A Road Trip through South West England
To be honest, our road trip through South West England was a bit of a whirlwind. There was so much we wanted to see and do, but less than a week to fit it all in. In retrospect, we bit off more than we could chew, and felt more rushed than we like to be. Even so, we were able to experience enough of a sampling of what South West England has to offer to know without a doubt that we’d love to return for more. Letters on the map above are places we stopped, most of which are mentioned in the post below. Red tags indicate the places we stopped and spent the night.
How to Get There
We opted to rent a car, and this choice definitely helped us see as much as possible. When renting a car in England there are several things to keep in mind.
- If you’re not comfortable driving on the left side of the road, rural England, with its narrow lanes lined with stone walls and multitude of roundabouts may not be the perfect place to get your practice in.
- A manual (stick-shift) car is much cheaper than an automatic. There will also be more options for car types if you choose manual. If you are used to driving a stick, this is the way to go.
- If you’re coming from the US, petrol will be quite a bit more expensive. We were paying about £1.15 per liter, the equivalent to nearly $7 per gallon. Keep that in mind when planning long distance routes.
- Be aware of traffic rules, parking signs, and availability of parking at your lodging. If there’s no dedicated parking at your hotel or B&B you can end up spending quite a bit of time looking for valid parking on the street.
It’s also possible to visit South West England via train.
Our Aimless Route
We set off without any real idea of where we were going. We’d talked to friends and gotten plenty of recommendations, but those were all just dots on the map. Being used to driving long distances in the US, it looked perfectly manageable. That vision changed drastically the first day of our road trip. Whether it’s urban traffic in London, or sheep at a rural crossroads, a hundred miles on English roadways suddenly seems MUCH further than you might expect.
Day 1: London to Amesbury (Stonehenge)
We set out from London on the M3, which goes on to become the A303. These are motorways with multiple lanes and two-way traffic, easy to navigate and with plenty of signage. By late afternoon, we were approaching Wiltshire County, where Stonehenge is located. We went back and forth about whether Stonehenge might be over-saturated with tourists, whether we’d be able to get close enough, and whether we should consider a less-visited stone circle, like Avebury, not far away. Ultimately, there was no way we were going to come within 10 miles of Stonehenge and not visit, so we booked tickets online for first thing the next day. We’re very glad we made the effort to see Stonehenge.
To rest for the evening, we chose the George Hotel in Amesbury, just a few miles down the road from Stonehenge. The hotel was originally the Pilgrims’ Hostelry of Amesbury Abbey, welcoming travelers since the 13th century! The outside of the building still looks much like it has for hundreds of years. Renovation to the inside has maintained many original features like exposed oak beams. It’s not luxurious in the least, and probably due for an update, but it was a comfortable and affordable place to spend a night.
Day 2: Stonehenge to Plymouth
The roads heading south through Wiltshire (the country in which Stonhenge is located) get smaller and more rural. Speed limits were much slower, and we had to slow down even more to pass through tiny towns along the way. Sometimes, we took detours to do just that on purpose. Each town had its own special character, and it was tempting to stop in each one to look around and snap some photos. Towns like Ilminster have been mentioned in documents as far back as the 700s, and maintain a history-rich, quaint, rural vibe.
Exeter was the next city of any size we reached, and it’s a crossroads. The A30 will go around to the north of Dartmoor National Park, while the A38 goes around to the south. We chose option three: to drive through the middle of the park along the tiny B3212.
The dramatic landscapes of the park were enhanced by the gray, overcast day. Towering granite tors (rock outcroppings), heather-covered moors, wooded valleys and clear, rushing streams provide an amazing natural landscape for hikers and cyclists. We did several shorter, circular hikes within the park, leaving the car at a couple of central points. On a future visit, we’d love to stay at one of the country manors or B&B’s to be able to really get deeper into the park. We missed out on spotting any of the famous Dartmoor Ponies that roam the moors. We were hoping to see some, since we’d read that hoofprints found on an archaeological dig show ponies have been here at least 3,500 years! Dartmoor’s Bronze Age history is well-worth investigating further as well. Our favorite pitstops, though, were to check out some of the massive granite tors that seem to pop up out of nowhere. After leaving the park, it’s a short drive to the town of Plymouth, where we spent the night. Being from New England, I was struck by how many towns in south west England had lent their names to places near where I’d grown up: Truro, Barnstaple, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Weymouth, Taunton, Dartmouth, Falmouth . . . the list goes on.
