West England: A Mix Of Natural, Historic, And Cultural Wonders

Hi. I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time, we're exploring a gorgeous region, where druids dance and waterwheels turn. It's the West of England. Thanks for joining us. 

If you like England and you want to mix its natural, historic, and cultural wonders, you'll love the West. While everything in this episode's within a couple hours of London, out here, it feels a world away from the big city.

After hiking through picturesque Cotswold villages, we'll play shuffleboard with an eccentric lord. 

We'll tour a striking cathedral, and attend evensong. After going way back to the Neolithic Age, we'll zoom into the new age. And we'll top it off with some hard apple cider straight from the farmer. 

Great Britain is made of England, Scotland, and Wales. And we're exploring the West of England. 

Starting in the Cotswolds, we visit Stow-on-the-Wold and Chipping Campden. Then it's south to Wells, Glastonbury, and the prehistoric stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury. 

The Cotswold hills are dotted with enchanting villages and bucolic farmland. And it's all laced together by wonderful trails. This is the quintessential English countryside. And it's walking country. 

The Cotswolds are best appreciated on foot, and that's how we'll tour the area. The region's made to order for tenderfeet. You'll encounter time-passed villages, delightful vistas, and poetic moments. You'll discover hidden stone bridges, cut across fancy front yards, and enjoy close encounters with lots of sheep. 

The English love their walks, and defend their age-old right to free passage. And they organize to assure that landowners respect this law, too. Any paths found blocked are unceremoniously unblocked. While landlords have plenty of fences, they provide plenty of gates as well. 

You'll encounter all sorts of gates on these hikes. This one's called a "kissing gate" -- it works better with two. 

Lower Slaughter is a classic example of a Cotswold village, with a babbling brook, charming gardens, and a working water mill. Just above the mill, a delightful cafe overlooks the mill pond. 

As with many fairy-tale regions in Europe, the present-day beauty of the Cotswolds was the result of an economic disaster. Wool was a huge industry in medieval England. And Cotswold sheep grew the very best. 

According to a 12th-century saying, "In Europe, the best wool is English. And in England, the best wool is Cotswold." It's a story of boom and bust, and then boom again. Because of its wool, the region prospered. Wealthy wool merchants built fine homes of the honey-colored, local limestone. Thankful to God for the riches their sheep brought, they built over-sized churches nicknamed "wool cathedrals." 

But with the rise of cotton and the Industrial Revolution, the region's wool industry collapsed. The fine Cotswold towns fell into a depressed time warp, becoming sleeping beauties. Because of that, the region has a rustic charm. And that's the basis of today's new prosperity. 

Its residents are catering to lots of tourists, and the Cotswolds have become a popular escape for Londoners -- people who can afford thatched mansions like these. 

In England, "Main Street" is called "the high street" -- and in Cotswold market towns, high street was built wide, designed to handle thousands of sheep on market days. 

The handsome market town of Chipping Campden has a high street that's changed little over the centuries. Everything you see was made of the same finely worked Cotswold stone, the only stone allowed today. Roofs still use the traditional stone shingles. To make the weight easier to bear, smaller and lighter slabs are higher up. 

A 17th-century market hall, with its original stonework from top to bottom intact, marks the town center. Hikers admire the surviving medieval workmanship. You can imagine centuries of wheelings and dealings that took place under these very rafters. 

Continuing our walk, we come to the quaint village of Stanton. Travel writers tend to overuse the word "quaint." I save it for here in the Cotswolds. A strict building code keeps towns looking what many locals call "overly quaint." 

Village churches welcome walkers to pop in and enjoy a thoughtful break. This church probably sits upon an ancient pagan site. How do we know? It's dedicated to Saint Michael. And Michael, the archangel who fought the devil, still guards the door. 

Inside, you get a sense that this church has comforted this community in good times and bad. Pre-Christian symbols decorate the columns, perhaps left over from those pagan days. And the list of rectors goes way back, without a break, to the year 1269. 

This church was built with wool money. In fact, they say generations of sheepdog leashes actually wore these grooves. I guess a shepherd took his dog everywhere, even to church. 

