These 8 Idyllic Small Towns in England Have Charm to Spare
You could spend months in London without seeing everything it has to offer, but if you’re looking for respite from the urban din, consider venturing outside city limits. From the moors of Yorkshire to the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast, England’s bucolic landscapes provide plenty of opportunity for pastoral contemplation, and its quaint villages—with their cozy pubs, gracious manor house hotels, and scenic streets—serve as the perfect backdrop for a holiday spent in Wellies in front of the fire. Here are eight picturesque small towns where you can curl up for the evening.
Jen has been a staff editor at Architectural Digest, Travel + Leisure, and Martha Stewart Weddings, and her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Afar, and Elle Decor. When she's not snowmobiling in the French Alps or tasting scotch straight from the barrel in Scotland, she's at home in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
To get a sense of ancient England in the times before recorded history, head to the tiny English town of Lustleigh (population: about 700). Known for its annual May Day celebration, the former Anglo-Saxon settlement stands out thanks to a collection of thatched cottages and a 13th-century church that houses ruins known as Datuidoc’s Stone, a monument that dates to before 600 AD. It’s the kind of place where you’d expect to find a communal apple orchard, no post office, and just one pub (The Cleave is exactly as you’d expect). Though there are plenty of guesthouses in the area, splurge on a room at Bovey Castle, a luxury hotel nestled nearby in Dartmoor National Park.
The verdant countryside of the Lakes District has attracted writers, poets, and painters for hundreds of years: William Wordsworth lived in Grasmere, while Beatrix Potter settled down in Near Sawrey and vacationed in the area during her childhood. Start your own holiday in Hawkshead, a postcard-perfect village that claims a 14th-century church, 17th-century architecture, and a warren of narrow alleys filled with picturesque pubs, coaching inns, and tearooms. Drop your bags at the Drunken Duck Inn, then head downstairs for a pint of beer made on site at the hotel’s Barngate’s Brewery. Perhaps surprisingly, there are also a number of Michelin-starred dining rooms nearby, including L’Enclume and Holbeck Ghyll.
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Rye, East Sussex
Just a two-hour train ride from London, Rye’s Georgian brick homes, Tudor-style buildings, and cobblestone alleys feel worlds away. Given its history and wealth of visual beauty, it’s no wonder the former Roman shipping center drew literary minds like Henry James and E.F. Benson, who lived in town at Lamb House, albeit at different times. Hop on a bike to spot coastal orchids and nesting avocets at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve before touring the 1249 Ypres Tower and Camber Castle, built by Henry VIII. Then retire with a cider at the Mermaid Inn, an old smuggler’s hangout that has become a local legend.
Whitby, North Yorkshire
The medieval fisherman’s village of Whitby has all the hallmarks of a quintessential English town on the sea: a harbor dotted with painted wooden boats, stone houses with russet shingled rooftops, and tiny shops that offer some of the country’s best fish-and-chips. But there’s another layer to explore. After dropping your bags at the Raithwaite Estate, tour the ruins of Whitby Abbey, the 7th-century monastery that served as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula; walk in the footsteps of 18th-century explorer James Cook, who apprenticed as a seaman here, at his memorial museum; or embark on a scenic hike through the heather moorlands of Cleveland Way National Trail in North York Moors National Park.
The colorful seaside village of Weymouth may get all the attention, but its neighbor Abbotsbury deserves its own moment in the spotlight. The town’s location on the Jurassic Coast makes it an ideal place to explore the 185-million-year-old rock formations that dominate England’s first natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, or the resident colony of mute swans at the Abbotsbury Swannery, but its rolling hillsides give way to quirkier adventures. The 19th-century Subtropical Gardens are a Victorian woodland valley that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Parks and has a microclimate that makes it home to exotic plants like camellias, magnolias, and more.
The poet Dylan Thomas once called Mousehole (pronounced “Mowzal”) the “loveliest village in England,” and though it was the seaside fisherman’s haven’s summertime charms that drew the boozy couple in, you’d do well to visit during the winter, when its harbor is gilded in twinkling Christmas lights and a children’s lantern procession illuminates the granite cottage–lined streets. Don’t miss the stargazy pie at The Ship Inn (Thomas’s favorite watering hole), a fish-filled pastry that’s even more comforting after a romantic walk along the blustery beach or a day of shopping in the glass and ceramics galleries in nearby Newlyn and Penzance.
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With its Tudor pubs and Georgian-style limestone houses straight out of a movie set, Burford is arguably one of England’s most picturesque villages. The former Anglo-Saxon settlement and wool trade center, often called the Gateway to the Cotswolds, has since become a bastion of independent antiques and artisan shops ideal for whiling away the day. Start by browsing the vintage sporting equipment at the 15th-century showroom of Manfred Schotten Antiques, then follow it up with homemade jams and chutneys at Mrs. Bumble of Burford or a tasting at the Cotswold Cheese Company, and end your evening in front of the fire at the Bay Tree Hotel.
Upper and Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire
Get past the name (it derives from an Olde English word for mud), and it’s easy to see the appeal of these twin hamlets. Tourists often bypass its quaint stone cottages for the well-trammeled lanes and bustling High Street of more popular Cotswold haunt Bourton-on-the-Water, but in-the-know travelers seeking respite from the crowds detour for Lower Slaughter’s 19th-century flour mill and graciously appointed 1658 The Manor House Hotel. A short ramble up the River Eye’s banks takes you to Upper Slaughter’s St. Peter’s Church, a Norman cathedral with architectural details that date to the 12th century.
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