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South West England
South West England, highlighted in red on a beige political map of England
South West England region in England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Country England
Status Region
 • Total 9,200 sq mi (23,800 km2)
Area rank 1st
 • Total 5,289,000
 • Rank 6th of 9
 • Density 575.6/sq mi (222.2/km2)
 • Total £113 billion
 • Per capita £18,195 (4th)
ONS code E12000009

South West England is one of nine official regions of England. It is the largest in area, covering 9,200 square miles (23,800 km2) and the counties of Gloucestershire, Bristol, Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, as well as the Isles of Scilly. Five million people live in South West England.

The region includes the West Country and much of the ancient kingdom of Wessex. The largest city is Bristol. Other major urban centres include Plymouth, Swindon, Gloucester, Cheltenham, Exeter, Bath, Torbay, and the South East Dorset conurbation (which includes Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch). There are eight cities: Salisbury, Bath, Wells, Bristol, Gloucester, Exeter, Plymouth and Truro. It includes two entire national parks, Dartmoor and Exmoor (a small part of the New Forest is also within the region); and four World Heritage Sites, including Stonehenge and the Jurassic Coast. The northern part of Gloucestershire, near Chipping Campden, is as close to the Scottish border as it is to the tip of Cornwall. The region has by far the longest coastline in England and many seaside fishing towns.

The region is at the first-level of NUTS for Eurostat purposes. Key data and facts about the region are produced by the South West Observatory. Following the abolition of the South West Regional Assembly and Government Office, local government co-ordination across the region is now undertaken by South West Councils.

The region is known for its rich folklore, including the legend of King Arthur and Glastonbury Tor, as well as its traditions and customs. Cornwall has its own language, Cornish, and some regard it as a Celtic nation. The South West of England is known for Cheddar cheese, which originated in the Somerset village of Cheddar, Devon cream teas, crabs, Cornish pasties, and cider. It is also home to the Eden Project, Aardman Animations, the Glastonbury Festival, the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, trip hop music and Cornwall's surfing beaches. The region has also been home to some of Britain's most renowned writers, including Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie, both of whom set many of their works here, and the South West is also the location of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, the setting for many of his best-known novels.


High Willhays
High Willhays on Dartmoor, Devon, the region's highest point.

Geology and landscape

Most of the region is located on the South West Peninsula, between the English Channel and Bristol Channel. It has the longest coastline of all the English regions, totalling over 700 miles (1,130 km). Much of the coast is now protected from further substantial development because of its environmental importance, which contributes to the region’s attractiveness to tourists and residents.

Geologically the region is divided into the largely igneous and metamorphic west and sedimentary east, the dividing line slightly to the west of the River Exe. Cornwall and West Devon's landscape is of rocky coastline and high moorland, notably at Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor. These are due to the granite and slate that underlie the area. The highest point of the region is High Willhays, at 2,038 feet (621 m), on Dartmoor. In North Devon the slates of the west and limestones of the east meet at Exmoor National Park. The variety of rocks of similar ages seen here have led to the county's name being lent to that of the Devonian period.

The east of the region is characterised by wide, flat clay vales and chalk and limestone downland. The vales, with good irrigation, are home to the region's dairy agriculture. The Blackmore Vale was Thomas Hardy's "Vale of the Little Dairies"; another, the Somerset Levels was created by reclaiming wetlands. The Southern England Chalk Formation extends into the region, creating a series of high, sparsely populated and archaeologically rich downs, most famously Salisbury Plain, but also Cranborne Chase, the Dorset Downs and the Purbeck Hills. These downs are the principal area of arable agriculture in the region. Limestone is also found in the region, at the Cotswolds, Quantock Hills and Mendip Hills, where they support sheep farming. All of the principal rock types can be seen on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset and East Devon, where they document the entire Mesozoic era from west to east.


The climate of South West England is classed as oceanic (Cfb) according to the Köppen climate classification. The oceanic climate typically experiences cool winters with warmer summers and precipitation all year round, with more experienced in winter. Annual rainfall is about 1,000 millimetres (39 in) and up to 2,000 millimetres (79 in) on higher ground. Summer maxima averages range from 18 °C (64 °F) to 22 °C (72 °F) and winter minimum averages range from 1 °C (34 °F) to 4 °C (39 °F) across the south-west. It is the second windiest area of the United Kingdom, the majority of winds coming from the south-west and north-east. Government organisations predict the region to rise in temperature and become the hottest region in the United Kingdom.

