Wessex is the ancient kingdom of the West Saxons that defeated its rivals and created England. The counties of Essex, Middlesex and Sussex remain with us to recall the East, Mid and South Saxons that Wessex conquered but when King Edgar of Wessex was crowned as the first King of England in Bath in 973, Wessex, the dominant and most civilised of the Anglo-Saxon states, ceased to be a government entity.
The area with which Destination Wessex is concerned was recognised in the early ninth century when the four West Saxon shires, now Counties, were created. The name of each reflected the name of the town on which the surrounding shire was dependent. They were:
|West Saxon Shire||Shire Town||Present County|
click here to view the map in pdf format (299kb)
The history of the area goes back much further than this. Its Neolithic inhabitants built a large number of sacred hills, camps, rings, barrows and henges to honour their dead, celebrate the seasons or mark their boundaries. Wessex has an almost unparallelled wealth of archaeological sites including Avebury and Stonehenge. It is a land of myths and legends. Among them are the story of Joseph of Aramathea bringing the Holy Grail to Glastonbury and, perhaps above all the legends, that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Wessex reached its peak in the ninth and tenth centuries and especially in the reign of Alfred the Great, one of the most remarkable men in England’s long history. He was not only a military genius who reformed the army and established the navy. He was also a learned man who greatly influenced the development of the English language and whose laws formed a base for much of the English law we know today.
In 1066, the Normans came to conquer and brought great changes with them. The name of Wessex fell into the background but the area remained important in the flow of English history. The concentration of its heritage with us now, bears witness to this. In more recent times, the work of writers, Thomas Hardy, in particular, has breathed new life into the use of “Wessex”to represent an area and now there are hundreds of companies that have it as part of their name.
Destination Wessex describes it this way:
“Wessex is the land of King Arthur and King Alfred, of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, of Bath and Stonehenge. It was the birthplace of England and England’s heritage remains very much part of the Wessex way of life. It is a land of beautiful countryside, historic market towns and ancient villages not far from London, but in every other way very far from the pressure, pace and congestion of the urban world.”
The four counties have a rural culture. Major urban communities such as Bristol, Swindon and Southampton are situated near the perimeter. Elsewhere, there is a feeling of timeliness. What you see has been there for hundreds of years and there it will be hundreds of years from now. The industrial revolution largely passed it by and, while the modern world may have a degree of physical presence, the flow of Wessex life and the priorities of its people stay much as they were.
The area has a common sense of place that is made up of green fields, hedges and woods, of stone, thatch, village churches and historic inns, of architecture and archaeology, of cows and sheep and horses and wildlife, and a serene balance between man and nature. County boundaries do not affect this. Unless there is a sign to tell you, you will not know when you cross, for example, from Somerset into Dorset. But, if you leave Wessex to go towards London, you feel the change. The pressure, the degree of urgency, the congestion begins to evidence itself. The sense of place has changed.
Wessex is a destination that overseas visitors will recognise, much as they recognise the Cotswolds or the Lake District. It is unique, compact and readily accessible. Beneath its common sense of place is a wealth of variety that can offer memorable holidays to a wide range of visitors. Come and stay for a few days and get to know Wessex, the heart of ancient England.
Data on the Destination Wessex website has been divided into the seven areas below in order to assist in itinerary planning.
This stretches approximately from the M4 in the north to Shepton Mallet in the South. In terms of tourism it is dominated by the beautiful Georgian city of Bath, a World Heritage Site, Wells with its great cathedral and Glastonbury, the place of legends. Just west of Bath lies Bristol, the biggest city in the South of England (apart from London of course) which is also full of heritage. The two main features of the landscape are the valley of the River Avon which heads west from Bath and, in the south, the Mendip Hills which offer delightful scenery.
