West England

The quintessence of charming England is the "West Country": quaint Cotswold villages with their fine churches, manor homes, and gastropubs; Wells, England's smallest cathedral town; and the New Age capital of Glastonbury, with its legends of the Holy Grail and King Arthur. We'll finish by pondering the dramatic prehistoric stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury.

Travel Details

Church of St. Michael

While Stanton's church probably dates back to the ninth century, today's building is mostly from the 15th century, with 13th-century transepts. On the north transept, medieval frescoes show faintly through the 17th-century whitewash; behind the altar is original medieval glass.

Stanway House

The Earl of Wemyss opens his melancholy home and grounds to visitors just two days a week in the summer. Inside the obviously very lived-in manor, you're free to wander around pretty much as you like. The place has a story to tell, as do the docents stationed in each room — talk to them, and learn what you can about this side of England. In the expansive back yard you can see the earl's pet project: restoring "the tallest fountain in Britain" — 300 feet tall, gravity-powered, and running for 30 minutes at 14:45 and 16:00. And nearby you can visit a working watermill that produces flour from wheat grown on the estate.

Stow Lodge Hotel

Filling Stow's historic church rectory with lots of old English charm, and with its own sprawling and peaceful garden, this lavish old place facing the town square offers 21 large, thoughtfully appointed rooms with soft beds, stately public spaces, and a cushy-chair lounge.

Horse and Groom Village Inn

About three miles from Stow, in the town of Upper Oddington, is this smart 16th-century inn serving modern English and Continental food with a good wine list and top honors as pub of the year for its serious attention to beer. Owners Simon and Sally boast the best fireplace you'll see, and lots of game.

Bishop's Palace

Next to Wells' cathedral stands the moated Bishop's Palace, built in the 13th century and still in use today as the residence of the bishop of Bath and Wells. While the interior of the palace itself is dull, the grounds and gardens surrounding it are the most tranquil and scenic spot in Wells, with wonderful views of the cathedral. It's just the place for a relaxing walk in the park. Watch the swans ring the bell — hanging over the water just left of the entry gate — when they have an attack of the munchies.

Wells Cathedral

With a huge collection of medieval statuary, one of the widest and most elaborate facades I've seen, and unforgettable figure-eight "scissor arches," the cathedral is easily the city's highlight. Since this was not a monastery church, the Reformation didn't destroy it as it did the Glastonbury Abbey church. If you attend the nightly 45-minute evensong service you'll sit right in the old "quire" as you listen to a great pipe organ and the world-famous Wells Cathedral choir (usually plenty of room; generally no service when school is out July–August unless a visiting choir performs).

Land's End Cider Farm

Mr. Wilkins' farm is open to the public and a great Back Door travel experience. He makes and sells "rough farmhouse cider" — the real rot-your-socks stuff, not the mass-produced "Scrumpy Jack." Apples are pressed from August through December; local tourist information offices also list other scrumpy farms open to the public. Hard cider, while not quite scrumpy, is also typical of the West Country, and you can get a pint of hard cider at nearly any pub, drawn straight from the barrel — dry, medium, or sweet.

Glastonbury Tor

This steep hill — a natural plug of sandstone on clay — has an undeniable geological charisma. Climbing the tor, whose base is a 20-minute walk from the town center, is the essential activity on a visit to Glastonbury. From the base, a trail leads up to the top (figure another 15–20 uphill minutes, if you keep a brisk pace). A fine Somerset view rewards those who hike to its 520-foot summit. The surrounding land — a former swamp, inhabited for 12,000 years, is still below sea level at high tide. The tor-top tower is the remnant of a chapel dedicated to pagan-fighting St. Michael (apparently those pagan gods fought back: St. Michael's Church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1275).

Chalice Well

According to tradition, Joseph of Arimathea brought the chalice from the Last Supper to Glastonbury in A.D. 37. Supposedly it ended up in the bottom of a well, which is now the centerpiece of a peaceful and inviting garden. Even if the chalice is not in the bottom of the well (another legend says it made the trip to Wales), and the water is red from iron ore and not Jesus' blood, the tranquil setting is one where nature's harmony is a joy to ponder. A well-marked path leads uphill alongside the gurgling stream, passing several places to drink from or wade in the healing water, as well as areas designated for silent reflection. During the 18th century, pilgrims flocked to Glastonbury for the well's healing powers. Have a drink or take some of the precious water home — they sell empty bottles to fill.

