Touring England’s villages
For many travellers, London is synonymous with England. This lively, cosmopolitan capital is a must see, of course, but there is more to England than booming cities and industrial centres. Instead, what makes this country truly unique are its picturesque villages. With centuries of history behind them, they remain the chosen dwelling places of many locals. England’s villages are beloved and cared for by their residents and the National Trust. If you wish to discover more about the history, architecture and mythic landscapes of England, you must inhabit the lives of the people who call it home. These villages are at once cute and intriguing, surprising and familiar, and each boasts its own distinct charms.
A winding journey
Furthermore, part of the joy of discovering England’s darling villages is experiencing the journey itself. As we move from one village to the next, we watch mountains give way to valleys, and colourful flowers pass to rocky cliffs. We gain insight into how people must have moved between villages in the past, and how these villages continue to represent warm and intimate havens nestled into the landscape.
The following article is arranged into counties, regions or areas where appropriate. We will explore the different characters of these counties to gain a sense and visual picture of village life there.
Sussex is a land of myth, legend and history. It is located in south east England, and corresponds roughly with its ancient iteration as the Kingdom of Sussex. As you weave through the green hills and mounds of Sussex, you may sense that you’re walking in thousands of years’ worth of footsteps. This is because “Boxgrove man”, or Homo heidelbergensis was discovered here in Sussex in 1993. The hominid remains found at Eartham Pitt, Boxgrove, date back around 500,000 years. Read more about the archaeological significance of this event here.
Sussex is also rich in relics from the Bronze and Iron Ages. This includes the settlement of ‘Trundle Hill’. It is one of four hill forts built in Sussex. The original purpose of this trundle on St Roche’s Hill is not known, but the site was used as a military base during the 17th and 18th centuries, and for an early warning radar system in World War II.
Sussex is incredibly peaceful: a place for contemplation and reflection. It is beloved by the children’s author Cressida Cowell (How to Train Your Dragon), who wrote for an article in the Guardian: “I guess I’ve created a world in fiction based on how this beautiful area made me feel as a child”. Read more of her thoughts on Sussex here.
The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
No visit to Sussex would be complete without stopping in at The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. This beloved institution showcases 1000 years of rural British life. It is home to a collection of over fifty historic buildings, including a replica Anglo-Saxon hall house, an Edwardian tin tabernacle church and a Tudor kitchen that hosts cooking displays! As Cressida Cowell observes, we often only have access to history in the form of ruins and castles. These were the homes of royals and the elite classes. The Museum, on the other hand, shares the lives of ordinary people. It sheds light on Britain’s rural history, by bringing it to life in our present. The Museum hosts craft displays, too, such as blacksmithing in their Victorian smithy. Its working attractions include a sawpit shed and water mill.
Wiltshire is a land of chalky hills and wide valleys. It is home to both Stonehenge and Avebury, the latter being England’s largest henge monument. Built in 2600 BCE, the Neolithic World Heritage site includes three stone circles, a long barrow (burial tomb), and a processional avenue. If you have an interest in henge monuments, you might like to read our article on Scotland’s standing stones and neolithic history.
Fascinating finds from the 1930s archaeological excavations are on show at the museum housed in the grounds of Avebury Manor. The Manor, of Tudor origin, was recently reopened following a major transformation for a new BBC series entitled The Manor Reborn. The early 16th century Manor house was redecorated and redesigned in five different styles, exhibited within its nine rooms and parts of the garden. These styles were Tudor, Queen Anne, Georgian, Victorian, and 20th century.
Each room reflects the way its inhabitants would have lived, and all furniture and objects were made not just for show, but to withstand ordinary use. The highlight of this house is that you, too, are invited to sit on the chairs, lie on the beds, play in the Billiard Room. The only exception to this is the Chinese wallpaper within the Georgian Dining Room, because it will be damaged if touched.
