By Roberta Muir
Spring is the most beautiful time to see England, especially the southwest, full of extravagant gardens that are a riot of colour and with every roadside dotted in clumps of yellow and white daffodils, jonquils and other bulbs that shoot into life as soon as the spring sun warms the almost frozen earth. WeatherÕs still a bit hit and miss of course (this is England) but when the sun shines it is magnificent and April showers generally donÕt last for too long.
Somerset – Roman Baths & French Buns
Bath is one of those places so talked about that it risks being a victim of itÕs own fame and a disappointment when finally visited, so I was of two minds whether or not to avoid it all togetherÉIÕm glad I didnÕt. Under royal patronage in the 18th century this town, which had been popular for its hot springs since Roman times, underwent a revival and became the place to be seen drinking tea and Ôtaking the watersÕ. Many fine buildings were erected in the Georgian-style, predominantly designed by father and son John Woods Elder and Younger. At the very top of the town is the imposing Royal Crescent a beautifully symmetrical semi-circular sweep of 30 Georgian townhouses designed by John Woods the Elder and in the centre at number 16 is the lovely Royal Crescent Hotel, perfectly located to take advantage of the CrescentÕs lush parkland out front as well as having a beautifully sunny courtyard garden behind the main building. Number One Royal Crescent is a museum, with each room decorated as it would have been when the townhouses were new and inhabited by a guide who can enthusiastically explain every detail of that room.
The beauty of staying at The Royal Crescent is that enables you to stroll down through the entire town to the Roman baths located at the very bottom of the hill. An extensive museum with tantalising glimpses of the baths, and lots of statues, mosaics and artefacts rescued from the excavations does a good job of setting the scene, but nothing is as good as actually walking around the baths themselves, over paving stones worn smooth by the feet of Roman bathers, watching the steam rise up from the thermal pools.
Bath does have more to see than just the baths however, next door is the 15th century abbey, on the site of a much earlier church, with a spectacular fan vaulted ceiling and a little way up the hill is the Jane Austen Centre. Austen lived in Bath for five years and visited frequently throughout her life with two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, largely set in Bath. A visit to Sally LunnÕs teahouse is also an essential Bath experience. Built in 1482 this is now BathÕs oldest house and in 1680 it became home to a Huguenot refuge, Solange Luyon. Solange (Sally in English) found work with the baker occupying these premises and taught him to make a brioche-style bread that became popular at the public breakfasts and afternoon teas that were an essential part of Bath social life. The teahouse serves these buns, which look a bit like a large light hamburger bun, in various sweet and savoury dishes. They work well as trenchers (slabs of bread which pre-dated plates) and the house-made butters, cinnamon, walnut & coffee, or brandy, are great for a sweet treat. Make sure you see the small downstairs museum as well.
Wiltshire - Ancient Sites
Most visitors to the southwest want to see Stonehenge, BritainÕs best-known prehistoric site, and it is well worth a visit despite the fact that you canÕt actually walk among the stones. A large well-designed track skirts the perimeter of the monument allowing visitors to see it from every angle, often without being able to see the other people viewing it at the same time. But a number of lesser-known, prehistoric sites in the vicinity are also worth searching out. The stones circling the village of Avebury are thought to pre-date Stonehenge, having been put in place 5,000 years ago. These individual standing stones arenÕt fenced off in anyway, leaving visitors and black-faced sheep free to stroll among them. Just outside Avebury lies the 40m high Silbury Hill, EuropeÕs largest prehistoric earthwork, its purpose is unknown and it can only be viewed from the roadside, though just across the road is West Kennet Long Barrow, EnglandÕs largest chambered tomb built around 3250BC, which visitors can enter to walk among the stone-lined crypts.
If all this viewing of ancient monuments makes you weary and youÕre looking for a comfortable, friendly pub to put up at for the night, check out The Seven Stars in the village of Bottlesford, conveniently located on the road between Avebury and Stonehenge. The foodÕs a cut above the standard pub grub too, with well-done standards such as excellent fishÕnÕchips with homemade tartare sauce, half pints of prawns and mayo, shepherds pie and stilton and leek tarts. +44 (0)1672 85 1325
Dorset - Great Eating
In northeast Dorset on the Wiltshire border is the village of Farnham (not to be confused with the much larger town of Farnham in Surrey 2-hours further east, which is where your SatNav will likely take you if you simply type in FarnhamÉbut thatÕs another story). Less visited than Cornwall and Devon further south, Dorset has some of the prettiest, most unspoilt scenery in the southwest É beautiful gardens, thatched cottages, grand manor houses, endless green fields, and just below the surface porous chalk which makes hill carvings such as the rather excited giant of Cerne Abbas possible.
On a corner in the centre of Farnham is The Museum Inn, named the 6th best pub in Britain by the Independent newspaper, which is no mean feat in a country with a public house on almost every corner. This thatched-roofed inn was built in the 17th century by General Pitt Rivers, dubbed the father of British archaeology, to accommodate visitors to his nearby museum. The traditional low-ceilinged bar with flagstone floors forms the heart of village life and has a range of real ales and traditional ciders on tap plus an eclectic wine list covering old world and new. The wine list also serves The Shed, the innÕs fine dining (and Michelin recommended) restaurant, a lovely white weatherboard space looking like a small chapel, but actually once the village hall.
Just like the Ôreal aleÕ served in the bar, The Shed focuses on Ôreal foodÕ, no froths or foams nor too many garnishes. Chef Patrick Davey sources produce from local farms and estates that follow traditional practices (organic where possible) and seafood from the nearby south coast, and prepares it simply in great combinations. Crisp-outside-tender-inside lamb sweetbreads are lifted by a dandelion salad and rare peppered beef is sliced thinly with a tangle of rocket and shavings of parmesan. An earthy borlotti bean and pancetta soup with ditali pasta is a warming hearty rendition of pasta e fagioli while veal shank is braised to gelatinous tenderness and served with wood blewit mushrooms, broad beans, very creamy mashed potato and marsala sauce. Local cheeses such as a young Godminster Somerset Cheddar, tangy Dorstone goats cheese or rich melting Sharpham Elmhurst triple cream are a tempting alternative to dessert, then again the bitter chocolate tart with Grand Marnier cream is a bitter-sweet note on which to end an outstanding meal. www.museuminn.co.uk
The Museum Inn has accommodation, but if thereÕs no room at the inn, cross the road to The Old Rectory, where Vicky and Peter Forbes offer a genuinely warm welcome to their bed and breakfast accommodation in what was home to the rector of the villageÕs Norman church until the 1960s. Rooms are sunny and comfortable with good-sized ensuite bathrooms, chickens roam the beautiful gardens providing eggs for breakfast and alpacas share the paddock with the familyÕs horses. And the church across the road, dating back to 1250, is also well worth a visit. +44 (0)1725 516474 email@example.com