Inland areas of low altitude experience the least amount of precipitation. They experience the highest summer maxima temperatures, but winter minima are colder than the coast. Snowfalls are more frequent in comparison to the coast, but less so in comparison to higher ground. It experiences the lowest wind speeds and sunshine total in between that of the coast and the moors. The climate of inland areas is more noticeable the further north-east into the region.

In comparison to inland areas, the coast experiences high minimum temperatures, especially in winter, and it experiences slightly lower maximum temperatures during the summer. Rainfall is the lowest at the coast and snowfall is rarer than the rest of the region. Coastal areas are the windiest parts of the peninsula and they receive the most sunshine. The general coastal climate is more typical the further south-west into the region.

Areas of moorland inland such as: Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor and Exmoor experience lower temperatures and more precipitation than the rest of the south west (approximately twice as much rainfall as lowland areas), because of their high altitude. Both of these factors also cause it to experience the highest levels of snowfall and the lowest levels of sunshine. Exposed areas of the moors are windier than lowlands and can be almost as windy as the coast.

Regional identity

The boundaries of the South West region are based upon those devised by central government in the 1930s for civil defence administration, and subsequently used for various statistical analyses. The region is also similar to that used in the 17th-century Rule of the Major-Generals under Cromwell. (For further information, see Historical and alternative regions of England). By the 1960s, the South West region (including Dorset, which for some previous purposes had been included in a Southern region), was widely recognised for government administration and statistics. The boundaries were carried forward into the 1990s, when regional administrations were formally established as Government Office Regions. A regional assembly and regional development agency were created in 1999, then abolished in 2008 and 2012 respectively.

It has been argued that the official South West region does not possess a cultural and historic unity or identity of itself, which has led to criticism of it as an "artificial" construct. The large area of the region, stretching as it does from the Isles of Scilly to Gloucestershire, encompasses diverse areas which have little more in common with each other than they do with other areas of England. The region has several TV stations and newspapers based in different areas, and no single acknowledged regional "capital". Many people of the region have some level of a 'South West', or 'West Country' regional identity, although this may not necessarily correspond to an identification with the official government-defined region. It is common for people in the region to identify at a national level (whether English, British, Cornish, and/or a county or city/town level). Identifying as being from 'the Westcountry', amorphous though it is, tends to be more predominant further into the peninsula where the status of being from the region is less equivocal.

In particular, Cornwall's inclusion in the region is disputed by Cornish nationalists. The cross-party Cornish Constitutional Convention and Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow have campaigned for a Cornish Assembly ever since the idea of regional devolution was put forward.


Pulteney Bridge, Bath 2
Pulteney Bridge in Bath, Somerset: the entire city is a World Heritage Site.

The South West region is largely rural, with small towns and villages; a higher proportion of people live in such areas than in any other English region. The largest cities and towns are Bristol, Plymouth, Bournemouth and Poole (which together with Christchurch make up the South East Dorset conurbation), Swindon, Torbay, Gloucester, Cheltenham, Exeter, Bath, Weston-super-Mare, Salisbury, Taunton and Weymouth. The population of the South West is about five million.


The region lies on several main line railways. The Great Western Main Line runs from London to Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance in the far west of Cornwall. The South Western Main Line runs from London and Southampton to Bournemouth, Poole and Weymouth in Dorset. The West of England Main Line runs from London to Exeter via south Wiltshire, north Dorset and south Somerset. The Wessex Main Line runs from Bristol to Salisbury and on to Southampton. The Heart of Wessex Line runs from Bristol in the north of the region to Weymouth on the south Dorset coast via Westbury, Castle Cary and Yeovil, with most services starting at Gloucester.

The vast majority of trains in the region are operated by South West Trains, Great Western Railway and CrossCountry. GWR is the key operator for all counties in the region except Dorset and Hampshire (the key operator for Dorset and Hampshire is South West Trains). South West Trains operate services to and from London Waterloo and serves every county in the region except Gloucestershire and Cornwall (they no longer operate west of Exeter as of 2009). First Great Western serves all counties in the region and operate diesel high-speed trains to various destinations, some of which run to South Wales and the West Midlands, though almost all intercity trains operated by GWR run through the region. CrossCountry operates services to Manchester Piccadilly and the Scottish Lowlands. Dorset is currently the only county in the region where there are electric trains, though there are official plans to electrify the Great Western Main Line and the South Wales Main Line in Wiltshire, Somerset, Greater Bristol and Gloucestershire. Arriva Trains Wales also operates services between Maesteg and Cheltenham Spa and London Midland operates a parliamentary train between Worcester Shrub Hill and Gloucester (there was once a regular service on the route, but this was withdrawn in 2009).

