Southwest England

Jason R. Matheson
8 min readOct 12, 2023

--

Our English tour continued with a stay in our third Airbnb just south of Bristol near the village of Dundry. We were still in southwest England, between our earlier exploration areas of the Cotswolds and Cornwall.

This part of the country to me resembled a college campus from the east coast back in the States. The churches didn’t have spires, they were dominated by squared-off towers that would look at home on the campuses of Yale or Princeton.

We started our first day in the area with a visit to the city of Wells, best known for its significant cathedral. After parking, we walked to the marketplace and were surprised to find ourselves in the middle of a vibrant festival.

Stumbling upon local events tend to create the best memories. We’ve learned to embrace the opportunity and join right in.

Food stalls lined the streets and we quickly selected several treats and found seats in a tent in the middle of the action. It was fantastic to just melt into the background, watch the Brits around us and absorb the scene.

The cathedral in Wells dominated the local area. Begun in 1176, work continued for the next 300 years. Historian John Harvey described it as Europe’s first truly Gothic structure, breaking the last constraints of Romanesque.

I was most impressed with the airy and light interior. St Andrew’s Cross arches created graceful curves under the tower. Gothic architecture moved the bulk of support structures to the exterior of the building, allowing large windows which flooded the interior with natural light.

Near the cathedral was the oldest purely residential street surviving intact in Europe. The Vicar’s Close was lined by houses, a chapel and a library built in the 1300s.

Interestingly, the cobblestone lane’s width was tapered by 10 feet to make it look longer and more impressive when viewed from the main entrance nearest the cathedral. When viewed from the other end, it looked shorter.

We also explored relatively modern marvels in the area too. The Clifton Suspension Bridge opened in 1864 and spanned the gorge along the River Avon, linking the southern shore to Bristol.

In 1885, a 22-year-old woman named Sarah Ann Henley survived a suicide attempt off the bridge when her billowing skirts acted as a parachute and she landed in the thick mud banks of the tidal River Avon at low tide; she subsequently lived into her eighties.

I was not equipped with billowing skirts so I crossed the bridge on foot with some trepidation. Cars, bikers and other pedestrians streamed over the 150-year-old structure but it thankfully never trembled.

After that thrill, we retired to an old pub in the nearby hamlet of Clapton-in-Gordano. The Black Horse Inn dated from the 14th Century and had a reputation as one of the most unspoilt pubs in the southwest of England.

Built at the same time as the local church, the pub originally served a mining community and its name undoubtedly referred to the ponies working in the coal pits.

The pub retained much of its centuries old character: stone flagged floors, low ceilings with oak beams and period furniture including pews from the local church. We tucked into a corner, enjoying hot potato soup and pints of beer as the locals carried on spirited conversations around us.

Now this was an English pub!

In addition to pictures of the late Queen Elizabeth and newly-crowned King Charles in gilded frames, the pub proudly displayed a photo wall of local dogs patriotically trimmed with UK flags. The Brits do love their dogs!

Back in Bristol, we finally found the mural “Girl with a Pierced Eardrum” by anonymous street artist Banksy on the wall of an otherwise nondescript industrial building.

Appearing overnight in October 2014, it was a parody of the Girl with a Pearl Earring painting. In place of a pearl, Banksy had incorporated an existing security alarm.

The historic city of Bath, situated to the southeast of Bristol, was known for and named after its Roman-built baths. The city became a spa with the Latin name Aquae Sulis c. 60 AD when the Romans built public baths and a temple over the natural mineral spring.

It was surreal to walk on stone floors and gaze at mineral baths that were used by citizens of the Roman Empire nearly 2,000 years ago. We also explored the area around the looming abbey and the architecturally significant Circus townhouses. The Circus was built between 1754 and 1769, and regarded as a pre-eminent example of Georgian architecture

During our drives through the countryside, we’d often pass through handsome stone villages. We stopped in Pensford to examine an imposing stone viaduct built in the 1870s.

On the western side of the village, the viaduct on the disused Bristol and North Somerset Railway, closed to trains in 1968 after a flood made it unsafe. It now stood as a silent testament to Britain’s industrial might.

On our drives we were also drawn to the stately churches which served as the heart of many English villages. In contrast to churches on the European continent, these buildings were still in use and often lovingly decorated with flower arrangements.

You could open the heavy wooden doors and step inside the dimly lit sanctuaries filled with burial plots, stained glass, stone statues and worn wooden pews. As in Germany and France, every English church hosted memorials to local soldiers lost in the World Wars.

We celebrated the end of our visit to southwest England with a meal in the curiously-named town of Chew Magna. The Lazy Lobster was a highly-rated seafood restaurant which lived up to its billing.

How could you not enjoy a spread of lobster, scallops, prawns (shrimp) and roasted artichoke all expertly prepared and presented with flair. The flavors of each dish were unique and delicious.

I enjoyed mom making it over to England to help navigate these narrow, often harrowing, hedge-lined lanes. She also proved to be a very handy trunk monkey to open and close gates in our driveway, ha.

……….

Thanks for coming along on the trip. If you have questions or suggestions, tweet @JasonRMatheson. Missed an entry? Click here.

--

--

Jason R. Matheson

I prefer to travel slow. Enjoy history, design, architecture, cars, sports digital. Auburn alum, Sooner born.