Winning tip: Staffordshire Alps
Ilam, Staffordshire, is a surprise. Although there has been a settlement here since Saxon times, the current buildings are all in the style of a Swiss village. It was built in the early 1800s by a wealthy local landowner, Jesse Watts-Russell, purely because the surrounding Peak District area reminded him of Switzerland. Unlike some wealthy landowners, he seems to have been something of a philanthropist – he built and funded a school before education was compulsory.
Rocket science, Outer Hebrides
Scarp village on the Isle of Scarp was once home to 200 people following the clearances from the Isle of Harris. Life here was hard: the soil was poor, and there was no harbour, so families were unable to thrive. Both the village and island were deserted in 1971. The township was immortalised in a film (2004’s The Rocket Post) thanks to an unsuccessful 1934 experiment to deliver mail by rocket by a German engineer, Gerhard Zucker, who was later deported but continued to pursue his mail rocket dreams long after the second world war. More than 4,000 letters were scattered, singed, across the beach as the missile failed. Today, the deserted village can be seen from Traigh Mheilein beach on Harris; the bright red phone box still visible on the shoreline.
Elizabethan connection, Cotswolds
Bisley is a picturesque village in Gloucestershire. Legend goes that in 1542, Elizabeth I died there while visiting as a child. Her guardians, fearing for their lives, replaced her with a local boy – the Bisley Boy. This is thought to explain why the queen never married. It is said that an unmarked grave of a child was discovered years later in the grounds of the house where Elizabeth stayed. Rumours still abound that her ghost stalks the village. Bisley also has a peculiar pagan celebration for Ascension Day, which usually falls in May. To this day, children in 18th-century school uniforms march through the village to the sound of a brass band and decorate the wells with flowers.
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Beautiful views, ugly history, Isle of Skye
Whether it is because Bonnie Prince Charlie hid nearby as he made his escape, or for the fabulous views of the Cuillins or the fact that its name preceded Gaelic and had its origins in the Norse language, the village of Ergol/Elgol on the Isle of Skye is worth visiting. But for me it’s the layout and form of the village that is its most poignant feature. For this village was built by local landowners in the early 19th century in order to force their tenants off the land to make way for more-productive sheep. Among them, my ancestor and namesake. The houses reflect the regimented crofts but today there is no trace of the poverty and hardship that is the real defining feature of the settlement.
4,000 years of history, Derbyshire
A pretty limestone palette of tans, greys and yellows define the Peak District village of Monyash, with its well-preserved patterns of medieval strip fields and drystone walls. Monyash boasts its own “stonehenge” – the nearby Arbor Low, built by villagers before 2000BC. From Roman lead mining to Quaker stronghold, this little village packs historic punch. Then there’s Monyash’s role in international politics and the cold war: in the 1980s, an early warning system was installed at the Bull’s Head pub.
Tar barrels and Daleks, Northumberland
At first glance, Allendale Town in the North Pennine Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is a normal village inhabited mostly by older people and dog walkers. But would you believe a village like this has a science fiction museum with a real-life Dalek? That it has three pubs, just metres apart? That every New Year’s Eve, dozens of villagers put on fancy dress and carry flaming tar barrels around the village? This is a spectacular occasion that attracts thousands of visitors every year. There is even a song written about it, Tar Barrel in Dale, recorded by the Unthanks. Give it a listen and learn about this wonderfully weird village.
Miser’s curse, Hampshire
In the 12th century, on her deathbed, Lady Tichborne requested of her miserly husband that he compensate the workers on their estate in the village of the same name east of Winchester. Her husband agreed, provided she could crawl around the estate and visit all the households before a log placed on the fire burned out (an area still referred to as The Crawls). She was successful and Lord Tichborne agreed to provide an annual “dole” of flour to each resident. Lady Tichborne ensured that the dole would continue beyond her death by placing a curse on the Tichbornes whereby the family line would die out if the dole was abandoned. This almost happened several times in the 19th century, but the line didn’t actually die out until the 1960s. In pre-pandemic times there was still a Tichborne Dole festival each March.
Wakefield’s ‘millionaires’ row’
Heath, the “village of the mansions”, is just a stone’s throw from Wakefield but feels like a world away. The green is vast and, unusually, there is no church. Instead the eye is drawn towards the numerous 200-year-old mansions around the edge of the green, rather than hidden away down long drives as is customary. The original residents – merchants and businessmen – wanted their wealth to be apparent. Heath became a sort of latterday equivalent of a millionaires’ row, a place to be seen and, as it’s on top of a hill, to look out from. The Kings Arms (with large beer garden) is recommended after a wander.
Pilgrims and lepers, Kent
Between rolling orchards and the outskirts of Canterbury, Harbledown is a small village with a lot of history. Chaucer’s pilgrims are supposed to have passed through here: in the Canterbury Tales it is referred to as “a litel toun” called “Bob-up-and-down”. The Black Prince’s Well, framed by an arch of Kentish ragstone, was believed to cure leprosy, which is why Archbishop Lanfranc ordered a leper’s hospital to be built here in 1085. The hospital and well can still be seen, and are the cause of Harbledown’s most unusual feature. Although it is only a tiny village there are two churches on opposite sides of the road – one for the general population, and the other for the infectious hospital patients.
Another Middle-earth, Devon
You can drive past the turning to Haytor Vale on the road to Widecombe and never know this charming village is there. Haytor Vale nestles in a valley under Haytor Rocks on Dartmoor, it was a reputed holiday venue for JRR Tolkien, near magical woodland walks with a stream running through, reminiscent of areas of Middle-earth. Other visitors include Dame Christabel Pankhurst, who stayed regularly in the village. The Rock Inn and the cottages nearby were built for the workers on the Templer Way, by which granite was transported via the unique granite tramway and Stover Canal to the coast.