A BRIDGE NOT FAR: Touring and tips along Britain’s Great West Way
It may not be as recognizable a name yet as the Cotswolds or Yorkshire, but England’s Great West Way tourism route – which runs west from London to Bristol and the Welsh border – already encompasses many of the country’s must-see sights, including Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Bath, as well as attractions like Hampton Court Palace and Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey), and Kew Gardens.
Encompassing 805 km. of navigable routes, the Great West Way can be travelled by bike, road, rail, canal, or on foot (or a combination of all five), making the route – unveiled in 2018 – the first of its kind in the UK.
Designed to help visitors easily discover and have a quintessentially English experience, the tour route presents a plethora of gardens, pubs, tearooms, breweries, and vineyards, not to mention lush landscapes, bustling market towns, “chocolate box” villages, and three UNESCO World Heritage sites – all coming together to give “a taste of real England” – or as GWW promoters say: “England undiluted (and) concentrated.”
Based on Ireland’s successful Wild Atlantic Way, the Great West Way can also be broken down into a range of themed itineraries and trails, including heritage, food and drink, countryside, film tourism, and more.
Regional tourism types also point out that by staying along the route, visitors can see sites before (and after) the London day-trip visitors come and go.
With so many of England’s attractions dotted along the route, 2023 promises to be filled with a full slate of activities, anniversaries, and special events. Here’s a just a small sampling of some of the new and notable happenings on Great West Way throughout 2023 (including tips for the trade, and based on a recent FAM visit, some Travel Industry Today tested and suggested experiences on the route):
2023 is a great year to visit the Great West Way. Starting with the King’s Coronation over the bank holiday weekend May 6-8, there will be a host of Royal celebratory events throughout the year:
• Coronation Concert at Windsor Castle (May 7) – Broadcast by the BBC, this special Coronation Concert will bring global music icons and contemporary stars together in celebration of the historic occasion.
• Royal Windsor Horse Show (May 11-14) – Attendees can join the royal razzamatazz at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, where royals attend and compete, as well as watch show jumping and military spectaculars as the Household Cavalry performs to music.
• Royal Ascot Racecourse (June 20-24) – England’s most famous, and grandest, horse-racing event, with four days of races each kicked off by a royal carriage parade. Steeped in elegance, the atmosphere found across the Royal Meeting’s five-days creates the perfect day out. Group tours, tickets, and hospitality packages are available.
• 2023 marks the 650th anniversary of Bristol becoming a city. There will be many festivals and events celebrating Bristol 650 throughout the year.
• Aerospace Bristol is celebrating 20th anniversary of Concorde’s final flight in 2003. Visitors can step aboard Concorde Alpha Foxtrot – the last Concorde ever to fly – which landed for the final time at nearby Filton and enjoy a range of celebratory events and activities, including new group tours and packages.
Walking, Festivals & Music
As well as its natural scenery, cultural scene, and friendly locals, the Great West Way is known for its many festivals and events. Agents may consider including the following events as suggestions on itineraries for visitors travelling over these dates:
• The first Reading Walks Festival launches this year, May 10-14, with over 40 guided walks ranging in length from an hour’s gentle walk to 40 km. along the St James’ Way. Taking place across five days, the festival brings to life the stories, heritage, wildlife, and landscapes of Reading and the surrounding countryside.
• Vale of Pewsey has three new multi-day long-distance walking, cycling, and riding routes, highlighting where to stay, eat and drink, and transfer options. Check out the Pewsey Vale Circular Way (120-km walk/cycle), Mid Wilts Way (8-80 km) and Kennet & Avon Canal (38-80-km walk).
• North Wessex Downs Walking Festival (June 2-11) – A celebration of the stunning landscapes, gorgeous scenery, and top-class walking country.
• Forest Live at Westonbirt/ The National Arboretum (June 8-11) – Held in beautiful forest locations, Forest Live is a major live music series of summer concerts across the country. At Westonbirt there is everything required for a great night out – a relaxed atmosphere, spectacular backdrops and great music from artists including Jack Savoretti and Tom Grennan.
• Bristol Harbour Festival (July 15-16) – The city’s prime, maritime event attracts around 250,000 visitors each year through its popular mix of attractions. There’s a world-class circus and on-water activities, music, family entertainment, food stalls and, of course, the many ships that come into the harbour for the event.
New Garden Tours
• The National Garden Scheme (NGS) offers exceptional gardens, from extensive country landscapes and romantic cottage gardens to urban hideaways and ancient woodlands. Check out the NGS Wiltshire ebooklet NGS Wiltshire 2023 which details gardens open for groups by prior arrangement.