Wiltshire is also home to Lacock: a planned mediaeval estate village now owned by the National Trust. The layout and character of this well-planned medieval estate village has changed little since the 15th century. So, it provides a fascinating glimpse of village life at that time. There are fine timber-framed houses, a 13th century tithe barn, and inns with passageways and stables – survivors from the wool trade era. You might find Lacock strangely familiar. This is because it has served as the setting for many films and television series. The impressive list includes the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, Wolf Hall and Cranford; and Hollywood blockbuster Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The beautiful landscapes of Dorset are known as ‘Thomas Hardy country’, for the beloved writer and poet who called this part of the world home. His stirring evocations of rural life have captivated a century’s worth of readers, bringing the quintessential English village to life. It is well worth discovering the sites that inspired the man himself. Among its charms is Cranbourne Chase, the chalky plateau that has earned itself the national designation, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Dorset is populated by a number of pretty villages. Milton Abbas is referred to as a ‘model village’. Its 775-strong population reside in white-washed, thatch-roofed cottages that are postcard perfect. The stunning Milton Abbey completes the fairy-tale image, rising out of a dreamy landscape crafted by Capability Brown.
The village of Corfe Castle shares its name with the ruined, limestone castle that overlooks it. The village and castle sit within a gap in the Purbeck Hills. Built by William the Conqueror, much of the castle was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces. The castle affords beautiful views across the village, which boasts cute stores and pubs.
It is worth venturing to Swanage for its views of the pretty coastline. Swanage Beach is a major draw for visitors, for its sunshine and sand. As you head west, make a special stop at the Church of St. Nicholas in tiny Moreton village. Behold the exquisite etched glass windows by the artist Sir Laurence Whistler, famous for his glass engravings. But it is T.E. Lawrence who put Moreton on the map. He often visited the village from his own home nearby, and when he was tragically killed by a motorcycle accident in 1935, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was laid to rest in the cemetery at Moreton’s church.
The craggy landscapes and surreal rock formations of Dartmoor are located in southern Devon. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, a message sent to Sir Henry Baskerville read, ‘as you value your life or your reason, keep away from the moors’. Doyle painted an image of the moors as grim, forbidding and dangerous. As the famous mists descend upon the peat bogs, you may feel your senses waking up. But there is no reason to fear! The moors are a dreamy landscape of tiny villages, farms, rolling hills, granite tors and wild ponies. Allow yourself to be swept up in the romance of this evocative place.
Cornwall’s coastal villages tell tales of fishing and smuggling: two activities that shaped the history of this charming part of England. These tales are immortalised in Polperro’s Heritage Museum, where we learn that this village was the centre of the Cornish smuggling industry. Nearby Mevagissey is also proud of its history. Its museum showcases a photographic exhibition of village life in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mevagissey is said to be one of England’s prettiest villages. Wind your way through its narrow streets and toward the pretty twin harbour, which provides safe haven for fishing boats.
Then, there’s quaint Fowey – cargo port at the mouth of the River Fowey. The estuary forms a natural harbour which enabled the village to become an important trade centre. It has been here since 1300, perhaps longer. St Catherine’s Castle is a 16th century ruin perched on a cliff that overlooks the estuary, and the sea. In Fowey, climb aboard a boat to explore the port and harbour, or take the ferry to sleepy Polruan – a village famed for its boat building heritage.
A scenic drive from Cornwall to Devon
The pretty scenery of Cornwall’s west coast makes it perfect territory for a leisurely drive. The trip from Cornwall to Devon takes in villages worth stopping for, like Port Isaac, the coastal setting for popular television series Doc Martin. Explore its nooks and crannies before continuing along the picturesque West Cornish coast. Soon enough, you will reach Clovelly – an English Heritage site. Owing particularly to its location in a steep wooded cleft, this is one of Cornwall’s – and England’s – prettiest villages.
Finally, Dunster is the perfect spot to call it a day. This well-preserved medieval village is managed by the National Trust and sits just within the north-eastern boundary of Exmoor National Park. In Dunster, a castle towers over the cobblestoned main street, and the Yarn Market still stands, as does the ancient tithe barn. A gentle stroll leads to a packhorse bridge and beautiful scenery. Retire with a well-earned ale in one of Dunster’s historic pubs.
North Devon and Exmoor National Park
Exmoor is an undulating, bare plateau cut with wooded, steep valleys. Its picturesque coastline fronts the Bristol Channel. Though smaller than Dartmoor, Exmoor’s tracts of wilderness are equally as forbidding. A number of villages, some located within Exmoor National Park, form part of the Holnicote Estate, which is owned by the National Trust.
