The village is the oldest form of settlement still surviving in the UK, but ‘surviving’ is an inadequate word. From Abinger Hammer (Surrey) to Zeal Monachorum (Devon), picturesque cottages clustered round church, mill and manor house are as desired as never before.
It is hard to believe that ‘cottage’ meant slum in Tudor times and that hovels preceded the demure thatch and mellow stone introduced in the 17th century. Prosperity, commuting and modern cottage industries, in much if not yet all of our countryside, have made the long-standing village dream real.
Chocolate-box landscapes, drowsy greens and duck ponds are therefore easy to find, but although they are lovely – especially when characterful pubs or tearooms are part of the deal – they take second place, for me, to villages that tell a special story. Pre-eminent among these is the sinuous row of red-brick cottages and farms along a winding road at Laxton in Nottinghamshire.
This is the last place in the UK where the medieval practice of strip-farming is still in use.
Instead of standing like islands amid their own large fields, Laxton’s farms share the village’s three streets with cottages, a shop and the Dovecote pub, where the court leet still allocates annually 164 strips of the three great medieval fields – South, West and Mill, totalling 483 acres – with a vocabulary of unchanged agricultural words such as pinder, flatt, syke, toft and wong.
Every landowner gets a fair share of prime land, as well as less fertile patches. Fines are imposed by the court baliff for strip infringement and you generally feel that Robin Hood might turn up any time.
The unique survival is down to a 19th-century disagreement over boundaries between two great landowners, the earls of Manvers and Scarborough. This spared the village from the enclosures, which did for strip-farming everywhere else. Comfortably off and with contented tenants, neither grandee could be bothered to take the issue to court.
Laxton’s status is now guaranteed by all manner of heritage bodies, with the original field division map safely in Oxford’s Bodleian library and an excellent visitor centre in the village itself. There’s also the grassy mound of a motte and bailey Norman castle and – in the way in which English villages often come up with completely unexpected features – the UK’s first Holocaust Centre, a moving and peaceful place inspired by a village couple’s visit to Israel.
Alnmouth is a sweet little seaside resort on the wild and unspoilt Northumberland coast with the unexpected privilege of a station on the East Coast Main Line. The view from the train is enough to tempt anyone out to explore a place whose previous, murkier career as a busy port and smuggling centre was curtailed in 1806 when violent weather led to the river Aln changing course.
Tourist attractions abound in the hinterland and along the coast, but I would settle in the famously haunted Schooner Hotel and raise a glass to the American privateer captain John Paul Jones who fired a cannon at the church tower in 1779 but missed.
Linton-in-Craven’s picture-perfect green and rose-covered Fountaine pub looks out on something wildly unexpected: a magnificent set of almshouses, originally a combination of hospital and hostel, attributed to Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.
Somehow, their florid grandeur sits happily with its humbler neighbours, an old-fashioned red telephone kiosk and – a short walk away – the Norman village church and Linton Falls on the River Wharfe. Say a quiet thank you to Richard Fountaine, a local man who bequeathed the building with money from an unusual silver lining: he was an undertaker in London during the 1665 Great Plague.
Fortingall makes the cheerfully unlikely claim to be the birthplace of Pontius Pilate. However improbable, the story reflects on the great antiquity of the place as a site of human settlement and religious worship, and its awesome yew tree would have been impressive when Pilate was in nappies. A claimant to the title of oldest living tree (and therefore oldest living thing) in Europe, it may date back 5,000 years.
The surrounding buildings are a contrasting triumph in late 19th-century Art and Crafts design. A classic estate village, contemporary Fortingall was laid out by the local MP and landowner Sir Donald Currie, in a style whose thatch recalls Devon, while the stone hints at Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an admirer of Currie’s architect James MacLaren.
Wentworth is a handsome village built of soft, grey Yorkshire stone in the centre of unspoilt countryside, which at night forms a large heart of darkness between the busy glow of Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham.
