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.
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 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.
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 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 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!
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 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 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, 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 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?