A Cheatsheet of 10 English Towns You Need to Visit

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Many years ago, I studied folklore and geography at my university’s campus in Harlow, England. It was a wonderful program because every week the other students and I would set out into the English countryside to visit tiny, unexplored villages (and some bigger towns) as part of our English cultural landscape learning. Yes, if you’re imagining those quintessential English towns with adorable architecture and tearooms galore, you’re right. Some are hard to reach; others are more on the well-trodden tourist path. You might even be able to find a friendly England local guide to take you out exploring. Think Scotland is the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom? Pfft, please. You haven’t seen the English countryside. Here is your guide to English towns.

Old Harlow

For my studies, I was based in Old Harlow, next to New Harlow (obviously), in Essex. And although many English folks questioned what on earth I’d be doing in such a dodgy town, the students and I found the place quite charming. Some highlights in the area include an Anglo-Saxon chapel dating from 1180, which is now used as a sort of museum. There’s also a network of gorgeous canals, where locals and their houseboats live a true traveller’s life. And in some areas of town, you can see David Beckham’s house, known as Beckingham Palace. When you’re done, grab a drink at The Marquis or The Crown– both old English pubs! Even New Harlow isn’t a bad place to explore, although it’s significantly less attractive than Old Harlow. If you’re a clubber, there are a handful of good nightlife opportunities scattered around town.

St Albans

St. Albans holds a special place in my heart because it’s also the name of my hometown. This town is most famous for its gorgeous St. Albans Cathedral, the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain. Saint Alban, the first martyr, was buried here more than 200 years before St Augustine arrived in Canterbury. St. Albans folks are quite proud of this fact. There are also a fair bit of Roman relics scattered around the town, including a mosaic embedded in the original floor plan of a Roman house. Other Roman ruins including an old theatre, and you can visit the Museum of Verulamium to see more artifacts.

Lavenham

If you’re a history buff, Lavenham is the place to visit. It used to be one of the wealthiest towns in the country, and its famous blue cloth was exported all around the world. It’s also famous for its timber-framed buildings, making it one of the best-preserved medieval villages in the United Kingdom. There are over 320 historical buildings in this tiny village, and a quick jaunt around town will give you a basic introduction to them. If you’re interested in England’s history, including its religious past, you too can learn more by taking a guided heritage-history tour. Lavenham was also home to a number of guilds, the most exclusive being The Guildhall of Corpus Christi. You can now tour the building and its museum, as well as its elaborate gardens. Don’t forget to grab a cup of tea and a scone at the gift shop!

Weald and Downland

Weald and Downland is actually an open-air museum, but it’s a highlight for anyone who’s visiting England. This entire place consists of buildings assembled to replicate an Old English town, and some of the buildings are in fact relics dating hundreds of years old. Bonus: A LOT of farm animals roam the site, and you’re free to pet the goats and chase the chickens. (Just be nice about it.) There’s also a classic little flour mill, which actually still produces flour. You might even happen across a pair of friendly Clydesdale horses.

Ely

Ely is another village known for its epic cathedral. Back in the day, a cathedral’s spire signified a wealthy, prominent town…and so there was often much competition between neighbouring towns to have the tallest spire. Ely cathedral is particularly special because you can climb some ancient, winding stone tunnels to reach the octagonal eye at the center of the cathedral. Inside, you can lift the paneling of the angels to look down on the congregation, and you’ll have an epic view of the English countryside in the process. You’ll feel a bit like Quasimodo trying to navigate those passageways!

Framlingham

The draw to Framlingham tends to be its fearsome fortress, the Framlingham Castle! Although today it’s mostly in ruins, you can still tour the site where Mary Tudor took refuge. Touring the area, you’ll learn lots about how this place became the home of some of the most powerful people in Tudor England. Framlingham is also known as a quiet little market town, and its streets are lined with lovely shops, cafes, and restaurants.  If ever there were a place that embodies English countryside living, it’s this place.

Canterbury

Canterbury is certainly one of the better-known English villages, especially for its legendary Canterbury Cathedral.  It’s been an important site of religious and political activity in medieval times, a place of pilgrimage, and the infamous site of Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170. It’s size and grandeur? Unbeatable. Religious or not, you’ll be blown away by what Canterbury offers. The town of Canterbury itself is lovely, with lots of shopping and eating opportunities. You can go punting down the river, visit the Canterbury Roman Museum, or peruse the Dane John Gardens for something a little different. A local guide in Canterbury will show you everything you need to see!

Bath

Bath is another popular English destination, particularly for its iconic Roman Baths. This bathhouse is a well-preserved Roman site for public bathing, although the hot springs are no longer in use. (You can still dip your feet in though, if you’re brave. The colour of the water can be off-putting to some.) When you visit, you can check out the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the actual Bath House, and the Roman Museum. There’s also the Grand Pump room. Other than the baths, though, the town has plenty to do. The canal waterways are beautiful to observe, and you can even opt for a boat tour. Taste some of the locally brewed Abbey Ales, or take tea in one of the tearooms. Hop on a city bus tour, or peruse the collections at the Holburne Museum.

Birmingham

Birmingham, despite being in the centre of England, is often overlooked…perhaps because it once had a reputation of being heavily industrialized. Now it’s a cultural hub, chock full of museums, great shopping, galleries, and other attractions. Also nearby is “Shakespeare Country,” where towns like Stratford upon Avon and Warwick draw literary lovers in droves. The Cotswold hills make for a particularly pretty backdrop. If you hire a guide in Birmingham, you’ll get an intimate account of what makes this town tick. You’ll discover quiet back roads and historic canal paths, and you’ll learn how this medieval market town turned into a “city of a thousand trades.” Visit the famous Jewellery Quarter (need a good souvenir for a loved one?), and pay attention to the local architecture. Half of it is incredibly modern and unique, the other half is classically old English. Photo opps? Unlimited.

