BACKGROUND: This paper explores the geographical accessibility of health services in urban and rural areas of the South West of England, comparing two measures of geographical access and characterising the areas most remote from hospitals.Straight-line distance and drive-time to the nearest general practice (GP) and acute hospital (DGH) were calculated for postcodes and aggregated to 1991 Census wards. The correlation between the two measures was used to identify wards where straight-line distance was not an accurate predictor of drive-time. Wards over 25 km from a DGH were classified as 'remote', and characterised in terms of rurality, deprivation, age structure and health status of the population. RESULTS: The access measures were highly correlated (r2>0.93). The greatest differences were found in coastal and rural wards of the far South West. Median straight-line distance to GPs was 1 km (IQR = 0.6-2 km) and to DGHs, 12 km (IQR = 5-19 km). Deprivation and rates of premature limiting long term illness were raised in areas most distant from hospitals, but there was no evidence of higher premature mortality rates. Half of the wards remote from a DGH were not classed as rural by the Office for National Statistics. Almost a quarter of households in the wards furthest from hospitals had no car, and the proportion of households with access to two or more cars fell in the most remote areas. CONCLUSION: Drive-time is a more accurate measure of access for peripheral and rural areas. Geographical access to health services, especially GPs, is good, but remoteness affects both rural and urban areas: studies concentrating purely on rural areas may underestimate geographical barriers to accessing health care. A sizeable minority of households still had no car in 1991, and few had more than one car, particularly in areas very close to and very distant from hospitals. Better measures of geographical access, which integrate public and private transport availability with distance and travel time, are required if an accurate reflection of the experience those without their own transport is to be obtained.