forget that these are stereotypes which not all locals are comfortable with, and many may take offence at the implications: the "oo-ar" farmer and rumsoaked sailor are lovable and hard-grafting, but essentially dim-witted; pirates, smugglers and highwaymen might be romantic and certainly not lacking in brains, but they are still violent criminals.
- London is about two hour's drive from Bristol, and considerably further from the rest of the region.
- Swansea and the Gower Peninsula are around 90 minutes from Bristol.