Glastonbury Abbey

The massive and evocative ruins of the first Christian sanctuary in the British Isles stand mysteriously alive in a lush 36-acre park. Tie-dyed, starry-eyed pilgrims seem to float through the grounds, naturally high. Others lie on the grave of King Arthur, whose burial site is marked off in the center of the abbey ruins. Because it comes with a small museum, a dramatic history, and enthusiastic guides dressed in period costumes, this is one of the most engaging to visit of England's many ruined abbeys.

Avebury stone circle

The stone circle at Avebury is bigger (16 times the size), less touristy, and for many, more interesting than Stonehenge. All of Avebury's prehistoric sights are free to visit and always open; you can simply walk right up and wander among the stones, ditches, mounds, and curious patterns from the past, as well as the village of Avebury, which grew up in the middle of this fascinating 1,400-foot-wide Neolithic circle. The National Trust offers a 60-minute guided tour of the stone circle daily.

Silbury Hill

This pyramid-shaped hill (reminiscent of Glastonbury Tor) is a 130-foot-high, enigmatic mound of chalk just outside of Avebury. Inspired by a legend that the hill hid a gold statue in its center, locals tunneled through Silbury Hill in 1830, undermining the structure. Work is currently underway to restore the hill, which remains closed to the public. Archaeologists figure Silbury Hill was built in about 2200 B.C., making it the last element built at Avebury and contemporaneous with Stonehenge. Some think it may have been an observation point for all the other bits of the Avebury site. It's a reminder that we've only just scratched the surface of England's mysterious and ancient religious landscape.

Stonehenge

As old as the pyramids, and far older than the Acropolis and the Colosseum, this iconic stone circle amazed medieval Europeans, who figured it was built by a race of giants. And it still impresses visitors today. As one of Europe's most famous sights, Stonehenge does a valiant job of retaining an air of mystery and majesty (partly because cordons, which keep hordes of tourists from trampling all over it, foster the illusion that it stands alone in a field). Although some people are underwhelmed by Stonehenge, most of its almost one million annual visitors find that it's worth the trip. Keep in mind that prebooking a timed-entry ticket at least 24 hours in advance is the only way to assure you'll actually get in to the site, which caps the number of visitors per day at 7,000. (Some same-day tickets may be available at the ticket window, but in high season, it's risky to count on this.)

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.


Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're exploring a gorgeous region where druids dance and waterwheels churn. It's the West of England. Thanks for joining us.

If you like England and you want to mix its natural, historic, and cultural wonders, you'll love the West. While everything in this episode's within a couple hours of London, out here it feels a world away from the big city.

After hiking through picturesque Cotswold villages, we'll play shuffleboard with an eccentric lord. We'll tour a striking cathedral, and attend evensong. After going way back to the Neolithic Age, we'll zoom into the New Age. And we'll top it off with some hard apple cider — straight from the farmer.

Great Britain is made of England, Scotland and Wales, and we're exploring the West of England. Starting in the Cotswolds, we visit Stow-on-the-Wold and Chipping Campden. Then, it's south to Wells, Glastonbury, and the prehistoric stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury.

The Cotswold Hills are dotted with enchanting villages and bucolic farmland. And it's all laced together by wonderful trails. This is the quintessential English countryside — and it's walking country.

The Cotswolds are best appreciated on foot, and that's how we'll tour the area. The region's made to order for tenderfeet. You'll encounter time-passed villages, delightful vistas, and poetic moments. You'll discover hidden stone bridges, cut across fancy front yards, and enjoy close encounters with lots of sheep.

The English love their walks, and defend their age-old right to free passage. And they organize to assure that landowners respect this law, too. Any paths found blocked are unceremoniously unblocked. While landlords have plenty of fences, they provide plenty of gates as well.

You'll encounter all sorts of gates on these hikes. This one's called a "kissing gate" — it works better with two.

Lower Slaughter is a classic example of a Cotswold village, with a babbling brook, charming gardens, and a working water mill. Just above the mill, a delightful café overlooks the millpond.

As with many fairy-tale regions in Europe, the present-day beauty of the Cotswolds was the result of an economic disaster. Wool was a huge industry in medieval England, and Cotswold sheep grew the very best. According to a 12th-century saying, "In Europe the best wool is English. And, in England, the best wool is Cotswold."

It's a story of boom and bust, and then boom again. Because of its wool, the region prospered. Wealthy wool merchants built fine homes of the honey-colored local limestone. Thankful to God for the riches their sheep brought, they built oversized churches nicknamed "wool cathedrals." But with the rise of cotton and the Industrial Revolution, the region's wool industry collapsed. The fine Cotswold towns fell into a depressed time warp, becoming sleeping beauties.

