There’s loads to see and do on this great new 125-mile touring route between Bristol and London, full of fascinating history, idyllic countryside and oodles of rustic charm.
America has Route 66. England has the Great West Way. The new 125-mile touring route which meanders cross-country between London and Bristol, invites curious travellers to explore the towns, villages and beguiling landscapes that fall between the two cities.
Following history’s byways and highways, it’s an integrated network of national footpaths, waterways, roads and railways – including Brunel’s pioneering Great Western Railway (first opened in 1838).
A slice of real England, off the beaten track, the route roams through the Cotswolds, the Chilterns and the North Wessex Downs and takes in numerous attractions as diverse as River Thames cruises to Tractor Ted Little Farm at Bowood House. Using Great Western Railway stations as your starting point, here are six exciting adventures to help you discover your Great West Way.
Where the Thames meets the Kennet and Avon Canal, take the River Rapids bus service to Henley (20 minutes). The home of June’s annual Royal Regatta, this watery Berkshire town is all boats, bridges and blazers set against Oxfordshire’s gentle Chiltern Hills. Visit the award-winning River and Rowing Museum’s striking contemporary galleries devoted to rowing boats – from the ancient to the present – the life and times of the River Thames and a Wind in the Willows exhibition. On the river, climb aboard the The New Orleans, a showboat-style Thames cruiser, courtesy of Hobbs of Henley (choose from wildlife, jazz or gin tasting).
Change here for Oxford, or stick around: on the other side of Didcot Parkway station’s ticket hall is the Didcot Railway Centre – the ‘living museum of the Great Western Railway’ – complete with an engine shed and depot, a large collection of vintage steam locomotives and the branch-line heritage railway to Didcot Halt. Cyclists can join Sustran’s leisurely route from Didcot to Wantage: a mix of bridleways, disused railway tracks and quiet country lanes with links to the Ridgeway (a National Trail following Britain’s oldest road) and the Berkshire Downs.
In the former Swindon railway works, next to Swindon station, STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway, presents a glorious display of vintage locomotives, archive photography and steam-age artefacts held in the lofty halls of a restored Grade II listed engine house. Further afield (30 minutes by bus), the very English market-town Marlborough boasts one of the widest high streets in England, plus the famous Polly Tea Rooms (think scones and clotted cream). The town is also the gateway to the Savernake Forest: 4500 acres of ancient oaks, wildlife and picnic spots and views of the Marlborough Downs from this Site of Special Scientific Interest can be reached by bus or on foot.
Take a bus (15 minutes) to the National Trust’s Lacock Abbey, Fox Talbot Museum and Village. Built on the foundations of a medieval convent, the Abbey was the country home of Victorian scientist William Henry Fox Talbot – credited as the father of photography – though it is, perhaps, best known as a setting for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Combine the Abbey, with the Fox Talbot Museum of Photography and charmingly time-warped Lacock village. Bus services from Chippenham can also take you to the cobbled streets of Corsham (30 minutes), the quaint Cotswold town that played the part of Truro in BBC’s Cornish tin-mining drama Poldark.
Stretch your legs on the National Trust’s Bath Skyline Walk, six miles of elevated footpath that takes you on a circuit of the city’s rural perimeter, via hidden valleys, woodland, waterways, wildflower meadows and the occasional Georgian folly (like the Sham Castle at Claverton Down). The views of this Great West city, with its Roman spa and Georgian crescents, explain why Bath deserves World Heritage status. Soak up more of those world-class views from the steamy rooftop pool at the Thermae Bath Spa: a fusion of glassy architecture, wellness and natural thermal spring waters.
Take a Bristol Ferry Boat, one of the city’s bright blue and yellow water taxis, from right outside Bristol Temple Meads station and do a trip round the harbour. Hop off at Cascade Steps in the city centre for We the Curious: a playful, hands-on science centre that combines a space gallery, with a 3D planetarium and numerous interactive exhibits designed to make you think. Continue by ferry to the SS Great Britain (Brunel’s ground-breaking Victorian ship) and on to Underfall Yard: in this corner of old Bristol, visit the boatyard and café and see a set of 1907 hydraulic pumps in a visitor centre that explains the engineering of the city’s Floating Harbour.
For more information about the Great West Way visit GreatWestWay.co.uk
The easiest way to enjoy the Great West Way is with the Discoverer pass. Included in this ticket is unlimited off-peak train travel from London Paddington or London Waterloo to Bristol Temple Meads, as well as unlimited travel on selected bus services. One-day and week-long options are available from just £24 per person. For more information, visit GWR.com