Close to the market town of Blandford Forum in Dorset is the eminently picturesque village of Milton Abbas, the very first planned settlement in England and famous for its rows of whitewashed, thatched cottages. Also home to Milton Abbey, now a leading private school, the village was built by Joseph Damer, Lord Milton, in 1780 when he decided the town of Middleton nearby was spoiling his view of the countryside. So he had it destroyed, and the inhabitants moved to the new village of Milton Abbas out of his line of sight. He employed the great architect Sir William Chambers and landscape gardener Capability Brown to plan Milton Abbas.
Clovelly, on the north Devon coast, is a one-time fishing village that retains its unspoilt feel, with cobbled streets running past historic buildings. Donkeys and sledges are used to deliver goods to the inhabitants as vehicular traffic is not permitted on the Main Street that runs the length of the village down to the harbour. The whole of Clovelly is privately owned, and has been for over 700 years, passing through the hands of just three families. The great painter J.M.W. Turner painted Clovelly several times in 1811, and Victorian worthies like Kipling and Dickens came here. There’s an excellent video on the village here by the actor and Clovelly resident Joss Ackland.
Down the coast into Cornwall is the village of Tintagel and, on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, stand the ruins of Tintagel Castle. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, tells us that King Arthur was conceived here by Uther Pendragon, disguised by Merlin as Gorlois, with Igraine. The poets Tennyson and Swinburne set their Arthurian works at Tintagel, making it a popular location for Victorian holidaymakers. Tintagel Castle dates to at least the 13th century when it was fortified by the earl of Cornwall. Within the village are plenty of handsome historic buildings – the Post Office dates from the 14th century.
Continuing with the Arthurian theme, we come to the magnificent hillfort known as Cadbury Castle, known in local tradition as Camelot, the home of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Rising above the Somerset countryside north of the town of Sherborne, Cadbury Castle was occupied in the Bronze and Iron Ages and used by Celtic tribesmen to defend against Roman invaders. It was still in use in the 11th century by the Saxons before being abandoned. You can still see the ramparts of the castle, which draws archaeologists from universities like Oxford and Bristol. Another great hillfort to see is Maiden Castle outside Dorchester in Dorset.
Another iconic location, Gold Hill in the Dorset town of Shaftesbury is one of the most picturesque images in England. Used in films, on chocolate boxes, calendars, jigsaws and on Christmas cards, Gold Hill has become an emblem of unspoilt, old-fashioned Olde England. A steep cobbled street flanked by thatched cottages and the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey founded by King Alfred in the 9th century, Gold Hill sits right in the centre of the town. It’s perhaps most famous in the UK as the backdrop for a 1973 advert for Hovis Bread directed by Ridley Scott prior to his career in feature films.
The seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells is a landmark in the Somerset countryside. Regarded by many architectural writers as amongst the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe, the Cathedral forms part of the Liberty of St Andrew that also comprises several ancient gatehouses, the Vicar’s Close and the moated 13th-century Bishop’s Palace. The Cathedral itself is hugely significant as an example of the Early English Gothic style of the 12th century, with the grand western front covered in medieval carvings. The stained glass within is one of the finest collections of medieval glass still in existence.
The Devon village of Lynmouth is where the barren moorland of Exmoor meets the Bristol Channel. The painter Thomas Gainsborough came here on honeymoon in 1746 and described it as ‘the most delightful place for a landscape painter this country can boast’. The village sits at the confluence of the East and West Lyn rivers and is backed by huge wooded cliffs that tower over the harbour. Lynmouth is connected to the larger village of Lynton at the top of the cliffs by a funicular railway powered by the waters of the West Lyn.
In Mount’s Bay in Cornwall is a tidal island that can only be reached at low tide. On the island is a fortress and an ancient church, and beneath them a tiny fishing village. Together they form an extraordinarily romantic scene. Originally the church and priory were home to Benedictine monks and were gifted by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century to Mont Saint-Michel in Brittany, another famous tidal island monastery. The castle, begun at least 600 years ago, has been home to the St Aubyn family since the 1650s. The Mount plays an important part in Cornish folklore and Arthurian legend and is today maintained by the National Trust.
Overlooked by its splendid castle, the medieval village of Dunster lies on the northern edge of Exmoor in Somerset. Once dominated by the wool and cloth trade, Dunster still retains many of its historic buildings and remains unspoilt by modern developments. The Priory church, the 14th-century Tithe Barn, the Dovecote that once belonged to the Priory, and the Yarn Market built in 1609 by the Lords of the Manor all still stand. And peering over the village is the castle of the Luttrell family that forms a dramatic silhouette when darkness falls each night.
Just inland from Mevagissey on the Cornish coastline are the restored botanical gardens of Heligan. Created by generations of the Tremayne family from the late 18th to the early 20th century, the Gardens were neglected in the years following the First World War when the family left for Italy and many of the staff had been killed on the battlefield. And then, in the 1990s, the overgrown and bramble-infested Gardens were restored. You can explore the extensive flower gardens, the Japanese, Italian, and herbaceous sections, the rhododendrons, the summer houses, the walled gardens and the sub-tropical garden full of palm trees and bamboo.
The River Torridge flows through picturesque north Devon to the Bristol Channel at Bideford. The area through which it runs is little visited compared to many other parts of the West Country but is just as worth seeing. The Torridge Valley is famous as the location of the story of Tarka the Otter, the novel of 1927 by Henry Williamson. In it Tarka is born at Beam Weir where the river passes the village of Great Torrington and where the Georgian Beam Aqueduct carries the Rolle Canal over the Torridge. Along the valley, the river passes wooded gorges and is crossed by medieval arched bridges.
Despite all the beautiful sites mentioned thus far, perhaps the most striking view in the entire West Country is the isolated St Catherine’s Chapel that sits atop a hill and looks out across country to Chesil Beach and the Jurassic Coast of Dorset. The 14th-century chapel was built by the monks of Abbotsbury Abbey as a place of retreat and prayer for the monks. The Abbey has been in ruins since the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the chapel still stands. The slopes around it show evidence of medieval field systems and ploughing. Glastonbury Tor in Somerset is another impressive hilltop church site, but you’ll find far fewer tourists at Abbotsbury than at Glastonbury.