On the last weekend of June 2000, a few days after the summer solstice, my husband and I happened upon a real estate website with a cottage for sale in Dorset, a three-hour drive west of our home, in London. That same day, with the impetuosity a road trip accommodates, we took to the A303—the highway that meets the M3 out of the capital and runs 92 miles through the heart of South West England, passing Hampshire, Wiltshire, Somerset, and Dorset.
The sun glowed warmer and softer the deeper we drove toward the westward-setting light. Hedgerows frothed with cow parsley; fields were striped with bright yellow rapeseed. We passed Stonehenge, England’s iconic circle of standing stones, with some of the monumental megalithic rock, as tall as five men. We slipped over the gentle humps of a road that narrows from four lanes to two over the fenceless land of Salisbury Plain. When we hit the Wylye Valley, traffic set in. At West Knoyle, the Little Chef—a British roadside chain selling cheap scampi and chips on tables sticky with ketchup—was packed. On the other side of the road, cars crept past; meanwhile, we came to a standing halt. A bearded fellow proffered a joint through his car window. It was Glastonbury weekend, the rock festival about 16 miles off the A303 in Somerset. Started by a farmer, Michael Eavis, in 1970, the British equivalent to Woodstock now attracts crowds of 175,000.
The pace of the A303 remains completely its own thing: full of English eccentricities that get better the deeper one delves into the roads that lead off it. There are those who will argue that the only asphalt to take out of London is the M23 to Brighton, while “the Cotswold set” will say it’s all about the M40 to Oxford and the villages beyond. But look at what’s opening in the provinces, and the A303 is where it’s at—not because of the romance of the open road, nor its history, all chronicled in a newly published book, The A303: Highway to the Sun, but because there are so many delicious diversions, from shucking oysters with chef Mark Hix to eating ice cream in gardens popping with world-class contemporary art.
“No one used to stop along the A303,” says Lucy Farmbrough, who lives close to Glastonbury and works for Beyond Bespoke, a Sherborne-based company representing more than 300 British luxury brands: “Now you can turn off at any junction and discover all sorts of surprises.” She cites posh cakes from The Bakemonger (44-77/6582-5200; thebakemonger.com), in Frome; posh lettuce from Charles Dowding (44-17/4986-0292; charlesdowding.co.uk), near Shepton Mallet; and posh flowers from Common Farm Flowers (44-19/633-2883; commonfarmflowers.com), in Charlton Musgrove. “The A303 isn’t the nicest road to drive in summer, but these days, with all the energy west of London, it is most certainly worth taking on—if only for a weekend.” Nadge Howard, a neighbor who has been cultivating vines of grapes in fields near where I now live in Dorset, calls it “the rat road to London, a side road into the city. We all use it, despite always getting stuck at Stonehenge.”
The A303 stops and starts with traffic, narrowing and widening through villages that refuse to accommodate the boom in car travel. Grand plans to put in a tunnel beside Stonehenge in an attempt to speed things along have been a running debate since 1991, resulting in more than 50 different proposals. So far, no improvements.
Yet Westsiders make do with the road’s likable eclecticism: an old English carriageway formed in 1933 through the renumbering of several existing routes (the section past Stonehenge has been a means of transport for centuries). It remains open to all sorts, including tractors and scooters, with the roadside studded with cheap cafés and vans selling hot bacon rolls to fantastically loyal customers. At such pit stops, one finds a curious mix of truck drivers, bikers, and Londoners wearing their telltale Isabel Marant, few of whom can pass the Old Willoughby Hedge Cafe (44-17/4783-0803), three miles outside Mere in Wiltshire, without spending a couple of quid on that buttery white bread and pig fat.
While the road itself might be unremarkable to drive, there is a glamorous seam to Route 303 that begins the moment you turn off into fashionable Bruton, in Somerset—where Swiss gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth have opened Hauser & Wirth Somerset (Durslade Farm; 44-17/4981-4060; hauserwirthsomerset.com), an extraordinary contemporary-art destination spread throughout 18th-century farm buildings— and runs to West Dorset, which has replaced the town of Ludlow, in Shropshire, as the foodie mecca of the English shires.
It hasn’t always been so, says Mark Hix, the chef behind an empire of headline London eateries, including Tramshed, Hix Soho, as well as the Hix Oyster and Fish House (Cobb Rd.; 44-12/9744-6910; hixoysterandfishhouse.co.uk), in the West Dorset seaside town of Lyme Regis, and cooking classes in the adjacent village of Charmouth. “With it being a three-hour drive from London, my Lyme restaurant was to be a labor of love,” says Hix, who grew up in Dorset. “It’s proved a bigger success than I expected. The Londoners from my city restaurants wanted a piece of this country. So much so, I had to open up a B&B, Hix Townhouse (1 Pound St.; 44-12/9744-2499; hixtownhouse.co.uk), to provide them somewhere to stay.”
