Whether you know it as the West Country or the south-west of England, this part of the world may remind you of coastlines, cream teas and cheddar cheese. As well as these delights, the region is home to a wealth of tradition and dialect variation. 

The ‘West Country’ and ‘the South-West’ are both used to refer to the area made up of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. Covering over 9,000 square miles, this is the largest of England’s nine main regions.

In the 1950s and 60s, researchers from the University of Leeds visited villages all over the South-West to record rural ways of life and speech. Read on to find out more about language and life in the balmiest corner of England.

View looking towards the village of Widecombe (Devon), and the surrounding landscape.

(LAVC/PHO/P2044) by Herbert Voitl

Where to is Wessex?

Technically speaking, Wessex doesn’t exist anymore. It was one of the kingdoms of England in Anglo-Saxon times and Alfred the Great was King of Wessex between 871 and 899. Its name reflects this history, as ‘Wessex’ comes from the Old English word for West Saxon. 

In terms of geography, historic Wessex overlaps quite a bit with the modern-day South-West, but the two are not exactly the same. The boundaries of Wessex changed many times over the course of its history, but at its core were Dorset, Hampshire, Somerset and Wiltshire. Over time, the kingdom grew to include not only Devon and Cornwall, but also Kent, Surrey, Sussex and parts of Oxfordshire. This is why accents in some parts of Hampshire and Oxfordshire can sound quite ‘West Country’ – particularly in rural areas.

The region of ‘Wessex’ features in the works of novelist Thomas Hardy. Based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Hardy includes descriptions of many recognisable places in Dorset – Hardy’s birthplace – and the surrounding counties. Several of his characters use local dialect, such as Tess (Tess of the D’Urbervilles) and Gabriel Oak (Far from the Madding Crowd).

Wherever you draw the boundary, the south-western counties of England are bursting with interesting traditions and dialect to go with them. Read on to find out more …

The village of Sixpenny Handley in Dorset, Thomas Hardy’s home county.

( LAVC/PHO/P2060) by Herbert Voitl