The Exeter to Plymouth railway of the LSWR needs to be reopened to connect Cornwall and Plymouth to the rest of the UK railway system on an all weather basis. There are proposals to reopen the line from Tavistock to Bere Alston for a through service to Plymouth. On the night of 4 February 2014, amid high winds and extremely rough seas, part of the sea wall at Dawlish was breached washing away around 40 metres (130 ft) of the wall and the ballast under the railway immediately behind. The line was closed. Network Rail began repair work and the line reopened on 4 April 2014. In the wake of widespread disruption caused by damage to the mainline track at Dawlish by coastal storms in February 2014, Network Rail are considering reopening the Tavistock to Okehampton and Exeter section of the line as an alternative to the coastal route.

M5 - - 238980
M5 looking north towards Avonmouth

Three major roads enter the region from the east. The M4 motorway from London to South Wales via Bristol is the busiest. The A303 cuts through the centre of the region from Salisbury to Honiton, where it merges with the A30 to continue past Exeter to the west of Cornwall. The A31, an extension of the M27, serves Poole and Bournemouth and the Dorset coast. The M5 runs from the West Midlands through Gloucestershire, Bristol and Somerset to Exeter. The A38 serves as a western extension to Plymouth. There are three other smaller motorways in the region, all in the Bristol area.

Passenger airports in the region include Bristol, Exeter, Newquay and Bournemouth.

Within the region the local transport authorities carry out transport planning through the use of a Local Transport Plan (LTP) which outlines their strategies, policies and implementation programme. The most recent LTP is that for the period 2006–11. In the South West region the following transport authorities have published their LTP online: Bournemouth U.A., Cornwall U.A., Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Plymouth U.A., Somerset, Swindon U. A., Torbay U. A. and Wiltshire unitary authority. The transport authorities of Bath and North East Somerset U. A., Bristol U. A., North Somerset U. A. and South Gloucestershire U. A. publish a single Joint Local Transport Plan as part of the West of England Partnership.



There is evidence from flint artefacts in a quarry at Westbury-sub-Mendip that an ancestor of modern man, possibly Homo heidelbergensis, was present in the future Somerset from around 500,000 years ago. There is some evidence of human occupation of southern England before the last ice age, such as at Kents Cavern in Devon, but largely in the south east. The British mainland was connected to the continent during the ice age and humans may have repeatedly migrated into and out of the region as the climate fluctuated. There is evidence of human habitation in the caves at Cheddar Gorge 11,000–10,000 years BC, during a partial thaw in the ice age. The earliest scientifically dated cemetery in Great Britain was found at Aveline's Hole in the Mendip Hills. The human bone fragments it contained, from about 21 different individuals, are thought to be roughly between 10,200 and 10,400 years old. During this time the tundra gave way to birch forests and grassland and evidence for human settlement appears at Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire and Hengistbury Head, Dorset.

At the end of the last Ice Age the Bristol Channel was dry land, but subsequently the sea level rose, resulting in major coastal changes. The Somerset Levels were flooded, but the dry points such as Glastonbury and Brent Knoll are known to have been occupied by Mesolithic hunters. The landscape at this time was tundra. Britain's oldest complete skeleton, Cheddar Man, lived at Cheddar Gorge around 7150 BC (in the Upper Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age), shortly after the end of the ice age; however, it is unclear whether the region was continuously inhabited during the previous 4000 years, or if humans returned to the gorge after a final cold spell. A Palaeolithic flint tool found in West Sedgemoor is the earliest indication of human presence on the Somerset Levels. During the 7th millennium BC the sea level rose and flooded the valleys, so the Mesolithic people occupied seasonal camps on the higher ground, indicated by scatters of flints. The Neolithic people continued to exploit the reed swamps for their natural resources and started to construct wooden trackways. These included the Post Track and the Sweet Track. The Sweet Track, dating from the 39th century BC, is thought to be the world's oldest timber trackway and was once thought to be the world's oldest engineered roadway. The Levels were also the location of the Glastonbury Lake Village as well as two lake villages at Meare. Stonehenge and Avebury are perhaps the most famous Neolithic sites in the UK.