The village of Allerford boasts a picture-perfect packhorse bridge, along with a mill complete with pond and orchard. The lime-washed cottages of pretty Bossington village have tall, traditional chimneys and quaint bread ovens. The cottages at Luccombe are built of cream-washed cob, with uneven thatched roofs and wide eaves.
A drive to the Cotswolds takes one through Castle Combe, which is often voted England’s most beautiful village. Castle Combe is located in Wiltshire, and like Lacock, it may also appear familiar. It was the location for the classic British version of Doctor Doolittle and more recently, Steven Spielberg’s Warhorse. The village cottages are exemplary Cotswold type, constructed in stone with thick walls and roofs made from split natural stone tiles. These cottages are many hundreds of years old and are listed as ancient monuments. St Andrew’s Church dates back to the 13th century, but arguably Castle Combe’s most famous feature is the old bridge over Bybrook. Peaceful woodland surrounds the village, which enjoys nature at its very best.
There are 38 official Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB) in England and Wales. The Cotswolds is the largest. Its 2000 square kilometres of rolling hills or ‘wolds’ span five counties: Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. It is a pocket of rural England that is just waiting to be explored.
Among the most famous villages in the region is Bourton-on-the-Water, which is often referred to as the ‘Venice of the Cotswolds”. A series of low stone, 18th century bridges distinguish this pretty village. It is also within easy walking distance (2.4km) to the village of Lower Slaughter, where you can visit the Old Mill Museum and take in the scenery along the River Eye.
Religion played a significant part in the lives of rural people. A short walk in Lower Oddington village leads to St. Nicholas Church, the site of impressive and somewhat macabre medieval doom paintings. Their depictions of heaven and hell were designed to educate illiterate peasants. Once common, such wall paintings are rarely seen today.
Stow-on-the-Wold: “where the wind blows cold”! Stow has earned itself this expression for its position at the highest point in the Cotswolds. The market square attests to the size of sheep flocks once driven here for sale. Stow has a village green at its centre which still features stocks, or restraining devices – relics of a long-passed criminal punishment system. The church here is full of Civil War history, as it once housed 1000 Royalist prisoners. Stow is the scene of the last battle of the English Civil War.
Finally, Moreton-in-the-Marsh is located in north-eastern Gloucestershire. This 13th century market town also has a history as a coaching station, prior to the establishment of the Worcestershire railway in 1853. Its fine former coaching inns include The Curfew Tower and Market Hall.
The county of Derbyshire is located in England’s East Midlands. A large portion of the Peak District National Park lies within Derbyshire, but it is also home to some truly charming villages. These villages respond to Derbyshire’s varied landscape, which includes Coalfields, Claylands, Washlands and Lowlands. From a geological perspective, Derbyshire can be split into two halves. Older, Carboniferous-age rocks occur in the northern, upper county, while the southern, more lowland half is characterised by softer rocks. These latter, Permo-Triassic mudstones and sandstones create a gentler, rolling landscape with fewer rocky outcrops.
The village of Ashbourne in Derbyshire is often called the ‘Gateway to the Peak District’ or ‘Gateway to Dovedale’ – a popular National Trust-owned valley. But Ashbourne has its own attractions, including the annual historic Shrovetide football match – a quirky ‘Medieval football’ match played here on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. The community also continues its tradition as a market town and fought the threat of closure from the local council in 2012 to retain its twice weekly outdoor market.
The estate village of Tissington is picturesque, replete with duck pond, a 1609 Jacobean Hall and Tissinghurst Hall. This is the seat of the FitzHerberts, who have owned the estate since 1465. Nearby, Youlgreave village swells with walkers who pass through on any of the three long-distance paths in the region. Its traditional stone-built houses and shops are served by three solid pubs. The All Saints Church is regarded as one of the most impressive in Derbyshire. Both Tissinghurst and Youlgrave practice “well-dressing”, wherein wells are decorated with flower petals pressed into clay, displayed for one week each year. The tradition is dated to 1348, when the village escaped the Black Death – a feat they ascribe to the purity of the well water.
