For decades, the English county of Cornwall has called my name. Recently, my husband and I took a week-long West Country road trip from Bath to Cornwall. I can honestly say it was everything I’d always imagined it to be and more. Below is what we saw, did, and learned.
We spent 2 nights in Bristol and 5 in Newquay in Cornwall, using them as bases for day trips. But this might not suit everyone’s agenda. So, instead of recommending specific accommodations, I will offer options on locations.
From Heathrow in London, drive approximately 100 miles west to Bath. With its stunning Georgian architecture, fascinating history, and a heavy dose of charm, you could easily spend an entire day exploring the city.
Begin with a free walking tour of the main sites with the Mayor of Bath’s Corps of Honorary Guides. All guides are volunteers and, unlike most free tours, don’t accept tips. Tours move at a brisk pace over smooth, but partially hilly, terrain, and take approximately 2 hours.
Must-see sights include:
- The Ancient Roman Baths: Allow at least an hour to get the most out of your visit.
- Bath Abbey: Featuring a stunning 19th-century Victorian Gothic interior beneath a soaring vaulted stone ceiling.
- The Royal Crescent: A magnificent semicircle of honey-colored stone Georgian townhouses set back from an expanse of green space.
- Pulteney Bridge: The iconic 1774, Italian-inspired structure is lined on both sides with shops, offering delightful views of the Avon River.
There is much more to see, so you can spend the night and continue your explorations the following morning, or make the 13-mile drive to Bristol.
Located downriver from Bath, walkable Bristol has a seafaring history with a port and the first ocean liner, Brunel’s SS Great Britain to prove it. But the ship and its two associated museums are just the beginning of what you’ll discover in this dynamic city. Consider allowing 2 days to do Bristol justice.
Take a gentle uphill stroll to and across Clifton Suspension Bridge. The bridge, which opened to traffic in 1864, was an engineering marvel for its time. Be sure to drop in at the visitor center, where fascinating displays and artifacts explain the history, construction, and maintenance of the bridge.
While in the area, take in the Clifton Observatory and Caves located above the Avon Gorge. There you can gaze at spectacular panoramic views of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the surrounding area through the camera obscura. Then make your way down a long, narrow, uneven stone staircase to an underground passage leading to the Giant’s Cave for breath-taking views along the Avon Gorge and the bridge.
Discover Bristol’s story through unique exhibits at M Shed. Look for works by controversial street artist and world-famous painter, Banksy. If you haven’t yet encountered his clever anti-establishment creations around Bristol, you’re in for a treat.
Bristol is alive with a variety of eateries and watering holes. For a quick breakfast or lunch, try one of Spicer and Cole’s four locations. The salads are especially scrumptious. The Orchard Inn is a historical corner pub serving an extensive range of West Country ciders and real ales. The atmosphere is upbeat and the people are friendly.
Pro Tip: The Visit Bristol website contains useful information on accessible attractions.
Heading west toward Exmoor, stop for an hour and take a walk or a swim at the charming coastal town of Weston-Super-Mare. The pristine sandy beach stretches 25 luxurious miles, and the over 150-year-old pier is ideal for walking.
From Weston-Super-Mare, head for Wheddon Cross in the center of Exmoor National Park. This 50-mile drive will take you to the ideal base from which to explore Exmoor. Walk, hike, and/or bike the circular and linear trails and discover the moors at your own pace. Exmoor is an International Dark Sky Reserve, so you can take in the beauty from above as well as from your surroundings.
Then continue on for 80 miles to Tintagel Castle and the charming village of the same name in Cornwall. You’ll enjoy the views of the moorland rolling by. But Exmoor can easily keep you occupied for 2 or 3 days if you have the time.
Pro Tip: Roads in this area are narrow and can be challenging.
5. Tintagel Castle
If you take the road through the center of Exmoor National Park, you will be traversing from Somerset into Devon. From there, it’s a short distance to Tintagel Castle on Cornwall’s North Coast.
Cross the bridge to the island where Richard, Earl of Cornwall built his castle. Legend has it that he was inspired by the story of King Arthur. Although only ruins remain of this once grand medieval structure and surrounding village, outdoor displays paint a lively picture of days gone by.
Pro Tip: Tintagel Castle is wheelchair accessible and dog friendly.
6. The Eden Project
Drive 30 miles south to the town of St. Austell and the nearby Eden Project. This innovative, creative, multi-domed work of genius was once the bottom of a dried-up derelict clay mine. Today, the transformation into a brilliant real-life presentation of our natural world is stunning.
The walk from the parking lot is long, but the path, like the entire complex, is wheelchair accessible. Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be spending a good deal of time on the move.
You can easily lose yourself for half a day or longer at Eden Project. The main attractions are the two massive covered biomes. Take your time exploring the world’s largest indoor rainforest. As you move through representations from different global regions, you’ll notice changes in temperature, sound, and smell.
The Mediterranean Biome envelops you in a pleasant cocoon of fragrant blooms, lemon, and earthy herbals. The transplanted ancient olive trees stand as a testament to our planet’s generosity, resiliency, and need for nurturing.
Meticulously manicured outdoor areas welcome visitors to play, eat, and relax. The food from the onsite cafés is both tasty and surprisingly reasonable in price.
7. St. Ives
From St. Austell, drive about 40 miles west to the popular family vacation town of St. Ives, located on Cornwall’s North Coast. Visitors flock to this picturesque fishing harbor and seaside town to partake of its sandy beaches and other attractions.
Park at the top of the town. The streets are narrow and challenging to drive. St. Ives is cobbled, hilly, and stair-studded, making walking down to the harbor difficult for anyone with a mobility challenge.
Once at harbor level, it’s more open and easy to walk around. Treat yourself to a Cornish pasty, a half-moon-shaped pastry traditionally filled with beef and potatoes. Modern versions can contain everything from curried chicken to assorted vegetables.
If you need an art fix to go along with your beachcombing, both the Barbara Hepworth Museum, featuring many of the artist’s sculptures, and a branch of the Tate Gallery are worth a look. Unless you’re staying in the area, a half-day to a day in St. Ives will do nicely.
Pro Tip: Free parking is almost non-existent — especially in popular towns — and rates vary widely. Be sure to have plenty of coins, as machines seldom give change and most don’t accept credit cards.
8 miles south of St. Ives lies Penzance, the capital city of Cornwall. Explore the city’s rich history, beaches, and cliffs.
You’ll want to take a look at Jubilee Pool, one of a handful of 1930s art deco lidos in England. Triangular in shape, the pool juts out into the bay, affording swimmers the best of both water worlds.
The must-see St. Michael’s Mount and castle sits serenely on its own island. Timing your visit is critical because the causeway leading to the island is completely underwater at high tide.
Pro Tip: There is so much to see and do in Penzance, spending at least one night will give you more time to explore.
And so ends the journey from Bath to Penzance. Or does it?
9. Land’s End
If you’re willing to drive an extra 10 miles west of Penzance, you can brag back home that you stood at the westernmost tip of England. If you want to turn your Land’s End selfie into an overnight stay, set your suitcase down at the Land’s End Hotel. If not, be aware that parking is unusually expensive. You can sneak your car around the back of the hotel for a couple of minutes and take your photos.
Pro Tip: England’s West Country is a popular family holiday destination. Spring and early summer, as well as early fall, are the best seasons for this road trip. Crowds are thinner, and prices are a bit less than they are in mid-summer. Winter is the least crowded and most economical, but some attractions and accommodations may be closed.
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