The West Country incorporates the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. Gloucestershire and Wiltshire sit right on its top most border and are often included in its geographical area. It is an area famed for its beautiful scenery, Royal connections and naval history; but, the West Country’s history goes much deeper and is far darker than its sandy beaches and rolling moorland. It is a history that is full of pirates, smugglers and wreckers; of witches, ghosts and otherworldly beasts. To appreciate England’s West Country fully, you need to disband your belief in what is possible and look again at what is plausible.
Here Be Pirates
The West Country was home to some of the most notorious pirates in history, the most infamous being Edward Teach. Teach is believed to have been born in Bristol and was the Captain of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Teach, who is better known as Black Beard, is likely to have begun his career as a British Privateer attacking French and Spanish ships at times when they were considered to be the enemies of England. When there was no longer a need for his services, Teach went into business for himself and built a reputation for ruthlessness; he would go into battle with lit fuses in his beard and at over six foot tall he towered over those he sought to relieve of their worldly goods.
Beware the Smugglers
Cornwall was rife with smugglers in the 1700s; smuggling was often the principal means of employment in poverty stricken areas. Penzance, Polperro, Falmouth, and Looe were key landing points, where the customer officers were known, to turn a blind eye; especially if the bribe would be of the right size. Many taverns or ale houses would have had hidden rooms and back doors for a quick exit when an over officious customers office or soldier paid them a call. One of the most famous is the Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor; the Inn still trades as a public house and also contains a museum dedicated to the art of smuggling.
The West Country is an area with a foot in both this world and a very different one; a visit to the Boscastle Witchcraft Museum will quickly confirm the other worldly nature of the area. There are several shrines and sacred places throughout the area which are still used by practitioners today.
The West Country was also the scene of the last execution for witchcraft in England. In 1682 three women; Temperance Lloyd, Susanna Edwards and Mary Trembles, who were all from Bideford, were tried and found guilty of witchcraft. They were hung at Heavitree, just outside of Exeter.
Bumps in the Night
The ghosts and spirits of the West Country range from those of Legendary Kings to haunted pools. The Jamaica Inn is believed to be one of the most haunted places in the country and regularly hosts paranormal experts and ghost hunts. One of the area’s most famous ghosts is that of Sir Francis Drake; he has been seen riding the moors at night seeking the souls of the unbaptized or unwary traveler. He has been seen riding through Wistman’s Woods riding with the devil and the hounds from hell. The spooky stories surrounding Drake don’t stop there; at Buckland Abbey sits Drake’s Drum which is said to beat by itself in times of peril. It was heard to sound out at the times of both world wars.
Mythical Creatures Abound
The folklore and myths of the West Country are steeped in pixies and faerie folk. They bring gifts to those who welcome them and look after the elements. They are believed to be able to captivate humans who come across their faerie rings and keep them entranced there until they are rescued by a friend who keeps one foot firmly planted outside the faerie circle.
St Michael’s Mount is the mythical home of the giant Cormonam; he would go to the mainland to steal sheep and cows to feed his large appetite until a local boy managed to lure the giant into a hole where some believe he remains to this day.
Visiting the West Country
No visit to the West Country would be complete without spending time hiking across Dartmoor. The views from the many Tors are simply stunning, and it is a good opportunity to get close to wildlife. The weather conditions on the moor can change very quickly, and the moor should not be attempted if you are unwell. Having a pre-existing medical condition should not deter you from hiking on the moors but it is a good idea to go out in a group and to ensure that someone in the group is aware of your condition, any medication or treatment you may need and details of your travel insurance.
Note: Having a pre-existing condition can make sourcing travel insurance difficult and expensive. Spend time, well in advance of your trip, comparing the best prices for the cover you need and make sure that you read the small print before you make a decision.
Once your insurance is checked, and your visas are in place all that is left to do is plan your trip around the West Country and try and fit in as much of the history, myth, legend and culture as possible.
This was a guest post by Evelyn Burnett, an avid globetrotter who has slept everywhere from luxury castles to random couches. As a writer, she continues to cover travel topics as diverse as the nuances of scuba diving photography to best practices on traveling if you are unwell.
P.S. You can find a great place to stay in England’s West Country on Tripping!
Photo 1 via morgueFile by alanmort
Photo 2 via morgueFile by pobblepop