6 Delightful Small Towns to Explore in the UK
There’s drama to be found in every brick, pebble and time-worn spaces across the United Kingdom, medieval sets that putter on long after bodice dresses and horse-drawn carriages have given reign to chic coats and gleaming cars. London, in its modern glamour, remains a gateway to quaint towns that wear their history proudly.
From Sussex to Wales, 6 picturesque towns have captured the quintessential English township. Woven into oaken bar stools of generational pubs, kitschy boutiques and historical architecture are aesthetic trends and local myths. These unique communities share their art and folklore via galleries, markets and festivities. And the thread that binds all these elements together are the friendly locals, who welcome every guest warmly, eager to share what makes their home so special.
The Lamb House, Rope Walk, Watch Bell – these fantastical names are merely a snippet of the vision Rye town has to offer. Less than an hour away from London via express train, this coastal town demands a full day of exploration; or a weekend if you visit bordering vineyards such as Chapel Down. You can board at London’s St. Pancras station and transfer at Ashford International station to reach Rye.
Centuries of invasions have shaped the labyrinth that is Rye town as its perch along the English Channel’s narrowest point mark easy harbor access. Constant raids by France and Spain demanded that Rye be made into a Cinque Port in 1300s, capable of defense alongside trade. Meanwhile, nature acted over the centuries to form the Romney marshes, shaping Rye’s unique geographical lay. Centuries of smuggling has plagued the town too, luxury goods imported across the channel and bringing opportunity into an otherwise quiet town.
There’s no better schedule than simply wandering the cobbled streets of Rye. Topping the list of things to do is slow exploration of the area’s heritage riches, from its quirky shops to the soft sands along the coastline.
Rye Harbor – Footpaths denote Rye Harbor Nature Reserve, a conservation effort of 475 hectares. Like most wetlands and salt marshes, it is home to birds and rare wildlife with aquatic habitats. Embark on mile-long treks around this coastal reserve to catch glimpses of the Camber Castle. Guided tours are available to impress visitors on how Rye Harbor is a key piece of heritage.
Mermaid Street – Like a mermaid’s scale-packed tail, the tight squeeze of timbered houses along Mermaid Street is a net of colored beauty. Leafy draperies hang from slanted roofs and around window bracers while white-washed façades blend smoothly with the original brick components. Characterized by quirky antique shops and boutiques such as Glass Etc (vintage glassware), Rye Pottery (ceramics) and Strand Quay (miscellaneous goodies), it is Rye town’s postcard representative. Catch your breath at 15th-century The Mermaid inn with a side dose of secret passages and ghost stories.
Ypres Tower – Fortifications are essential to any strategic port and Ypres Tower is the remnants of one such defensive wall. Having played the role of prison, house and mortuary since its conception in the 13th century, it now houses the Rye Castle Museum. Behind exhibits of the town’s history is a recreated medieval herb garden
Rye Windmill – The blades may not turn anymore, but Rye Windmill retains its exposed brickwork and old ovens. What was once a mill bakery has transformed into a B&B filled with idyllic charm. Book a stay for panoramic bedside views and delicious breakfasts.
Nestled in Hereford County is the literary vessel of Ledbury, a market town that celebrates local produce, history and literature with frequent events. Plan for a weekend trip to get the most of this vibrant town and balance off your travel time. The fastest way to get there is by train from London Paddington station, averaging 2 hours and 40 minutes of commute.
Slow, rambling living is the nature of market towns – Ledbury is lingering in slow-moving lines as shopkeepers chatter with regular customers, enjoying an afternoon cuppa and sticking your nose into every event. Better yet, it has inspired scores of poetry with its Victorian buildings and nearby countryside. Battles had taken place on the main street to result in Royalist victory in 1645 but Ledbury’s fame comes from its literary occupants. Elizabeth Barrett-Browning was the first poet of renown to have lived here, followed by John Masefiled and the Dymock Poets. The annual 10-day Ledbury Poetry Festival is one of the top things to do in Ledbury.
Ledbury Market – The 16th-century white and black timber Market House is a common postcard subject, but Ledbury’s Market Place has been established since 1122. While the bulk of the building now hosts town council meetings, the stilted bottom has its fair share of vendors. For the homemade jams, chutneys, friendly vendors and freshly baked goods you’re expecting, drop by the Friday Country Market.
Butcher Row House Museum – The west side of Ledbury’s high street is better known as Butcher Row, formed by a series of 15th-century shops that have turned into a museum. Featuring items from the Civil War and the Battle of Ledbury, it also owns a collection of period costumes and instruments from the Victorian era.
Eastnor Castle – The regal, if not somewhat grim, silhouette of Eastnor Castle lies around the border of Ledbury. With roots in Georgian times, the turreted walls and heavy-set design took inspiration from Gothic and Italianate styles. Events are held frequently on this estate as its diverse spaces include a maze and garden center, a deer park, arboretum and lake to provide unique backdrops. The interior is even more stunning; lush tapestries, velveteen furnishings, dramatic hall arches and fine art come together in a fantasy setting.