Throughout this region, a few of the vast domains of England's most powerful families have survived. The Cotswolds are dotted with elegant, Downton Abbey-type mansions. Today, with the high cost of maintenance and heavy taxes, some noble families have opened their homes to the public to help pay the bills. 

Stanway House, home of the Earl of Wemyss, is one such venerable manor house. The Earl, whose family goes back centuries, welcomes visitors two days a week. 

Walking through his house offers a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lifestyles of England's nobility. And the gracious and likeably eccentric Earl has agreed to personally show us around his ancestral home, including a peak at some touching family mementos. 

Earl of Wemyss: Hair, cut off at a death in the family. Rick: That was a tradition? Early of Wemyss: It was, certainly in this house it was a tradition. And it's kept in this drawer, here. And, um, for instance, this is, this says "Papa's hair. My sister gave it me March the 11th, 1771." Rick: This piece of paper is from 1771? Earl of Wemyss: Mm-hmm. And then that's the hair inside. Rick: Oh, my goodness! Earl of Wemyss:...just as fresh as the day it was cut off. Rick: Whoa! Earl of Wemyss: And that's his hair, cut off on the day his wife died of pneumonia. 

Rick: So this is a huge table. Earl of Wemyss: It is. It's 23 feet long. Rick: And what's the game? Earl of Wemyss: It's called "shuffleboard" or "shovelboard." Rick: Mm-hmm. Earl of Wemyss: It was known in Henry VIII's time. This one was built, we think, in 1625, just the beginning of the reign of Charles I. And you use these 10 pieces and you try and... Rick: Let's try a game! Earl of Wemyss:...shovel the lot to the far end. That's a nice one. 

Rick: It may be a game for English aristocrats. But this Yankee commoner is gonna give it a try. Earl of Wemyss: Very good. Very good. One point. Very good. Very nice, but two foot short. 

Rick: Another interesting artifact is what was called a "chamber horse," a sprung exercise chair from the 1750s. Earl of Wemyss: And you did that. You'd bounce up and down. And your liver gets shaken. Rick: For 100 years, fine ladies would sit on here and... Earl of Wemyss: Yep. Rick:...get their liver done. Earl of Wemyss: And fine gentlemen, too. Rick: Fine gentlemen too, yep. A "chamber horse." I guess that makes sense, doesn't it? Yeah. Earl of Wemyss: It's just like going to the gym nowadays. 

Lord Wemyss has rebuilt the old fountain in his backyard, and today -- as one of the highest gravity-fed fountains in the world rockets 300 feet into the sky -- it's the talk of the Cotswolds. For commoners, the Lord's sprawling parkland backyard makes for a jolly-good day out. 

While not quite in a noble mansion, we're sleeping plenty comfortably just down the road in the village of Stow-on-the-Wold. Stow mixes medieval charm with a workaday reality. A selection of traditional pubs, cute shops, and inviting caf├ęs ring its busy square. 

For centuries, the square hosted a huge wool market. The historic Market Cross stood tall, reminding all Christian merchants to trade fairly under the sight of God. And stocks like these were handy when a scoundrel deserved a little public ridicule. 

People came from as far away as Italy to buy the prized Cotswold wool fleeces. You can imagine, with 20,000 sheep sold on a single day, it was a thriving scene. The sheep would be paraded into the market down narrow "fleece alleys" like this. They were built really narrow 'cause it forced the sheep to go single file, so they could count them as they entered the market. 

And ever since those medieval market days, pubs have been the place to gather [and] enjoy a meal, and a pint of beer. Tonight, we're checking out a gastropub -- that's a pub known for its fine food. 

While many things that pubs provide, like the cozy ambience and community-living-room vibe haven't changed, other things -- like the quality of the food -- certainly have. 

This isn't your grandmother's pub grub. Pubs are putting more effort into their offerings. Creative chefs are shaking up England's reputation for food, and you won't find mushy peas anywhere on this menu. We're enjoying guinea fowl and artfully prepared fish with fresh vegetables. 

A short drive south take us into Somerset and to the wonderfully preserved city of Wells, dominated by its glorious cathedral. 

