Staycation: Holidays At Home
Between them, Bristol, Bath and Somerset form a very British Christmas road trip. Winter days feed into log-fire nights. Urban art spaces and light-strung street markets give way to oak and ash woodland. Bristol’s defiant, Brunel-meets-Banksy cultural energy leads eventually to the swelling green countryside around Wells, while Bath – hot springs, honeyed architecture and all – provides a fitting transition point between the two.
All three are valid destinations for a break in their own right, but when taken together they grant a fuller picture of one of the UK’s most multi-layered regions. This is a part of England that, for centuries now, has married the 24-hour pulse of the city with the rawness of the South West’s outdoors. Drive through the region with Avis Car Hire during the holiday season and these contrasts are only heightened.
Ben Lerwill is a freelance travel writer based in Oxfordshire. His work has appeared in more than 50 publications, including National Geographic Traveller, The Times, The Independent, Wanderlust, BBC Countryfile and Time Out.
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Start In: Bristol
Revamped? Tick. Dynamic? Hugely. Awash with music, street art and a glut of other forms of creativity? Flooded. These days, the South West’s largest city stands as one of the most original in the country. Its past might have been moulded by the powers of industry and the profits of the colonial era – infamously, many of its graceful public buildings were funded by the slave trade – but today’s Bristol has become defined by fresh, often edgy innovation.
For visitors to the city, presented with genuinely exciting restaurants and a pacy, something-for-everyone cultural scene, this is welcome news. One great example of a modern Bristol attraction is M Shed, a cutting-edge museum that opened next to the Floating Harbour in 2011. It showcases a web of different exhibits that focus on the life and times of the city – they’re heart-rending at times and uplifting at others.
…today’s Bristol has become defined by fresh, often edgy innovation.
Visiting a rambling, vibrant city like Bristol over winter can take any number of forms. If you’re with kids, head to the ice rink at the At-Bristol Planetarium. If you’re after inventive cooking, try the seasonal menu at the remarkable Tube Diner, a restaurant set within two converted retro Airstream trailers; or if maritime history’s your thing, before you move on to Bath, steer a course for Brunel’s Atlantic-conquering SS Great Britain, “the ship that changed the world”.
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Drive To: Bath
Bristol and Bath might boast proximity on the map, but they can’t claim matching personalities. Think of Bath and various clichés hop politely to mind. The works of Jane Austen. Grand Georgian architecture strung around hushed crescents. Tea rooms. Upper-class bathhouses puffing with hot steam. The good news for those in search of a little Regency-era glam is that Bath still resolutely gives opportunity to indulge in the pleasures of bygone days.
It’s also a busy, swirling 21st-century city, of course. And rarely more so than at Christmas, when more than 170 wooden chalets line the streets between the Abbey and the Roman Baths. You’ll find everything from Somerset lavender and Moroccan lanterns to winter chutneys and organic bamboo T-shirts – which assortment rather neatly sums up the city’s blend of the traditional and the borrowed.
Does Bath’s hill-ringed, lantern-lit setting still give off a healthy sprinkling of festive magic? It does. Tourists of one form or another have been coming here for somewhere in the region of two millennia, and they show no sign of slowing. Our tip? Make the winter walk up to panoramic Alexandra Park, then treat yourself to scones and tea at The Pump Room once you’re back down. It’s Christmas, after all.
…those in search of a little Regency-era glam is that Bath still resolutely gives opportunity to indulge in the pleasures of bygone days.
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End Up In: Somerset
Journey over Somerset’s wooded Mendip Hills from Bath and you’ll encounter the pretty cathedral city of Wells. It has a pair of interesting claims to fame: it’s the smallest city in England and hosts the largest illuminated carnival in the world (next being held in November 2015). It’s no Bath (too small) and certainly no Bristol (too genteel), but it’s somewhere with all the medieval trimmings and a lively approach to the season of goodwill. Depending on when exactly you’re making the road trip, you might catch anything from carollers and craft fairs to live bands and reindeer parades.
Just as enticingly, it’s also a natural base for exploring the Somerset countryside nearby. Glastonbury, Cheddar Gorge and the limestone caverns of Wookey Hole are all short drives away. Best known for being the legendary domain of the cantankerous Witch of Wookey, the caves are playing home to a rather more endearing figure until Christmas Eve: namely Santa himself.
Close by, there’s the chance to witness the county’s most compelling natural sight. It’s another seasonal spectacle – at this time of year, starlings converge in their hundreds of thousands on the Somerset Levels. And if you’re lucky enough to see their pre-roosting murmurations in the early evenings, when great dark balls of birds morph and swing in the sky, it’s not a visual you’ll forget in a hurry. The RSPB reserve at Ham Wall is one of the best spots to head to.
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