The Devizes Area covers the North East corner of Wessex. It includes much of the North Wessex Downs “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Of particular note are the Marlborough Downs, a great place for walking, cycling and horse riding. Crossing through the downs is the Ridgeway, a trail that has been in use for thousands of years. It is perhaps not surprising that the area has a very large number of archaeological sites, long barrows, white horses and stone circles with Avebury, a World Heritage Site, being of particular note. Below the downs lie the Avon Vale and the Vale of Pewsey.
This is entirely in the county of Dorset, a county full of scenery, historic market towns and ancient villages that is the quintessence of the ”English Countryside”. Much of it has been officially designated as an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. In addition, it has the Jurassic Coast, now a World Heritage Site, the Isle of Portland, the Isle of Purbeck and Poole Harbour. The line of tall cliffs on the coast with coves and harbours along the way makes for fine marine scenery and another great place for walking, cycling and other outdoor activities. The area also has a wide variety of heritage, castles, historic houses, gardens and fascinating village churches.
Salisbury itself is a most interesting historic city with one of England’s finest cathedrals. 10 miles to the north is Stonehenge and its associated sites, a must for all visitors. Other attractions include Wilton House, Breamore House and Heale Gardens. The landscape is made up of Salisbury Plain to the north, Cranborne Chase to the south and a series of charming river valleys in between. Cranborne Chase was the old Royal hunting grounds. These days this scenic hilly area is good for walking, horse riding and, if less active, just for a pleasant afternoon drive.
This is to the north of the Dorchester area and shares its beautiful countryside, its picturesque villages and its historic market towns. Among the latter is Sherborne, one of the most attractive towns anywhere in Southern England. It has an outstanding abbey, two castles and a narrow pedestrianised main street full of old shops. The Sherborne area is blessed with a range of interesting heritage, especially gardens including Stourhead, Barrington Court, East Lambrook. and many more. There are also historic houses such as Montacute and Forde Abbey
Above everything else, this is an area for outdoor activities. The combination of Exmoor, the Brendon Hills and the Quantocks creates a large area of moor and heath, forest and ravines. It is the wildest part of Wessex and a centre for walking, cycling, horse riding, fishing and more. It is also great driving country with its scenery,, its variety and a friendly pub ready to welcome the visitor. To the south of the area there are two well known gardens, Hestercombe and Cothay Manor, and the Blackdown Hills. To the west the coast line with charming villages leads to Dunster and its castle. To the east are the unique Somerset levels, one of the biggest wetlands in Britain which have their own appeal especially to bird watchers.
Winchester was the capital of King Alfred the Great of Wessex and subsequently the first capital of England. It has one of England’s oldest and biggest cathedrals and is steeped in history with attractions such as King Arthur’s Round Table and Jane Austen’s House. The New Forest, William the Conqueror’s hunting forest, lies to the south west with heritage attractions such as Beaulieu and Exbury Gardens. To the south there is Southampton and Portsmouth with its historic dockyard and historic ships. The lovely Test Valley, best known for its fishing, is north of Winchester and further east is the village where Jane Austen was born.
The Wessex Countryside The quintessential English countryside. Rolling hills and valleys, woods and heaths, fields and hedgerows, church spires and stately homes including many of England’s “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. Exmoor and the New Forest National Parks, the Quantocks, the Mendips and the Jurassic Coast, in particular, are great areas for a wide variety of outdoor activities.
Gardens Wessex has over 40 outstanding gardens that range from Exbury in the east to Stourhead in the centre and Hestercombe in the west. 6 have won National Awards. In addition, there are the many private gardens that can be visited by arrangement.
Walking Ancient ways cross Wessex such as the Liberty Trail and the Wessex Ridgway. Cliff-top paths stretch the length of the World Heritage Site, Jurassic coast of Dorset. There are also many other scenic trails to walk with a welcoming pub never far away
Cycling Marvellously quiet lanes, beautiful countryside, picturesque villages, tremendous views and, yet again, those welcome pubs. Plus the places where bicycles can be hired and local operators who can help to prepare itineraries.
Fishing Good coarse and game fishing in Wessex;s rivers, streams and lakes.
Horse Riding Another popular activity in Wessex. There are stables that can cater for experienced riders or novices, individuals or groups.
