South West England is blessed with beautiful beaches on the coast, and lots of lovely countryside further inland. Home to two of our best national parks (both containing wild ponies), this large region stretches from Victorian seaside resorts on the central South Coast down towards Land’s End and the Scilly Isles (a tropical paradise).
From England’s most beautiful building to the mysteries of Stonehenge, this is a region of contrasts: bucket-and-spade holidays to tropical gardens, English vineyards to homemade ‘scrumpy’ cider!
The Seaside Counties of South West England
- Cornwall is England’s most southerly county, in the far southwest corner. Home to a unique culture (it has its own language and folk music), it’s popular with painters due to the unique light, and also with surfers, due to the high-rolling waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The fertile soil and warmer temperatures means that you can find many vineyards (and at least one tea plantation) here. However, tourism remains the main industry. And this has led to house prices becoming so high that due to empty second homes, many local people here cannot afford to buy. Cob buildings abound, a simple method of building houses with earth and water. These pretty buildings look down over many villages in Cornwall.
- Devon is one of England’s largest counties (so big in fact, that many people never venture from north to south, nor vice versa). The popular seaside resorts give way to alternative scenery inland: from two of our national parks (Dartmoor and Exmoor, both known for their wild ponies) and busy cities (Plymouth by the sea and Exeter further inland). Also inland is the quirky town of Totnes, which was the world’s first Transition Town (it has its own local food, local currency, community solar panels and even one of England’s first zero-waste shops (owned by a former Manchester United footballer).
- Dorset is a beautiful county of contrasts. The Jurassic Coast (the dinosaur fossils are buried here) houses popular seaside resorts like Poole and Christchurch. Yet despite Sandbanks being one of the wealthiest areas in England, just a few miles down the road, Bournemouth has one of England’s highest rates of homelessness. The stunning coastline goes inland to become ‘Tess’ country, made famous by the novels of Thomas Hardy. This leads to the New Forest, a vast area of woodland, also famed for its wild free-foaming ponies.
- Somerset is a pretty county that again houses both coast and countryside. The main resort here is Weston-Super-Mare, but be careful with its long sandy beaches, as it has one of the longest tidal reaches, but also is prone to sinking mud (dangerous for people and dogs). Of course, Somerset is mostly known for its ‘scrumpy cider’.
The Inland Counties of South West England
- Gloucestershire is home to the urban city of Gloucester. But just a few miles away is Cheltenham, one of England’s prettiest floral towns (with spa fountains and Cheltenham Ladies College). Just a hop away are The Cotswolds, a series of rolling hills that start from The Thames, and many burned-out rock stars who choose to hide themselves away here, among the honey-coloured buildings of pretty villages.
- Herefordshire is one of England’s most rural counties, with one of the lowest populations. If you prefer sheep to people, this is for you! Bordering Wales, the population swells each year, when the Hay-on-Wye book festival takes place. But mostly it’s a sparsely populated county. Even the main city of Hereford (with a beautiful cathedral) is not that busy. One industry this area is famed for, is its delicious cider.
- Shropshire is a beautiful county, set amid the blue rolling hills on the border with Wales. This is also one of England’s least populated counties, so ideal if you like peace and quiet. One journalist was sent around England to discover the most beautiful county. Northumberland almost won (but the writer did not like the cold and wind, so Shropshire won!) One of the few towns in Shropshire is Ludlow, known to be one of the best local foodie havens in England. The county is also again known for its delicious cider.
- Wiltshire is home to many of our treasured heritages: Salisbury Cathedral (which American writer Bill Bryson called the most beautiful building in England) and Stonehenge (an ancient burial site near the hippy town of Glastonbury, known for its annual musical festival). Locals are called ‘moonrakers’: years ago, some smugglers were caught hiding French brandy in a village pond. About to be arrested, they pretended to ‘rake in the moon’ from the lake (a reflection of the kegs. The customs police thought they were simpletons, and left them alone, to carry on their illegal activities!
Bath & Bristol (2 cities of contrast)
South West England is also home to two very beautiful but different cities, just 13 miles apart and linked by a old railway path that you walk between them.
- Bath is a cultured city that has honey-coloured buildings, Roman spa baths and Victoria Park (which is overlooked by Royal Crescent, often featured in BBC period dramas). It’s often called one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and is packed with museums, art galleries and theatres. Yet it’s only a short hop from the Cotswolds.
- Bristol is a busy, younger city that is packed with indie shops (and has won awards for being the most green and vegan-friendly city in England). With a strong maritime history, it has its own currency and many iconic sites including Clifton Suspension Bridge, which dominates the skyline.
Music Break: Mad World
Tears for Fears were founded by two friends in Bath, and here’s a nice cover. Very apt at the moment with our world leaders, yes?