A perfect Derbyshire day
For a perfect day in Derbyshire, begin at Ashford-on-the-Water. Described as one of England’s perfect ‘chocolate box villages’, check out what is claimed to be the country’s most photographed bridge: Sheepwash Bridge. Then head for the tiny village of Eyam, renowned for its heroic efforts to stop the Black Plague spreading from its inhabitants to other villages. Australian author Geraldine Brooks immortalised the villagers in her book, Year of Wonders. The village museum has an excellent exhibition, while a short walk leads to places associated with the event: when villagers sealed themselves off from the world to contain the disease.
Finally, spend an afternoon at famous Chatsworth House to absorb the exquisite furnishings and art collection – one of Europe’s best. It is believed that Jane Austen based her idea of Pemberley, the home of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, on Chatsworth House. The house was used as Pemberley in the 2005 film version of the book.
The edge of the Lake District
Settle is an ideal entry-way into the Lake District. This market town in West Yorkshire dates to 1249. Situated beside England’s largest outcrop of limestone, the town has a wealth of heritage-listed buildings including The Folly, the Town Hall and The Shambles. Giggleswick, too, is worth a visit. It is a typical Dales village that has retained a wonderful rustic charm, with mullioned windows and carved lintels in many of the old cottages, plus little stone bridges and a market cross.
The whole of gorgeous Clapham village, situated at the base of the limestone Ingleborough Mountain, is a heritage conservation area. A stream crossed by four stone bridges flows down the middle of the main street, which is flanked by rows of cottages in different architectural styles. Clapham is truly a picture-perfect village.
The Lake District
The beautiful scenery of rolling farmlands, deep dales and ancient woodlands inspired many of Britain’s writers including William Wordsworth, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen. You can read more about this area and its history here. The Lakes District is synonymous with openness, wilderness and awe; but its villages bring a surprising sense of warmth and intimacy.
At Grasmere, described by William Wordsworth as ‘the loveliest spot that man hath found’, take a guided tour of the poet’s home. Dove Cottage provides an intimate portrait of the life of a country gentleman. Explore the small but delightful garden and the Wordsworth Museum that houses manuscripts, paintings and other items. In the churchyard of St. Oswald’s, several members of the Wordsworth family are buried.
Amble through Ambleside and along the ribbon lake of Windermere to Hawkshead. This ancient township flourished in Norse times, belonging to Furness Abbey until the 12th century. Hawkshead Courthouse is all that remains of the monastery era; from this point, Hawkshead developed as a market town. Its 17th century architecture and the wealth of archways, squares and cottages preserve this proud heritage. Between Hawkshead and Windermere lake lie Near and Far Sawrey – two villages famed for their association with beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter. Various sites and buildings served as settings for her books.
This historic county in northern England is the country’s largest. Accordingly, it is home to many attractions set among a landscape nicknamed “God’s own country”. Drive through the wild scenery of the Yorkshire Dales, stopping at the village of Hawes, in Wensleydale valley. Here, the Dales Countryside Museum portrays rural and village life set about the Wensleydale Creamery, home of the famous Wensleydale cheese. Cheese making began in the area as early as 1150, when French Cistercian monks settled in the dale. The dairy continues to produce the distinctive and popular cheese, and their website shares more information on their interesting history.
The North York Moors is a national park containing one of the largest expanses of heather moorland. Come summer, purple flowers carpet the earth, stretching as far as the eye can see. But the moors respond to each season, creating an unfolding, quiet drama that bewitches all who visit. The famous North York Moors steam train provides stunning vistas. As the port of Whitby declined in the 18th century, the Whitby and Pickering Railways was built to open up links between these villages.
The train travels from Pickering and makes a stop in the tiny village of Goathland. This town is the setting of fictional Aidensfield from the popular television series Heartbeat. You might recognise the ‘Aidensfield Arms’, ‘Scripps Garage’, the post office and other sites as you wander around this little village. Should you be feeling energetic, George Stephenson’s original railway line of 1836 is now the site of a walk to Grosmont. Or, you might prefer to head for the coast, to the delightful Robin’s Hood Bay to search for fossils in the sand.
The Yorkshire Wolds are a broad crescent of rolling chalk hills and valleys: unspoiled scenery. The landscape, changing across the seasons, is the subject of many paintings by British artist David Hockney.
