The Great West Way is a 500-mile network of road, river, canal and footpaths between London and Bristol. Launched in 2019, it takes in some of the most iconic towns and attractions in England, making for an excellent road trip idea – or simply a nice way to plan a holiday.
As someone who loves a road trip, especially one full of history, hikes, views, cute villages, and traditional pubs, I thought I’d share something about this route with you. As England begins to open up again, but the rest of the world is still out of reach, it is only right that we make more effort to explore what is on our doorstep. The Great West Way offers something that is both ready made and can be easily tailored to your own tastes.
The Great West Way Road Trip
I recently attended an online talk about the route, and it has certainly whetted my appetite for travel again once it’s allowed… With The Great West Way being no distance at all from my home in Gloucestershire, I’ve been enjoying having a look at the route and what it has to offer.
When you think of UK road trips your mind probably goes straight to the North Coast 500. I wouldn’t blame you for that, it’s absolutely stunning and should surely be on everyone’s UK bucket list (here are my favourite bits of that route). But unlike the dedicated rural roads and rugged scenery of the very north of Scotland, the Great West Way is a more compact, varied and adaptable option for a travelling holiday on our Island.
And of course, where the NC500 is very Scottish indeed, The Great West Way is quintessentially English in every way possible; chocolate box villages, super old pubs, rolling countryside, and ancient history at every turn.
The suggested road trip part of The Great West Way follows a 125-mile route based on one of the first Great Roads commissioned by the Kinds of England, taking travellers through both everyday England and world-famous heritage attractions.
First built in Roman times, the old A4 was once known as the Great Road to Bristol. And while some of it is probably not the most beautiful piece of tarmac in the country, it certainly has its moments. Starting in Central London, its route to Avonmouth passes through Slough, Maidenhead, Reading, Newbury, Hungerford, Marlborough, Calne, Chippenham, Bath and Bristol.
Looking at the route, you really are never more than a few minutes’ from something special. Hampton Court Palace, Royal Windsor, the River Thames, Stonehenge and Avebury, Whitchurch Silk Mill, the Kennet and Avon Canal, Westonbirt Arboretum, Roman Baths and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, to name just a few. There are National Trust and English Heritage sites galore, and plenty of adventure businesses, countryside walks, and urban areas to explore.
The thing about The Great West Way that appeals to me, though, is that this isn’t a prescriptive route. Yes, you could follow the old A4 from London to Bristol if you want to, and you will see some amazing sights along the way without a doubt. But there are lots of route options and ways to travel, and finding some of the smaller and more interesting roads is easy with the Ordnance Survey Road Maps – Number 8 South East and Number 7 South West will cover you.
You could spend a long weekend zooming around seeing just a handful of the most popular places, or a week (or two) travelling much more slowly and seeking out some of the lesser-known places.
I could definitely see myself combining The Great West Way with a series of beautiful day hikes, including the White Horse Trail, the Bradford on Avon Wheel, the Wansdyke Path, and the Bristol City Walk.
Or, maybe even better still, combining a road trip in a hired classic car or campervan (I spotted businesses offering both things on The Great West Way website), with a series of mini adventures, such as trying the Spitfire simulator at Maidenhead, rowing at Henley, surfing at The Wave, a cookery lesson with Vaughan’s Cookery School in Devizes, and (of course), taking the waters at the world-famous Bath Spa.
Far from being just a road trip destination, the creators of The Great West Way are keen to encourage those wishing to explore by road, rail, bicycle, on foot, and by water. They’ve created the Great West Way Discover Pass, which is the biggest combined rail and bus pass in the UK, and there are miles (and miles) of footpaths, cycle ways, and waterways if you prefer to be outside rather than in. So it doesn’t have to be a traditional road trip at all.
A Long-Distance Hike – or Paddle?
I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time looking at whether I could walk the length of the Kennet and Avon Canal over five days this summer. As you know, I’ve been looking at a number of long-distance hiking options here in the UK to help me get ready for the Coast to Coast in the Autumn, and there is something about walking along a canal tow path that appeals.
The tow path along the 87-mile canal from Reading to Bristol is continuous, and open to those on foot and bicycle. It would be reasonably level making it fast walking, leaving time for sightseeing. Along the canal there is the famous Caen Hill Lock Flight, which is a scheduled monument, the Dundas Aquaduct, Devizes, Kintbury, and, of course, the rather wonderful Bath. The whole canal has the Keep Britain Tidy flag, and does look like it would make a decent walking route.
I need to do a bit more research into accommodation, amenities and transport, to see what there is in my budget. But there’s the idea. I think it would be fun – I’ve added it to my list.
While I’ve explored some of the places along the route such as Bristol, Bath and Avebury, I haven’t ridden or driven The Great West Way yet, but I do fancy it. Have you done it?
If you’re thinking it’s for you, there’s a Rough Guide to The Great West Way, which would make a useful companion if you’re thinking of exploring the area this summer. There’s also a leaflet free to download from The Great West Way website, which gives an excellent introduction to the various routes and attractions.