You’ll be spoiled for sustainable choice on the Great West Way between west London and Bristol, where the oh-so-English countryside with its gently rolling hills beckons outdoor adventurers this summer.
Far from being just an A–B route between two great cities, the Great West Way is blessed with a myriad of meanders (500 miles of them in fact), many of them car-free. Choose from long-distance walking and cycle trails, the Kennet & Avon Canal (fondly known as the K&A), the Great Western Railway and the River Thames – plus there’s always the main A4 road. Eco-friendly explorations will lead you through, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Berkshire, as well as on short forays into south Oxfordshire. There’s an extraordinary variety of experiences along the route: you can visit ancient woodlands and thriving market towns, admire historic houses and gardens, sup locally brewed ale and SUP along gentle waterways – before getting a great night’s sleep anywhere from a boutique hotel, to a houseboat or a working farm.
Originally engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1830s, the GWR between London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads is one of England’s great railway journeys. Going by train is one of the most environmentally-friendly ways to travel: buy the Great West Way Discoverer pass (one, three or seven days, bus services included; see www.greatwestway.co.uk) for unlimited travel between London and Bristol, via Reading and/or Basingstoke – with options to branch off towards Oxford and Kemble in the Cotswolds, as well as to Salisbury on the Wiltshire line through Westbury. Stay at one of the Roseate Hotels along the route (Bath, Reading and London; see www.roseatehotels.com) – they’ve introduced “Touchless Hospitality” for guests’ peace of mind.
Hire a colourful narrowboat on the tranquil Kennet & Avon Canal (K&A) between Bristol and Reading: contact Honeystreet Boats (www.honeystreetboats.co.uk) or Sally Narrowboats (sallynarrowboats.co.uk), and you’ll be pootling along at 3–4 miles per hour in no time. Even novices will easily get the hang of steering from the tiller at the back, dealing with the locks along the way and mooring up each evening at a different canalside pub. You don’t need a licence to drive a narrowboat on the canal, though you will need one on the Thames, Avon or Kennet rivers. For more information see www.canalrivertrust.org.uk and www.greatwestway.co.uk/explore/maps.
There are three UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the Great West Way: the City of Bath, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites. The City of Bath is a chocolate box destination at the far west of the Great West Way: it has elegant Georgian architecture, Roman Baths (www.romanbaths.co.uk) and excellent accommodation including The Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa. Just one-hour southeast of the city is prehistoric Stonehenge – book ahead for a Stone Circle Experience that lets you inside this ring of megaliths before or after the site is open to the public for the day.
Finally, in the affluent west London suburbs is the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, a stunning garden that’s home to the world’s largest and most diverse plant collection. Don’t miss the Victorian glasshouses: Palm House, with its rainforest climate and the Temperate House, home to 1500 plants, some of which are extinct in the wild.
The Great West Way is home to several hundred miles of traffic-free on-road cycling routes, including National Cycle Network Route 4 that runs from London westwards towards Wales over a total distance of 423 miles. The wide and smooth towpath of the Kennet & Avon Canal forms 85-miles of this route and is some of the finest cycling in England. Keen cyclists will also want to check out the Chilterns Cycleway and Wiltshire Cycleway, both of which also offer shorter day loops. For guided cycle tours get in touch with Active England, or if you’re staying in Bath, head to www.wildswimbikerun.com.
Check out the state apartments at Windsor Castle and enjoy the pomp and ceremony of the Changing of the Guard and when you’re done, make time for 5000-acre Windsor Great Park with its roaming red deer. Other national treasures on the Great West Way include eighteenth century Blenheim Palace (northwest of Oxford; take the bus from the “City of Dreaming Spires”) and Bowood House & Gardens (7 miles from Chippenham) with its glorious gardens landscaped by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. See also www.nationaltrust.org.uk for National Trust gardens. Finally, Abbey ruins might not be what you expect to find at the heart of the bustling town of Reading, but the Abbey has been here for 900 years and is celebrating its anniversary in 2021 with a series of concerts and theatre shows.
No tour of the Great West Way would be complete without a visit to a brewery to sup a proper English local ale. Take it easy in the welcoming tap room at The West Berkshire Brewery in Yattendon. Forty miles west, Devizes’ red brick Wadworth Brewery has tours to book on most days – this wonderful place still delivers beer to local pubs using Shire horses.
There are also quality sparkling and white wine producers on the Great West Way – some even produce red wines like Pinot Noir. Stop at the cellar door or take a vineyard tour at a’Beckett’s just outside Devizes, Aldwick Estate & Vineyard south west of Bristol or Alder Ridge near Hungerford. For more, see www.greatwestway.co.uk/see-and-do/food-and-drink/breweries-and-vineyards.
Westonbirt, the National Arboretum, is hands down the best place in England to wander through ancient woodland and discover rare, exotic species – there are 2500 different species from all around the world here on the southern fringes of the Cotswolds AONB. Walk its seventeen miles of trails (guided walks March to October) and discover dozens of so-called “champion trees”, the largest or tallest of their kind in Britain. There’s a couple of excellent places to stay in nearby Malmesbury: The Old Bell or Whatley Manor (who’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant has also been awarded a Green Star).
Halfway between London and Bath on the edge of the North Wessex Downs AONB, Newbury centres around a market square with its medieval Cloth Hall: just 10-minutes east of here are the lakes and reedbeds of The Nature Discovery Centre in Thatcham. Further west, the sizeable market town of Chippenham and its cobbled marketplace (market on Friday and Saturday) makes a useful hub (complete with a train station) and sits amid a patchwork of fields and farms. From here, you can easily visit Calne, the original home of Wiltshire ham, or Corsham, with its photogenic line-up of historic buildings as seen on screen in BBC drama Poldark. Corsham is also home to a herd of wild peacocks, often seen roaming the High Street. For more market towns see www.greatwestway.co.uk/see-and-do/cities-towns-and-villages.
The Great West Way may not include any coastline but that doesn’t mean there are no water sports along the route. Drop in on the Cotswold Water Park, an area of more than 150 lakes stretching across some 40 square miles with a beach for swimming plus operators offering everything from sailing to water skiing. It’s also possible to do stand up paddleboarding, kayaking and canoeing along the Kennet & Avon Canal (Bradford on Avon is a great place to hire watercraft), River Thames and in Bristol and Bath.
To book your Great West Way trip, go to www.greatwestway.co.uk
Top image: Kennet and Avon Canal, Newbury © greatwestway.co.uk