• Bowood House & Gardens (mid April-early June) – New woodland garden guided tours will see visitors surrounded by carpets of bluebells and swathes of magnolias in April, and in May and June there are breathtaking displays of rhododendrons and azaleas, with over 30 hardy hybrids, some previously thought to be extinct.
• Iford Manor Gardens, in Bradford on Avon, is now offering exclusive champagne guided tours of the garden with the owner and kitchen supper clubs on Friday evenings with a five-course tasting menu and live music.
Some Travel Industry Today tested and suggested experiences):
• Hampton Court Palace – Closer to London than many realize (on the Thames near Richmond), the famous Tudor palace is just a hop, skip and half-hour train ride from Waterloo station, then another five-minute walk. The home of Henry VIII is amazing any time, but the Tulip Festivals (April 14-May 1) is especially fragrant, while summer fests feature concerts and other outdoor events. Rotating exhibitions are also a constant; on our visit, there was the excellent “Windsor Beauties,” exploring defined beauty in the 17th century and how they have inspired new portraits of creative talents from the Black British Queer community.
• Kew Gardens – In the same neighbourhood as Hampton Court on the western outskirts of London, Kew houses the world’s most diverse collection of living plants, which has resulted to UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It is also a world-leading scientific research centre. Whether visitors are keen to walk around themed gardens, go up high on the treetop walkway, or explore the glasshouses, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew is a great place to escape it all, just 30 minutes from central London.
• Bombay Sapphire Distillery (London Road, Whitchurch, Hampshire) – A must for gin-lovers, visits begin with a trip to the Turbine Bar for a complimentary G&T, before heading to the Cinema Room to be immersed in all things Bombay Sapphire. A guided tour follows, with stops in the glasshouses, interactive and Botanical Dry Room, and learning about the infusion distillation process used to make the gin.
• Watership Down Inn (Priory Lane, Freefolk, Whitchurch) – Dating to the 19th century, the award-winning gastro pub is nestled at the foot of the North Wessex Downs, overlooking the head waters of the Test Valley and just south of the famed Watership Down. Ideal for lunch before or after the nearby gin tour, it serves locally brewed ales and on our visit: Best. Ham sandwich. Ever.
• The Old Bell Hotel (Abbey Row, Malmesbury, Wiltshire) – Located in the charming Cotswolds town of Malmesbury, the Old Bell Hotel enjoys a prime location next door to Malmesbury Abbey, Abbey House Manor, and quaint shops and restaurants. The market town is the oldest borough in England and the Grade 1 listed hotel is said to be the oldest in the country dating back to 1220. Nearly three dozen rooms are individually designed and furnished with colourful wallcoverings, and interesting antiques and art. The onsite Saints & Sinners restaurant celebrates Cotswold produce and three lounges make a perfect setting for a quiet drink or afternoon tea. The covered and heated outdoor Tyger Bar patio is open year-round.
• Mary Shelly’s House of Frankenstein (Bath) – Showing a different side of the famous Roman Spa town, award-winning Frankenstein House examines the unconventional and tragic life of author Shelly, who wrote much of classic gothic novel in the town. Fun and informative, the attraction extends over four floors, bursting with unusual artefacts, ominous soundtracks, bespoke smells and special effects, and a 2.5-m. animatronic creature, authentically reproduced exactly as Shelley described. Jane Austin and Bridgerton are also big in Bath.
• Bristol Packet Boat Trips (Wapping Wharf) – The fascinating history and contemporary culture of Bristol’s Floating Harbour is revealed on a 45-minute small boat tour, departing Wapping Wharf. Tours in covered low boats sail from beside Brunel’s SS Great Britain museum ship, which is one of Bristol’s top attractions.
• KASK Wine (51 North St., Bedminster/Bristol) – Unique, sustainable wines selected for their minimal intervention and sourced for unique flavours from independent growers are perfectly paired with a selection of local cheeses for an unexpected experience in the British maritime city. Ideal for a pre-drink before dinner. The surrounding neighbourhood is also known for its incredible murals – a Bristol specialty (including three by favourite son, Banksy)
The Great West Way Discoverer Pass is the best and most relaxing way to explore the route by rail, allowing unlimited off-peak train and bus travel between London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads, with options to branch off in the Thames Valley, Cotswolds, and Wiltshire – all with just a single ticket.
For more information, including info on the Discoverer pass, an interactive map, insider tips, events calendar, or for help in creating customizable itineraries, travel agents can visit HERE; also visitwiltshire.co.uk/GreatWestWay.
First published at Travel Industry Today