Chiddingstone takes its name from the large sandstone outcrop in the village known as the ‘Chiding Stone’. One of the prettiest villages in Kent, and perhaps England, Chiddingstone is a beautiful example of a Tudor one-street village. The housing is typically Kent-style, with half-timbered sides, gables and stone-hung red-tiled roofs. The National Trust bought the entire village in 1939 to ensure its preservation.
The moat-encircled Hever Castle was the childhood home of Ann Boleyn. King Henry VIII scandalously courted his beloved here. The evocative tomb of Ann’s father, Thomas Boleyn, lies in St. Peter’s Church nearby. The oldest part of the castle dates to 1270. In the 1400s, London’s then Lord Mayor (and Anne’s great-grandfather) Geoffrey Boleyn added a Tudor dwelling within the walls. The castle remains an outstanding example of a Tudor mansion. William Waldorf Astor bought the castle in the 1920s and now it is owned by a private enterprise.
One of the most magnificent areas of the grounds is the Italian Garden, designed to display Astor’s collection of Italian sculpture. Over a thousand men worked on its creation. Within four years, a large area of classical and natural landscapes was constructed. The colourful walled Rose Garden contains over 4000 plants that burst into bloom come spring time. If you have a keen interest in gardens, you might like to check out our specialist garden tours.
England’s villages small group history tours for mature travellers
Our 18-night England’s villages small group history tours for mature travellers explores the many facets of country life in England. This small group escorted tour takes you through different eras and across a variety of beautiful landscapes. Professional guides teach you about the history and culture that over centuries have created the villages of England. England’s villages small group cultural and history tours for mature travellers includes a number of England’s prettiest and oldest villages. The villages visited reflect a range of economic activities, architectural styles and historic influences. This historic small group tour also provides a look at life in castles, a country estate and manor house. Short guided walking tours and village museums provide interesting insights into village history and life.
Villages of England small group tour: other highlights
The Villages of England small group tour includes visits to numerous country villages and houses that have been used as TV and film sets, including Lacock, Castle Combe, and Port Isaac. Perhaps you’ll recognise some of these locations from your favourite British dramas and period pieces! We also explore the haunting stones at Avebury, with its very own Neolithic World Heritage Site, and view the Tudor mansion and glorious gardens of Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn. In addition, we take in the magnificent and varied scenery of rural England and learn about the fascinating styles of architecture that make English villages unique.
England’s villages small group history tours for mature travellers is one of some 20 tours Odyssey offers each year to Britain to mature couples and solo travellers who enjoy learning while travelling. Perhaps you will be drawn to a more active Walking Tour of Rural Britain, or to the story of Britain’s Industrial Revolution through its Canals and Railways. We also offer tours based on special subjects, like Shakespeare or the history of Tudor England vs Hapsburg Spain.
If you’d like to learn more about touring Great Britain, read our blog post here! If you’re keen to experience this tour, or learn more about Odyssey Traveller, please call or send an email.
Odyssey Traveller’s small group tours
Odyssey Traveller is a not-for-profit organisation offering Australia and New Zealand’s most comprehensive educational tour programs. We provide worldwide experiences for mature travellers who are keen to blend a love of travel with a thirst for knowledge, and we welcome participants from any country.
Odyssey Traveller is famous for our small groups, and we average eight participants per tour. Our maximum group size is eighteen people, which ensures quality, flexibility and care that is tailored to our clients. We specialise in small group tours for the senior traveller who is seeking adventure or is curious about the world we live in. Typically, our clients begin travelling with us from their mid 50’s onward. But be prepared to meet fellow travellers in their 80s and beyond! Both couples and singles are welcome.
About Odyssey Traveller
Odyssey Traveller is committed to charitable activities that support the environment and cultural development of Australian and New Zealand communities. Accordingly, we are pleased to announce that since 2012, Odyssey has been awarding $10,000 Equity & Merit Cash Scholarships each year. We award scholarships on the basis of academic performance and demonstrated financial need. We award at least one scholarship per year. We’re supported through our educational travel programs, and your participation helps Odyssey achieve its goals.
For more information on Odyssey Traveller and our educational small group tours, visit our website. Alternatively, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!