Text and Photos by Denise Mattia
Intrigued by the idea of following a route commissioned centuries ago by England’s royalty and known today as The Great West Way, I embarked on a 125-mile extraordinary journey from Bristol to London. Awaiting me was a blend of cities, castles and villages, of tight, twisting roads, open countryside and an unspoiled authentic region.
Nestled in the hills of South West England, Bristol is grounded in centuries-old traditions. The port city is a hotbed of artists, and where walks along the streets become part of a living canvas.
A visit to the new Royal Photographic Society will inspire. Here, I viewed striking images of Altered Oceans by Mandy Barker; as well as It’s Called Ffasiwn, works by young people at the Martin Parr Foundation; and even attended a performance of the Black Ballet troop in the Bristol Old Vic.
There’s plenty of fun activity in Bristol. Near my hotel at the Marriott Royal, I found the Watershed, an exciting multi-artistic venue where Bristolians enjoy three cinemas and a media studio. A café/bar overlooks the Floating Harbor and draws crowds into the late evening.
According to legend, Bath was founded by Prince Bladud, the mythological father of King Lear who, having contracted leprosy, was cured by Britain’s only natural warm, mineral-rich waters. But it wasn’t until the first century AD that the Romans built their temples, which functioned as spas until the 19th century. After long, irregular periods of dereliction, the 92-degree thermal spas were restored and opened to the public.
At the 18th-century Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa, the healing power of nature began in my luxurious Duke of York Suite with spectacular views overlooking the Royal Victoria Park. Then it was off to the SPA! A once-in-a-lifetime experience wasn’t too far away. At The Spa & Bath House soothing rose essences hydrate the body followed by heated stones on the back to contribute to a sense of sheer peacefulness. Later, I indulged in a soothing dip in the rooftop pool at the Thermae Bath Spa, followed by a body reconditioning with essential oils and plant extracts. One could get used to this!
A visit to England without Afternoon Tea? The naturally sweet Rooibos brew at the Crescent’s Dower House soothed my spirit. Delicate, savory sandwiches atop a tier of homemade scones and buns are served with decadent Devon clotted cream, rich cinnamon butter, and fresh strawberry preserves. Delectable terrines with buttery crescent cookies completed the culinary experience, started by the Duchess of Bedford in 1840.
As I found out the next day, this area offers so much more than spas and wellness. Nigel from Around and About Tour Company, which focuses on personalized tours, drove me through the quintessential English countryside in The Cotswolds, stopping at the medieval villages of Corsham and Castle Combe. This is the England of the imagination; rolling hills with a landscape for country walks and bird watching. Towns are tied to one another by twisting country lanes. The vista from any hill is as likely to include a square tower of a Norman church as a far-off field of grazing sheep.
On my last day in Bath, I moved to the charming Abbey Hotel located across from the 7th-century Abbey Cathedral and strolled around the honey-colored Bath-stone streets. Adjacent to the original Roman Baths is the museum, where among the artifacts is the two thousand-year-old gilt bronze head of the Goddess Sulis.
While in Bath, be sure to include Koffmann & Mr. White for its English-French brasserie cuisine. An English buffet breakfast fortified me for my travels to my next stop, Wiltshire.
A county of rolling downs, chalk hills, woodlands and river valleys, Wiltshire is an area of outstanding beauty and stately homes, many still owned by the aristocratic families who first built them.
The hundred-acre park in Caine is home to the Marquess and Marchioness of Lansdowne. Here, you’ll find Bowood House with memorabilia as well as stunning jewels from Lord Keith’s participation in the Napoleonic Wars. If you plan to stay, the boutique-style Bowood Hotel offers beautifully designed luxury accommodations, a golf course, restaurant, and spa facilities.
I was on the move again the following day with Laurence from Oldbury Tours to Silbury Hill and the stone circle of Avebury Henge, one of the largest ceremonial sites of Neolithic Britain, uncrowded and accessible to the public.
I left Laurence at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, where the centerpieces of the award-winning exhibition are gold-studded artifacts from the Bush Barrow, Britain’s richest Bronze Age burial site. Director David Dawson walked me through the museum’s galleries, which house artifacts from the Neolithic period through the Middle Ages.
Toward evening I sat on the veranda of the apartment at the Devizes Marina Lodge watching boats rock in the tranquil Kennet & Avon Canal and drinking Prosecco before a divine dinner at The Hourglass restaurant that served Deviled Whitebait and Provençale Medallions of Pork.
Ian Newman from South West Heritage Tours and I drove to Stonehenge the following morning. Having once hugged the giant blue stones, all I could do currently was stand at the ropes with the crowd and enjoy the mysterious ring of upright monoliths. Venturing on and soaking up the gorgeous scenery, we arrived in Salisbury. “It floats!” explained my guide as he inserted a measuring stick into the drain. Salisbury Cathedral was built with nearly 100,000 tons of stone and wood on a foundation only four feet deep. The behind-the-scenes tour included climbing to the tower for a bird’s-eye view of the Early English Gothic architecture and ended with the library, built in 1445 where thousands of books and centuries-old manuscripts are stored.
Later, I met with Roger Blaber for a town walk and learned of a “secret” passage monks once used from St. Thomas’ Church to a brothel and about Salisbury’s ghostly and ghastly past. Leaving the spirits behind, I settled into my luxurious suite on the top floor at the Red Lion Hotel, ordered a beaker of wine and a king-size portion of fish & chips. Next stop Reading.
Reading is more than high-tech and IT companies. It’s one of the largest regional retail centers and organizers of England’s oldest pop music festival.
It’s also home to the ruins of the Reading Abbey, one of the richest monasteries of medieval England founded by Henry 1 in 1121.
The Roseate Reading, originally Shire Hall for the Berkshire County Council, “has been restored to its original glory,” said GM Vicky Punchaye. Hallways, vaulted ceilings, moldings, the imposing fireplace and elaborate wood carvings have been restored to their past beauty. It’s a culmination of opulence. At the Cerise Restaurant, bartender Giovanni Puiatti recommended a perfect pairing with the Roast Rump of Lamb and Ratatouille, Artichoke, and Aubergine puree. Hats off to Chef Rajesh Maharajan who creates new, sumptuous menus every season.
Arrival in the busy city left me enough time to visit the Tate Modern which included a retrospective of the quirky Franz West works and Jenny Holzer’s powerful texts. The following day, I marveled at the British Museum’s Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, and the Egyptian rooms. For a well-deserved break, and venturing to other museum treasures, try the Great Court Restaurant for honey and free-range mustard salad with an artichoke and caper dressing followed by the Kerry Hill Rump of Lamb with Squash Remoulade. I continued my museum quest and left the best for last: Dappled sunlit terraces and sparkling fountains lit the National Gallery with canvases by the Spanish master of light, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, I was amazed at the haute couture outfits and sketches by Christian Dior.
Seeing the past and appreciating the present. This is what a visit to the Great West Way will provide with a new opportunity to witness history in the making.
For more information on The Great West Way, visit greatwestway.co.uk.