The region was heavily populated during the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age periods. Many monuments, barrows and trackways exist. Coin evidence shows that the region was split between the Durotriges, Dobunni and Dumnonii. The Iron Age tribe in Dorset were the Durotriges, "water dwellers", whose main settlement is represented by Maiden Castle. Ptolemy stated that Bath was in the territory of the Belgae, but this may be a mistake. The Celtic gods were worshipped at the temple of Sulis at Bath and possibly the temple on Brean Down. Iron Age sites on the Quantock Hills include major hill forts at Dowsborough and Ruborough, as well as smaller earthwork enclosures, such as Trendle Ring, Elworthy Barrows and Plainsfield Camp.

At the time of the Roman invasion, the inhabitants of the entire area spoke a Brythonic Celtic language. Its descendant languages are still spoken to a greater or lesser extent in Cornwall, Wales, and Brittany.

Roman period

Silbury Hill - - 776
Silbury Hill – Europe's largest man-made earthwork

During the Roman era, the east of the region, particularly the Cotswolds and eastern Somerset, was heavily Romanised but Devon and Cornwall were much less so, though Exeter was a regional capital. There are villas, farms and temples dating from the period, including the remains at Bath.

The area of Somerset was part of the Roman Empire from AD 47 to about AD 409. The empire disintegrated gradually, and elements of Romanitas lingered on for perhaps a century. In AD 47, Somerset was invaded from the south-east by the Second Legion Augusta, under the future emperor Vespasian. The hillforts of the Durotriges at Ham Hill and Cadbury Castle were captured. Ham Hill probably had a temporary Roman occupation. The massacre at Cadbury Castle seems to have been associated with the later Boudiccan Revolt of AD 60–61.

Roman Baths c1900 2
A 19th-century Photochrom of the Roman Baths in Bath, Somerset

The Roman invasion, and possibly the preceding period of involvement in the internal affairs of the south of England, was inspired in part by the lead mines of the Mendip Hills, which also offered the potential for the extraction of silver. Forts were set up at Bath and Ilchester. The lead and silver mines at Charterhouse in the Mendip Hills were run by the military. The Romans established a defensive boundary along the new military road known the Fosse Way (from the Latin fossa meaning "ditch"). The Fosse Way ran through Bath, Shepton Mallet, Ilchester and south-west towards Axminster. The road from Dorchester ran through Yeovil to meet the Fosse Way at Ilchester. Salt was produced on the Somerset Levels near Highbridge and quarrying took place near Bath, named after the Roman baths.

Excavations carried out before the flooding of Chew Valley Lake also uncovered Roman remains, indicating agricultural and industrial activity from the second half of the 1st century until the 3rd century AD. The finds included a moderately large villa at Chew Park, where wooden writing tablets (the first in the UK) with ink writing were found. There is also evidence from the Pagans Hill Roman Temple at Chew Stoke. In October 2001 the West Bagborough Hoard of 4th-century Roman silver was discovered in West Bagborough. The 681 coins included two denarii from the early 2nd century and 8 miliarensia and 671 siliquae all dating from AD 337 to 367. The majority were struck in the reigns of emperors Constantius II and Julian and derive from a range of mints including Arles and Lyons in France, Trier in Germany, and Rome. In April 2010, the Frome Hoard, one of the largest ever hoards of Roman coins discovered in Britain, was found by a metal detectorist. The hoard of 52,500 coins dated from the 3rd century AD and was found buried in a field near Frome, in a jar 14 inches (36 cm) below the surface. The coins were excavated by archaeologists from the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

