The Great West Way is a touring route running between two of England’s most vibrant cities: London and Bristol. Visitors to the region can choose not only how to travel (car, train, bike, boat or foot are all viable options) but also which route to follow as they navigate between the two cities. Stop off at some of the Great West Way’s most famous sites – Georgian Bath, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace – or choose to take your time exploring winding country lanes and visiting hidden gardens and tiny tearooms.
This is the England of picture postcards; a land of rose-covered cottages, tranquil riverside walks, lazy afternoon teas, historic pubs and bustling farmers’ markets. From the grand streets of Bath – where Jane Austen once lived – to the gentle hills of the North Wessex Downs, the landscapes of the Great West Way are unmistakably English. There are many ways to explore, and outdoor activities to enjoy as you do so. Float downstream on a narrowboat, admire views in every direction from the basket of a hot-air balloon, take a refreshing walk, or try your hand at paddleboarding. It’s time to head outside, get active and explore England’s Great West Way.
Buy the Rough Guide to the Great West Way here.
Stand Up Paddleboarding - or SUP as it is known - has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years. Suitable for all ages and fitness levels, SUP might seem like gentle exercise, but actually offers a great full-body muscle workout, so you can feel suitably smug afterwards. It's also great fun, lets you immerse yourself in nature and offers a unique viewpoint from which to explore the waterways of the Great West Way. The calm waters of the Kennet and Avon Canal, which stretches between Bristol and Reading, are the perfect location for having a go. Original Wild even offer a guided tour of Bath by paddleboard; a fun and unusual way to explore the famous Georgian city while avoiding the crowds.
Glance up from your early morning coffee during your Great West Way trip; if it’s a warm, clear day you might just spot a colourful hot air balloon floating serene and silent above rolling green hills. And to fully enjoy the classic English landscapes of the route, take to the skies yourself. The likes of Bailey Balloons will whisk you up above the city of Bristol - with its shining harbour and majestic suspension bridge - the Georgian streets of Bath, and the patchwork fields of the surrounding countryside. Sip a glass of chilled Champagne as you watch the hills and fields of the Great West Way flow past below, and feel the worries of everyday life drift away.
The bustling market towns along the Great West Way are ideal for exploring on foot; after all their narrow and historic roads were not built with cars in mind! Many towns run regular guided walking tours led by local experts, or you can simply turn up and look around on your own. In Marlborough, admire the historic houses, explore the High Street (famous as one of the widest in the UK) and take a tower tour of St Peter’s Church for great views over the town. In Corsham, keep an eye out for the flock of peacocks who call the town home. In Newbury, saunter along the canal path and watch the pretty narrowboats float by. In Malmesbury, use the "Explore Malmesbury" app to discover stories from the town's thousands of years of history as you walk through its charming streets, presided over by its stunning 12th Century Abbey.
Open-air swimming is ideal for cooling down in the summer, but that doesn’t have to mean wild swimming in a muddy river. There are more civilised options to enjoy here on the Great West Way. On a hot summer's day in the city, retreat to an oasis of cool, blue water for a quick dip. Both The Lido in Bristol and the Thames Lido in Reading are lovely locations to relax, swim a few strokes or just enjoy a meal and a drink looking out over the water.
There’s a plethora of places to choose from when it comes to picnicking along the Great West Way. Why not opt for a wildflower-speckled hillside? Just off the route but within easy reach are the grand gardens of Blenheim Palace, too. Bring a picnic rug and some tasty snacks with you on a day-long walk for the chance to really relish the open landscapes of the Great West Way. The fertile swathe of English farmland also produces a wide array of produce, so head to a farm shop to stock up on goodies for your hamper; West Country cheese, homemade cakes, Calne bacon, Bath buns, sweet cider and crisp sparkling English wines. Delicious.
The Great West Way’s K&A map will help you plan your journey along the Kennet & Avon Canal. Step aboard a self-hire narrowboat to navigate the waters on your own; you can hire for a few hours, a day, or a whole week. Follow the canal through picturesque countryside interspersed with villages where cute cottages and pub gardens line the towpath. The top speed for a canal boat here is just a few miles an hour, so you can take things slow, keeping an eye peeled for heron and kingfishers, and waving to walkers and cyclists as they pass. The Canal and River Trust – who look after this stretch of canal – are known for saying “life’s better by water”. After a few hours spent floating serenely beneath grand aqueducts, past shade-dappled woodland and through little market towns, you’ll be inclined to agree.
Cycling enthusiasts can explore the whole length of the Great West Way by bike – choosing a pace to suit your ability and factoring in plenty of time to stop and see the sights. There are even tour companies that will transport your bags for you, so you can focus on exploring and having fun. But if you prefer to just take a short bike ride as part of your trip, why not simply hire a bike for a morning or afternoon of exploring? From woodland trails suitable for mountain biking to easy-going towpaths and urban cycle routes, there are lots of places to explore. In Bristol, head to Bristol Tandem Hire to pick up a bicycle fit for two. These quirky vehicles are well suited to this unique city with its street art, thriving counter-cultures and eclectic food and drink offerings.
