The Ultimate South West England Road Trip
The winding country and coastal roads of Cornwall, Dorset and Devon will take you from seaside port towns to expansive moors and thatched-roof villages rich with historical charm and friendly locals. In summer when the foxgloves are in bloom, you can dine on seafood at ocean-view restaurants, visit some of Britain’s most picturesque beaches, or watch a Shakespearean play from a cliff-side theatre.
This seven day road trip also takes in the counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset, and will have you exploring some of England’s most fascinating history, such as pirate coves and inns, the literary settings of novels from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolfe to Poldark, as well as the famed stone circle of Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral that houses an intact copy of the Magna Carta.
Portsmouth to the Jurassic Coast
This journey begins on the coast at Portsmouth, under two hours south along the A3 from London. Birthplace of Charles Dickens, this port city is steeped in naval history. Visit the Historic Dockyard, which houses the HMS Victory, the world’s oldest commissioned warship and flagship of Lord Nelson, who was eventually fatally wounded on the top deck in Spain in 1805. For a drink or pub meal, head to The Old Customs House on the Gunwharf Quays.
Aim to head off for the Jurassic Coast in the early morning and drive along the M27 out of Portsmouth and then on to the A31 through the New Forest National Park, keeping an eye out for wild ponies and deer that inhabit the area. Your destination is Durdle Door, a dramatic cliff arch that extends into the sea. This coastline, which got its name due to its sedimentary rock containing 185 million years worth of Earth’s history, is a World Heritage Site, with Durdle Door its most striking landmark. The path from the carpark down to Durdle Door takes you past the stunning Lulworth Cove lined with a gorgeous stretch of beach.
The road to Lyme Regis
Another 50 minutes drive through beautiful green countryside will lead you back towards the coast to the renowned Hive Beach Café, where you should stop for lunch and a walk along the beach. A further 25 minutes down the A35 will take you to the gorgeous Lyme Regis. For a unique and charming stay, check in to the HIX Townhouse owned by chef Mark Hix. Dine at the nearby HIX restaurant and enjoy the breakfast delivered to your room, which includes locally sourced ingredients.
Spend the early evening and following morning wandering around town, visiting the art gallery and local brewery of the Town Mill Complex, or stroll along the colourful waterfront lined with pastel coloured boat houses. Along Broad Street, keep an eye our for the site where Jane Austen supposedly wrote Persuasion, enjoy a coffee stop at the Galley Cafe, or browse gorgeous home wares at Ryder + Hinks.
Devon and Dartmoor
When your stomach starts rumbling again, jump back in the car and head back inland along narrow and picturesque country lanes to Axminster in Devon, where you can have a delicious lunch spread at the famed River Cottage Canteen (or if you have more time, the nearby River Cottage headquarters run a Cookery School on-site).
Sherlock Holmes called it the “wild and empty moor” in Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic The Hound of the Baskervilles, but this striking landscape is worth a visit while you are in Devon on the way down to Cornwall. Go for a wander amidst the hills and tors of some of England’s most popular hiking country, dine at the gastro pub Dartmoor Inn, visit the nearby Lydford Gorge, and save some pennies by staying above an old English pub such as the family run Fox and Hound.
Cornwall: the land of pirates and pasties
It’s time to head to Penzance, a name that evokes the famous pirate play, so head along the A30 down the centre of Cornwall around 1 hour and 45 minutes until you reach this westerly seaside port. Take a short detour towards the end of your journey to St Michael’s Mount, an island just off St Michael’s Bay that houses a 14th Century castle and chapel that was supposedly built by Edward the Confessor in the 11th Century. Once in Penzance, check in to the quirky Artist Residence on Chapel Street and grab a Cornish cider and some delicious finger food in the hipster courtyard – even play a few rounds of ping pong if the table is free.
This is the perfect location for exploring Penzance, and is directly across the road from Admiral Benbow, a 17th Century inn filled with quirky artefacts from nearby shipwrecks of the last 400 years – it truly transports you to a time of seafaring tales told over tankards of ale. When you’ve worked up an appetite, walk further up Chapel Street into the flower-covered courtyard housing The Bakehouse for a delicious dinner. Or if you are just after a snack, you can’t beat a traditional Cornish pasty, which are available all over town.
One of the truly spectacular features of this area of the Cornish peninsula is nearby Porthcurno with its natural cliff-lined beaches and the open-air Minack Theatre, which clings to the landscape overlooking the sea. In summer you can catch a matinee performance on certain days of the week or arrive in the evening for an 8pm show. You may be lucky to see a pod of dolphins or Basking sharks in the turquoise waters below.
Climbing the Coast of the Celtic Sea
Head north from Penzance a mere twenty-minute drive along the B3311 to reach Cornwall’s favourite seaside destination for artists, St Ives. This cobblestone seaside town boasts numerous galleries, including the Tate St Ives (which is sadly closed for structural work until March 2017), and the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Garden, which houses sculptures and paintings by one of Britain’s most important artists, who called St Ives home until her death in 1975. For an indulgent lunch visit the acclaimed Alba Restaurant, or for a more low-key (but no less delicious) bite head for Blas Burgerworks. Stroll around the seafront to the little lighthouse (Virginia Woolf used not this lighthouse, but the one on Godrevy Island in the St Ives Bay as her inspiration for To The Lighthouse), stop for a drink at the 14th Century Sloop Inn and meander along the cobbled streets behind for some great shopping.
After lunch, get back on the road and head to Watergate Bay. For a truly indulgent stay, check in to the Watergate Bay Hotel and make a reservation at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall next door, with wide windows overlooking the beach. If your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far, instead stay at the Great Western Hotel in Newquay, which has a great pub and beer garden downstairs that overlooks Tolcarne Beach. Fistral Beach is also worth a visit and if you love great pizza, dine at The Stable. Fans of the film version of Roald Dahl’s Witches? Stop in to snap The Headland Hotel while you are here, which featured in the film.
London via a journey through history
It’s time to leave Cornwall behind, but history buffs may think we’ve left the best until last. Set off early to mid morning to get today’s three-hour drive to historical Bath out of the way. Exit Newquay on Headland Road and steer towards the A30. You will arrive through picturesque farmland to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Bath, famed for it’s natural hot springs that feed the intact Roman Baths. This should be your first destination, followed by a late lunch or afternoon tea at the Bridge Tea Rooms, housed in an old blacksmith cottage from 1502, where the staff serve you in Victorian costumes. Then take a stroll along the River Avon, followed by some shopping through the boutiques and high street stores that weave through town.
Set off the following morning for your last day, heading for your final destination of London. Veer first via the A36 just under an hour to Stonehenge, the world’s most famous prehistoric stone circle, and stop by the visitor centre and museum 2km away from the site. Once you’ve marvelled at the mysteries of the stones, continue on just 8 miles to Salisbury and make a bee-line for the grandeur of Salisbury Cathedral. This Anglican cathedral is over 750 years old and is the tallest cathedral in Britain. It also houses the most intact copy of the Magna Carta, thought to be the founding document of democracy. During summer you can order a sandwich at the Bell Tower Tea Rooms on site, and enjoy the beauty of the architecture from the leafy cathedral grounds. Complete your South West England tour by heading 2 ½ hours North East towards London, where you will end your epic week-long road trip in some of the most diverse and fascinating country and coastline in Europe.
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