Last Updated on November 17, 2022 by Leyla Kazim
Wiltshire in South West England is rich with the reminders of ritual and packed with not-to-be-missed sights
No one will dispute that South West England is a glorious part of the country. But it’s also rather big, so figuring out which bit to explore next can be a little overwhelming.
Step onto the scene the Great West Way, a touring route comprised of road, rail and water links from Bristol to London based on ancient courses, with over 500 miles of navigable routes to explore.
It roams through idyllic countryside, quaint villages and elegant towns, joining up many of South West England’s iconic destinations and attractions.
London, Windsor, the Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site, Castle Combe, Lacock, Bath, Bristol and the Cotswolds all feature. And it encompasses no less than three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The Great West Way is made for self-guided travel which is ideal for the voyager just as delighted by the journey as the destination itself *raises hand*.
And there are some useful maps offering inspiration on how to get around and which parts to visit – take your pick from road, rail, river, canal, or foot and cycle paths. And if you manage to incorporate all of these, excellent work.
In this blog post my aim is to show you how easy it is to access a tranquil and sustainable rural break on the Great West Way by rail from London.
I’ve come up with a suggested three-day itinerary that includes thatched-rooved Michelin-starred dining, cottage accommodation with award-winning eco credentials, commandeering your own narrowboat, afternoon tea in a medieval building, and much more.
I hope you enjoy.
Bristol to London (and vice versa) train travel along the Great West Way
If you intend to use public transport and are travelling over a weekend, The Great West Way Discoverer Pass could be a great shout.
It includes unlimited off-peak train travel from London Paddington/Waterloo along the route to Bristol Temple Meads via Reading and/or Basingstoke routes, with options to branch off towards Oxford and Kemble. Plus unlimited travel on the bus services along the route.
I’ve provided detail where you can take the train in the following itinerary but also noted alternative routes.
The train journey from London Paddington to Pewsey on the first stop of the itinerary is approximately one hour. And the journey from Chippenham back to London Paddington at the end of the trip is around one hour ten minutes.
A 3-day Wiltshire itinerary making stops in Pewsey, Bradford-On-Avon and the Cotswold village of Castle Combe
Day 1 : Pewsey, Wiltshire
- Chug along a Wiltshire canal on a narrowboat and moor up for an exquisite hamper lunch
- Dine at one of South West England’s Michelin-starred restaurants and sleep just across the road
Day 2: Pewsey and Bradford-On-Avon, Wiltshire
- Cast a line at one of the most well known fisheries in South West England set in the heart of the Pewsey Vale
- Get the train to Bradford-On-Avon and explore this historic Wiltshire town nestled on the banks of the picturesque River Avon
- Stop for a Victorian afternoon tea in a building dating back to 1502
- Enjoy riverside dining at a former South West England ‘Gastropub of the Year’
- Stay in an eco award-winning self-catering cottage on a working sheep farm between Bath and Bradford-On-Avon
Day 3 – Bradford-On Avon and Castle Combe, Wiltshire
- Explore a romantic, family-owned Grade 1 listed garden and stop for lunch at the chic on site restaurant
- Head to one of the iconic chocolate box Cotswold villages that’s often named the prettiest in England
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Day 1: Pewsey, Wiltshire
1) Chug along a Wiltshire canal on a narrowboat and moor up for an exquisite hamper lunch
The Kennet & Avon Canal runs for a total of 87 miles (140km) along the Great West Way route, incorporating navigable sections of the River Avon (from Bath to Bristol) and the River Kennet (from Newbury to Reading).
You could technically use this 200-year-old canal to travel all the way from Bristol to London by narrowboat, joining the River Thames at Reading.
Or, you could sample a taster of this good life by spending a few hours on a day boat equipped with a kitchenette, dining area and toilet.
And don’t worry if you’ve never captained a boat before. No previous experience or any sort of license is required. I’d highly recommend it.
Honeystreet Boats is an 11 minute drive from Pewsey Station which is just a one hour train journey from London Paddington. And when you arrive, an enthusiastic staff member will be poised ready to show you the ropes of how to operate their day boat.
The crux of it is you use the tiller to steer and you can go forwards or backwards. The speed doesn’t go much faster than walking pace, so it’s all very manageable.
We set off from their wharf at Pewsey and our guy accompanied us for the first 15 minutes to check we were comfortable. Then he hopped off onto the bank and we were left to our devices.
What a great first experience it was. A delightful and fun afternoon ensued, waving at passing boats and pedestrians and observing the wildlife. You can moor up for lunch at one of the pubs along the canal. But I’d highly recommend organising a hamper delivery to the boat from Hampers of Lacock before you set out.