What could be more English than dressing up in your finest outfit and heading out for a day at the races? Newbury Racecourse in West Berkshire is one of the most famous and prestigious racing venues in the country, and even has its own train station making it very easy to reach. Place your bets and be swept up in the excitement as the horses thunder past. Don’t be nervous if you’re new to racing; it’s a fun and friendly day out for everyone.
Travelling the Great West Way is somewhat like walking through the very history of the nation; visitors will pass ancient standing stones, grand regency houses and the impressive structures of the Industrial Revolution. Take time to explore at some of the fascinating historic sites along the route to really get to grips with England’s past. Dotted along the route are National Trust properties where you can explore grand parklands and formal gardens and imagine what life was like here hundreds of years ago. And at Windsor Castle, you can see the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, home to English monarchs for almost 1,000 years. The ruins of Reading Abbey are almost as old – they celebrate their 900th anniversary in summer 2021. In fact, the town of Reading has a surprising weight of history to explore. With ties to Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, Reading is also home to a Victorian replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Battle of Hastings.
Walk amongst rows of lush vines with the sun on your face and a cool glass in your hand. The chalky terroir of much of the Great West Way is ideal for growing grapes, and for producing sparkling wines, which explains why English wines are currently having a renaissance. Explore the stunning 7-acre vineyard at Alder Ridge, in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the centre of the Great West Way to learn about how English wines are created. Join a tour and tasting for the chance to explore amongst the vines and try a tipple or two.
If you love gardening, the Great West Way is the ideal place to get inspiration. From the incredible tree garden at Westonbirt the National Arboretum to the extensive grounds at Bowood House, there are many beautiful cultivated green spaces to enjoy. Often these gardens have plants for sale so you can take inspiration home with you to your own garden, and some even run special tours and classes where you can learn more. You can also see step inside private gardens along the Great West Way route; take a tour of pretty English gardens normally closed to the public with the Hidden Gardens of Bath walking tour, or visit open gardens on set dates throughout the year with the National Garden Scheme.
Buy the Rough Guide to the Great West Way here.
The River Thames flows west out of London, passing through the fertile countryside of the Great West Way via Windsor, Reading and market towns like Henley on Thames. And there are many places to jump aboard a boat to explore a stretch of the longest river in England as part of your Great West Way adventure. Enjoy a cruise around Henley with Hobbs of Henley or from Caversham in Reading from Thames Rivercruise. Look out for wildlife and watch sunlight glance off the water, which will likely be busy with pleasure crafts, rowers and even the odd swimmer or two.
What could be nicer than a delicious meal in the open air? Sit down for an indulgent meal at the two-Michelin starred dining room at Whatley Manor in Malmesbury. Have a family meal prepared with local ingredients at the outdoor dining area at Cobbs Café near Hungerford. Enjoy the most decadent of British traditions and take afternoon tea the perfect English gardens at the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath. Sip a G&T in a pub beer garden with views over the surrounding countryside.
Motorsports fans will love the Great West Way – after all you can drive the entire route if you choose. Hire a classic car from Vintage Classics to journey along the route in style, feel the wind in your hair with the top down, revel in the freedom of the open road and enjoy the flexibility to explore wherever takes your fancy. Or enjoy an adrenalin-fuelled day of fun driving a real race car on a real race track at the Great West Way's home of motorsport; Castle Combe Circuit in the Cotswolds.
For a fun family day out, head to one of the farms, zoos or animal attractions along the Great West Way. Children will love the chance to get up close with the animals and enjoy activities like tractor rides and pig racing! Meet ponies, rabbits, chickens, peacocks and more at Cholderton Rare breeds Farm in Wiltshire, just a little off the Great West Way route but still within easy reach, where you can also book an alpaca walk through the farm and surrounding woodlands. Or head to Longleat, also just off the main Great West Way route. Longleat was the UK’s first safari park, and today is home to lions, tigers, zebra, rhino, giraffes, red pandas, sea lions and more. You can explore the park by road, rail, waterway and foot - much like the wider Great West Way itself.
For the ultimate thrill and a day out that truly is like no other, book a skydive as part of your journey along the Great West Way. Skydive Netheravon is located just a stone's throw from the World Heritage site at Stonehenge, within easy reach of the main Great West Way route. A tandem skydive from 13,000 feet will give you a whole new perspective of the beautiful local landscapes! You will be trained for your jump by highly-qualified military instructors, who will accompany you on your adrenalin-junky experience. Go on, we dare you.
So where will your Great West Way adventure take you? From secluded countryside to urban nightlife, the route is full of contrasts – and there’s a huge range of outdoor activities to keep you busy as you go. We haven’t even got around to mentioning windsurfing, horse-drawn carriage rides, rock climbing, or fire-pit cookouts!
To book your Great West Way adventure, go to www.greatwestway.co.uk/EscapeTheEveryday
Buy the Rough Guide to the Great West Way here.
Top image: Dundas Aquaduct, Kennet and Avon Canal © The Canal River Trust
This article was created in partnership with Great West Way.