Because of that, the region has a rustic charm. And that's the basis of today's new prosperity. Its residents are catering to lots of tourists, and the Cotswolds have become a popular escape for Londoners — people who can afford thatched mansions like these.

In England, "Main Street" is called "the high street" — and in Cotswold market towns [the] high street was built wide — designed to handle thousands of sheep on market days.

The handsome market town of Chipping Campden has a High Street that's changed little over the centuries. Everything you see was made of the same finely worked Cotswold stone — the only stone allowed today. Roofs still use the traditional stone shingles. To make the weight easier to bear, smaller and lighter slabs are higher up.

A 17th-century market hall — with its original stonework from top to bottom intact — marks the town center. Hikers admire the surviving medieval workmanship. You can imagine centuries of wheelings and dealings that took place under these very rafters.

Continuing our walk, we come to the quaint village of Stanton. Travel writers tend to overuse the word "quaint." I save it for here in the Cotswolds. A strict building code keeps towns looking what many locals call "overly quaint."

Village churches welcome walkers to pop in and enjoy a thoughtful break. This church probably sits upon an ancient pagan site. How do we know? It's dedicated to St. Michael. And Michael — the archangel who fought the devil — still guards the door.

Inside, you get a sense that this church has comforted this community in good times and bad. Pre-Christian symbols decorate the columns — perhaps leftover from those pagan days. And the list of rectors goes way back — without a break — to the year 1269.

This church was built with wool money. In fact, they say generations of sheepdog leashes actually wore these grooves. I guess a shepherd took his dog everywhere — even to church.

Throughout this region, a few of the vast domains of England's most powerful families have survived. The Cotswolds are dotted with elegant, Downton Abbey–type mansions. Today, with the high cost of maintenance and heavy taxes, some noble families have opened their homes to the public to help pay the bills.

Stanway House, home of the Earl of Wemyss, is one such venerable manor house. The earl, whose family goes back centuries, welcomes visitors two days a week. Walking through his house offers a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lifestyles of England's nobility.

And the gracious and likeably eccentric earl has agreed to personally show us around his ancestral home, including a peek at some touching family mementos.

Earl of Wemyss: Hair, cut off at a death in the family.
Rick: That was a tradition?
Earl of Wemyss: It was — certainly in this house it was a tradition. And it's kept in this drawer here. For instance, this is — this says "Papa's hair / My sister gave it me March 11 1771."
Rick: This piece of paper is from 1771?
Earl of Wemyss: And then that's the hair inside...
Rick: Oh my goodness!
Earl of Wemyss: …just as fresh as the day it was cut off.
Rick: Whoa!
Earl of Wemyss: And that's his hair. Cut off on the day his wife died of pneumonia.

Rick: So this is a huge table!
Earl of Wemyss: It is; it's 23 feet long.
Rick: And what's the game?
Earl of Wemyss: It's called "shuffleboard," or "shovelboard"; it was known in Henry VIII's time. This one was built, we think, in 1625, just at the beginning of the reign of Charles I. And you use these 10 pieces and you try and…
Rick: Let's try a game!
Earl of Wemyss: …"shovel" them up to the far end.

Earl of Wemyss: That's a nice one…

It may be a game for English aristocrats, but this Yankee commoner is gonna give it a try.

Earl of Wemyss: Very good, very good. One point…very good. Very nice, but two foot short.

Another interesting artifact is what was called a "chamber horse," a sprung exercise chair from the 1750s.

Earl of Wemyss: And you did that — you bounce up and down, and your liver gets…shaken.
Rick: For a hundred years, fine ladies would sit on here and get their liver done.
Earl of Wemyss: Yeah. And fine gentlemen, too.
Rick: Fine gentlemen, too. Yep. A "chamber horse"…I guess that makes sense, doesn't it?
Earl of Wemyss: It's just like going to the gym nowadays.

Lord Wemyss has rebuilt the old fountain in his backyard, and today — as one of the highest gravity-fed fountains in the world rockets 300 feet into the sky — it's the talk of the Cotswolds. For commoners, the lord's sprawling parkland backyard makes for a jolly good day out.

While not quite in a noble mansion, we're sleeping plenty comfortably just down the road [at Stow Lodge Hotel] in the village of Stow-on-the-Wold. Stow mixes medieval charm with a workaday reality. A selection of traditional pubs, cute shops, and inviting cafés ring its busy square.

For centuries the square hosted a huge wool market. The historic Market Cross stood tall, reminding all Christian merchants to "trade fairly under the sight of God." And stocks like these were handy when a scoundrel deserved a little public ridicule. People came from as far away as Italy to buy the prized Cotswold wool fleeces.

