England’s Accessible South West

In September 2020—with the intention of selling our house in Greenwich, London in 2022 to relocate to the British countryside—my husband and I took the opportunity to “try before we buy.”

We chose the area of Cranborne Chase AONB (a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) which covers 380 square miles of countryside overlapping the boundaries of Wiltshire, Dorset, Hampshire, and Somerset. It is a diverse landscape offering areas of rolling chalk grassland, ancient woodlands, chalk escarpments, downlands, and chalk river valleys.

We specifically chose Sutton Mandeville for its proximity to Messums Wiltshire in Tisbury, a contemporary cultural hub in the southwest of England approximately two hours from London. The gallery and arts center features a repurposed 13th-century Tithe Barn, the largest monastic outbuilding still standing in the UK, where my husband was scheduled to hold two solo exhibitions in May-June 2021.

Messums Wiltshire exhibits contemporary paintings and sculptures on the slopping landscape surrounding the 13th-century Tithe Barn and adjacent “long gallery,” a former dairy. Besides the two accessible exhibition spaces, the Messums’ property boasts a popular accessible indoor and outdoor restaurant, The Mess, and accessible “loos”, all of which are a short ten-minute stroll (or roll!) from the local Tisbury train station—approximately two hours directly from Waterloo station in London.

The converted calf shed we rented, and the repurposed 15th-century stable John secured across the street as a studio, have been specifically redesigned to be accessible. The calf shed residence features a luxuriously large remote-controlled twin reclining bed, a fully fitted, modern, and stylish disabled bathroom without the “hospital aesthetic” and sterility of many such “accessible loos,” and many other features tastefully and considerately finished with disabled individuals in mind. Positioned in the middle of the Strang Manor Farm (@strangmanorfarm on Instagram), the property is surrounded by brilliant, yellow, blooming rapeseed, green fields of barley, and a pale-pink blossoming apple tree in the back garden. It also boasts a clear view of the Fovant chalk hill and Montgomery military badges of WWI. The landscape is animated by a multitude of wildlife including hares, pheasants, wood pigeons, robins, and rooks, in full song between beautiful sunrises and sunsets. A real treat for “twitchers” (what the British call bird watchers)!

Wiltshire
The rolling yellow fields of Wiltshire. ©iStock/Helen Williams

Sutton Mandeville is a very small rural area (more a parish council than even a small village or hamlet) with beautiful large farms, acres and acres of undulating green fields, and few residences. The area is without a post office or general store of its own, however, the villages of Fovant and Ludlow have both, and are but two minutes away in either direction. Our favorite pub amongst many great options in the wider area for food and drink (and accommodation) is The Compasses of Chicksgrove/Sutton Mandeville, which has a communal atmosphere both inside and outside. In the back garden, under a large circus-like tent, look out at lush green fields dotted with cows or sheep. The menu is more inventive than most (often offering an amazing fresh ricotta dumpling with a rustic ragu of roasted vegetables, alongside the more predictable, but particularly good quality, British offerings of cheeseburgers and fish and chips). The portions are generous and prices fair, but not cheap (but nor are meals at any quality country pubs we’ve enjoyed in the British countryside).

For those without the ability to walk short distances or go up and down stairs, I’d recommend The Royal Oak in neighboring Swallow Cliff, a completely wheelchair-friendly pub offering a spacious disabled toilet and stair-free experience facilitated by the recent investment of top gear/TV personality, and local resident, James May.

The big draw to this particular area for many is its proximity to history, evidenced in grand manor houses often boasting priceless art collections and manicured formal gardens, like Iford near Bradford on Avon where staff (especially Alex) go out of their way to facilitate accessibility for wheelchair users on the challenging terrain! While lockdown has definitely curtailed our explorations, we have driven cross country within an hour to Bath, the Roman spa town with exquisite, cohesive Georgian architecture. While we still haven’t been inside Salisbury Cathedral (due to COVID restrictions), we are drawn to the tallest spire in England which is just a 20-minute hop from here. We’ve become intimately acquainted with the astounding Tithe Barn in Tisbury (with exposed wood structure inside it’s a bit like being swallowed by a great white whale while letting ones’ eyes adjust to the low lighting to see something as astounding as a life-size, monochromatic, contemporary version of Gericaults’ Raft of the Medusa, Stubb’s Whistle Jacket, and a full, contemporary color depiction of Holbein’s Ambassadors). Nearby Shaftesbury is a historic market town flanked by a street-wide pedestrian promenade parallel to the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey, recently converted into a wheelchair-friendly indoor and outdoor museum.

Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral is just a 20-minute drive away. ©iStock/Benedek

For those newly drawn to South West Britain for destination contemporary art in a rural setting: Hauser and Wirth’s outpost in neighboring Somerset, a beautiful 40-minute drive from here, boasts fully accessible galleries, a restaurant, Durslade Farm shop, and gardens where the stunning Ravic Pavilion is found with its sloping ramps for wheelchair users and slow travelers alike. At the far end of the impressive landscaped garden, designed by internationally renowned landscape architect Piet Oudolf, is the Radić Pavilion, designed by Chilean architect Smiljan Radić. The pavilion sits naturally within the landscape, positioned at the end of Oudolf Field. We’ve seen the exhibitions of African American lockdown artist-in-residence painter Henry Taylor and Spanish (Basque) sculptor Eduardo Chillida, both first rate! (Chillida’s handsome drawings were a definite highlight.)

Shaftsbury, a market town just 20 minutes away from Sutton Mandeville, in the opposite direction of Salisbury, is connected by the A30. From here one can track the parallel ox-drove route connecting Shaftesbury and Salisbury since the 19th century—it was here where farmers used to herd animals (from cows to geese) and carts on the firmer chalk surface of the ridge rather than the muddy route that became today’s A30. There’s another drovers’ route in the adjacent valley. Several ridge walks, between what were high hilltop forts, now afford the contemporary walker the opportunity to see expansive views stretching as far as the Isles of Wright and more immediately to burial mounds, medieval village ruins, and for the nature lovers blankets of wild flowers: cow slips and blue bells in May, wild orchids in June. This first week of July I was able, with John’s help, to access the highest point of the Cranborne Chase drovers’ route from the Win Green car park above Ludlow village to enjoy refreshing breezes, numerous butterflies, and buttercups growing wildly, as well as spectacular vistas of arguably the most beautiful pocket of Britain.

Shaftesbury
A view of aptly-named Gold Hill in Shaftesbury. ©iStock/Stellalevi

Another nearby delight is the Font Hill Estate, boasting paddocks of beautifully turned out thoroughbred mares with their foals, as well as lakeside (slightly challenging) accessible trails where wheelchairs are at times less than a body length from pristine white swans and even closer to scruffier sheep with their newborn lambs. The Beckford Arms restaurant and pub, situated at the top of Font Hill Estate, offers delightful food and has accessible indoor and outdoor seating, although as with most pubs in very old buildings the loos are not accessible to patrons in wheelchairs…only for those lucky enough to manage on a walker or a stick. The risotto and beetroot paired with a side of creamed spinach is a personal favorite and fair market value.

When not eating out, another advantage of living in Britain’s South is access to the Waitrose supermarket chain, which has been a godsend during lockdown with regular deliveries even here in rural Wiltshire. While many complain Waitrose is more expensive than other Supermarkets—not just Aldi and Lidl, but Tesco, Sainsburys, and even M&S—the converted, like us, appreciate a greater range of products. This range includes the best of what we’ve enjoyed living overseas, such as the same Seville marmalade we bought in Madrid, Spain and the best olive oil (Lorenzo No.5) we tried in Palermo, Sicily. The cost of Waitrose remains consistent wherever one orders. Local farm shops often offer reasonable “pick your own” options, for which you even bring your own containers—our resident host farmer informs me it’s not so much cheaper as it is fresher and with a smaller environmental (carbon) footprint …. due to not being wrapped for sale in plastic or transported to market!

For the animal enthusiasts (or those looking for an activity to enjoy with children or grandchildren), Longleat Safari Park is a thrilling adventure to be experienced from the comfort of your own car. Whilst we did book our first visit to coincide with our 8-year-old granddaughter’s arrival, we all enjoyed the experience so much I would jump (no irony intended!) at any opportunity to return. There’s something inherently enabling about an experience that is in no way diminished or compromised by being disabled. Everyone enjoys the safari sitting down; there is no disadvantage to being chair-bound. The safari park is designed for being driven through, with continual warnings to visitors to remain seated in their cars at all times, and even windows must remain up most of the time as lions and tigers roam freely in their separate enclosures in very close proximity to the cars!

Of course, there are the nearby world-famous delights of Stonehenge, with great attention to accessible access (see website for most extensive details)—the most obvious draw for both British and international visitors alike in the region… but that is an adventure for another day!

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