Day 3: Plymouth to St. Agnes
We stayed in a guesthouse called Sea Breezes, in a super-comfortable room on the top floor. The host, Anne, is very welcoming and helpful, and breakfast was a delight. The location right on the Grand Parade is perfect for exploring, but far enough removed from downtown to feel nice and quiet. Plymouth’s Harbor is picturesque and historical. Plymouth was the beginning of the Pilgrim’s crossing, commemorated with the famous Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Remembering class trips to Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims ended their voyage, it was extra special to stand above the Mayflower Steps, commemorating the spot where the voyage began. We wandered along the cobble-stoned streets of the Barbican before returning through the Plymouth Hoe, a sprawling park by the sea, compete with lawns, monuments and a red and white striped lighthouse. The eastern end houses a 17th century citadel that still acts as a military base. From the hill here be sure to look out over the 1930’s lido pool area set among the rocks and the sea.
St. Michael’s Mount
The church and priory of the castle that dominates St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall were built by monks from the similarly named Mt. St. Michel in France. At the time of the Norman conquest in 1066, the island was already in their possession. Signs of settlement on this unique piece of earth go back to the Bronze Age however. We were lucky enough to catch the tide at the perfect time, and walk right across to the “island,” totally separated from the mainland when the tide is high. The main route to the island is a pilgrim’s path, discovered in the 1950s. It has suffered quite a bit of damage from storms in past years, and is currently undergoing a major reconstruction. The castle is open for visits, though our timing unfortunately wasn’t right for that. We love unique places like St. Michaels. What would it be like to live on the island, having to time your errands based on the tides?
Days 4-6: St. Agnes
The rugged landscapes of the southernmost regions of Cornwall are hard to beat. Much of the route is designated as “Heritage Coast.” This was one stretch that really made us feel it was time to slow down a bit in order to take it all in. We booked a few nights at the Driftwood Spars in St. Agnes. Located just above picturesque Trevaunance Cove below the tiny town of St. Agnes, the ground floor is taken up by a traditional, Cornish coastal pub. Supplied with local produce, the food is a big step up from standard pub fare, and we ate in several times. The bar was always crowded with locals after work. Some rooms of the 4-star B&B overlook the cove, and all have, right outside the door, access to the many walking trails that criss-cross the region. And that’s how we spent our days: hiking the trails, losing the trails and generally wandering the coast and farmlands. One of our favorite parts of traveling is the people we meet along the way in the most random places. It was precisely when we most lost that we ran into a local man and his dog. We spent almost an hour throwing a stick for his beautiful pup and chatting about nothing and everything, one of those brief meetings you end up remembering long after.
Driftwood was our favorite B&B of the trip. The massive exposed beams (from which it gets it’s name) were salvaged from shipwrecks along the coast and were used to build the building in the 1650s. We love places with history, and Driftwood Spars fits the bill, having served over the years as a tin mining warehouse, chandlery, sail-making loft and fish cellar, before being converted into a hotel and pub in the early 1900s. The region around St. Agnes is steeped in history as well, designated as a World Heritage Site for its mining history. Ruins of old mines dot the coast, and they were an additional highlight of several of our walks.
Day 7: St. Agnes to Bath
Refreshed an renewed, we continued our Devon and Cornwall road trip. From St. Agnes, it was a slow, slow journey up the coast. We stopped numerous times in seaside towns like Newquay and Tintagel, longing to stop and explore. We did take the time to stop in the unique, cliff-side town of Clovelly. This little village has been owned by one family for the last 800 years! Built upon the steep, rocky coast the vehicle of choice in the village was always the donkey. Since the donkeys have mostly been retired, the residents use wooden sleds to slide everything from food stuffs to refuse up and down the extremely steep, cobblestone streets. We couldn’t imagine having something heavy to go back up the hill! We could hardly get ourselves back up.
It was tough to resist turning off as we skirted around Exmoor National Park, so that area is high on the list for a future visit. It was evening by the time we checked into the Dorian House B&B, high on the hill just outside downtown Bath. We scored a lucky, last minute deal on a great room on the top floor with a view of the Royal Crescent. Our visit to historic Bath started early the next morning. With the requisite stops at the Roman Baths and the Bath Abbey, the free walking tour led by volunteers from Mayor’s Corps of Honorary Guides was a highlight. Taking in the city’s well-preserved Georgian architecture and landmarks like the Circus and the Royal Crescent, the tour provides a great orientation as well as a taste of both history and personal anecdotes from longtime residents.
Day 8: Return to London
Bath to London is a relatively easy drive, and we handled in in a few hours. It felt like a breeze being back on a bigger highway, though we already missed the low stone walls and rolling hills of our Devon and Cornwall road trip.