Where The Old World Meets The New

Southwest England offers romance, nostalgia, and some little-known black history

Usually, London is the focal point for all news out of England. But if you want to know where transatlantic slavery began — or to experience the English countryside of romantic, historical novels — you’ll have to fly 120 miles to the southwest, starting at Bristol.

Situated on the rivers Frome and Avon, this English port city is known as the “birthplace of America.” In 1497, Italian explorer John Cabot sailed from Bristol’s shores in search of a westerly route to the West Indies only to “discover” North America. The founders of Maine, Pennsylvania, and North and South Carolina were also from Bristol.

In the late 1600s, Bristol — a wealthy trading port — found there was money to be made outside of tobacco and wool. The result was a massive slave industry, often referred to as the “triangular trade,” based on the route taken by merchants from Europe to West Africa to the Caribbean. Today, Bristol is a buzzing, multicultural university city of 400,000 with approximately 16,000 blacks — some descended from enslaved Africans.

The controversial British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, which highlights the history of this once imperialistic nation, is worth a visit. Chic restaurants such as the Severnshed (housed in a 19th century boathouse), shopping in elegant Clifton Village, and jazz clubs such as the Old Duke draw locals and visitors in large numbers. As for where to stay, there’s the 40-room Hotel du Vin & Bistro, a brilliantly restored 18th century structure featuring loft suites, a library, and a celebrated bistro. There are a few ways to tour Bristol and the surrounding region, including hiring one of England’s famous Blue Badge Guides. Colorful local historian Peter “Pirate Pete” Martin leads visitors on a take-no-prisoners tour of the city’s darker history (the pirate Blackbeard is rumored to have had a hideaway cave under the medieval Cathedral of St. Mary Redcliffe).

To explore further, you’ll want to rent a car: a 12-mile drive through some of Britain’s most bucolic countryside leads to the famed Roman city of Bath, noted for its hot springs and the Roman Baths Museum. The new Thermae Bath Spa (home of Britain’s only natural thermal waters) offers head-to-toe treatments.

Author Jane Austen lived in Bath, and it has been a favorite shopping center since the 1700s. Stay at The Royal Crescent Hotel, centering a row of curved, honey-colored Georgian buildings overlooking the city, and enjoy fine dining at its award-winning restaurant, Pimpernel’s.

In neighboring Wiltshire, the village of Malmesbury is the epitome of English charm. Start with a visit to the eclectic Abby House Gardens, which is filled with heirloom trees and flowers and Gothic architecture. Enjoy a traditional Sunday roast beef at the Sign of the Angelis — a must. And nobody does afternoon tea like Margaret Vaughan at the 13th-century King John’s Hunting Lodge. Take a stroll through the picturesque village of Castle Combe and stop for a visit to Lacock Abbey, where many scenes from the Harry Potter films were shot. You’ll barely have strength left to flop on your four-poster bed

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