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Rolling countryside, cricket on the green, walks by the sea — these are the images South West England conjures. It’s a geographically wide region made up of numerous beautiful counties, from Somerset through Dorset and Devon to Cornwall and the Scilly Isles at its furthest reach. Life seems less hurried in this bucolic part of the country, where church bells ring out from pretty towns and villages and dog-friendly pubs are still the center of local life. But it’s not all cider drinking and unspoiled beaches. From the open-air Minack Theatre and the Tate St Ives art gallery to the naval ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth, South West England is also awash with culture, innovation, and history.
One of the reasons South West England can seem stuck in a time warp is because of its comparative inaccessibility. Bus services exist and trains run among the various towns, but cross-country journeys can be time consuming and frustratingly indirect. Better, if you can, to hire a car, which will allow you the freedom to see more of this stunning countryside. Having said that, the train from London to Penzance is an experience in itself (there’s even an overnight sleeper option), and you can always hire a car once you reach Cornwall; otherwise, it’s at least a six-hour drive from London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR).
The skies always seem bluer in this part of England than any other, and it’s true that it enjoys more hours of sunshine than the rest of the UK. Cornwall, the southernmost part of the country, fares particularly well, as the sea that surrounds it prevents it from getting too cold in the winter or overly hot in the summer. And its relatively warm water (averaging around 50 degrees Fahrenheit) makes it popular for swimming and surfing. Average summer temperatures reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit and winter drops to 50; it gets windy on the coast any time of year, and rain is always a threat, so pack a range of layers. On the moors, fog can fall without warning, so never go walking without checking the forecast and knowing your route.
The size of England’s most famous standing stone circle — set against the rolling countryside of Wiltshire — still confounds the viewer. This ancient pagan landmark dates back thousands of years and is only a short drive from Salisbury, whose cathedral boasts Britain’s tallest spire, and a copy of Magna Carta.
This breathtaking national park in the southern part of Devon is roughly the size of London. Its wilderness of moorland and granite outcrop is offset with dozens of beautiful villages and hundreds of miles of trails. If you find you can’t get enough, Exmoor, in the north of the county, is another national park of rugged beauty, with the added feature of coastal walking.
Often overlooked, this archipelago is a gorgeous natural retreat of white sandy beaches and subtropical gardens that lies 25 miles off the coast of Cornwall. Accessible by small plane or a passenger ferry from Penzance, you can stay on one of the five inhabited islands, and hop around the others — with their wealth of walking and wildlife — by boat.