With its beautiful countryside jam-packed with ancient monuments and historic buildings, the southwest of England is ideal for a road trip. The route from Bath to Salisbury is a short drive, but taking it slowly will give you a chance to explore the sights and admire the views.
Pro Tip: May and June (excluding the school holiday in the last week of May) are the ideal months for this trip. At this time of year, you will avoid the summer crowds; the weather is pleasant, the days are long, and the English countryside is at its best.
Your tour starts in the Georgian town of Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is famed for its Roman baths and natural hot springs, Georgian architecture, and its association with the novelist Jane Austen.
You will need two or three nights in Bath to enjoy everything the city has to offer. The Gainsborough Bath Spa is a five-star hotel in the city center with a spa supplied by a natural hot spring. Alternatively, try the luxurious Royal Crescent Hotel and Spa in a magnificent Georgian building. There are lots of places to eat in Bath, but don’t miss afternoon tea at the Pump Room.
Pro Tips: Bath is compact and walkable, although hilly in parts. However, you can reduce the walking by taking the City Sightseeing Bus, which connects the main sights.
If you are in Bath during July or August, save your visit to the Roman baths for the evening, when they are candlelit and stay open until 10 p.m. (last entrance is at 9 p.m.). By this time the day-trippers have gone home, and the site is much less crowded than it is during the day. For even more inspiration, read up on exploring the best historic spots in Bath.
On the way to Bradford-on-Avon, make a diversion to Great Chalfield Manor, managed by the National Trust. This medieval manor house was extensively restored in the Edwardian period, and although it is still a private home, it is open to visitors and for events. You can also walk around the seven acres of Arts and Crafts-style gardens with their terraces, topiary, and lily pond.
Arriving in Bradford-on-Avon in time for lunch, you can choose one of the pubs or the 16th-century Bridge Tea Rooms. (The tea rooms are reputed to be haunted, and are also good for afternoon tea.)
Bradford-on-Avon is a medieval wool town, with lots of old buildings on the side of a steep valley (it is much loved by film-makers as a location for period dramas -- most recently in The White Princess and Wolf Hall). You could spend the afternoon exploring the town itself, including the museum and the medieval Tithe Barn. The Chapel of St Mary Tory is worth a visit and offers views across the countryside, but note that it is an uphill climb to get there. There are easier walks along the river and the canal, and boat trips may be available.
Frome (pronounced froom) is a charming small town with lots of historic buildings packed into a small space. It is an ideal place to spend a couple of hours exploring the medieval cobbled streets and independent shops. The Frome Heritage Trail is a 2.5-mile circular walk with plaques marking in the most important buildings and other sights (you can buy a guide for the trail at the Town Hall).
Note that although the town is small, the streets are steep.
Leaving Frome, your next stop is Stourhead, another National Trust property. This 18th-century Palladian house, full of magnificent furniture and paintings, is the centerpiece of one of the world’s most famous gardens. Inspired by contemporary landscape painters, Stourhead is set in a valley and features woodland and plants, a lake, and classical-style temples.
You will need a few hours at Stourhead if you want to explore the whole of the house and gardens. Lunch is available in the restaurant or at The Spread Eagle Inn, Stourhead’s own pub.
Shaftesbury is an old hilltop town dating back to Saxon times. It is also at the heart of the area made famous by the novels of Thomas Hardy (Shaftesbury itself appears in the novels as Shaston, a former name for the town).
The most famous sight in Shaftesbury is Gold Hill, a steep cobbled street lined with old cottages. The best way to admire the hill, and the views across the Blackmore Vale, is from the top (there’s not much to see at the bottom, and you’ll have to climb up again). From here, go along Park Walk, taking in the views along the way, to Shaftesbury Abbey and Museum. This is a former Benedictine nunnery, founded by the Saxon King Alfred in 888.
Around the town, you will see a series of information boards marking the route of the Shaftesbury Heritage Trail. These give more information about the town and the people associated with it.
There are several pubs and cafes in Shaftesbury. King Alfreds Kitchen, in a 17th-century building, is good for afternoon tea or tapas. You can spend a night in Shaftesbury, and accommodation options include the Grosvenor Arms, a former coaching inn on the main street, which also has a restaurant and bar meals.
Old Sarum, Wiltshire
The following morning, drive across the beautiful Cranborne Chase with its rolling chalk hills and ancient woodland. A short stop on the way will allow you to explore the ruins of Old Wardour Castle. This is a 14th-century fortified house, and supposedly the inspiration for the castle in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Your next stop is Old Sarum, a few miles north of Salisbury. This is an Iron Age hillfort, occupied successively by the Romans, the Saxons, and the Normans. Take an hour or two to walk around the ramparts of the fortress, to explore the remains of the Norman castle, and to see the site of Salisbury’s first cathedral.
You will arrive in Salisbury in time for lunch. Salisbury (originally known as New Sarum) grew up around the new cathedral that was built there in 1220. This cathedral is known as one of the finest examples of Early English architecture and is surrounded by Britain’s largest cathedral close. Inside the cathedral is one of only four surviving copies of the original Magna Carta, dating from 1215.
Salisbury is also notable for its medieval marketplace and old streets with museums and independent shops. The town is compact, and there are parks and riverside walks within easy reach of the center. You will want at least two nights to explore everything, and longer if you want to take the opportunity to visit the nearby sites of Stonehenge (10 miles away) or Avebury (34 miles).
Pro Tip: I recommend visiting Avebury rather than Stonehenge. If you do decide to go to Stonehenge, make sure you go first thing in the morning -- before the coach tours arrive from London.
There are several historic pubs in the center of Salisbury, including the Haunch of Venison, a 14th-century gastropub. A good choice for dinner is Charter 1227 on the side of the marketplace. Accommodation options include The Mercure White Hart Hotel, a Georgian building just opposite the cathedral (some rooms have four-poster beds).
- When exploring large towns such as Bath and Salisbury, it is often better to walk or take public transport because parking may be expensive and difficult to find at busy times.
- No matter what time of year you visit, the climate can be variable. It is advisable to have clothes and shoes suitable for rapid changes of weather (even on the same day) and to keep an umbrella in the car.
- Overseas visitors who are planning to spend a few days in England may be able to save money by buying an English Heritage Overseas Visitors Pass, which will afford you access to Stonehenge, Avebury, Old Sarum, Old Wardour Castle, and many other properties. (If you live in the UK, English Heritage Membership gives similar benefits.)