This is the Wentworth Estate, whose monuments range from the longest house in the UK – the stunning 18th-century mansion of Wentworth Woodhouse – to delicate follies such as the Needle’s Eye, a chicane on the second Marquis of Rockingham’s route for racing his carriage against fellow toffs. Wentworth Castle, another vast mansion built by jealous cousins, is nearby and the public footpath network makes for a fascinating day out.
I have a soft spot for Leeds in Kent because I come from the rather more famous Leeds in Yorkshire. As a boy, I used rose-smothered pictures of the old Leeds (Kent) village post office as a ploy to counter allegations that Leeds (Yorkshire) was too hideous for anyone to visit.
The great glory of the Kentish Leeds is its famous castle, set on an island in a lake, but the village itself is a pretty ensemble of red-brick buildings, with distinctive oast houses, two pubs, a Norman church and is the site of an ancient priory. Through traffic is a serious problem but has galvanised community spirit so there is always plenty going on. The name probably comes from an old stream name, Hlyde or ‘the noisy one’; Leeds (Yorkshire) is from the forest of Loidis.
Plockton, on the shores of Loch Carron, was revitalised as a planned fishing village in the early years of the 19th century. Its modern reinvention as a tourism centre – helped by the filming of the BBC series Hamish Macbeth – has appropriately included guidebook rosettes for seafood, and dolphin tours in the loch and out to sea.
Splendid scenery is taken for granted hereabouts, but Plockton scores extra marks for its exotic-looking palms and cordylines, blessed by the mild climate of the West Highlands. In keeping, the Victorian builders of battlemented Duncraig Castle made their fortune from the Chinese opium trade.
Burnbanks is the only village in the UK to be built of iron; a remarkable example of a navvy community in a serene nook of woodland on the eastern rim of the Lake District National Park. Peace was not at a premium, however, when 64 prefabricated homes went up in the early 1930s to house workers on Haweswater reservoir dam; the racket from machinery was echoed by furious protests as the ancient upper valley village of Mardale Green was drowned.
Most of Burnbanks’s houses were later dismantled and shipped as scrap to China, but enough remain, along with well-researched noticeboards and a thriving local historical society, to make a visit memorable. Bampton, very nearby, is a welcoming place with shop, pub and B&Bs.
Woodbury is a thriving village within easy commuting distance of Exeter with two pubs, a range of shops and fine 16th-century woodwork in St Swithun’s church. This is a place alive with community activity – I came away with almost a year’s supply of homemade jam on my last visit, from a stall in the churchyard lych gate. Embroidered kneelers in St Swithin’s, each with
over 52,000 stitches, beautifully record more than 130 flowers painted by celebrated botanist William Keble Martin, who retired here and was buried in the churchyard on his death in 1969. Check out the remarkable 16th-century Prayer Book rebellion, when Edward VI had to hire German and Italian mercenaries to suppress rebellious local Catholics.
Castlewellan and its forest park tell a story of two different trees. One is the uncontroversial chestnut, which prettily lines the two squares laid out by the Annesley family in the 18th century. The other is the yellow-green leyland cypress known as Castlewellan Gold, which arouses passionate opinions for and against and should make sure that conversation never runs short on your visit.
It was first grown in the forest park, which includes trees and shrubs from all over the world dating back to the early 19th century, as well as the modern Peace Maze, one of the longest hedge mazes in the world and a symbol of happier times after the Troubles.
This village slumbers in its steep combe between Cotswold hills, the thatched and honey-stoned perfection of an English Arcadia. Its history tells a fascinating story, of haphazard 19th- and 20th-century landowners at the ‘big house’, who almost brought the place to its knees in spite of an illustrious past – in the 17th century, luminaries such as Thomas Hobbes and Ben Johnson stayed and turned the place into a pint-sized Oxford University.
The Falkland Arms is an idyllic and welcoming nook to contemplate the village’s modern revival with laughter from the thriving school across the green and estate owners, whose enterprise extends from running the Cornbury Music Festival to quarrying the lovely local brown and blue-vein ironstone.