LONDON, England – They are gems in the nation’s tourist crown, honeypots beloved of day-trippers and artists, and derided by gritty novelists. They embody Englishness to makers of chocolate boxes and expatriates dreaming of home. From Lulworth to Broadway, Castle Combe to Robin Hood’s Bay, the picture-book villages of England are famous for a reason. They are lovely.
Clovelly in north Devon tumbles down a wooded hillside to the sea, defying wheeled transport as it once defied customs officers. Built on fishing and smuggling, it is a huddled defile in which ancient whitewashed cottages decked with begonias and geraniums seem about to slide downhill. From the cliff above, Clovelly’s roofs and chimneys form a cubist painting against the blue sea. The charm of the climb down the stepped main street, Up Along Down Along, to the Red Lion pub is diminished only by the thought of walking up again.
Places such as Lavenham in Suffolk were the boom towns of the 15th century, processing wool and sending it on to the continent. The church is a cathedral of late Gothic, blazoned with the arms of the merchants who built it. The market square would be the most exquisite in England were it not for parked cars. The best view is from outside the Swan hotel (01787 247477, theswanatlavenham.co.uk). Curving medieval streets spin uphill and down, half-timbered facades interspersed with stately Georgian inserts.
The cloth that made Lavenham came from the great sheep runs of Gloucestershire, and wool markets such as Chipping Campden. Here was no need for wood frames and plaster: the limestone spine of England offered Cotswold stone, here in a milky ochre. Stretched languidly on either side of the colonnaded market, its high street is of handsome 16th- and 17th-century merchants’ houses. In the churchyard, tombs depict bales of wool; the steeple boasts a town as confident of itself in the next world as in this.
A contrast is offered by Hutton-le-Hole on the North Yorkshire Moors. This tiny settlement above Rydale must once have been a place of grinding poverty, where a few souls eked a living from the open moor. Now its cottages sit serene by a packhorse bridge behind white fences and sheep roam what passes for a street. Hutton is ill-suited to the hordes who crowd it, but behind it lies Ryedale Folk Museum (01751 417367, ryedalefolkmuseum.co.uk, entry adult £7, child £6), a collection of ancient moorland cottages that have found a perfect resting place.
To the south, near Bradford, is Sir Titus Salt’s wool mill and model village (01274 531163, saltairevillage.info) at Saltaire. Founded in 1851, it is Victorian England’s most impressive exercise in corporate welfare. Rather than being crammed into tenements, Salt’s workers were housed in terraced cottages with gardens, close to church, school, hospital, library and gym. It was a welfare state in microcosm.
The village is today run by a trust and is a world heritage site. The mill, a mighty cliff of pink stone with a Florentine bell tower, is a hive of post-industrial enterprise, and houses the 1853 Gallery (saltsmill.org.uk, free). The estate is fiercely protected, and displayed, by its modern beneficiaries.