So what exactly makes for the perfect English village?
We had a go at answering that question with our list of the vital elements of a perfectly quintessential English village.
We’ve split them up into essential criteria – the things we reckon a village must have – and optional items that enhance an English village and make it stand out.
The Attributes Of A Great English Village
There are an estimated 3,000 English villages (depending on your definition) and so, to make a village extra special, it should really have as many of the following items as possible:
Old Country Church
It would be difficult to imagine a perfect village in England without a pretty country church somewhere in the centre.
Indeed it would have been unthinkable several hundred years ago for any settlement of more than a few houses not to have a church. And for that to have been the most impressive building there.
Many of these churches were started sometime after the normal conquest in 1066, and built on over the next several hundred years, and so there are a whole range of styles and features.
However many an English village has a similar square tower – as opposed to a dome common in continental Europe – with a nave, or main section, housing the congregation’s seating.
Most would also have an altar for communion and a pulpit or lectern for preaching and, almost certainly, they would be of the Church Of England (ie protestant Anglican) denomination.
Many larger villages may have non-denominational or even Catholic church as well, but these would likely to be in less prominent more modern buildings.
The village vicar is (or was) a key member of a village community and it’s likely that the vicarage is also one of prettiest village buildings too.
A Fine Village Pub
Public Houses, or pubs for short, are a very British institution.
They are nominally the same as bars in other countries: places to sit and have a drink or perhaps have something to eat. But they are often much more of a central community meeting point – many look like someone’s house with a living room full of people drinking beer – than a pure commercial bar would suggest.
A traditional pub will have a tap room, or ‘snug’, much more sparsely furnished than the lounge, which would attract a better class of patron (yes, the English class system is still alive and well in pubs).
Many of them are owned by a brewer in order to sell their branded ale. Others are so called ‘free houses’ which sell many types of beer.
In recent years pubs, faced with competition from other forms of entertainment and supermarkets selling alcohol, have expanded to sell great food and wine.
But a ‘proper’ pub should still sell ‘real ale’ – the particularly English type of non-gassy room temperature served dark ale that is an acquired taste (to say the least) for visitors.
Villages will normally contain at least one pub – although an alarming number have closed in recent years – which is a great meeting place for everyone in the village.
It goes without saying that a pretty English village has to have pretty buildings, especially its many houses.
Such cottages will often be built with local stone giving them a distinctive look.
Good examples would be sandstone Cotswold cottages and Yorkshire Dales cottages made with the local limestone.
Other elements could include a thatched roof (made of straw), a pretty well kept garden or half timbered walls from the Tudor era (see last month’s issue).
Whatever the type of cottage, it is vital that they be pretty.
Village Green (Optional)
Many villages (particularly those in low lying regions) grew up around an area of common land, able to be used by all villagers, often for feeding sheep and the like.
As this requirement receded they were often turned into village greens or common park like areas for the use of the village.
They’re often the site for the annual village fête, travelling fayre or cricket match. There’s something very very English about a cricket match being played on the village green.
Villages situated on a river, lake, sea or other waterway are often the prettiest. A babbling brook flowing past the main street, say, or the sea lapping against the harbour wall, is a lovely addition to a pretty village.
This is usually achieved by default – villages would only spring up around a water source – but it’s still lovely for a village to have some water nearby, even if it’s not a necessity these days.
History and heritage (Optional)
Another great village attribute is a fine history.
We don’t just mean age here – although a good village is likely to be several hundred years old.
We mean it has played a part in some of England’s long and varied history such as being host to a historic event or home to a famous resident.
Towton in North Yorkshire, for example, was home to the bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses.
And Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire was the home of playwright George Bernard Shaw.
Weird Traditions (Optional)
There are some weird and wonderful village traditions in England, all of which we think enhance the place.
Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire, for example, is made much the lovelier by holding an annual cheese rolling race,
and Ottery St Marys is much more interesting due to its flaming tar barrel processions every year.
Great English Village Examples
Here’s a great selection of the hundreds of pretty villages around England.
We’ve chosen what we reckon to be the prettiest of the main types or locations of village – upland, coastal, Lake District etc – but really could have listed several hundred given the number of gorgeous example there are across the country.
Anyway here are our choices:
Great Tew, Oxfordshire
We start with an archetypal English village: Great Tew in Oxfordshire.
Here you’ll find a pretty country church surrounded by pretty thatched cottages. Although strictly speaking in the Cotswold Hills, it isn’t a typical Cotswold village – the stone is the reddish ironstone rather than the honey coloured sandstone of the Cotswolds (see below for a good example).
The village is a great base for walking, after which you can grab a local Wadworth beer or lunch at the Falkland Arms, featured in the Michelin Guide.
Hawkshead in the heart of the Lake District is a great example of a more rugged upland village.
Cars are banned in the village making Hawkshead’s mix of cobbled lanes, rickety houses and small squares is all the more inviting.
The village also has a strong literary history. William Wordsworth went to the local school, the Old Grammar, staying in Hawkshead during his schooling.
And Beatrix Potter (of Peter Rabbit fame) married a Hawkshead solicitor and lived nearby. The solicitor’s office is now home to the Beatrix Potter Gallery, containing many of her illustrations and original writings.
Port Isaac, Cornwall
Cornwall is full of lovely fishing villages, along its cost of cliffs and caves redolent of the smugglers and pirates that plied their trade in years gone by.
We’ve chosen to feature Port Isaac on the North Cornish Coast, a perfect mix of whitewashed fisherman’s cottages and narrow lanes.
It’s also doubles as Port Wenn in the popular ‘Doc Martin’ TV show. Nominally starring staring Martin Clunes, he’s the first to admit that the real star is the pretty village in which it is filmed.
We had to include a Yorkshire Dales village and, despite severe competition, chose Kettlewell.
Located in Upper Wharfedale, in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the village is gorgeous jumble of pretty stone cottages. It also has three excellent pubs.
This being upland sheep farming country the village is surrounded by drystone walls, stone barns and windswept farm houses.
All of which can be explored on one of the many walks in the neighbourhood (we’re a particular fan of the Kettlewell – Starbotton – Buckden walk next to the River Wharfe).
Castle Combe, Wiltshire
We could have chosen several pretty places for our choice of Cotswold village.
Bibury has a fine parade of honey coloured cottages built in Cotswold stone; Lower Slaughter has its Old Mill; and Chipping Camden has the pretty Market Hall on its High Street.
However, our vote has gone to the picture perfect Castle Combe on the River Bybrook.
The bridge over the river leads to a collection of lovely Cotswold stone cottages a 14th century market cross and pretty country church, St Andrews.
The village has attracted TV and movie makers over the years.
Most recently it was the setting for the TV drama Doctor Thorne by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes.
This pretty fenland village is 2 miles south of Cambridge on the River Cam.
It’s a popular pastime to punt up the Cam to the Orchard Tea Gardens in the village, a meeting place for the Bloomsbury literary set in the early twentieth century.
This loose group of writers and intellectuals included writers EM Forster and Virginia Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes and the poet Rupert Brooke.
The latter was a resident of Grantchester, living in the Old Vicarage.
As well as four pubs, some pretty cottages and a 14th century church, the village also has a large open area called Grantchester Meadows, great for walks.