You can imagine, with 20,000 sheep sold on a single day, it was a thriving scene. The sheep would be paraded into the market down narrow "fleece alleys" like this — they were built really narrow 'cause it forced the sheep to go single file, so they could count them as they entered the market.

And ever since those medieval market days, pubs have been the place to gather [and] enjoy a meal, and a pint of beer.

Tonight we're checking out a "gastropub" [specifically, the Horse and Groom Village Inn] — that's a pub known for its fine food. While many things that pubs provide — like the cozy ambience and community-living-room vibe — haven't changed, other things — like the quality of the food — certainly have.

This isn't your grandmother's pub grub. Pubs are putting more effort into their offerings. Creative chefs are shaking up England's reputation for food…and you won't find mushy peas anywhere on this menu. We're enjoying guinea fowl and artfully prepared fish — with fresh vegetables.

A short drive south takes us into Somerset and to the wonderfully preserved city of Wells, dominated by its glorious cathedral.

Wells has a charming medieval center. The stately Bishop's Palace is circled by a park-like moat and sports an impressive front yard. It's a market city — and has been for a long time.

The peaceful Vicars' Close is perfectly preserved — lined with 14th-century houses. Locals claim this is the oldest complete medieval street in Europe. Originally built to house the cathedral choir, it still does. This overpass connects it with the cathedral.

England's first completely Gothic church dates from about 1200. The west portal shows off what's said to be the greatest collection of medieval statuary anywhere in Europe — about 300 13th-century carvings. This entire ensemble was once painted in vivid color. It must have been a spectacular welcome — a heavenly host proclaiming "welcome to worship."

Stepping inside, you're struck by the unique and ingenious "scissors" arch. This hourglass-shaped double arch was added in about 1340 to bolster the church's sagging tower. Nearly 700 years later it's not only still working, it's beautiful.

The chimes draw your attention to one of the oldest working clocks in the world — from 1392. The clock does its much-loved joust on the quarter-hour.

More medieval whimsy is carved into the capitals: This man has a toothache, another pulls a thorn from his foot, and a farmer clobbers a thief so hard his hat falls off.

And under glorious stained glass you can enjoy the cathedral's evensong. The evensong is a Church of England choral service traditionally performed each evening and welcoming everyone. Taking a seat in the intimate, central part of the church, we enjoy the opportunity to experience the church filled with timeless music. Because we're here in July, the cathedral's choir is on break and a visiting choir is performing — this one's from near Liverpool.

The countryside around Wells is great for growing apples and you can visit farms that brew the authentic hard cider — known around here as "scrumpy." While cider is becoming more and more refined and popular, the traditional scrumpy still attracts a devoted crowd, especially here in Somerset.

And at Land's End Cider Farm, Roger Wilkins is as old-school as it comes. His enthusiasm alone is intoxicating.

Rick: Did your father make this same…same cider?
Roger: Me father did, but actually, I learned it off me grandfather. The actual makin' of the cider is exactly the same now as I — as me grandfather done it. Alls we do is crush 'em up, press the apples, then natural juice comes out, and the yeast is in the skin of the apple, so I don't put nothin' at all in it; it's the purest drink you'll get.

We head into the tasting room, which I'm guessing looks about the same as it did when Roger's grandfather ran the place. It's time to sample the pure apple taste of scrumpy, along with its 6.8 alcohol content.

Rick: I've heard that when you drink scrumpy, you've gotta be careful.
Roger: Well, yeah; it can knock you about if you ain't used to it. Gallon a day keep the doctor away!
Rick: I've heard some…I've heard some pubs actually don't serve it because…
Roger: No, no, they won't; some…
Rick: Why not?
Roger: If you go in now, and they'll serve you half a pint.
Rick: And it's pure, so — it's so, um, pure that, in the morning, no problem?
Roger: No problem at all, no headaches…
Rick: Yeah?
Roger: …no hangovers, no nothin'.

That may be true, but after my tasting I'm making sure my producer does the driving.

Throughout England, the countryside is picturesque. And it hides a fascinating history…a history that goes back thousands of years, to prehistoric times. Mysterious figures carved into hillsides, curious man-made mountains, ancient bridges, and legends that go back to Camelot and beyond.

Glastonbury — a modest market town today — has long had a holy aura. It was a religious site back in the Bronze Age — that's about 1500 B.C. It's also considered the birthplace of Christianity in England and the burial site of the legendary King Arthur.