All along the A303, or at least within an hour’s drive of its junctions, good hotels are popping up everywhere. The Pig hotel brand is creeping west from the New Forest, in Hampshire, where the Pig first opened, in 2011 (44-15/9062-2354; thepighotel.com). The expansion now includes a beach hotel at Studland, in Dorset; another near Bath, in Somerset; and next April, at Combe in Devon, near Honiton. More like restaurants with rooms than anything much grander, each Pig combines a historic house with shepherd’s huts (used as rooms for spa treatments), thatched standalone cottages, walled gardens, and greenhouses. Open fires in front of squashy sofas and rooms that accommodate children ensure that the Pigs fill up on weekends. In winter there are always wet boots in the hallways, and on the menus there are hearty English classics, like Bath chaps, Piggy bits (black pudding balls with Piccalilli), and lamb’s tongue salad.
Other independent hotels have blossomed in these Wessex reaches, subscribing to a similar fair-price-chic-sleep matrix. There is The Greyhound on the Test (31 High St.; 44-12/6481-0833; thegreyhoundonthetest.co.uk), in Stockbridge, a small hotel of 10 rooms popular among fly fishermen; and The Beckford Arms (Fonthill Gifford; 44-17/4787-0385; beckfordarms.com), in Fonthill Gifford, which is where to stay to visit the gardens of Stourhead, with their glorious 18th-century temples and hidden grottoes. Both hotels show little sign of chintz, but rather a homely, rural style—suzani cushions and mix-and-match thrift-bought crockery for the Greyhound; Welsh blankets and silver teapots for the Beckford—that is at its most pronounced in and around Bruton.
Ten years ago, the honey-colored market town in Somerset wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Now Bruton has stolen the limelight from the Cotswolds by attracting an exodus of tastemaking Londoners, with by far the best place to stay the exclusive-use six-bedroom Durslade Farmhouse (Dropping Ln.; 44-17/4981-4075; dursladefarmhouse.co.uk), on the grounds of Hauser & Wirth Somerset’s art gallery. At its restaurant, Roth Bar & Grill (44-17/4981-4700; rothbarandgrill.co.uk), it’s not unusual to see major international contemporary artists dining on glistening rotisserie chicken beneath photography by Rodney Graham. While on any given day, At the Chapel (28 High St.; 44-17/4981-4070; atthechapel.co.uk), another restaurant with rooms, in Bruton, one might see theater-producer Cameron Mackintosh, designer Alice Temperley, or The Wire actor Dominic West.
The blow-ins keep on coming. Talk for months was that Hadspen House, three miles from Bruton and one of the most beautiful estates in England, had been bought by Johnny Depp. In fact, the buyers were South African media-magnate Koos Bekker and his wife, former Elle Decoration editor Karen Roos. At Babylonstoren, in the Cape Winelands, the couple have created the best restaurant and small hotel in South Africa, with a world-class garden designed by French architect Patrice Taravella. With Hadspen, Roos hasn’t yet disclosed her vision, but there is no question she will raise the game again for Route 303. So will Heckfield Place (44-11/8932-6868; heckfieldplace.com), a 60-room hotel 18 miles from the mouth of the 303 in Hampshire. It’s opening next year after a multimillion-dollar restoration of a pretty 18th-century Georgian estate set in classic English parkland. Overseeing the kitchen will be Skye Gyngell, who made her name at London’s Petersham Nurseries Café.
For now, however, it is best to press on westward, to tour the sleepy B roads of Dorset and beyond, on a bike—riding with a new cycle company, On the Rivet (44-13/0845-6313; ontherivetuk.com)—or a horse in Devon, where the traffic gets even quieter. There is nothing more wild in England than slipping off the last of the 303’s asphalt to get lost in these peaceful reaches, on the moors of Dartmoor, where Elaine Prior, Carol Shrew, and Phil Heard lead horseback-riding expeditions through their Liberty Trails (44-79/6782-3674; liberty-trails.com) all over the moody purple heathland. Heard doesn’t know much about the 303, he says; Londoners skip it, getting to him by flying to Exeter instead. On Dartmoor, where Heard was born and bred, all he wants is for the roads to remain empty enough for wild ponies to roam among ancient towering tors— vast rocky kopjes, which look like God’s own version of those ancient standing stones—a very, very long way from Mayfair.
Photo Credits: Ken Kochey