The Great West Way is a new touring route between London and Bristol, being promoted by a marketing initiative undertaken as one of the projects supported from the government’s Discover England fund.
The historic route, once defined by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway line and the A4 road, now a lot quieter since the construction of the M4 motorway, covers a 125-mile journey featuring a huge variety of cultural attractions to explore. They include the upper Thames, Berkshire Downland, the ancient site of Stonehenge, the cathedral city of Salisbury, a range of heritage properties and a dozen delightful and varied smaller towns, each with their own unique charm and history.
Discover Britain’s Towns takes a look at some of the places en route, and introduces you to the wider Great West Way concept.
Marlow Bridge is a Grade 1-listed building. It is an elegant feature of this Georgian market town. A bridge has been on the site since the sixteenth century, but it was partly destroyed in 1642 during the English Civil War. The bridge as it currently stands was built between 1829-1832, and was designed by William Tierney-Clark.
Sir Steve Redgrave went to school in Marlow, with the Redgrave Sports Centre named in his honour. The Queen unveiled a statue of Sir Steve in 2002.
Filming of much of the popular television programme Midsomer Murders took place here. Visitors can follow a 17-mile self-guided trail to explore these locations – with stunning scenery and relaxing walking routes.
Swan upping takes place in Marlow each July. This traditional Swan census ceremony has been going since the 12th century. The Royal Swan Uppers catch, mark and release mute swans, which forms an important part of their conservation.
Newbury is a small town that has lots to visit! It is most famous for its racecourse, which is over 100 years old. But there is plenty more to explore.
Filming for Downton Abbey takes place at Highclere Castle. The castle has a long history: it was built on the foundations of a Medieval palace, and was recorded in the Domesday Book. The drafting of the Parliamentary Act that led to the founding of Canada occurred at Highclere. Now, the Castle holds a range of events all-year round.
Corn Exchange Newbury was a hub of corn trading. It became used for public meetings since the decline in industry. In 1993 it reopened as an arts centre – with a diverse and community-oriented programme.
Newbury is also rife with rural getaways. People can walk, cycle and even ride horses on the North Wessex Downs, which span 700 square miles of remote chalk downland.
Earley is rich in history. Relics from around 35,000 years ago have been discovered – such as hand axes. Archaeologists have also found evidence of human presence throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, as well as Roman remains that were found in a building site.
Earley’s nature reserve is home to Maiden Erlegh Lake. It is believed that the lake was created by damming the area, for the formation of fishponds. Ancient woodland and a large range of wildlife can also be found in the nature reserve.
The town developed into a modern urban area in the 20th century. Despite that, it contains a number of buildings recognised by English Heritage as being of historic or architectural interest. Some are put to modern use. Sindlesham Mill (built in the 19th century) is now a restaurant, and the University of Reading’s Law School was built in 1868.
Theale is an interesting representation of the way transport has changed over the last few centuries. Stagecoaches began running through Theale after the English Civil War ended (routes from London to Bath and Bristol). The route developed into a significant means of trade and transportation: Bath Road. Numerous coach inns sprang up in Theale as a result – some of which still trade as pubs today.
The Kennet and Avon Canal opened in 1723. It became a full-length canal in 1810. The Canal opened a major source of local industry in Theale – in the form of gravel extraction.
Heale Railway Station began operating in 1847. It led to the collapse of the coach trade, and later saw the canal being sold to the railway (ruining the local economy). It re-emerged as a recreational waterway in 2011, and the railway station is currently being rebuilt.
Increased use of the road came about with the rise of the motor car, and the M4 motorway opened in 1971. This brought major developments to Theale, as well as new conservation areas.
Lambourn is the second largest centre for racehorse training in England. The Earl of Craven initiated regular race meetings in the 1840s, held on the Lambourn Downs. With the arrival of modern means of transport (Lambourn Valley Railway was built in 1898), more options were available to travel and attend meetings elsewhere. This allowed racing in Lambourn to grow in reputation. Today, the Lambourn Trainers Association offer tours of the stables.
Ashdown House is a remarkable site on the Berkshire Downs. Earl William Craven commissioned its build (with its Dutch-style, doll’s house-like appearance) in 1662. Contemporaneous visitors can see a lace maker at work, and woodland craft demonstrations.
Lacock is one of England’s oldest villages. The Countess of Salisbury founded Lacock Abbey nine hundred years ago, which led to Lacock’s development.
Matilda Talbot bequeathed the family Lacock estate, and many houses to the National Trust in 1944.
There are many things to see in Lacock – including the Fox Talbot Museum. William Henry Fox Talbot (a pioneer of photography) created the earliest surviving photographic negative in the Abbey, in 1835. The museum guides visitors through the history of photography.
The high street is stocked with interesting shops. For example, The Oak and Pine Emporium provide high quality made-to-measure furniture, and Quintessentially English sell homemade organic soap and toiletries.
Corsham contains a number of historic buildings, and is surrounded by beautiful countryside. A notable country house is Corsham Court – which was built in the 16thcentury and designed by Capability Brown in the 18thcentury. It contains a picture gallery of his work today.
Since the First World War, the Ministry of Defence has operated a number of defence sites in the Corsham area. Some are formed from historic Bath Stone quarries, and are located underground.
The high street consists of striking Georgian buildings, and is full of independent shops. Every Tuesday the market sells locally sourced products from a variety of stalls.
The Pound is an arts centre funded by the Arts Council and Corsham & Wiltshire Councils. It has a cinema, curates visual arts exhibitions, and also programmes live theatre, music and comedy events.
For more information visit the website for the Great West Way initiative