Their range of picnics are stuffed with beautiful local produce from Wiltshire and the surrounding counties. Think of smoked fish, charcuterie, cheeses, butter, non-alcoholic elderflower sparkling wine, artisan crisps, homemade sausage rolls, baguettes and a lot more.
Needless to say, I had a lot of gorgeous leftover loot to take home 😏
2) Dine at one of South West England’s Michelin-starred restaurants and sleep just across the road
I love it when you can eat really well and then only have to travel a few sozzled steps before you reach your bed for the night.
This is what you can expect at Michelin-starred The Red Lion Freehouse in the Vale of Pewsey in Wiltshire, a picture-perfect English pub complete with thatched roof and pretty beer garden, a 15 minute taxi from Honeystreet Boats.
And the food really is very good indeed. If it can be made in house, it is. And if it can’t, they source from the best producers possible.
I went for an verdant bowl of lovage soup with Granny Smith apple, pickled walnuts and Dorset Blue Vinny cheese. Followed by a gorgeous plate of pan-fried stone bass with mussels, confit potatoes and salty fingers. A faultless meal and wine with great service.
Then just opposite the pub is Troutbeck Guesthouse, their five room accommodation offering set in a little slice of quiet rural heaven with private decks overlooking the River Avon.
I popped down to the bank at dusk and watched trout launching themselves out of the water to catch insects – very cool. The staff even tell me guests have filmed otters in that stretch of river.
Day 2: Pewsey and Bradford-On-Avon, Wiltshire
3) Cast a line at one of the most well known fisheries in South West England set in the heart of the Pewsey Vale
After enjoying your included breakfast at The Red Lion and vacating the room, an eight minute drive up the road will get you to Manningford Trout Fishery where you can try your hand at angling for the morning.
Manningford is one of Wiltshire’s premier fisheries, its two lakes fed by the pristine waters of the Avon and both containing brown and rainbow trout.
Never cast a line in your life? Don’t worry, me neither. But it’s something I had wanted to try for ages and no better place to get acquainted than under the very patient and watchful eye of qualified instructor Fen.
We first practiced casting on the grass. Suffice to say, I’m no natural caster. But once we moved to the water and with a little guidance from Fen, I only got a bite and reeled in a blinkin’ fish. My first time fishing. I was amazed!
You don’t catch and release these fish, you get to keep the trout – that’s the whole point. But seeing as I was still on the road for the next day or so, Fen passed my trout on to a lucky friend for the pot.
The morning totally whet my appetite for fishing, it feels like a whole new world to explore and this was the briefest of tasters. I know I will go fishing again, for certain.
4) Get the train to Bradford-On-Avon and explore this historic Wiltshire town nestled on the banks of the picturesque River Avon
Wave goodbye to your knew fishermen friends and a short seven minute drive will get you back to Pewsey Station, where you can use your Great West Way Discoverer pass to make the 40 minute train journey to Bradford-On-Avon, changing at Westbury.
With the tranquil River Avon at its heart, Bradford-on-Avon is a charming town at the southern edge of the Cotswolds, surrounded by glorious countryside. Its twisting streets and limestone buildings give it the postcard good-looks of a West Country lure.
If you’re looking to work up an appetite for the next stop, be sure to climb the hill above the town where you’ll find the chapel of St Mary Tory, dating back to the latter part of the 15th century, as well as the best views over Bradford-On-Avon.
The Saxons drove their carts across the ‘broad ford’ that gave the town its name, and you should follow their path on your way to the hugely impressive and magnificent Tithe Barn.
Described by English Heritage as: “One of the largest medieval barns in England, and architecturally one of the finest”, it is a thing to behold. Be sure to get there before 4pm if you want to pop your head inside.
Stroll back into town along the canal or riverside and you’ll soon arrive at the superb 9-arched town bridge, parts of it dating back to the 13th century. And at its centre there’s a medieval pilgrim chapel which was later converted to a ‘lock-up’ for undesirables.
5) Stop for a Victorian afternoon tea in a building dating back to 1502
This was my first Victorian afternoon tea experience and it was really rather special indeed.
You’ll find The Bridge Tea Rooms inside an absolutely gorgeous double-gabled, Grade II listed former blacksmith’s cottage, right by the town bridge, with a fireplace dating back to 1502 and the second floor extension built in 1675.
This building stops everyone in their tracks.
These guys are two times ‘UK’s Top Tea Room’ winners for a reason – it’s all in the detail. From the finest leaf teas and intricate lace tablecloths to the delicate bone china and delightful staff in Victorian maid outfits who kindly posed for my snap.
And the food is great. We went for the full on high tea with finger sandwiches, scones, clotted cream with strawberry jam and delicate pieces of cake made on site by the wife of the husband and wife team who own the tea rooms.
For someone who doesn’t have that much of a sweet tooth, I enjoyed it immensely.
