by Stephen Keeling & Donald Strachan
The Regency charms of Bath, the prehistoric mysteries
of Stonehenge, and the monumental architecture of
New Sarum: Wiltshire and Somerset, two of England's
most ancient counties, practcially define the best of the West
Country. Wiltshire, the closer of the two to London, is a largely rural idyll
and home to the compact, medieval city of Salisbury. In Somerset, you'll
discover everything from the regenerated harborfront in Victorian Bristol
to the Gothic glory of Wells Cathedral.
SIGHTSEEING Regal Bath achieved fame and fortune twice in its
history, first as a spa in Roman times, then thanks to the Georgian builders
of the elegant Royal Crescent. Salisbury and Wells have retained much
of the architecture and atmosphere of cities that reached their powerful
peaks in medieval times. The counties also contain some of the finest
stately homes in southern England, notably at Wilton House, near Salis-
bury, and Montacute, in south Somerset.
EATING & DRINKING Somerset and Wiltshire are also known for
their produce. Cheddar cheese, named after a small Somerset village, is
still aged in limestone caves there. Scrumpy cider hails from Somerset.
Wiltshire is hunting country, and the county's best gastropubs usually
feature game on the menu. That most English of traditions, afternoon
tea has been big in Bath for centuries, and is paired here with a Sally
Lunn or Bath bun.
HISTORY The history of Britain is written in the buildings of Wiltshire
and Somerset. Avebury and Stonehenge date back to prehistoric times,
way before the Romans first popularized their spa at Bath. Cathedrals in
the small cities of Salisbury and Wells are as close to the ideal Gothic as
you'll find in England. Regency architecture is rarely as beautiful as it is
at Bath's Royal Crescent, and Bristol, a powerhouse port of the Victorian
Industrial Revolution, is forever linked with Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
NATURE The west Somerset coast is hiking country, with the wilder-
ness of the Exmoor National Park home to some fine long-distance
trails—the Two Moors Way and the Southwest Coast Path—that can be
tackled in bits or all at once. The Mendips offer serene, rolling vistas
above ground, but they're much more spectacular below ground, with
limestone caves shaped over millennia at Cheddar and Wookey Hole. In