British kingdoms and the arrival of the Saxons

Maes Knoll Tump
Maes Knoll the western end of Wansdyke

After the Romans left at the start of the 5th century AD, the region split into several British kingdoms, including Dumnonia, centred around the old tribal territory of the Dumnonii. The upper Thames area soon came under Anglo-Saxon control but the remainder of the region was in British control until the 6th century. Bokerley Dyke, a large defensive ditch on Cranborne Chase dated to 367, delayed the Saxon conquest of Dorset, with the Romano-British remaining in Dorset for 200 years after the withdrawal of the Roman legions. The Western Wandsdyke earthwork was probably built during the 5th or 6th century. This area became the border between the Romano-British Celts and the West Saxons following the Battle of Deorham in 577. The Anglo-Saxons then gained control of the Cotswold area; but most of Somerset, Dorset and Devon (as well as Cornwall) remained in British hands until the late 7th century. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Saxon Cenwalh achieved a breakthrough against the British Celtic tribes, with victories at Bradford-on-Avon (in the Avon Gap in the Wansdyke) in 652, and further south at the Battle of Peonnum (at Penselwood) in 658, followed by an advance west through the Polden Hills to the River Parrett. The Saxon advance from the east seems to have been halted by battles between the British and Saxons, for example at the siege of Badon Mons Badonicus (which may mave been in the Bath district, perhaps at Solsbury Hill), or Bathampton Down. The Battle of Bedwyn was fought in 675 between Escuin, a West Saxon nobleman who had seized the throne of Queen Saxburga, and King Wulfhere of Mercia. The earliest fortification of Taunton started for King Ine of Wessex and Æthelburg, in or about the year 710. However, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle this was destroyed 12 years later. Alfred the Great refortified Exeter as a defensive burh, followed by new erections at Lydford, Halwell and Pilton, although these fortifications were small compared to burhs further east, suggesting that they were protection for the elite only.

9th century and the arrival of the Danes

The English defeated a combined Cornish and Danish force at Hingston Down (near Gunnislake) in 838. Edward the Elder built similarly at Barnstaple and Totnes. But sporadic Viking incursions continued until the Norman Conquest, including the disastrous defeat of the Devonians at the Battle of Pinhoe. In 876 King Alfred the Great trapped a Danish fleet at Arne and then drove it out; 120 ships were wrecked at Studland. Although King Alfred had lands in Cornwall, it continued to have a British king. It is generally considered that Cornwall came fully under the dominion of the English Crown in the time of Athelstan's rule, i.e. 924–939. In the absence of any specific documentation to record this event, supporters of Cornwall's English status presume that it then became part of England. However, in 944, within a mere five years of Athelstan's death, King Edmund issued a charter styling himself "King of the English and ruler of this province of the Britons". Thus we can see that then the "province" was a territorial possession, which has long claimed a special relationship to the English Crown.

Corfe Castle in 978 saw the murder of King Edward the Martyr, whose body was taken first to Wareham and then to Shaftesbury. Somerset played an important part in stopping the spread of the Danes in the 9th century. Viking raids took place for instance in 987 and 997 at Watchet and the Battle of Cynwit.

King Alfred was driven to seek refuge from the Danes at Athelney before defeating them in 878 at the Battle of Ethandun, usually considered to be near Edington, Wiltshire, but possibly the village of Edington in Somerset. Alfred established a series of forts and lookout posts linked by a military road, or Herepath, to allow his army to cover Viking movements at sea. The Herepath has a characteristic form which is familiar on the Quantocks: a regulation 20 m wide track between avenues of trees growing from hedge laying embankments. A peace treaty with the Danes was signed at Wedmore and the Danish king Guthrum the Old was baptised at Aller. Burhs (fortified places) had been set up by 919, such as Lyng. The Alfred Jewel, an object about 2.5-inch (64 mm) long, made of filigree gold, cloisonné-enamelled and with a rock crystal covering, was found in 1693 at Petherton Park, North Petherton. This is believed to have been owned by King Alfred. Monasteries and minster churches were set up all over Somerset, with daughter churches of the minsters in manors. There was a royal palace at Cheddar, which was used at times in the 10th century to host the Witenagemot.

11th century

In the late pre-Norman period, the east coast of modern-day England came increasingly under the sway of the Norsemen. Eventually England came to be ruled by Norse monarchs, and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell one by one, Wessex being conquered in 1013 by King Sweyn Forkbeard. Sweyn's realms included Denmark and Norway, and parts of England such as Mercia (an Anglian kingdom roughly coinciding with the English Midlands), much of which, along with northern England, fell under the Danelaw. Sweyn ruled Wessex, along with his other realms, from 1013 onwards, followed by his son Canute the Great. But Cornwall was not part of his realm of Wessex. A map by the American historian called "The Dominions of Canute" (pictured just above) shows that Cornwall, like Wales and Scotland, was part neither of Sweyn Forkbeard's nor of Canute's Danish empire. Neither Sweyn Forkbeard nor Canute conquered or controlled Scotland, Wales or Cornwall; but these areas were "client nations": subject to payment of a yearly tribute or danegeld to Sweyn and later Canute, all three areas retained their autonomy from the Danes. Ultimately, the Danes lost control of Wessex in 1042 on the death of both of Canute's sons. Edward the Confessor retook Wessex for the Saxons. In 1016 Edmund Ironside was crowned king at Glastonbury.

