After World War II, a group of leading Modern artists congregated in St Ives, a small fishing town on Cornwall’s north coast. One of the most famous was Barbara Hepworth. Her studios have been turned into the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden where the artist’s Modernist bronze sculptures are on display. Tate St Ives celebrates the town’s Modernist legacy, and does guided walks through the local places that helped earn this town its artistic reputation.
Your cultural England itinerary
Day 1: Cornwall
The county of Cornwall on England’s southwest tip is surrounded by the sea on three sides, so it’s no surprise that the ocean plays an important role in Cornish culture. It’s hard to imagine the Minack Theatre existing anywhere else in the world. Its location, clinging to the clifftops above the Atlantic waves, is testament to the vision of Rowena Cade, who decided the cliffs below her garden would be the perfect venue for a theatre. And she was right! You’ll never forget watching a performance at this world-famous outdoor theatre.
Newquay is Cornwall’s undisputed surfing centre. Of its 12 golden beaches, iconic Fistral Beach has a reputation as one of the country’s best, most consistent surfing beaches. It’s lined with long-established surf companies offering lessons and board and wet suit hire. It also hosts some world-class surf festivals, including Boardmasters, so you’re likely to catch the pros in action, and maybe even chat with them as you sample the town’s excellent nightlife scene.
This small fishing town has more than its fair share of celebrity chefs, and people travel for miles to sample its fine foodie culture. Rick Stein is the best known of the chefs here – Padstow’s nickname is Padstein. If you can’t get a seat at one of his restaurants, a takeaway from Stein’s Fish & Chips is just as memorable. Also try Paul Ainsworth at No 6, The Old Custom House, and award-winning Cornish pasties from The Chough Bakery.
Day 2: Cornwall and Devon
It’s a pleasant drive (1 hour 30 minutes) through Cornwall from the Minack Theatre to the mysterious Lost Gardens of Heligan. The Gardens’ story is fascinating. Decades of neglect following World War I meant that the gardens lay forgotten until a chance discovery just 25 years ago kickstarted their restoration into award-winning gardens for you to explore. It’s amazing to think that they could still be lost to time and weeds.
Two enormous biomes bubble up from the crater of an old chalk mine at the Eden Project. One contains a rainforest, and the other has a distinctly Mediterranean feel. There are outdoor gardens too. In the Rainforest Biome, go straight to the heart of the rainforest on the treetop walk, explore an aerial laboratory used by canopy scientists, and uncover the ways of life of the Baka people of the West African rainforests.
Dartmoor was “the third character” of Steven Spielberg’s epic, War Horse. Of the place, the legendary director said: “I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming War Horse on Dartmoor.” Visit this wild and rugged place of moors and tors to see what he meant. Don’t miss Burrator Reservoir, where Albie races Joey against the motor car.
The vibrant and historic waterfront city of Plymouth is Devon county’s regional capital of culture. It grew up around one of the largest natural harbours in the world, so the sea plays an important role here. Take in the coastal views from Plymouth Hoe, swim in the art deco Tinside Lido, tour the world-famous Plymouth Gin Distillery and, in August, see the area illuminated by the spectacular displays of the British Firework Championships.
Days 3-4: Bath
From Plymouth, drive (2 hours 30 minutes) or take public transport (2 hours) northeast to the city of Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage site where Roman remains sit alongside grand Georgian crescents. Head straight to Thermae Bath Spa and get your bearings across the city as you soak in naturally hot water in the rooftop pool. You’ll be in the same mineral-rich waters that drew the Romans here over 2,000 years ago.
Author Jane Austen spent a lot of time in Bath, and the city and its society feature heavily in her books. Take the Jane Austen audio tour, visit The Jane Austen Centre to find out more about Austen’s life in Bath and take afternoon tea in the Regency Rooms, just as Jane did. The 2017 Jane Austen Festival (September) is set to be extra-special, as it’s the 200th anniversary of the writer’s death.
Bath’s Roman Baths are among the best-preserved Roman remains in the world. It’s easy to imagine the Romans using the heated rooms, plunge pools and changing rooms. Steaming spring water still fills the site every day, just as it did over 2,000 years ago. Check out the interactive museum and don’t miss Bill Bryson’s audio tour. Afterwards, try the water at the Pump Rooms – it tastes just the same now as it did then!
Float above Bath’s ancient and Georgian architecture in a hot air balloon and see the city mapped out beneath you, encompassing Roman ruins, the grand sweep of Georgian Royal Crescent, the elegant ‘O’ of the Circus and the green expanse of Royal Victoria Park. The green hills and marches of Somerset county roll into the distance. If you want to, help prepare the balloon for flight, then toast the experience with champagne.
Day 5: Garsington and Oxford
Drive (1 hour 40 minutes) or take public transport (1 hour 30 minutes) to Oxford. The ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ is an unforgettable place to end your trip, especially if you round off the day with a performance at Garsington Opera (June-July). Operatic performances take place in the Opera Pavilion of the Wormsley Estate, so you can listen to Tchaikovsky, Rossini and Mozart with views across Wormsley’s lake, deer park and the woods and hills beyond.
Who better to talk you through Oxford’s storied colleges than an Oxford University student? The personal guides at Oxbridge Tours will tailor the walking tour for you, so Narnia devotees can focus on Magdalen College where CS Lewis taught, and Harry Potter buffs can concentrate on the many filming locations. Learn about the university’s traditions and get insider tips, giving you a direct line to the real Oxford.
Fans of Lewis Carroll can see Oxford through a Wonderland filter on an Alice-themed tour. Explore Christ Church College where Carroll lectured in mathematics; pick up souvenirs from Alice’s Shop; and join one of Oxford River Cruises’ Mad Hatters Tea Party cruises to drift along the stretch of river where Carroll made up the Alice in Wonderland story to entertain the ‘real’ Alice in 1862. Visit on 2 July for Alice’s Day, with Wonderland-worthy events.
The Eagle and Child pub has a long history, but its connection with The Inklings stands out. The Inklings, a group of university professors who counted JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis among their ranks, met here every week. Grab the table where the authors once sat – it’s rightly the most popular seat in the place – and pore over the pub’s photos, drawings and other mementoes as you sip your pint.