Over the summer of 2017 I spent almost three months housesitting and exploring the incredible gem that is. Southwest England. My housesit was a beautiful old farm just outside of Wellington and it came with a car and I had brought my mountain bike over from the States so I was all set to explore near and far.
And truthfully, Southwest England blew me away. I wasn’t expecting its stunning landscapes, its dramatic coastlines, its hidden rivers and lakes, its wild ponies roaming free on the moors. Almost every place that I visited was jaw-droppingly beautiful. And since I had ample time to explore, I saw a lot. Here are a few of my favorites:
#1 Exmoor National Park
Unlike National Parks in the States, parks in England are inhabited by people and the land is used for grazing along with recreation. This is partly due to the fact that England is a bit more cramped on space than the US and also because villages have been around for far longer than the parks have. You can’t really move a village when designating park boundaries. But nonetheless, Exmoor National Park is a place worth exploring. There are countless trails and backroads that run through it and the landscape is diverse enough that there is something new to see and discover wherever you go. The South West Coast Path, which circumnavigates southwest England, runs along the north coast of Exmoor National Park through picturesque towns like Lynton and along steep cliffs that drop straight down into the sea. There are wild ponies, hidden pools for skinny-dipping, fields filled with wildflowers, ancient stone structures like the clapper bridge at Tarr Steps, and the best cream tea I’ve ever tasted at the nearby inn
#2 Darmoor National Park
Southwest England’s other large swath of parkland is Dartmoor National Park. More rugged, more wild, more mystical, Dartmoor was one of my favorite places to explore. Like Exmoor there are wild ponies roaming everywhere, but unlike Exmoor it has more of a dark, dramatic feel to it that I loved. Hike up to one of its many rocky tors, seek out an ancient stone circle, visit its castles and ruins, or get lost in its forests. Dartmoor is a special place.
#3 Kilve Beach
What a wild, jurassic place this is. Located on the north coast of the Quantock Hills, it’s a hidden gem that not many people know about. You can find ancient fossils, walk among incredible rock formations, stroll along the South West Coast Path, or simply enjoy a picnic on the pebble beach. There’s also a great little cafe - the Chantry Tea Gardens - that serves amazing food out of an old medieval church.
#4 Minack Theater
GO. Even if you don’t like theatrical performances or plays, go. The location is magnificent and the experience is unrivaled. The theatre is build into the cliff walls at the southern most tip of Cornwall and the backdrop to the performance is the dazzling blue ocean. Tickets are pretty affordable, too - around £12-15 per person. It was a highlight for me during my trip. Just make sure you give yourself PLENTY of time to get there. The narrow road to the theater gets extremely backed up.
#5 The Ethicurean
I wrote about The Ethicurean here, but it also makes my top ten list for Southwest England because I loved it that much. All of the ingredients come either from their private walled garden just outside the restaurant or from local purveyors. And the food! So delicious and so fresh. One of the best meals I’ve ever had, for sure.
Picture the cutest, quaintest, small English fishing town you can and you’ll probably envision something like Clovelly. Sure it’s touristy, but the fact that you can’t drive through the town due to its steep and narrow cobblestone streets deter some people from visiting and gives it a less crowded feel. It also lacks the knickknack stores that turn me off from so many other touristy towns. Spend an hour strolling through the flower-filled lanes, have a coffee at one of the cafes, make your way down to the quay, and don’t miss the Fisherman’s Cottage where you can step back in time and see what it was like to live in a English fishing village 100 years ago.
#7 Frome Sunday Market
Another MUST do if your travels fall on a market weekend. The Frome Market happens every first Sunday of the month from March to December in the historic downtown of Frome. Crowds come from all over to shop the stalls, buy locally made crafts, eat delicious food, drink, listen to live music, drink some more, and all around have a jolly good time. You can also sign up for courses to learn trades like knife-making or fermentation.
A trip to Southwest England wouldn’t be complete without at least a day trip to the ancient Roman city of Bath. I loved walking the streets, exploring the underground Roman baths, and renting a bike to ride the outskirts of the city. The Royal Crescent is also located in Bath, which is a sight to behold and the lawns out front are a perfect place for a picnic.
#9 Cornwall Coast
Cornwall has some of the most beautiful, most dramatic coastline I’ve seen in my travels yet. It’s rugged, it’s fringed with purple heather, the water is all sorts of shades of blue, and if you walk or drive far enough out of the way you can have it all to yourself. I did a short hike at Zennor Head and the views were incredible. There are tons of other great little spots all along the Cornwall coast, so you really can’t go wrong.
#10 Knightshayes Court
There are plenty of castles, large estates, and manors in Southwest England, but Knightshayes Court was one of my favorites. It’s located just outside of Tiverton and there’s enough to see and do to entertain for at least a few hours if not half a day. Explore the walled kitchen garden, enjoy a picnic or nap on the lawns, walk the wooded trails, wander through the rooms of the old manor, stroll through the manicured gardens, have some fun in the playground made out of a fallen tree, treat yourself to locally made ice cream cone… if you want to make it a full day of adventure, bike the length of the ___ mile Grand Western Canal that goes from ____ and ends in Tiverton. Then it’s a short pedal to Knightshayes Court.
BONUS: The Beacon. This is a local’s gem hidden near the town of Culmstock. Hike up to the top of the hill for a spectacular view over the valley. There’s old beacon up there, which was once used to alert neighboring towns of the approach of enemies. There’s also an old grassy horse racetrack that has fallen into disuse, but you can still sometimes find horses roaming about.