Nowhere else in the world does “quaint” quite like England. Delve beyond the main urban hubs like London, Birmingham, and Manchester, and you’ll discover hundreds of picturesque, welcoming smaller towns, which have inspired countless poets, painters, and playwrights over the years. By Jonathan Thompson
From historic fishing hamlets to idyllic country villages, England’s green and pleasant land is teeming with charm and incredibly well connected via national rail links. If you’re planning a trip across the pond, read on for the bucolic change of pace your itinerary needs.
These are eight of the best small towns in England, all with a population under 11,000 and brimming with delightful scenery, fascinating history, delicious food, and more.
Must-visit small towns in England
Many people have likely heard of Stonehenge, but few know of Avebury, a delightful village under an hour from the mighty monoliths. While nowhere near as old as its Neolithic neighbour, Avebury still has plenty of its own history to show off, dating back more than 1,000 years. Much of the village is surrounded by another ancient stone circle, while more modern highlights include the grand 16th-century Avebury Manor and Garden and glorious village pub, The Red Lion, which is famed for its roaring fire and warming comfort food.
Stay Here: Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa, an epicurean retreat in the nearby market town of Chippenham, offers a fantastic base for exploring Avebury, Stonehenge, and the surrounding countryside.
Situated on Cornwall’s dramatic Atlantic coast, Tintagel is heavily entwined with the legend of King Arthur, who supposedly ruled from his stronghold here. As a result, the craggy cliffside castle ruins are a popular tourist attraction, as is Merlin’s Cave, a natural cavern at the base of the cliffs, where the wizard supposedly lived. In the town itself, grab a steaming hot Cornish pasty from the appropriately named Cornish Bakery and a cream tea from King Arthur’s Café before sourcing dessert from the town’s famous fudge shop, Roly’s Fudge Pantry. If you’re up for a short hike, St. Nectan’s Glen is a magnificent spot just outside of town, with its own deep legends and a dramatic 60-foot waterfall at its heart.
Stay Here: Named for King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, Pendragon Country House is an upscale B&B in a converted 19th-century vicarage.
This pretty northern town with its stone houses straight out of a storybook is synonymous with the Bakewell tart, a delicious jam pudding that was invented here about 200 years ago. Aside from sampling the best tarts that the local bakeries have to offer, visitors can check out a number of fantastic local pubs, including The Manners and The Red Lion. It’s easy to walk off the pudding and pints afterwards, too, as Bakewell sits in the heart of England’s spectacular Peak District National Park, stuffed with excellent hiking trails. Just save enough time to visit the iconic Chatsworth House while you’re in town — it’s one of the finest country estates in Europe.
Stay Here: Check into The Rutland Arms Hotel, a charming 19th-century coaching inn, where the Bakewell tart was allegedly invented by accident in 1820.
During the 15th century, Lavenham was one of the wealthiest towns in England, thanks to a roaring wool trade. But cheaper imports from Europe saw workers leave in droves, and the town lay frozen in time. Today, it looks very much as it did then: quaint medieval buildings leaning haphazardly into one another in a riot of drunken pastels and timbers. As a result, strolling down the high street feels like walking through a fairy tale — or a Hollywood movie, as Lavenham has appeared in plenty of the latter, most recently doubling as Harry Potter’s birthplace in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One. Behind the higgledy-piggledy facades are a number of excellent eateries, but first-time visitors should make a beeline for the extraordinary Lavenham Guildhall, where you can sip tea in a remarkably well-preserved Tudor room.
Stay Here: An elegant hotel in a 15th-century building next to the Guildhall, The Great House features traditional four-poster beds and an award-winning French fine-dining restaurant.
Home to Gold Hill, the steep, cobblestone street dubbed “one of the most romantic sights in England,” Shaftesbury is a major charmer. The tiny Dorset town is also home to the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey, built in 888 AD by King Alfred, the man credited with creating England in the first place. Shaftesbury is also surrounded by a wealth of incredible countryside rich in picnicking potential, including Fontmell Down, Duncliffe Wood, and Melbury Beacon — a hilltop that was part of the chain of beacons linking London to Plymouth in 1588 to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada.
Stay Here: Located right next to Gold Hill, The Grosvenor Arms offers an ideal blend of modern style and old English charm.
Rye, East Sussex
Perched two miles (three km) from the sea at the confluence of three rivers, ancient Rye has deep maritime roots dating back to the Roman era, but its centre is very much medieval, with twisting cobblestone streets and charmingly crooked houses. The most famous of these is The Mermaid Inn, established in 1156. A notorious smuggling den in the 18th century, this spot is now one of the most charming pubs in southern England. (Tip: Don’t miss the superb Sunday roast dinner.)
Rye is riddled with secret passages and ancient alleyways that are a pleasure to explore, but you can gain an invaluable bird’s-eye perspective over the warren from the climbable 12th-century bell tower of St. Mary’s Church. After hiking and climbing above this picturesque destination, seek out Simon the Pieman on Lion Street for delicious scones served with strawberry jam and clotted cream.
Stay Here: One of the most celebrated pubs in England, The Mermaid Inn also boasts an upscale restaurant and 31 guest rooms — eight of which have four-poster beds.
St. Ives, Cornwall
Tucked on the rugged coast of the Celtic Sea, St. Ives used to be little more than a traditional fishing village, but in recent years, this gorgeous coastal town has evolved into one of Britain’s most popular seaside destinations. Its soft, sandy beaches regularly win awards, and there’s also decent surf as well as plenty of excellent seafood dining options. On top of that, the town has recently forged a reputation as a serious arts hub, with a cluster of outstanding galleries led by the seafront Tate St. Ives, which features rotating modern art exhibitions focusing on British artists.
Castle Combe, Wiltshire
Garnering the nickname “the prettiest town in England” is a tricky feat, particularly when the competition is so ferocious, but Castle Combe, a beautiful village in the impossibly photogenic Cotswolds region, has managed it, and few would argue. Its handsome honey-hued stone houses and flower-lined lanes have graced countless postcards and magazine covers over the years, not to mention TV series like Downton Abbey and Hollywood movies such as “Stardust” and Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.” If you’re planning to head out on one of the many footpaths spiralling into the spectacular surrounding countryside, grab some fresh produce from the many honesty boxes placed outside local homes for a picnic. This is a town as generous and welcoming as it is picturesque.
Stay Here: Opt to spend the night at The Manor House, a 14th-century, ivy-covered hotel next to the river and hidden by a ring of wooded hills.