Middle Ages

Plymouth Drake
The statue of Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596) on Plymouth Hoe

After the Norman Conquest the region was controlled by various Norman as well as Breton lords and later by local gentry, a few of whom appear to have been descended from pre-Conquest families. In 1140, during the civil war of King Stephen's reign, the castles of Plympton and Exeter were held against the king by Baldwin de Redvers and this gave rise to the defensive castles at Corfe Castle, Powerstock, Wareham and Shaftesbury. The period saw the growth of towns such as Truro, Totnes, Okehampton and Plympton in the west of the region, but these were small compared with the established wealth of ancient cathedral cities in the east of the region such as Exeter, Bath and Wells. Wealth grew from sheep farming in the east of the region: church controlled estates such as Glastonbury Abbey and Wells became among the richest in England, while tin and silver mining was important in Devon and Cornwall; Stannary Parliaments with semi-autonomous powers were established. Farming prospered until it was severely hit by the Black Death which arrived in Dorset in 1348 and quickly spread through Somerset, causing widespread death, with mortality rates perhaps as high as 50% in places. The resulting labour shortage led to changes in feudal practices. Crafts and industries also flourished; the Somerset woollen industry was then one of the largest in England. Coal mining in the Mendips was an important source of wealth while quarrying also took place.

Many parish churches were rebuilt in this period. Between 1107 and 1129 William Giffard, the Chancellor of King Henry I, converted the bishop's hall in Taunton into Taunton Castle. His successor, Henry of Blois, transformed the manor house here into a mighty castle in 1138. Bridgwater Castle was built in 1202 by William Brewer. It passed to the king in 1233 and in 1245 repairs were ordered to its motte and towers. During the 11th-century Second Barons' War against Henry III, Bridgwater was held by the barons against the King. During the Middle Ages sheep farming for the wool trade came to dominate the economy of Exmoor. The wool was spun into thread on isolated farms and collected by merchants to be woven, fulled, dyed and finished in thriving towns such as Dunster. The land started to be enclosed and from the 17th century onwards larger estates developed, leading to establishment of areas of large regular shaped fields. During this period a Royal Forest and hunting ground was established, administered by the Warden. The Royal Forest was sold off in 1818.

Fowey - - 2745
Fowey harbour

Where conditions were suitable, coastal villages and ports had an economy based on fishing. The larger ports such as Fowey contributed vessels to the naval enterprises of the King and were subject to attack from the French in return. Bridgwater was part of the Port of Bristol until the Port of Bridgwater was created in 1348, covering 80 miles (130 km) of the Somerset coast line, from the Devon border to the mouth of the River Axe. Historically, the main port on the river was at Bridgwater; the river being bridged at this point, with the first bridge being constructed in 1200. Quays were built in 1424; with another quay, the Langport slip, being built in 1488 upstream of the Town Bridge. In Bristol the port began to develop in the 11th century. By the 12th century Bristol was an important port, handling much of England's trade with Ireland. During this period Bristol also became a centre of shipbuilding and manufacturing. Bristol was the starting point for many important voyages, notably John Cabot's 1497 voyage of exploration to North America. By the 14th century Bristol was one of England's three largest medieval towns after London, along with York and Norwich, with perhaps 15,000–20,000 inhabitants on the eve of the Black Death of 1348–49. The plague resulted in a prolonged pause in the growth of Bristol's population, with numbers remaining at 10,000–12,000 through most of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Perkin Warbeck
Perkin Warbeck

During the Wars of the Roses, there were frequent skirmishes between the Lancastrian Earl of Devon and Yorkist Lord Bonville. In 1470, Edward IV pursued Warwick and Clarence as far as Exeter after the Battle of Lose-coat Field. The organisation of the region remained based on the shires and Church estates, which were largely unchanged throughout the period. In 1497, early in Henry VII's reign, the Royal pretender Perkin Warbeck, besieged Exeter. The Cornish Rebellion of 1497 led by An Gof and Thomas Flamank ended in a march to Blackheath in London where the Cornish forces were massacred.