Brighton

Brighton was easily one of my favourite destinations in England. This quaint little seaside town is home to the massive Brighton Pier extending into the ocean, on which sits an amusement park (including a Ferris wheel!) and a full arcade. It’s like a playground in the sea. The beachfront is lined with bars, cafes, restaurants, and hotels. There’s a distinctly young-and-hip atmosphere here, and it won’t take long before you’re hooked! Here you’ll also find The Royal Pavilion, by far the most eccentric royal residence in the United Kingdom (and my absolute favourite). It’s like a collection of worldly architecture: Indian-style domes and minarets, Asian furnishings, and even a dragon-themed banqueting hall. On the ceiling of the music room, there are 26,000 gold scales. Seriously. It’s dazzling, tacky, and impressive.

What’s your favorite English town?

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Comments

  • Barbara Saunders
    Reply

    I
    was born in Hastings in 1948 and lived for four more years in
    Bexhill-on-Sea. My mother came from Hanover, Germany and had married my
    father, who had been one of the soldiers sent down from Hamburg to
    Hanover, passing by the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, fifty-seven
    miles north of Hanover.
    On return to Bexhill, my father gained a place at the Royal College of
    Art. And when he graduated found a position as Art-Teacher at Lymm
    Grammar School, where in the old days, before the school was expanded,
    there was a wonderful countryside looking east, over the Mersey Channel
    into the hills beyond. The school expanded, removing the wonderful
    landscape to make cricket, hockey, football, tennis and swimming
    possible.
    Subsequently, living in Lymm Village, having finished my schooling there
    I went to Nottingham University graduating in History and Art History.
    By then I was married and had a little daughter. My husband was invited
    to go and study at Delft University in the Netherlands.
    I found the centre of Delft very beautiful – Vermeer had once lived
    there and had painted wonderful pictures of life there.

    In the Netherlands, a very Calvinist country, I didn’t feel at home.
    Nevertheless despite my need for a good family, I necessarily had to
    divorce my husband as he was having an affair with one of the
    neighbours. After the divorce I married a Dutchman and had another
    daughter with him.

  • Tyagi
    Reply

    Shrewsbury, Buxton, Chester, Durham, York, Bakewell, Oxford. Among others. The original suggestions don’t stray very far north or west of London !

  • Christina sauer
    Reply

    St. Just – in – Penwith near Land’s End is my favourite corner of Britain. Walk down Nancherrow Valley to the ruins of an old tin mine and watch seals bobbing up and down in the Atlantic swell.

  • Barbara Saunders
    Reply

    I
    was born in Hastings in 1948 and lived for four more years in
    Bexhill-on-Sea. My mother came from Hanover, Germany and had married my
    father, who had been one of the soldiers sent down from Hamburg to
    Hanover, passing by the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, fifty-seven
    miles north of Hanover.
    On return to Bexhill, my father gained a place at the Royal College of
    Art. And when he graduated found a position as Art-Teacher at Lymm
    Grammar School, where in the old days, before the school was expanded,
    there was a wonderful countryside looking east, over the Mersey Channel
    into the hills beyond. The school expanded, removing the wonderful
    landscape to make cricket, hockey, football, tennis and swimming
    possible.
    Subsequently, living in Lymm Village, having finished my schooling there
    I went to Nottingham University graduating in History and Art History.
    By then I was married and had a little daughter. My husband was invited
    to go and study at Delft University in the Netherlands.
    I found the centre of Delft very beautiful – Vermeer had once lived
    there and had painted wonderful pictures of life there.

    In the Netherlands, a very Calvinist country, I didn’t feel at home.
    Nevertheless despite my need for a good family, I necessarily had to
    divorce my husband as he was having an affair with one of the
    neighbours. After the divorce I married a Dutchman and had another
    daughter with him.
    I have no desire to return to Britain with it’s egregious class system, and dominant right-wing politics.

  • Surendra De Silva
    Reply

    Rye in East Sussex should be included

  • Javier
    Reply

    Great article!. As a tourist visitor of England, I have, sorry, MUST, recommend Durham and Windsor too.

    • Pamela Denis
      Reply

      Thank you Javier. I really think we need a Part 2 of this article with all the new recommendations worked in!

  • Ross
    Reply

    Sorry, but aside from the stumbling English, this article is quite ridiculous. Good choice of towns an cities but anyone who can refer to Canterbury as a village or Brighton as a quaint little town clearly hasn’t got a clue!

    • Pamela Denis
      Reply

      Appreciate the feedback Ross. Candice is one of our most popular authors but perhaps she’s spent a little too much time in mega-metropoles like NYC and Tokyo to share the same perspective. :-)

  • Anabelia
    Reply

    I love Cambridge!

  • Steve
    Reply

    good selection, sorry Vlado as there is much more to England than London and if you go to UK and want to discover the real England then you need to plan and spend time out of London, London as your base should NOT be your reference! The only things actually missing are the glorious cities of liverpool, York and Chester! And the Lake District!

    • Pamela Denis
      Reply

      Thanks Steve! When I get to the region next I’ll need to check out your recommendations too!

  • Raul Santa Cruz
    Reply

    Nice article!!. I’ve also included York, a beautiful little city.

    • Pamela Denis
      Reply

      Oh, nice addition! Thanks Raul!

  • Luis Villamonte
    Reply

    Interesting and beautiful article. Very nice images.

    • Pamela Denis
      Reply

      Thanks Luis. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Vlado Zmegac
    Reply

    A great selection only thing missing apps distance from the center of london

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