Hellens Manor – Of Ledbury’s many historic houses, Hellens Manor is one deeply entrenched in England’s history. A hauntingly beautiful garden leads into the cold gray of the Stone Hall, but nothing raises the hair on your body like the haunted bed chamber set aside for Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary. Anne Boleyn’s heirlooms are displayed on their own pedestals while the Music Room is a trove of Renaissance paintings by Van Dkye, Goya and Gainsborough.
While you’re in Hereford, why not pop over to the bookish town of Hay-on-Wye? Located even further within Hereford’s country wiles, driving is the most direct way of access when some 3.5 hours from London. The most popular option is taking the train from London to Hereford and catching a bus from there. If you’re travelling a solid 3 hours, a weekend trip is better than a day trip.
Much of Hay-on-Wye’s history prior to gaining the moniker ‘Town of Books’ is mired with the common tale of political misfires, war-themed fires and regular fires. Fortunately, modern history drew the town towards a safer bookish identity beginning with Richard Booth’s investment of a second-hand bookshop in 1900s. Following his example, other townsmen cultivated their own niches of books, rounding off at the current 20 bookshops of vintage tomes. This love for the written word made Hay a leading presence in the literary world, and the perfect set for the Hay-on-Wye Book Festival.
Hay-on-Wye Book Festival – By far the most well-known thing to do in town, this annual festival is held over two weeks at the beginning of June. Writers, book lovers, artists and casual visitors flood in for live performances, readings and more.
Hay-on-Wye bookshops – With titles stacked on titles and lovingly cradled in homey wood-bracketed shops, visitors struggle to pinpoint their favorite grove. Honesty bookshops are open-air collections set against castle ruins and other corners with payment boxes nearby; a test of honesty! Moving away from this unique feature, we have the original Richard Booth’s Bookshop in a three-level emporium. Murder and Mayhem sells as advertised, as does The Poetry Bookshop. Since many are specialty shops, you can pick your preferred genre and start there.
Hay Castle – The town is a mish-mash of skinny streets and character-filled shopfronts, low silhouette broken only by the crumbling remains of Hay Castle. If there’s one conventional attraction to visit, this is it.
Hay-on-Wye Markets – The Thursday Market is a seven-hundred-year-old presence teeming with life; it’s not just about books but also vintage wares, fresh produce and offbeat items. The only thing better than this weekly affair is the Christmas Market, when winter transforms the sleepy town into a community party with strung up lights, carol singing, mince pies and spiced cider.
Steeped in history, Chester’s origins as a Roman fortress is clear in the burnished sandstone walls and excavated ruins. The ancient city borders Wales with an average travel time of 2 hours 15 minutes from London. Take the train from London Euston for fast travels. While you can do it as a day trip, a weekend visit offers more time to enjoy Chester’s varied attractions.
It took much iteration before Chester landed on its final name, but the original derivative meaning “fort” or “city of the legion” reflects its founding purpose as a Roman fort in 79 AD. The stronghold witnessed centuries of battle to letter among the last that fell to the Normans. More city than town, Chester grew exponentially within its walled confines during the Industrial Revolution. Today, the wreath of medieval buildings and Victorian architecture lures in tourists with rich promises of history and unusual landmarks.
City Walls – The first attraction on any tourist’s list begins with a circuit of Chester’s city walls, the sole defensive parameter in Britain left whole. Red, sun-darkened stone make up a solid platform where visitors can enjoy incredible views over the city. Besides prime landmark-viewing, these thousands of years old walls imbue in everyone a sense of awe and fragility.
Eastgate Clock – Where the walls are quietly impressive, the Eastgate Clock was created in celebration, not strategy. Ornate metal whirls, gold-tinted motifs and colored pieces demand attention; this landmark was commissioned for Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee. Make sure you get a requisite photo under it!
Chester Zoo – Touted as UK’s best zoo, Chester Zoo lives up to the hype with over 21,000 inhabitants and carefully crafted habitats. There’s more than enough space at 51 hectares; visitors can rest easy knowing the animals well taken care of. Exotic wildlife aside, there are also plenty of animal-themed restaurants to keep your energy levels up.
Chester Cathedral – For a dose of history and some of the best views in Chester, visit the monastic complex of Chester Cathedral. It’s a diverse garden of sights, from 14th-century quire stalls to a Falconry & Nature Gardens. You can even dine within at the Monks Hall Refectory.
For the romantics – There are plenty of romantic things to do in Chester, including mealtimes along the waterfront. Or maybe you’d prefer a stroll around the historic Rows, medieval buildings that offer small shops with unique items. What takes the cake is an afternoon tea cruise down River Dee or through the Duke’s Estate for a serene sightseeing tour.