16th century

Great disturbances throughout both Cornwall and Devon followed the introduction of Edward VI's Book of Common Prayer. The day after Whit Sunday 1549, a priest at Sampford Courtenay was persuaded to read the old mass. This insubordination spread swiftly into serious revolt. The Cornish quickly joined the men of Devon in the Prayer Book Rebellion and Exeter was besieged until relieved by Lord Russell. The Cornish had a particular motivation for opposing the new English language prayer book, as there were still many monoglot Cornish speakers in West Cornwall. The Cornish language declined rapidly afterwards and the Dissolution of the Monasteries resulted in the eventual loss of the Cornish language as a primary language. By the end of the 18th century it was no longer a first language.

The Council of the West was a short-lived administrative body established by Henry VIII for the government of the western counties of England. It was analogous in form to the Council of the North. The Council was established in March 1539, with Lord Russell as its Lord President. Members included Thomas Derby, Sir Piers Edgcumbe, Sir Richard Pollard and John Rowe. However, the fall of Thomas Cromwell, the chief political supporter of government by Councils, and the tranquillity of the western counties made it largely superfluous. It last sat in summer 1540, although it was never formally abolished.

17th century

The Bristol Channel floods of 1607 are believed to have affected large parts of the Somerset Levels, with flooding up to 8 feet (2 m) above sea level. In 1625, a House of Correction was established in Shepton Mallet, and when it closed HMP Shepton Mallet was England's oldest prison still in use.

During the English Civil War, Somerset was largely Parliamentarian, although Dunster was a Royalist stronghold. The county saw important battles between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, notably at Lansdowne in 1643 and Langport in 1645. Bristol was occupied by Royalist military, after they overran Royal Fort, the last Parliamentarian stronghold in the city. Taunton Castle had fallen into ruin by 1600 but it was repaired during the Civil War. The castle changed hands several times during 1642–45 along with the town. During the Siege of Taunton it was defended by Robert Blake, from July 1644 to July 1645. After the war, in 1662, the keep was demolished and only the base remains. This war resulted in castles being slighted (destroyed to prevent their re-use).

James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch by William Wissing
James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth

In 1685, the Duke of Monmouth led the Monmouth Rebellion in which a force partly raised in Somerset fought against James II. The rebels landed at Lyme Regis and travelled north hoping to capture Bristol and Bath, Puritan soldiers damaged the west front of Wells Cathedral, tore lead from the roof to make bullets, broke the windows, smashed the organ and the furnishings, and for a time stabled their horses in the nave. They were defeated in the Battle of Sedgemoor at Westonzoyland, the last battle fought on English soil. The Bloody Assizes which followed saw the losers being sentenced to death or transportation. At the time of the Glorious Revolution, King James II gathered his main forces, altogether about 19,000 men, at Salisbury, James himself arriving there on 19 November 1688. The first blood was shed at Wincanton, in Somerset. In Salisbury, James heard that some of his officers, such as Edward Hyde, had deserted, and he broke out in a nose-bleed which he took as a bad omen. His commander in chief, the Earl of Feversham, advised retreat on 23 November, and the next day John Churchill deserted to William. On 26 November, James's daughter Princess Anne did the same, and James returned to London the same day, never again to be at the head of a serious military force in England.

Modern history

Since 1650, the City of Plymouth has grown to become the largest city in Devon, mainly due to the naval base at Devonport. Her Majesty's Naval Base (HMNB) Devonport is one of three operating bases in the United Kingdom for the Royal Navy. HMNB Devonport is now the largest naval base in Western Europe. The large Portland Harbour, built at the end of the 19th century and protected by Nothe Fort and the Verne Citadel, was for many years, including during the wars, another of the largest Royal Navy bases.

The 19th century saw improvements to roads in the region with the introduction of turnpikes and the building of canals and railways. The usefulness of the canals was short-lived, though they have now been restored for recreation. Chard claims to be the birthplace of powered flight, in 1848 when the Victorian aeronautical pioneer John Stringfellow first demonstrated that engine-powered flight was possible through his work on the Aerial Steam Carriage. North Petherton was the first town in England (and one of the few ever) to be lit by acetylene gas lighting.

