Southern England’s county Somerset is a great place for exploring the quintessential English countryside dotted with farms, small towns and cathedrals and abbeys such as Wells Cathedral. In 1175, the magnificent building of Wells Cathedral was constructed (though not terminated until 1490!). Dedicated to St Andrew, it is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and is among the most important cathedrals in England. Some historians say that Wells Cathedral is actually the first truly Gothic building in all of Europe – quite an impressive achievement, and enough to draw amateur historians and architecture nerds in from near and afar. On the grounds of Wells Cathedral, besides the beautiful cathedral, find also the Bishop’s Palace, a series of stunning gardens and the 15th century Vicars’ Close. Wells is a relatively small town in the rural county of Somerset, and so Wells Cathedral is not far from the lush green English countryside.
Pro tip: Wells is a great day trip from either Bath or Bristol (1 hour). From Salisbury, home to another famous cathedral, Wells is about 1h30. Wells can easily be combined with Glastonbury, a place recognised for its music festival and Arthurian legends, just 15 minutes away.
Starting life in 1766 as a corn and then snuff mill, the Clifton Observatory clings to the edges of the steep ribboned slopes of the Avon Gorge. Sliding into the muddy River Avon (itself quickly emptying into the massive Bristol Canal separating England and Wales, the Avon Gorge streaks through a limestone ridge about 3 miles from the mouth of the river at Avonmouth. The Observatory is not alone in its defence of the Avon Gorge; alongside it, there are the ancient remains of no less than three Iron Age forts. Clifton Observatory was nearly gutted by fire in the 1770s; later left to fall into ruin. The building was only saved in 1828 when artist William West rented the picturesque site as a studio. It was West who installed the famed camera obscura as well as a set of telescopes, together used to detail the Avon Gorge and the lush Leigh Woods that adorn the opposite bank. Even more fascinatingly, West also spent two years carving out a 200 foot long tunnel from the Observatory to St Vincent’s Cave (also known as the Giants’ Cave due to a myth claiming it was once home to giants called Goram and Ghyston), suspending visitors some 250ft above the valley floor and offering fantastic panoramas of the gorge. Although once associated with the ancient chapel of St. Vincent, before the tunnel was built, the only access was from below – the route Lake Poet Robert Southey took in his whimsical descriptions of the place in the 18th century. Whether you visit the camera obscura and the cave or just take a turn about Clifton Down and admire the views from above, it is certainly one of Bristol’s best kept secret gems.
Pro tip: £4 gets you into the Observatory. Get some air in the beautiful Leigh Woods Reserve (maintained by the National Trust) on the opposite side of the Gorge. On the way back, wander through the quaint streets of quirky Clifton, perhaps stopping for delicious Italian at Bosco’s pizzeria.
More Beautiful Places to Visit in England outside of London
View of the River Avon from Halfpenny Bridge in Bath, England
The Avon. In Celtic, the word “avon” meant “river,” and as a result, there are quite a few “River Avons” in the UK. As this particular Avon (known as the “Bristol Avon” to differentiate) snakes southward through the English countryside, it finally arrives in Bath. Bath is famous not only for its Roman baths (hence the name), but also for once being home to Jane Austen (Bath must have made an impression on her as it appears in more than one of her much-loved novels). Bath is—how to put it?—posh. It is a city built on elegance, propriety, and beauty. Every one of its cobblestone streets are worn smooth and sparkling. The rows of houses that line the road—all made of Bath limestone—are stylish and elegant. The centre, with its magnificent abbey, Roman baths, and meandering High Street, is breath taking. And then of course, there’s the fine, classy buildings comprising of the Circus (two semi-circular buildings surrounding a roundabout that sports a small collection of magnificent oaks), and just next door, the famed Royal Crescent, which is—if possible!—an even grander affair. Even when you leave the center—let’s say you decide to follow the river, or better yet, you take to the beautiful Kennet and Avon Canal—you cannot escape the majesty of the rolling hills, thatched cottages, arching bridges, and stone houses that make up the English countryside. Small though the Avon may be, it will be difficult to find a more grand, more picturesque or more beautiful English river.
Pictures cannot convey the essence and beauty of Bath. Bath, to me, is one of the top 5 prettiest cities in Europe. Bath also happens to be my home, having studied there 3 years ago (I have a lot of homes). It is my dream to one day move back, or really, just move back to anywhere in the UK, my favourite country. This is the cathedral square, which also happens to be the entrance to the famous Roman Baths. Bath was established by the Romans in 60 AD, not long after they arrived in Britain. Upon finding the hot springs here, they built the spa town, Aquae Solis, and much later, Edgar was crowned king here in 973, at Bath Abbey, upon which we are currently standing. Founded in the 7th century, Bath Abbey was rebuilt 12th-16th, today, standing standing as proud as it ever did. Bath is a city built of limestone (from the nearby quarry). In the 19th century, it was as black as coal (because of the coal) but today, it has been restored to its original, lovely state. As a UNESCO site, it is more beautiful than you can ever imagine.
Pro tip: Take a tour of the tower of Bath Abbey for a fascinating background of the Abbey’s history as well as aerial views of the city! Be sure to taste a Cornish pasty (a savoury sort of closed sandwich) when in town. Also a hike up the hill to Sham Castleis well worth the walk!
Ah, rural England. Who’d have thought that such a tiny island that’s been inhabited by so many different groups for so many years would still have room for the countryside? Yet, green pastures, stone cottages and village rectories are such an intrinsic part of England that it would be hard to imagine this country without them. For the whole UK, its overall population density is one of the highest in the world at 256 people per square kilometre. Yet somehow, it still has room for horses and flowers, for wooden fences and mesmerising green fields. Somerset is rural, and it is here that we find the Blackdown Hills, the Mendip Hills, the Quantock Hills, Exmoor National Park, and the flat expanse of the Somerset Levels. It was once known for its apple orchards; its cider is still particularly good (I can attest to this). Even its cities are quaint; take a trip to Bath, Glastonbury, Wells or many other towns and villages, and you will feel as if you are in a storybook rather then a booming town. On a island full of people, Somerset still manages to maintain its true English pastures.