8 Picturesque Small Towns in England

These delightful small towns in England offer everything from craggy coves and cream teas to hillside picnics and frothing pints.

Homes in the town of Rye, East Sussex
Photo:

Mandy Haakenson/Travel + Leisure

Nowhere else in the world does "quaint" quite like England. Go beyond the main urban hubs like London, Birmingham, and Manchester, and you'll discover hundreds of picturesque smaller towns that have inspired poets, painters, and playwrights with their beauty.

From historic fishing hamlets to idyllic country villages, England's green and pleasant land is teeming with charm. Even better, it's all incredibly well connected via national rail links. If you're planning a trip across the pond, read on for the rural change of pace your itinerary needs. These are eight of the best small towns in England, all packed with delightful scenery, fascinating history, delicious food, and more.

Avebury, Wiltshire

Homes in Avebury, Wiltshire

Rory Fuller/Travel + Leisure

Many people have likely heard of Stonehenge, but few know of Avebury, a delightful village under an hour from the mighty monoliths. While nowhere near as old as its Neolithic neighbor, Avebury still has plenty of its own history to show off, as the town dates back more than 1,000 years. Much of the village is surrounded by another ancient stone circle, while more modern highlights include the grand 16th-century Avebury Manor and Garden and glorious village pub, Red Lion, which is famed for its roaring fire and warming comfort food.

Tintagel, Cornwall

Scenic views of Tintagel, Cornwall

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Situated on Cornwall's dramatic Atlantic coast, Tintagel is heavily entwined with the legend of King Arthur, who supposedly ruled from his stronghold here. As a result, the craggy cliffside castle ruins are a popular tourist attraction, as is Merlin's Cave, a natural cavern at the base of the cliffs, where the wizard allegedly lived. In town, grab a steaming hot Cornish pasty from the appropriately named Cornish Bakery and a cream tea from King Arthur's Café before sourcing dessert from the town's famous fudge shop, Roly's Fudge Pantry. If you're up for a short hike, St. Nectan's Glen is a magnificent spot just outside of town, with its own deep legends and a dramatic 60-foot waterfall at its heart.

Bakewell, Derbyshire

Aerial view of Bakewell, Derbyshire

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This pretty northern town with its stone houses straight out of a storybook is synonymous with the Bakewell tart, a delicious jam pudding invented here about 200 years ago. Aside from sampling the best tarts the local bakeries have to offer, visitors can check out several fantastic pubs, including The Manners and The Red Lion. It's easy to walk off the pudding and pints afterward, too, as Bakewell sits in the heart of England's spectacular Peak District National Park, stuffed with excellent hiking trails. Just save enough time to visit the iconic Chatsworth House while you're in town — it's one of the finest country estates in Europe.

Lavenham, Suffolk

This Grade II Listed building found in the Suffolk town of Lavenham has hisotical and architectural importance. Built around the 15th Century, this former inn later became the shoe makers (Cordwainer) home.
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During the 15th century, Lavenham was one of the wealthiest towns in England, thanks to a roaring wool trade. But cheaper imports from Europe saw workers leave in droves, and the town lay frozen in time. Today, it looks very much as it did then: quaint medieval buildings leaning haphazardly into one another in a riot of drunken pastels and timbers. As a result, strolling down the high street feels like walking through a fairy tale — or a Hollywood movie, as Lavenham has appeared in plenty of the latter, most famously doubling as Harry Potter's birthplace in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One." Behind the higgledy-piggledy facades are several excellent eateries, but first-time visitors should make a beeline for the extraordinary Lavenham Guildhall, where you can sip tea in a remarkably well-preserved Tudor room.

Shaftesbury, Dorset

View over homes in Shaftesbury, Dorset

Rory Fuller/Travel + Leisure

Home to Gold Hill, the steep, cobblestone street dubbed "one of the most romantic sights in England," Shaftesbury is a major charmer. The tiny Dorset town is also home to the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey, built in 888 AD by King Alfred, the man credited with creating England. Shaftesbury is also surrounded by a wealth of incredible countryside rich in picnicking potential, including Fontmell Down, Duncliffe Wood, and Melbury Beacon — a hilltop that was part of the chain of beacons linking London to Plymouth in 1588 to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada.

Rye, East Sussex

Aerial view of Rye, East Sussex by the water

Mandy Haakenson/Travel + Leisure

Perched two miles from the sea at the confluence of three rivers, ancient Rye has deep maritime roots dating back to the Roman era, but its center is very much medieval, with twisting cobblestone streets and charmingly crooked houses. The most famous of these is The Mermaid Inn, established in 1156. A notorious smuggling den in the 18th century, this spot is now one of the most charming pubs in southern England. (Tip: Don't miss the superb Sunday roast dinner.)

Rye is riddled with secret passages and ancient alleyways that are a pleasure to explore, but you can gain a bird's-eye view over the warren from the climbable 12th-century bell tower of St. Mary's Church. After hiking and climbing above this picturesque destination, seek out Simon the Pieman on Lion Street for delicious scones served with strawberry jam and clotted cream.

St. Ives, Cornwall

The town of St. Ives, Cornwall on the water

Rory Fuller/Travel + Leisure

Tucked on the rugged coast of the Celtic Sea, St. Ives used to be little more than a traditional fishing village, but this gorgeous coastal town has evolved into one of Britain's most popular seaside destinations. Its soft, sandy beaches regularly win awards, and there's also a decent surf and plenty of excellent seafood dining options. The town has even forged a reputation as a serious arts hub, with a cluster of outstanding galleries led by the seafront Tate St. Ives, which features rotating modern art exhibitions focusing on British artists.

Castle Combe, Wiltshire

Homes in the town of Castle Combe, Wiltshire

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Garnering the nickname of "prettiest village in England" is a tricky feat, particularly when the competition is so ferocious, but Castle Combe, a beautiful spot in the impossibly photogenic Cotswolds region, has managed it, and few would argue. Its handsome honey-hued stone houses and flower-lined lanes have graced countless postcards and magazine covers over the years, not to mention TV series like Downton Abbey and Hollywood movies such as "Stardust" and Steven Spielberg's "War Horse." If you're planning to head out on one of the many footpaths spiraling into the spectacular surrounding countryside, grab some fresh produce from the many honesty boxes placed outside local homes for a picnic. This is a town as generous and welcoming as it is picturesque.

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