Portiishead power station
Portishead power station

Around the 1860s, at the height of the iron and steel era, a pier and a deep-water dock were built, at Portishead to accommodate the large ships that had difficulty in reaching Bristol Harbour. The Portishead power stations were coal-fed power stations built next to the dock. Industrial activities ceased in the dock with the closure of the power stations. The Port of Bristol Authority finally closed the dock in 1992, and it has now been developed into a marina and residential area.

Durdle Door in Dorset is part of the Jurassic Coast, England's only natural World Heritage Site.

During the First World War many soldiers from the South West were killed, and war memorials were put up in most of the towns and villages; only a few villages escaped casualties. There were also casualties – though much fewer – during the Second World War, who were added to the memorials. Several areas were bases for troops preparing for the 1944 D-Day landings. Exercise Tiger, or Operation Tiger, was the code names for a full-scale rehearsal in 1944 for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The British Government evacuated approximately 3,000 local residents in the area of Slapton, now South Hams District of Devon. Some of them had never left their villages before. Bristol's city centre suffered severe damage from Luftwaffe bombing during the Bristol Blitz of World War II. The Royal Ordnance Factory ROF Bridgwater was constructed early in World War II for the Ministry of Supply. The Taunton Stop Line was set up to resist a potential German invasion, and the remains of its pill boxes can still be seen, as well as others along the coast.

Porlock, Exmoor

Exmoor was one of the first British National Parks, designated in 1954, under the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. and is named after its main river. It was expanded in 1991 and in 1993 Exmoor was designated as an Environmentally Sensitive Area. The Quantock Hills were designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1956, the first such designation in England under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. The Mendip Hills followed with AONB designation in 1972.

Hinkley Point A nuclear power station was a Magnox power station constructed between 1957 and 1962 and operating until ceasing generation in 2000. Hinkley Point B is an Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR) which was designed to generate 1250 MW of electricity (MWe). Construction of Hinkley Point B started in 1967. In September 2008 it was announced, by Electricité de France (EDF), that a third, twin-unit European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) reactor known as Hinkley Point C is planned, to replace Hinkley Point B which is due for closure in 2016.


Regional profile of the South West
Regional profile of the South West

According to the 2001 census the population of the South West region was 4,928,434. It had grown in the last 20 years by 12.5% from 4,381,400 in mid-1981, making it the fastest growing region in England. Teignbridge in Devon had the largest population gain with 26.3% and Devon as whole grew by 17.6%. Population falls occurred in the two major cities of Bristol and Plymouth. 97.71% of the South West's population are classified as White British.


The Cornish language evolved from the Southwestern dialect of the British language spoken during the Iron Age and Roman period. The area controlled by the Britons was progressively reduced by the expansion of Wessex after the 6th century, and in 936 Athelstan set the east bank of the Tamar as the boundary between Anglo-Saxon Wessex and Celtic Cornwall. The Cornish language continued to flourish during the Middle Ages but declined thereafter, and the last speaker of traditional Cornish died in the 19th century. Geographical names derived from the British language are widespread in South West England, and include several examples of the River Avon, from abonā = "river" (cf. Welsh afon), and the words "tor" and "combe".

Until the 19th century, the West Country and its dialects of the English language were largely protected from outside influences, due to its relative geographical isolation. The West Country dialects derive not from a corrupted form of modern English, but from the Southwestern dialects of Middle English, which themselves derived from the dialects of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Late West Saxon, which formed the earliest English language standard, from the time of King Alfred until the late 11th century, is the form in which the majority of Anglo-Saxon texts are preserved. Thomas Spencer Baynes claimed in 1856 that, due to its position at the heart of the Kingdom of Wessex, the relics of Anglo-Saxon accent, idiom and vocabulary were best preserved in the Somerset dialect. There is some influence from the Welsh and Cornish languages, depending on the specific location.

West Country dialects are commonly represented as "Mummerset", a kind of catchall southern rural accent invented for broadcasting.


The region covers much of the historical area of Wessex (omitting only Hampshire and Berkshire), and all of the Celtic Kingdom of Dumnonia which comprised Cornwall, Devon, and parts of Somerset and Dorset. In terms of local government, it was divided after 1974 into Avon, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Wiltshire. Avon has since been abolished, and several mainly urban areas have become unitary authorities.

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