For decades the English county of Cornwall has called my name. Recently my husband and I took a week long road trip through the West Country from Bath to Cornwall. I can honestly say it was everything I ever imagined and more. Here’s what we’ve seen, done and learned.
We spent 2 nights in Bristol and 5 in Newquay in Cornwall, using them as bases for day trips. But that might not suit everyone’s schedule. So, instead of recommending specific accommodations, I will offer options on locations.
From Heathrow in London, drive approximately 100 miles west to Bath. With its stunning Georgian architecture, fascinating history and a heavy dose of charm, you could easily spend an entire day exploring the town.
Start with a free walking tour of the main sites with the Mayor of Bath’s Corps of Honorary Guides. All guides are volunteers and, unlike most free tours, do not accept tips. Tours are at a brisk pace over smooth, but partially hilly terrain, and last approximately 2 hours.
Must-see sites include:
- Ancient Roman Baths: Allow at least an hour to get the most out of your visit.
- Bath Abbey: With a stunning 19th century Victorian Gothic interior under a vaulted stone ceiling.
- The Royal Crescent: A stunning semi-circle of honey-coloured stone Georgian townhouses set back from an expanse of green space.
- Pulteney Bridge: The iconic 1774 Italian-inspired structure is lined on both sides with shops, offering great views over the River Avon.
There’s plenty more to see, so you can stay the night and continue your explorations the next morning, or make the 21km journey to Bristol.
Downstream from Bath, the walkable city of Bristol has a maritime history with a harbor and the first ocean liner, Brunel’s SS Britain to prove it. But the ship and its two associated museums are just the beginning of what you’ll discover in this dynamic city. Consider giving 2 days to do Bristol justice.
Take a gentle walk uphill to the Clifton Suspension Bridge and cross it. The bridge, opened to traffic in 1864, was an engineering marvel for its time. Be sure to visit the Visitor Center, where fascinating exhibits and artifacts explain the history, construction and maintenance of the bridge.
In the area, visit the Clifton Observatory and Caves located above the Avon Gorge. There you can take in spectacular panoramic views of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and surrounding area through the camera obscura. Then descend a long, narrow, uneven stone staircase to an underpass leading to Giant’s Cave for breathtaking views of Avon Gorge and the bridge.
Discover Bristol’s history through unique exhibits at the M Shed. Look for works by controversial street artist and world-renowned painter, Banksy. If you haven’t encountered his clever anti-establishment creations around Bristol yet, you’re in for a treat.
Bristol is alive with a variety of restaurants and watering holes. For a quick breakfast or lunch, try one of Spicer and Cole’s four locations. The salads are particularly delicious. The Orchard Inn is a historic corner pub serving a wide range of authentic West Country ciders and ales. The atmosphere is cheerful and the people are friendly.
Pro tip: The Visit Bristol website has useful information on accessible attractions.
Heading west towards Exmoor, stop for an hour and stroll or swim in the charming coastal town of Weston-Super-Mare. The pristine sandy beach stretches for 25 luxurious miles and the 150+ year old pier is ideal for walking.
From Weston-Super-Mare head towards Wheddon Cross in the center of Exmoor National Park. This 80km journey will take you to the perfect base for exploring Exmoor. Walk, hike and/or cycle the circular and linear paths and discover the moors at your own pace. Exmoor is an International Dark Sky Reserve, so you can take in the beauty from above as well as from your surroundings.
Then continue for 80 miles to Tintagel Castle and the charming Cornish village of the same name. You will enjoy the view of the rolling moor. But Exmoor can easily keep you busy for 2-3 days if you have the time.
Pro tip: The roads in this area are narrow and can be difficult.
5. Tintagel Castle
If you take the road through the center of Exmoor National Park, you will pass from Somerset to Devon. From here it is only a short distance to Tintagel Castle on the north Cornish coast.
Cross the bridge to the island where Richard, Earl of Cornwall built his castle. Legend has it that he was inspired by the story of King Arthur. Although only ruins remain of this once grand medieval structure and the surrounding village, the outdoor exhibits paint a vivid picture of days gone by.
Pro tip: Tintagel Castle is wheelchair accessible and dog friendly.
6. The Eden Project
Drive 30 miles south to the town of St. Austell and the nearby Eden Project. This innovative, creative, multi-domed work of genius was once the bottom of an abandoned, dried-up clay mine. Today, the transformation into a brilliant actual presentation of our natural world is astounding.
The walk from the parking lot is long, but the path, like the whole complex, is wheelchair accessible. Wear comfortable shoes. You will spend a lot of time on the move.
You can easily get lost for half a day or more at Eden Project. The main attractions are the two massive covered biomes. Take your time exploring the largest indoor rainforest in the world. As you walk through depictions of different parts of the world, you’ll notice changes in temperature, sound, and smell.
The Mediterranean biome envelops you in a pleasant cocoon of fragrant flowers, lemon, and earthy herbs. The transplanted century-old olive trees testify to the generosity, resilience and need for education of our planet.
Meticulously maintained outdoor spaces welcome visitors to play, eat and relax. The food from the on-site cafes is both tasty and surprisingly reasonable.
7. St Ives
From St. Austell, travel approximately 40 miles west to the popular family holiday town of St. Ives, located on the north Cornish coast. Visitors flock to this quaint fishing port and seaside town to enjoy its sandy beaches and other attractions.
Park at the top of town. The streets are narrow and difficult to navigate. St. Ives is cobbled, hilly and dotted with stairs, making the walk to the harbor difficult for anyone with reduced mobility.
Once at the harbor level it is more open and easy to navigate. Treat yourself to a Cornish pasty, a half-moon shaped pastry traditionally topped with beef and potatoes. Modern versions can contain everything from chicken curry to assorted vegetables.
If you need a dose of art to accompany your beach stroll, the Barbara Hepworth Museum, which features many of the artist’s sculptures, and a branch of the Tate Gallery are worth a visit. Unless you’re staying in the area, half a day to a day in St. Ives will do.
Pro tip: Free parking is almost non-existent – especially in popular cities – and rates vary widely. Make sure you have plenty of coins, as the machines rarely give change and most don’t accept credit cards.
Eight miles south of St. Ives is Penzance, the capital of Cornwall. Explore the city’s rich history, beaches and cliffs.
You’ll want to check out Jubilee Pool, one of the few 1930s art deco lidos in England. Triangular in shape, the pool juts out into the bay, offering swimmers the best of both aquatic worlds.
The unmissable Mont Saint-Michel and its castle stand serenely on their own island. The timing of your visit is critical as the causeway leading to the island is completely underwater at high tide.
Pro tip: There is so much to see and do in Penzance, staying at least one night will give you more time to explore.
And so ends the journey from Bath to Penzance. Or does it?
9. At the end of the world
If you’re willing to drive the extra 10 miles west of Penzance, you can brag about being on the westernmost tip of England. If you want to turn your Land’s End selfie into an overnight stay, drop your suitcase at the Land’s End Hotel. Otherwise, be aware that parking is abnormally expensive. You can sneak your car around the back of the hotel for a few minutes and take your pictures.
Pro tip: The West Country of England is a popular destination for family holidays. Spring and early summer, as well as early fall, are the best seasons for this road trip. Crowds are thinner and prices are a bit less than they are in mid-summer. Winter is the least crowded and most economical, but some attractions and accommodations may be closed.
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