Guide to the West Country
The West Country is often used to describe the south-western counties of England. Situated south of Wales and north of the English Channel, the West Country's eastern-most boundary is within a two hour drive of London. The sprawling region is characterised by scenic countryside and coasts. It is also home to the historic town of Bath, the surfing capital of Newquay and the vibrant city of Bristol, a former medieval port city that has evolved into a major cultural and economic centre.
Defining the West Country
The West Country is used informally to describe south-western portions of England from the British Channel to the English Channel. There is no official definition or boundaries for the West Country. Generally, the region includes the historic counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. The City and County of Bristol is also considered part of the West Country. Gloucestershire and Wiltshire are also sometimes included as part of the region. The West Country is also known as the South West of England, one of England's nine official regions that covers much of the West Country. The South West comprises of Bristol, Cornwall, Dorset, Devon, Gloucestershire, the Isles of Scilly, Somerset and Wiltshire.
Much of the West Country is rural in character. Tourism and agriculture are major employers in the region, with most economic activity concentrated in and around Bristol, the M4 Corridor and the south-east of Dorset. Although coastal areas including Bristol relied on maritime trade since the Middle Ages, aeronautics became a major driver from the early twentieth century. The region is also home to the Cornish people, a distinct Celtic ethnic group within the United Kingdom.
The population of the South West of England including the West Country is approximately 5.3 million, according to the 2011 Census. The region covers an area of 23,829 square kilometres or 9,200 square miles. If Wiltshire and Gloucestershire are excluded, the population of the West Country is estimated at 3.7 million people. With 432,500 residents, Bristol is the largest urban centre in the West Country and the South West. Other major towns and cities in the region include Plymouth, Bournemouth, Poole, Swindon and Gloucester.
There is evidence that ancestors to modern humans lived around what is now Somerset some 500,000 years ago. Evidence of human settlements from before the last ice age is also found in pockets throughout the South West, particularly Devon. Early sites of human habitation are also found through the region, most notably Neolithic sites in Stonehenge and Avebury. The region's population grew during the Bronze Age and Iron Age, and by the time the Romans conquered Britain much of the area was occupied by Brythonic Celtic tribes.
The Roman presence in the West Country focused in Somerset and the Cotswold Hills, although influences are also found in Cornwall and Devon. Exeter was the regional capital during the Roman period and forts, villas, temples and other sites remain from the era, particularly in Bath. Between the fifth and sixth centuries, the region was dominated by Celtic and eventually Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Anglo-Saxon control of the region was cemented by the seventh century. Much of the West Country came under the rule of Wessex by the eleventh century, with the exception of Cornwall. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the West Country was controlled by Norman and Breton rulers and was largely consolidated under the English Crown during the eleventh century.
Towns and Cities
The unofficial capital of the West Country is Bristol. One of England's most popular destinations, the city is the region's economic heart. Largely destroyed during the Second World War, Bristol is renowned for its fine examples of Georgian and Victorian architecture. The city is a major transportation hub with direct rail and road links to London and Wales, as well as the North of England. The region's largest airport is located south of the city centre. Situated nearby is Bath, a historic Roman and Georgian spa city. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city boasts Roman period baths and attracts over four million visitors each year.
Cities in the region include Exeter and Plymouth in Devon. Exeter has a long history as the region's administrative capital beginning during the Roman period. The city is a major commercial and service centre, although it is largely surrounded by agricultural land. The coastal city of Plymouth is a major tourist draw. It was here that Sir Francis Drake set sail to battle the Spanish and where the Royal Dockyard was built in the seventeenth century. Plymouth continues to be the site of a major naval base, the largest in Western Europe.
Situated in Wiltshire, Salisbury is home to a stunning cathedral. Built between 1220 and 1268, the cathedral has the highest spire in England. Salisbury is also just 15 kilometres from iconic Stonehenge, which dates back to approximately 2500 BC and the Bronze Age. Gloucester in Gloucestershire is often considered a gateway to the West Country. Founded by Romans, the city sits west of the dazzling Cotswolds and is home to a cathedral that traces its roots to the seventh century.
Major towns in the West Country include Weymouth in Dorset. Direct ferries to Jersey and Guernsey operate from the town, which hosted the sailing competitions during the 2012 Olympic Games. Torquay on the coast of Devon is a popular seaside resort along what is often considered the English Riviera. The town boasts nine beaches, including three Blue flag beaches. Excellent beaches are also found at Bude and Newquay in Cornwall.