Bradford-on-Avon, England

Bradford on Avon

Bradford-on-Avon, England

Nestled in the heart of the Cotswolds is the little Wiltshire town called Bradford-on-Avon. Though tracing its origins back to the Roman era like its nearby sibling Bath, Bradford really exploded in the late middle ages due to the woollen textile industry. This legacy has left several of its original buildings such as the marvellously quaint pub, The Bridge, founded in 1502. In Bradford-on-Avon, you’ll also find thatched roofs, picture-perfect churches, historic tithe barns, and grand Georgian streets (much like in Bath). This fairy-town town happily overlooks the Avon River and the Kennet and Avon Canal. Once used to transport goods across the country, the canal lost its significance with the growth of  railways, but Bradford was genius enough to restore to the lock and canal to working order by the ’80s, providing a link to Bath (via the Avon) in the west, and the Thames at Reading in the east. Home to a pretty little path running alongside the canal, this is a wonderful place for a walk, bike or run on those few but appreciated sunny mornings.


Pro tip: If you’re a runner, Bradford’s canal is surely one of the best places in the world to go for a run! Try running along the canal from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon (or vice versa); it’s about 10 miles and the views of the canal, houseboats, swans, countryside and wee houses are stunning. Then, take the train back to your starting point.  


More Beautiful Small Towns in England
  1. Bath, England
  2. Winchester, England
  3. Oxford, England
  4. Mucker, England
  5. Stratford-upon-Avon, England

This post originally appeared in 2013. It has since been revised and updated. 

Corfe Castle, England

Corfe castle, England

Corfe Castle Courtyard, England

Built by the infamous William the Conquerer, this 11th century castle occupies a commanding position over the Dorset hills and coastlines in southern England (though archeological evidence suggests that the area has been occupied for as much as 6,000 years). Corfe Castle holds the distinction of being one of England‘s first stone (or at least partially stone) castles and though ruined, Corfe Castle is still partially intact. The medieval era saw further defensive structural changes in the 12th-13th centuries (in keeping constant with updates in warfare), staying more or less the same until 1572 when Queen Elizabeth sold Corfe Castle to a member of the English nobility. Besieged twice during the English Civil War, the second siege led to the castle’s downfall, and in 1645 it was deliberately destroyed (in technical terms, it was “slighted”) to eliminate Corfe Castle as a military power. Slowly falling into ruin since then, Corfe Castle is now one of southern England’s most impressive castle ruins, located in the Isle of Purbeck Peninsula (which is not actually an island). The Neolithic, Celtic, Roman, Viking, Saxon, Norman, Medieval and Elizabethan periods all show their faces on this beautiful part of English heritage.


Pro tip: You can take the train to Corfe Castle, alighting at Corfe Station. There are many lovely walks in the area – in particular, the hike along the Jurassic Coast of Devon and Dorset is particularly lovely. The closest city of consequence is Bournemouth, though Salisbury is decidedly more beautiful. 


Visit Southern England


 

The River Avon & Church, Bath, England

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Overlooking St John’s Church on Bath’s River Avon, England

Surely one of the quaintest and most quintessentially English towns in all of England is Bath. The tranquil waters of the River Avon winds through the city, a labyrinth of limestone facades constructed with a local stone called Bath Limestone, with the canal on the other side of Bath. Houseboats lap quietly against their moorings, ducks splash on the lush green backs. Church steeples  – like St John’s Church steeple – rise dramatically against a cloudy sky. Forming the southern entrance to the Cotswolds region, Bath is recognised as one of England’s most picturesque places. Lined with rows of proud Georgian houses centred around the impressive Bath Abbey and the ancient Roman baths that lend themselves to the city’s name, Bath seems like a time capsule that has captured the Roman era, medieval times and Georgian England. It feels almost as if we were stepping out of a Jane Austen novel – which in a way is true. Jane Austen lived here from 1801 – 1806, and set some of her novels here (though it is known that she disliked the high society of 19th century Bath). Jane Austen may have found fault with Bath, but to the modern day visitor, Bath is the perfect picture of England! (It also makes for a good jumping off point to explore the Cotswolds region…).


Pro tip: The recently-renovated Holburn Museum of Art is a lovely little art museum showcasing local painting. Runners (or walkers) might enjoy a walk along the Kennet & Avon canal – start from Bath and walk the 10 miles along the lovely and tranquil canal path to the lovely Cotswolds town of Bradford-on-Avon (well worth a visit!) and return to Bath via the local train. Another great walk will take you up the hill to Sham Castle. Also nearby is Bristol (also the local airport), a quirky artsy town.


Other Lovely English Towns near the Cotswolds


 

Wells Cathedral, England

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Wells Cathedral in Wells, England

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. 


Other European Cathedrals Worth Visiting

This post originally appeared in 2013 but has since been revised and rewritten.

