You could argue that there’s something in the air – or the water – in the south west of England. Strange goings on that are mysterious, mythological or just downright weird. And, of course, that’s great for tourism.
Whether it’s the constantly debated but always unexplained Stonehenge, King Arthur’s association with the Vale of Avalon around Glastonbury, why there are chalk figures carved into the hillside at every turn in Wiltshire, the Flying Monk of Malmesbury or even the sudden appearance of an overnight work of art on the streets of Bristol. And who really is Banksy? Whatever the answers – if there are any – you’ll find plenty to talk about sipping a glass of wine when pitched at a campsite in the south west.
If it’s natural beauty you’re after, then you’ve come to the right place. You’ll have to argue over whether you visit the wilds of the Exmoor National Park to see the ponies or The Cotswolds to see the sheep first. But then you might prefer to go in search of wild boar in the Forest of Dean (not recommended per se – stick to cycling or a high-wire course), go in search of wildlife along the Kennet and Avon Canal or wander the tranquil meadows of south Somerset. Just don’t rule out the Somerset Levels, a unique wetland landscape that’s synonymous with willow.
Of course, you might be looking for great architecture to marvel at and you won’t go far wrong with Wells Cathedral, Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, Gloucester’s Victorian Dockyard or the hundreds of quaint stone cottages that climb the hillsides and line the valleys of the Cotswolds. That said, little could compare with the natural architecture of Cheddar Gorge, Britain’s largest limestone gorge.
For coastal views, you’re strictly limited to Somerset. But then, they’re some views! If you don’t wish to break with tradition, Minehead and Weston-super-Mare do the business and Brean Sands offers four miles of unbroken beach – and it’s lined with caravan parks and campsites. But if you’re after something a little bit special, hug the coastline from Steart to Porlock. This is not renowned bathing territory but, with the Quantock and Brendon Hills for a backdrop, you’ll find the scenery pretty memorable.
Top five things to do in South West England
Visit Wiltshire and marvel at the mystery of the eight white horses all carved on the chalk Downs. Some, such as Westbury, are hundreds of years old while others are more recent thoroughbreds.
You're pushing boundaries here (with the Herefordshire border), but hire a canoe for a paddle on the River Wye. It’s one of the most relaxing and exhilarating ways of seeing this impressive river that carves its way through the meandering forested gorge. Symonds Yat is one of the most popular places to hire a canoe, but there are others within the area.
Get to know your oak from your ash, or indeed one maple from another, at Westonbirt Arboretum. The Forestry Commission’s flagship collection of trees (once a private collection) is a great place for families – where kids are encouraged to play and explore the natural environment freely. You’ll often find that kids go free of charge too during the summer months.
Visit Salisbury Cathedral – it is a magnificent specimen of Gothic architecture and has Britain's tallest spire. Not for the faint hearted is a tour, climbing 332 spiral steps, to the foot of the spire, offering stunning views across Wiltshire. 2015 celebrates the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and the cathedral displays the best preserved of just four original 1215 documents.
When to visit South West England
Wiltshire’s proposals include the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) Festival, which takes place in Malmesbury in July but, for a real treat, the Iford Arts Music Festival takes place in a fabulous theatrical setting within a gorgeous private garden just outside Bradford-on-Avon. For lovers of steam, head to the Swindon Railway Festival in September. And don’t forget that Stonehenge gets rather busy around the Summer Solstice.
Of course we all know of Somerset’s June offering in the form of Glastonbury, the world’s largest green-field music and performing arts festival. But did you know that Somerset goes to town during November with a major series of Guy Fawkes Carnivals across the county?
Also in Somerset is the Royal Bath and West Show during May, and the Sand Sculpture Festival in Weston-super-Mare throughout the summer. And during winter, look out across the Somerset Levels for one of the most amazing natural phenomenon, the starling murmurations. This area is one of the best places in Britain to see these birds swirl together in a huge ball.
The Cotswolds has many quirky events to attract visitors – try the annual Cheese-Rolling event at Cooper’s Hill in May (broken bones a distinct possibility), Football in the River in Bourton-on-the-Water in August or the Bibury Duck Race every Boxing Day.
And what about the cities? August welcomes the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, Europe's largest balloon event with over 150 hot air balloons taking to the skies. September announces the Jane Austen Festival – dig out your bonnets, empire dresses and top hats, and visit Bath.
Cheap overnight stops
The south west of England is well served by the Practical Motorhome Nightstops scheme – many of which are pub settings, where you can enjoy a meal or drink. And some are free of charge when eating in the pub. One, Elton Farm in Gloucestershire, is simply a farm field, but it's perfect for exploring the Forest of Dean.
Motorhome access and information
We've a few pointers regarding touring this area in your 'van. If you want to visit Bristol, the city is well served with the M5 and M4 acting as part of a ring road and the M32 spur taking you to the city centre off the M4. There are centrally located campsites – the Caravan Club runs a site (though this is due to close in August 2015) in the dockland area, close to the SS Great Britain, with a cycle path direct to the city centre. It's worth it because motorhome parking is not allowed in the city centre unless you can guarantee to fit your 'van into one bay only (see below for Park and Ride facilities). There's a toll on the Clifton Suspension Bridge – it's only a few pence, but they won't accept 5p or copper coins – and four tons is its maximum weight limit.
Town parking is patchy throughout South West England with frustrating height barriers and one-bay-per-vehicle rules in some places, but specific provision made in others, so if you're hoping to take your motorhome, do your homework before you set off.
Park and Ride facilities are your best option but even some of these are not recommended. In Bristol, only use the Brislington or Long Ashton Park and Ride sites (Portway has a height barrier). Salisbury has five Park and Ride sites, and only Britford (south of the town) is accessible to 'vans, however in Taunton, motorhomes are allowed at both Park and Ride sites and in Bath, all Park and Ride sites are accessible.
Elsewhere there are motorhome-accessible car parks at Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water and Cirencester for the Cotswolds, Tewkesbury, Burnham-on-Sea, Cheddar and Kingswood. Forest of Dean council car parks exclude motorhomes, but there are several Forestry Commission car parks which are motorhome friendly.
How to get to South West England
The M4 junctions 14 to 18 serve Wiltshire well, with good, wide and relatively straight A-roads crossing the county. The A346/338 and the A350 run north to south at either edge of Wiltshire, the latter filled with roundabouts every few miles but with plenty of stopping-off points if required.
Somerset and Gloucestershire can be accessed by both the M4 and M5. From the east, the A303 crosses through Wiltshire into Somerset, the road's reputation as being both beautiful yet frustratingly slow at times completely true! Watch out on the A39 Bridgwater to Minehead/Porlock road. It's twisty and narrow in places, although its beauty west of Minehead, through Exmoor National Park, provides one of Somerset's best views.
Gloucestershire's Forest of Dean can be accessed either via the M4 and a very pretty but windy route following the River Wye, or via Gloucester and the A40/A48.