6) Enjoy riverside dining at a former South West England ‘Gastropub of the Year’
Hopefully you’ve had the chance to walk off all that cake because it’s round about dinner time.
The space feels vast both inside and out with a popping atmosphere and chirpy staff, and if you nab a table by the water’s edge with a sundowner to start the evening’s proceedings, you’ll be onto a winner.
The menu is lead by West Country produce and showcases simple, hearty dishes with some international tweaks. I started with a warm salad of grilled asparagus, feta, orange salsa, quinoa and chicory. Followed by a flat iron half chicken with charred lemon, confit heritage tomatoes, triple cooked chips and a salsa verde.
7) Stay in an eco award-winning self-catering cottage on a working sheep farm between Bath and Bradford-On-Avon
Your bed for the night is one of the 4 star Church Farm Country Cottages, superbly located on a working sheep farm between Bath and Bradford-On-Avon, where the Bowles family have been faming for five generations.
From your dinner spot you can walk there in about 45 minutes, get a quick seven minute taxi, or travel one stop on the train to Avoncliff station, followed by a scenic 25 minute walk through Winsley village to the cottages.
Expect an ample and comfortable space, a fully kitted kitchen stocked with local breakfast items for the next morning (if requested) and there’s even a heated indoor swimming pool on site. The cottages are within walking distance to an excellent village pub and the family-run farm shop too.
What’s especially worth noting are their sustainability credentials.
They’ve been awarded a green tourism award thanks to their eco endeavours: a biomass boiler, solar panels, 5,500 new trees planted in their woodland, 17,000 litre rainwater harvesting tanks, recycling and promoting alternative transport to name a few.
Day 3 – Bradford-On Avon and Castle Combe, Wiltshire
8) Explore a romantic, family-owned Grade 1 listed garden and stop for lunch at the chic on site restaurant
The next morning, take a 15 minute taxi to the award-winning Iford Manor Gardens and spend a few hours tucked away at the bottom of this tranquil valley, located on the last hill of the Cotswolds with the Wiltshire/ Somerset border running through the garden itself.
Famed Edwardian landscape designer Harold Peto designed the unique, Italianate gardens when Iford Manor was his home, from 1899 to 1933.
He drew inspiration from his global travels resulting in a garden that blends Italian, Byzantine, Ancient Roman and Oriental designs together with architecture and classical sculpture.
The Cartwright-Hignett family are today’s owners and have spent the past 50 years lovingly restoring and developing the garden. Paths twist and turn around ancient statues, columns, terraces and architecture which makes it all feel like another, timeless world.
A fantastic and spacious new restaurant ‘Jaq at Iford’ with a south facing terrace opened onsite in 2021 (dogs and children welcome), with a kitchen headed up by Jaq Brewer.
Definitely aim to spend a languorous lunch here. Expect Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences, a concise but delicious wine list and really excellent service.
9) Head to one of the iconic chocolate box Cotswold villages that’s often named the prettiest in England
Look up ‘quintessentially English village’ in a dictionary and you’d probably find an indisputably pretty image of Castle Combe next to it.
Not only is it one of the most iconic of the Cotswolds villages, it may well be the most lauded village in South West England. Nay, the whole of England!
The village houses are all typical Cotswolds type, constructed in stone with thick walls and roofs made from split natural stone tiles.
The properties are many hundreds of years old and listed as ancient monuments. Architecturally, little of this village has changed over the centuries – there aren’t even any street lights or TV aerials.
I had wanted to visit for some time and thought I may as well while in the area. But point to note, it’s a little distance from Iford Manor. A 40 min taxi ride will get you there, or you could get a train from Avoncliff to Chippenham via Bath Spa and get a 15 minute taxi ride the rest of the way.
You only really need a few hours in Castle Combe and I’d advise spending it popping into the little cafes and businesses along the street leading from the Market Cross down to the By Brook.
But I still think it’s worth a visit. Especially if you include a meal at The Castle Inn, a classic Cotswolds pub that can trace its origins back to the 12th century.
We only had time for a quick bite but I wish we’d stayed longer as what we did have was superb.
Wye Valley asparagus with crisp air-dried ham, burrata and blood orange was a delightful plate. But the warm treacle soda bread and merguez sausage rolls with a dollop of roasted garlic mayo were pure joy.
A 17 minute car journey will take you from Castle Combe to Chippenham station. And a one hour ten minute train journey will get you back to London Paddington.
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Have you ever visited the county of Wiltshire before, or is it on your travel wish list?
Ever visited Castle Combe or any of the other Cotswolds villages?
Did you know Bradford-On-Avon was so beautiful?!
What other parts of South West England have you been to before or would you like to head to next?
What method of transport would you choose to travel from Bristol to London? I enjoy train travel a lot.
I always love hearing from you 😊