If there’s one thing that England knows how to do properly, it’s the countryside. The rolling hills, green fields and architecture are incredibly distinctive and together make up that perfect chocolate-box scene, straight out of a classic period drama. Wherever you are in England, you’re never far from a little village that’s pretty as a picture. The majority of visitors to England stay in London, blissfully unaware of the slices of tranquillity and history that are awaiting them outside the city limits.
Each region of this historic country has its own distinctive feel to it, what all of these villages have in common is their timeless charm. At the risk of offending hundreds of villages all over the country, all of which would fit beautifully into this list, I’ve had to be brutal and select just five of my personal favourites to give you a taster of the delights of this green and pleasant land.
1. Lavenham, Suffolk
Suffolk is famous for being covered in picturesque farmland, with impossibly perfect villages dotted everywhere you look. Lavenham was once a thriving market town and the town square was used as the setting for Godric’s Hollow in the Harry Potter films. Thanks to a slump in the wool trade four centuries ago, the town is like a time capsule, with the originally timber-framed, thatched cottages, all so old that they’re now leaning at precarious angles. Enjoy a cream tea in one of the many charming tea rooms dotted around the town or treat yourself to a slap-up meal at the luxurious Swan Hotel. Suffolk is famous for being flat, but just down the road from Lavenham, you’ll find Kersey, nestled in a little valley with a water splash at the bottom of the hill. From the church, you look down on a scene that hasn’t changed at all for the last four hundred years, with thatched cottages painted in soft pinks and oranges. Make sure you put your handbrake on firmly when parking your car on the steep main street, the only street in this postage-stamp of a village, and pop into The Bell, a 14th-century pub, for a drink.
2. Dedham, Essex
Willy Lott’s cottage, Source: Karen Roe, cc by 2.0
This village, in the Stour Valley, was where John Constable was born and is where you can find the landscapes that inspired his work. Dedham has a thriving community, despite drawing plenty of tourists in the summer, and there are always cultural events taking place in the village. Nearby, you can rent a small boat and row up the tranquil river to Flatford Mill, which you might recognise from one of Constable’s paintings. There’s nothing more idyllic on an English summer’s day than rowing up a reed-fringed river in the sunshine. If you’re visiting in the winter, cosy up in one of Dedham’s quaint pubs instead.
3. Shere, Surrey
Another film location, parts of The Holiday were filmed in this time warp of a village, and the church and square in the heart of the village have played starring roles in plenty of classic British films, like Four Weddings and a Funeral. Enjoy lunch in the quintessential pub, or grab a sandwich from the locally-run sandwich shop and sit by the idyllic stream that runs through the centre of the village, tossing your crumbs to the friendly ducks. From here you can relive scenes from Downton Abbey or Gosford Park with a walk through the gracious parkland of what was once an impressive stately home, and even visit the beautiful Silent Pool and gaze into its hypnotic depths.
4. Castle Combe, Wiltshire
Source: Bethany Ciullo, cc by 2.0
This area of England is particularly distinctive as the houses are all built from a beautiful honey-coloured stone. This village, which takes its name from a 12th-century castle which once stood on a hill just above the settlement, has been called the prettiest village in England, and the street which leads from the 14th-century market cross to the By Brook has looked the same for centuries. This little pocket of history has made its way onto our big screens too, recently being the setting for the film War Horse. Castle Combe can be overwhelmed with visitors on summer weekends, but visit during the week at any time of year and you can enjoy a peaceful walk through the local countryside and around the tranquil streets of this sleepy village.
5. Bakewell, Derbyshire
The north of England is sometimes overlooked, but is just as packed with picturesque country scenes as the south, if not more so. Bakewell, in the Derbyshire Dales, is famous as the home of the Bakewell Tart, a classic English sweet treat made up of shortcrust pastry with an almond topping and a jam and sponge filling. There are three shops in this little market town which all claim to sell the original Bakewell Tart, so you might just have to try all three and compare. The medieval bridge over the River Wye is a beautiful sight, and there are plenty of charming walks in the surrounding area. Bakewell is also very near the incredible Peak District National Park, where you can walk, cycle, climb and camp to your heart’s content, immersing yourself in the British countryside.
I’ve barely even scratched the surface of everything that the English countryside has to offer, and there are plenty of areas of the country, full to bursting with picture-perfect scenes, that I haven’t even mentioned. Rent yourself a car or hop on a local bus or train, get out there and discover your own favourite corner of England.