Wells has a charming medieval center. The stately Bishop's Palace is circled by a park-like moat and sports an impressive front yard. It's a market city -- and has been for a long time. 

The peaceful Vicars' Close is perfectly preserved, lined with 14th-century houses. Locals claim this is the oldest, complete medieval street in Europe. Originally built to house the cathedral choir, it still does. This overpass connects it with the cathedral. 

England's first completely Gothic church dates from about 1200. The west portal shows off what's said to be the greatest collection of medieval statuary anywhere in Europe -- about 300 13th-century carvings. 

This entire ensemble was once painted in vivid color. It must have been a spectacular welcome -- a heavenly host proclaiming "welcome to worship." 

Stepping inside, you're struck by the unique and ingenious "scissors" arch. This hour-glass-shaped double arch was added in about 1340 to bolster the church's sagging tower. Nearly 700 years later it's not only still working, it's beautiful. 

The chimes draw your attention to one of the oldest working clocks in the world -- from 1392. The clock does its much-loved joust on the quarter hour. 

More medieval whimsy is carved into the capitals: This man has a toothache. Another pulls a thorn from his foot. And a farmer clobbers a thief so hard, his hat falls off. 

And under glorious stained glass, you can enjoy the cathedral's evensong. The evensong is a Church of England choral service traditionally performed each evening and welcoming everyone. Taking a seat in the intimate central part of the church, we enjoy the opportunity to experience the church filled with timeless music. 

Because we're here in July, the cathedral's choir is on break, and a visiting choir is performing. This one's from near Liverpool. 

The countryside around Wells is great for growing apples. And you can visit farms that brew the authentic hard cider, known around here as "scrumpy." While cider is becoming more and more refined and popular, the traditional scrumpy still attracts a devoted crowd, especially here in Somerset. 

And at Land's End Cider Farm, Roger Wilkins is as old-school as it comes. His enthusiasm alone is intoxicating. 

Rick: Did your father make this same cider? Roger: Me father did, but actually, I learned it off me grandfather. The actual makin' of the cider is exactly the same now as me grandfather done it. Alls we do is crush 'em up, press the apples, then natural juice comes out, And the yeast is in the skin of the apple, so I don't put nothin' at all in it. It's the purest drink you'll get. 

We head into the tasting room, which I'm guessing looks about the same as it did when Roger's grandfather ran the place. It's time to sample the pure apple taste of scrumpy, along with its 6.8 alcohol content. 

Rick: I've heard that when you drink scrumpy, you've got to be careful. Roger: Well, yeah. It can knock you about if you ain't used to it. Gallon a day keep the doctor away! Rick: I've heard some -- I've heard some pubs actually don't serve it because... Roger: No. No. They won't, some. If you go in now, they'll serve you a half a pint, eh. Rick: And it's pure so it -- it's so pure that, in the morning, no problem? Roger: No problem at all. No headaches. Rick: Yeah? Roger: No hangovers. No nothin'. 

That may be true, but after my tasting, I'm making sure my producer does the driving. 

Throughout England, the countryside is picturesque. And it hides a fascinating history, a history that goes back thousands of years to prehistoric times. 

Mysterious figures carved into hillsides, curious man-made mountains, ancient bridges, and legends that go back to Camelot and beyond. 

Glastonbury, a modest market town today, has long had a holy aura. It was a religious sight back in the Bronze Age. That's about 1500 B.C. It's also considered the birthplace of Christianity in England and the burial sight of the legendary King Arthur. 

Centuries before Christ, this hill, called a "tor," marked Glastonbury. For thousands of years, pilgrims and seekers have climbed it. Today, it's capped by the ruins of a church dedicated to Saint Michael. Remember, because Saint Michael was the Christian antidote to paganism, it's a good bet this church sits upon a pre-Christian holy site. 

Seen by many as a mother goddess symbol, the Glastonbury tor has long attracted a variety of travelers and seekers. And the tor has a Biblical connection, as well. 