St. Ives is the epitome of seaside thralls: sifting stretches of sand, rolling waves, a thriving art scene. Like a lighthouse guarding the tip of the English Channel, St. Ives is a beacon for vacationers – one that takes 8 hours of travel by train. Trains depart from London Paddington to St Ives (Cornwall). Spend at least a weekend there for a languid holiday.
Cornwall’s coastline always warned of danger for fishermen, shallow waters and treacherous rocks leading to numerous shipwrecks. But it’s this very composition that drew artistic talent to St Ives long after the pilchard dishing and slate trade dried up; the expansive horizon and shimmering waves cast surreal light over the town. Reflecting off seabed and surface, this light delivers in varying hues over the day.
Art Galleries – St Ives is known for high quality of art inspired by its magical interplay of light and Tate St Ives is a multimillion gallery of monumental exhibition space. Sculpture and abstract art take precedence, but Leach Pottery reimagines traditional ceramics. Barbara Hepworth Museum meanwhile, pays tribute to a leading abstract sculpture, housed in her studio post-mortem. St Ives Society of Artists is the oldest collective, a gallery hosted in a converted church.
Surfing – Sandy sweeps and sweltering waves entice surfers from all over the country. Take your pick of Porthmeor Beach, Porthgwidden Beach and Porthminster Beach for both seafood and surfing shallows. Surfers can enjoy wide rollers at the former, while the latter’s gentle incline makes great paddling and kayaking space.
Scenic Railway – When the sun is out, the St Ives Bay Line edges along the coast in a panoramic sweep of Hayle Towans and Carbis Bay. These railway rides offer some of the most spectacular views of the UK’s countryside.
Day trips – When you’ve exhausted the galleries, art shops and indie cafés in St Ives, consider making your way round Cornwall’s bordering heritage sites. Chysauster takes you to an ancient Iron Age settlement sprawled with ruins while St. Michael’s Mount offers a mounted castle and gardens above a natural harbor. Wildlife isn’t far at Paradise Park and Eden Project either.
Just when you think you’ve seen everything, the dreamy village of Portmeirion is an unexpected taste of Italy. This holiday village is best enjoyed over the weekend due to both travel distance and charismatic lodges, featuring two hotels and several cottages. Located in Northern Wales, it is accessible via train from London Euston with several transit points to stop at Llandudno Junction or Bangor, where you’d take another train line or take a taxi.
Castell Deudraeth marked the first mention of Portmeirion in literature, but the village itself was an effort by Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1973. Naming it Portmeirion to denote “Port of Merioneth”, his goal was to prove that land can be developed without spoiling its natural background. He succeeded with the Aber lâ estate, melding buildings and gardens with the steep cliffs and woods.
Tickets are required to enter Portmeirion, which can be purchased ahead of time online or at the Toll Booth. To enter for free, visitors have to book certain itineraries as listed on the official website.
The Prisoner Movie Set – The revitalization of depilated buildings meant Portmeirion juggled TV-worthy sets; the psychedelic storyline of cult series The Prisoner fit perfectly. One of its most memorable scenes is immortalized in the central piazza in form of a giant chess game – although life-sized chess pieces stand in for the original humans.
Gwyllt Woodland – Portmeirion’s fairytale-like guise can be largely credited to the sprawling woodlands and manicured gardens. The pinnacle of its Alice in Wonderland vibes found within the exotic reaches of Gwyllt woodland, designed by horticulturalist Caton Haigh to weave the wild and voracious rhododendrons, magnolia and azaleas together. Dog Cemetery is an unexpected find, in tribute to former Portmeirion pets that lived here.
Castell Deudraeth – The stunning estate of Castell Deudraeth has been refashioned into a luxurious hotel for weekenders. Traditional rooms and chalet-style accommodation are offered in the Tudor-style manor, decorated with seaside motifs and dramatic fixtures.
Portmeirion Pottery – Of the unique souvenirs to represent Portmeirion, Portmeirion Pottery is designer, craftsmen and distributer in one. The ranges were inspired by the village’s natural splendor, featuring shell-like patterns, mermaid motifs and abstract interpretations of fauna.
Portmeirion Christmas – A result of its sheltered geography, Portmeirion retains splendid natural sights even in the winter. With fewer crowds but consistent beauty, Christmas at this holiday retreat is a magical affair. The centerpiece of winter season is the annual Christmas Fair, where over 100 artisan stalls, craft workshops, cooking demonstrations and a cheery Santa keep guests entertained.
It’s easy to equate the small-town factor with a lack of bustling activity in comparison to London, but each town is gifted with notable charms. From traditional English homes to medieval ruins and homey pubs, these 6 towns show a humble and culturally-rich side of UK that is oft overlooked.