 

Clifton Observatory, Bristol, England

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Clifton Observatory, Bristol, England

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

 

Winchester, England

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A hotel and pub in Winchester, England

As mentioned before, Winchester was once the capital of England (or at least Wessex, established and ruled by the West Saxons). Though once a great fort and regal seat of power, the Winchester of today is very different. In fact, today’s Winchester is so quaint and charming that one forgets that it was once home to England’s early kings. One of the best things about all English cities is, well, the pubs. A pub, or public house, is a “house” that is licensed to sell alcohol to the general public. Pubs can be traced back to Roman taverns & inns, which organised the sale of ale to the public. Even after the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons continued to establish regulated  alehouses, usually in private homes that quickly became the focal point of the community for spreading news, gossiping, or simply meeting up with other villagers, and are often found conjoined with hotels or inns. These gave way to official (by decree) public houses, which in turn led to today’s pub. Pubs are largely distinguished from other drinking establishments for their focus on ale as the primary beverage. Today, pubs are simply decorated, with a loud, lively atmosphere. There’s usually a match on, or else there’s a pub quiz. Service is at the bar, nearly all menus are predictable (often even called ‘pub food’) and the alcohol on tap is a variety of ales. Best of all, it is in many ways the heart and soul of England.


More Cool Places to Visit in England outside London
  1. Bath
  2. Bradford-on-Avon
  3. The New Forest
  4. Oxford
  5. Glastonbury and Abbey
  6. Kenilworth Castle

 

New Forest Pony, England

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Wild pony in the New Forest, England

Happy New Year everyone! Yes, this little guy is a wild pony, well-fed by the New Forest’s robust undergrowth. The New Forest, located in southern England near Winchester, the ancient capital of England, is what remains today of a once-majestic great wood. It was once the King’s Wood (or Kingswood), a forest set aside for the king’s enormous hunting parties, started sometime after 1066 by our old friend, William the Conqueror. The Forest continued to be inhabited by simple folk who could–and can–trace their lineage centuries back. Many of them kept ponies (for work), though they let them roam free, which is how the Forest came to be inhabited by these furry, hardy creatures. Despite world events, the New Forest has changed very little in the last 1000 years. Ancient trees still loom together, looking over muddy fields, quiet lakes and thatched roofs. One still sees the same names on doors, such as Furzey, an old local name. One still sees remnants of its Norman beginnings, such as the village of Beaulieu (though today pronounced “Byoow-lee” by locals). Old, dark spires rise up along modern roads built on top of ancient paths. But for the full effect of the New Forest, one must leave the car behind and trek into  nature. One cannot fully appreciate the New  Forest until one has mud on one’s shoes, rain in one’s coat, leaves in one’s hair, a pony in one’s sight. It is an old, magical place, this misnomer, the very old New Forest.

 

*If interested in the New Forest, check out Edward Rutherford’s intriguing and epic tale of the place, simply called “The Forest,” spanning nearly 1000 years of history of the Forest, told through tales about the inhabitants over the centuries. 

River Avon in Bath, England

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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.

 

Glastonbury, England

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Fields near Glastonbury, England

If there’s one thing that is certain, it’s that England is green. In fact, it is very green. Clearly, it must rain A LOT to make it this green! Right? And yet, if you look at annual rainfall in Glastonbury (southern England), it varies between 45-90 mm. If you look at a rainfall in a place, like, say, Washington DC (which isn’t a desert, but also not known for its torrential downpour), it varies between 50-100mm/month! How can this be? How can this English city and Washington have roughly the same average annual rainfall? England is the rainiest place on Earth! But no, not according to the numbers. Basically, English weather is grey, overcast, with a daily spritz of rain. And in DC, when it rains, it pours – and then it’s finished. So while English weather means lots and lots of beautiful green fields – it also means consistent greyness (note: see sky in above photo). That said, England is still one of the loveliest places on Earth!

Glastonbury Abbey, England

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Glastonbury Abbey, England

Welcome to the ruins of Glastonbury’s abbey, established 712 AD (and disestablished 1539), of Benedictine origin. As a visual monument, not much remains. However, it’s not what’s above-ground so much as what is – or isn’t – buried below its grassy flooring that makes it interesting. To start with, legend has it that Joesph of Arimathea founded it in the 1st century. Secondly – and more fantastically – legend claims that this is the legendary Avalon of your childhood stories, that this is the final resting place of everybody’s favourite storybook hero, King Arthur. Supposedly, Arthur and Guinevere were buried here long ago and later discovered by the abbey’s residents (conveniently, right about the time they were low on funds), attracting visitors from afar to view these famous graves – all the while supplying the monastery a steady income. Then, sometime in the 1500s, a fire ravaged the complex and the graves were lost or destroyed – rather conveniently, I might add. Real or not, the cunning monks had the last laugh – because people still come from afar to see Arthur and Guinevere’s graves – and ironically, even though the coffins are long gone and only a small sign remains, these visits are still providing the monastery with its steady income.