The Great West Way is a touring route that connects London with Bristol, following one of the first historic Great Roads built in the 17th century. The official way stretches a mere 125 miles, but those 125 miles are surrounded by some of England’s loveliest countryside, plus historic villages, Neolithic sites, castles, great houses, and so many worthwhile side trips, that the short distance could easily take you a few weeks to explore.
Depending on the amount of time you have and your preferences, the Great West Way can be followed by car, train, bike, on foot, or even by boat since the lovely Kennet & Avon Canal runs along the way for 87 miles, bringing with it some of the most scenic walks along towpaths in England.
Considering all the wonderful sights to see slightly off the official path, here, I suggest a road trip. But this is no two-hour drive. Instead, it’s a roughly one-week itinerary that includes suggestions for some of the best sites along the way.
As the drive includes a lot of stops, walks in the countryside, and general puttering around, probably the best time to go is in spring or late summer, when you’ll have your shot at enjoying the best of the weather and fewer crowds. But this being England, the rain can catch you at any time in the year, as can the sunshine. Just bring a rain jacket, and you’ll be fine.
I have drafted a rough itinerary, suggesting overnight stops in places where there is lots to see and do, but you may well decide to either stay longer or head on. This is just a selection of places that I love along the route crisscrossing the original Great West Way, but remember, distances on this drive really are not the problem. Just take it slow and stop off as many times as you wish. You wouldn’t want to miss a lovely pub along the way, would you?
We’re starting off in London, as this was obviously the main residence of the kings, and today it is not only the location of the biggest international airports but also the most visited city in England. I am not suggesting how many days to stay and look around in London before you set off, but it should be long enough to get over the worst of the jet lag, and, if it is your first time there, see the most important sites.
Pro Tip: As you will be following an ancient road built by and for kings, why not adopt a royal theme for your stay in London and visit old and newer royal residences such as The Tower, Westminster Palace, Greenwich, Hampton Court Palace, and Buckingham Palace before heading to Windsor?
Your first morning stop is Windsor, home of the most impressive castle anywhere. Home of the Queen, site of many a royal wedding and, recently, funeral, it is an awe-inspiring place to visit. Then there is the oldest tearoom in England, located in the quaint Crooked House of Windsor, dating from 1687 and by now a little askew. The town itself is lovely with its large park, and, across the river, Eton College, one of the world’s most famous schools.
Pro Tip: Should you be traveling with grandchildren, Windsor is home to Legoland, a must-do if you have somebody young in tow. At least stop off to buy a souvenir.
Less than 40 miles down the road from Windsor is Newbury. I am suggesting at least one overnight stay here, as there is a lot to see. The old market town of Newbury is in itself a worthy stop, but it also sits within some of the most beautiful countryside in England. For hikers, or even strollers, there are superb sights to aim for on foot, such as the ruins of the 14th-century Donnington Castle, some 1.5 miles away from the center; the Beacon Hill iron age hillfort, 6.5 miles away; or Highclere Castle, the setting for the popular series Downton Abbey some 6 miles away.
Pro Tip: Newbury sits right at the border of the North Wessex Downs, a stunning part of the already glorious countryside. Make the Chequers Hotel your base and spend a day simply walking the countryside, along with one or a few of these scenic walks.
Head down to Salisbury and make straight for the superb Salisbury Cathedral, which dates to 1258. It boasts the tallest spire in Britain and has the best-preserved example of the Magna Carta on display. The city itself is such a pretty, medieval spot. It gives you a feeling that time travel is actually possible.
Spend the day meandering the old lanes, stroll through the park and the cloister of the cathedral, and visit the Salisbury Museum with its eclectic mix of displays. Stop for lunch or coffee at the lovely Fisherton Mill, and, if time allows, explore the nearby wetlands.
Pro Tip: In the late afternoon, head toward Stonehenge, not to see it yet, but to check into the lovely Rollstone Manor for dinner and the night in rooms fit for royalty. It will be an early start tomorrow!
5. Stonehenge And Avebury
Stonehenge is a place of mystery and legend and is simply fascinating. Make sure you book the first visitor’s slot, and then walk as fast as you can to get there before the crowds. However much you want to think it is a mere tourist draw — and trust me, I really wanted to hate it — once you get there and see it in the morning sun without too many people around, it is magical.
After Stonehenge, head to the nearby Woodhenge, the often overlooked wooden cousin of the stone relative, before moving on to Avebury. Avebury is an amazing site, more spread out and less full-on like Stonehenge, and wonderful to just stroll through leisurely. There are plenty of other sites nearby to explore, so pick up a map and walk through the countryside. You’ll find yourself stumbling across seemingly endless Neolithic treasures.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the Alexander Keiller Museum. He is the guy who used his own money to practically dig up Avebury’s stones.
After a night at the Castle Hotel, have a big, traditional English breakfast and prepare yourself for plenty of sightseeing and history, if not quite as old as yesterday’s rocks. Devizes might be a small medieval town, but it has more than 500 listed buildings, a stretch of canal that has 29 locks in quick succession, a huge brewery with even bigger Shire horses dragging brewery carts, and an old center with cobbled streets and a large market square. Spend the morning in Devizes, and then head toward Bradford on Avon, with a side trip to Lacock, where the magnificent Lacock Abbey has regularly stood in as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.
Pro Tip: Stop for a bite, or a good pie, at The Fox and Hounds, a lovely thatched cottage pub.
7. Bradford On Avon
En route to Bath, take a little time in Bradford on Avon. This small town has a tiny old center, but its few shops are lovely. Make time for Made in Bradford on Avon in the Lamb’s Yard for lovely cards and souvenirs and a cup of tea in the ancient Bridge Tea Room, a former blacksmith cottage dating to 1502. So far, you have seen some locks along the Kennet and Avon Canal, but not much else, so here I am suggesting a nice walk along the canal to Avoncliff, taking in the old Tithe Barn along the way. It is roughly 30 minutes one way, 1.5 miles, and in Avoncliff, you can enjoy a pub stop at the weir on the River Avon, but also walk across the Avoncliff Aqueduct, which takes the canal across the river and the railway line on a bridge. Pretty cool.
Pro Tip: If you don’t want to walk back the same way, from the small station at Avoncliff, you can take the Great Western Railway train back to Bradford on Avon.
Bath is full of history, great shopping, and so many cafes and restaurants, that it will keep you busy for however long you wish to stay. Locate the Kennet and Avon Canal again behind Sydney Park with its Bridgerton filming location and the Holburne Museum, and walk to the George Inn, a lovely pub a perfect strolling distance away from the city.
Pro Tip: Search out Jane Austen locations while you are there. She lived at several addresses across the city, and many of her books are set in Bath.
The terminus of the Great West Way is in Bristol, a city full of color and street art, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s many engineering feats, and great harborside walks. Enjoy a day or two in the city before driving back, exploring the nearby Cotswolds, or dropping off your rental car and taking a narrowboat back to London.
Pro Tip: The Great West Way has so many historic destinations along its route, and I have already suggested a fair bit of zigzagging to catch a few, but at every turn, there is something else to see. So, if you can afford the time, double the time of this itinerary, and zigzag a little more. This is a wonderful part of England best enjoyed slowly.