Bird Watching There are 16 reserves in Wessex and a wide variety of birds.
Sailing The Solent, between the Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, has to be one of the world’s greatest and safest sailing playgrounds for sailors and power boaters from internationals to beginners.
Wessex Life. Rural, peaceful and timeless. The small market towns and villages, the churches and pubs, the local fairs and festivals, the farms and fields and hedgerows. And the people who live there. The annual Bath & West Show, market days in the small towns, race meetings, and village open garden days. They all reflect the Wessex way of life.
Christian Heritage Five cathedrals, twelve abbeys and some of the finest churches in England. Ecclesiastical history is also reflected in Bishop’s palaces, legends and tradition.
Family History Over the centuries, many people have migrated from Wessex, especially to North America. Wessex has excellent Records Offices where comprehensive data is maintained and family history associations keen to help visitors in tracing their ancestors.
Antiques Antique shops and dealers, shows and auctions are features of life in Wessex. Bath, Bradford on Avon, Shepton Mallet and Sherborne are well known antique centres .
Literary Wessex Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Evelyn Waugh, T.S.Eliot, John Betjeman, Geoffrey Chaucer, T. E Lawrence and many other outstanding literary figures have close associations with Wessex.
Arts and Crafts The arts are very much in evidence. The Theatre Royal in Bath, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the choirs of the cathedrals are perhaps the best known but there are also the local theatres, auditoriums, art galleries and craft centres. Music and drama festivals, art exhibitions and book fairs are scheduled every year.
Wessex in History From prehistory to the age of aviation. Special periods of interest are the bronze and iron age settlements, the Roman Wessex, the Saxon kingdom that gave birth to England, the Norman Conquest, Elizabethan Wessex, the Civil War and the Eighteenth century.
Historic Houses of Wessex There are 75 historic houses from which to choose. Some of them medieval, some Tudor and many from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Each reflects the society, culture and history of its time. Also included are some of the charming smaller manor houses.
Architecture The vast collection of ecclesiastical, military, manor house and domestic architecture in Wessex means that the area contains excellent examples of almost every period of architecture in England: Roman, Saxon, Norman, Medieval, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Georgian and Victorian.
Military Heritage This ranges from forts and castles and fortified manor houses to battle sites, regimental history and the outstanding naval, army and air force museums
Veterans Many military personnel from USA, Canada, Australia and elsewhere were based in Wessex during the Second World War. Many left from Wessex harbours on D-Day. The area has many memories for them and much interest for their families.
Wessex is full of accommodation with character, accommodation that reflects the area’s sense of place, historic inns and pubs, country house hotels, farmhouse stays and country cottages. Each one is unique. Most are relatively small on an international scale, and intimate. Visitors will enjoy good home cooking and ingredients fresh from the local farms. They will meet local people and be in touch with local life.
Bath, Salisbury, Portsmouth and Winchester are heritage centres with a full range of hotels. Bournemouth, Bristol, Southampton and Swindon offer international chain hotels.
Wessex is very accessible by all modes of transportation. For example, a visitor only has to travel 50 miles from London to reach it. Here is a quick summary of access features.
|AIR TRAVEL||Heathrow and Gatwick airports are little over an hour away. Services into Wessex’s own airports, Bristol and Southampton are growing and include flights from a wide variety of European cities. Bristol now has direct flights from New York, its first transatlantic service.|
|SEA TRAVEL||Frequent ferry services operate from France and Spain to the Wessex channel ports of Portsmouth and Poole. In addition, the Calais/Dover ferries are not far away.|
|ROAD TRAVEL||There is good motorway style access from London to the northern parts of Wessex such as Bath via the M4 and to the rest of the area on the M3 and A303. Driving time to Winchester is little over an hour and in two hours a visitor can reach most parts of the destination. Travel from the north of England.|
|RAIL TRAVEL||There are two regular services from London with names that reflect the direction of their routes, First Great Western and South West Trains.|