For centuries, pilgrims have come here to Glastonbury on a quest for the legendary Holy Grail. You see, Joseph of Arimathea, who was an uncle of Christ, was a tin trader. And even back in Biblical times, Britain was well known as a rare place where tin could be mined. Considering that, Joseph could have sat right here with the chalice that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper -- in his satchel. 

Near the base of the hill is a calm and meditative garden built around a natural spring. According to legend, the Holy Grail lies at the bottom of the Chalice Well. In the past, people came here for physical healing. Today, seekers still come for healing. But it's more for a wellness of the mind and soul. 

England's first church was built here, at the base of the hill next to the Chalice Well. Eventually, a great abbey was built on the site of that church. 

Mix the scant ruins of England's first church with the mystique of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, add the hard work of a busy monastery, and, by the 12th century, Glastonbury Abbey was the leading Christian pilgrimage site in all of Britain. It was huge, employing 1,000 people to serve the needs of its pilgrims. 

At its peak, Glastonbury Abbey was England's most powerful and wealthy. It was part of a network of monasteries that, by the year 1500, challenged the King. They owned about a quarter of all English land. They had more money than the King. 

To King Henry VIII, abbeys like this were political obstacles. In 1536, he solved that by dissolving England's monasteries. 

He was particularly harsh on Glastonbury. He not only destroyed its magnificent church, but for emphasis, his men hung the abbot, displayed his head on the abbey gates, and sent his quartered body on four different national tours... at the same time. 

Without its wealthy abbey, the town fell into a depression. But Glastonbury rebounded. An 18th-century tourism campaign, with thousands claiming that water from the Chalice Well actually healed them, put Glastonbury back on the map. 

Today, Glastonbury and its mysterious hill are a center for "searchers," popular with those on their own spiritual quest. 

Part of the fun of a visit here is just being in a town where goddesses go for their conventions, where every other shop has a New-Age focus and where alternative is the norm. 

For a more tangible look at the spiritual mystery of this countryside, prehistoric stone circles are scattered all across Britain. These circles, many as old as Egypt's pyramids, were sacred centers of ritual and worship. They functioned as celestial calendars. 5,000 years ago, locals could tell when to plant and when to party according to where the sun rose and where the sun set. It still works that way today. 

At the Avebury Stone Circle, you're free to wander among 100 stones. Visitors ponder the cohesive ensemble of ditches, mounds, and megaliths -- the work of people clearly on a mission from thousands of years ago. The huge circle, while cut in two by a busy road and so big it contains a village, retains its allure and wonder. 

And nearby stands Silbury Hill, a yet-to-be-explained man-made mountain of chalk. For more than 4,000 years, this largest man-made construction from prehistoric Europe is just another edifice from England's mysterious and ancient religious landscape. 

And exactly what's it all mean? We'll never know for sure. It's like looking at the ruins of a medieval church and from that alone trying to understand Christianity. 

Stonehenge is the most famous of Britain's stone circles. A visit starts at the museum, where you'll see artifacts from the Stone Age people who built it. A 360-degree theater demonstrates how the structure is aligned with the heavens, marking both the longest and the shortest days of the year. And outside, a thatched-hut hamlet helps you imagine how its Neolithic builders once lived. 

Huge stones like this replica were quarried, carved and then moved for many miles, some of them from as far away as Wales, 200 miles to the west. They barged them down rivers; they may have rolled them on logs like this -- nobody knows for sure. 

After this introduction, a bus shuttles you to the site. Visitors are in awe as they ponder the continuously debated purposes and meaning of Stonehenge. The major stones were erected at the end of the Stone Age, just before the advent of metal tools. It's amazing to think that some of these cross stones have been in place for 4,500 years. 

Whatever its original purpose, Stonehenge still functions as a celestial calendar. Even in modern times, the sun rises on the longest day of the year in just the right spot. And it retains its powerful sense of wonder over those who gather. 

For over 4,000 years in a row, this ensemble of stones, so artfully assembled, has silently done its duty. 

Why here and for what purpose? These questions, along with many more about Stonehenge, remain shrouded in mystery. But there's no mystery at all about the fact that this part of England is a fascinating region to explore. 

Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. 

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