Centuries before Christ, this hill, called a "tor," marked Glastonbury. For thousands of years, pilgrims and seekers have climbed it. Today, it's capped by the ruins of a church dedicated to St. Michael. Remember, because St. Michael was the Christian antidote to paganism, it's a good bet this church sits upon a pre-Christian holy site.

Seen by many as a Mother Goddess symbol, the Glastonbury Tor has long attracted a variety of travelers and seekers. And the Tor has a Biblical connection as well.

For centuries, pilgrims have come here, to Glastonbury, on a quest for the legendary Holy Grail. You see, Joseph of Arimathea, who was an uncle of Christ, was a tin trader. And even back in Biblical times Britain was well known as a rare place where tin could be mined. Considering that, Joseph could have sat right here — with the chalice that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper — in his satchel.

Near the base of the hill is a calm and meditative garden built around a natural spring. According to legend, the Holy Grail lies at the bottom of the Chalice Well. In the past, people came here for physical healing. Today, seekers still come for healing, but it's more for a wellness of the mind and soul.

England's first church was built here — at the base of the hill next to the Chalice Well. Eventually, a great abbey was built on the site of that church.

Mix the scant ruins of England's first church with the mystique of King Arthur and Holy Grail, add the hard work of a busy monastery, and, by the 12th century, Glastonbury Abbey was the leading Christian pilgrimage site in all of Britain. It was huge, employing a thousand people to serve the needs of its pilgrims.

At its peak, Glastonbury Abbey was England's most powerful and wealthy. It was part of a network of monasteries that by the year 1500 challenged the king. They owned about a quarter of all English land. They had more money than the king.

To King Henry VIII, abbeys like this were political obstacles. In 1536, he solved that by dissolving England's monasteries. He was particularly harsh on Glastonbury he not only destroyed its magnificent church, but for emphasis, his men hung the abbot, displayed his head on the abbey gates, and sent his quartered body on four different national tours…at the same time.

Without its wealthy abbey, the town fell into a depression. But Glastonbury rebounded. An 18th-century tourism campaign — with thousands claiming that water from the Chalice Well actually healed them — put Glastonbury back on the map.

Today, Glastonbury and its mysterious hill are a center for "searchers" — popular with those on their own spiritual quest. Part of the fun of a visit here is just being in a town where goddesses go for their conventions, where every other shop has a New Age focus, and where alternative is the norm.

For a more tangible look at the spiritual mystery of this countryside, prehistoric stone circles are scattered all across Britain. These circles — many as old as Egypt's pyramids — were sacred centers of ritual and worship. They functioned as celestial calendars. Five thousand years ago locals could tell when to plant — and when to party — according to where the sun rose and where the sun set. It still works that way today.

At the Avebury stone circle, you're free to wander among 100 stones. Visitors ponder the cohesive ensemble of ditches, mounds, and megaliths — the work of people clearly on a mission from thousands of years ago. The huge circle — while cut in two by a busy road and so big it contains a village — retains its allure and wonder.

And nearby stands Silbury Hill, a yet-to-be-explained man-made mountain of chalk. More than 4,000 years old, this largest man-made construction from prehistoric Europe is just another edifice from England's mysterious and ancient religious landscape.

And exactly what's it all mean? We'll never know for sure. It's like looking at the ruins of a medieval church and from that alone trying to understand Christianity.

Stonehenge is the most famous of Britain's stone circles. A visit starts at the museum, where you'll see artifacts from the Stone Age people who built it. A 360-degree theater demonstrates how the structure is aligned with the heavens — marking both the longest and the shortest days of the year. And outside, a thatched-hut hamlet helps you imagine how its Neolithic builders lived.

Huge stones like this replica were quarried, carved, and then moved from many miles — some of them from as far away as Wales, 200 miles to the west. They barged them down rivers; they may have rolled them on logs like this — nobody knows for sure.

After this introduction, a bus shuttles you to the site.

Visitors are in awe as they ponder the continuously debated purposes and meaning of Stonehenge. The major stones were erected at the end of the Stone Age, just before the advent of metal tools. It's amazing to think that some of these cross stones have been in place for 4,500 years.

Whatever its original purpose, Stonehenge still functions as a celestial calendar. Even in modern times, the sun rises on the longest day of the year in just the right spot, and it retains its powerful sense of wonder over those who gather. For over 4,000 years in a row, this ensemble of stones, so artfully assembled, has silently done its duty.

Why here? And for what purpose? These questions, along with many more about Stonehenge, remain shrouded in mystery. But there's no mystery at all about the fact that this part of England is a fascinating region to explore. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.

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