Quirky villages. We’re famous for them. They may be split in half, full of deceptions or slipping off the edge of a cliff. Whatever their claim to notoriety, this is the perfect summer to go off-piste and find them.
I collected 50 such curios for my book, Extraordinary Villages. They are a rare adventure missing from tourist guidebooks – it took me 20 years of filming and lots of map reading to piece them together. I discovered a place in the Humber called Sunk Island – how can it be both? And a hefty chunk of Norfolk devoid of roads and place names – what is it hiding?
You’d need months to cover all 50, so I’ve selected seven that could be visited in a week – the Magnificent Seven in seven days. They include two Welsh communities, and five in the north of England and the Midlands. Bon voyage.
We start at Arnside, half an hour from Windermere but in a world of its own. This is a world created by fast-flowing rivers which do battle with the incoming tides at the northern end of Britain’s most hazardous sea area, Morecambe Bay.
Over the years, its quicksands have claimed many lives – across the River Kent estuary, at Cartmel Bay, is a cemetery of unmarked graves. All of which might put you off Arnside, but it shouldn’t.
It has a lively promenade of shops and cafes, including the Posh Sardine tearooms. But don’t expect fish on the menu: Posh Sardine is an anagram of Arnside shop. The tides are at their most dramatic between March and October, when the Arnside bore charges in. The coastguards are on permanent alert, binoculars trained on the distant swell, ear muffs protecting them from a deafening roar. The first siren means “Get off the sands.” The second means “Now!”
Tim Cross was a coastguard for 25 years but was still taken aback one moonlit night as he waited beside Arnside’s distinctive railway viaduct. He wasn’t alone. Dozens of visitors poured off the train to witness nature’s sound and light show. A 10-metre bore was heading their way. “A wall of water came thundering under the arches and, it felt, through my whole body, too, said Tim. “Even when you think you know it, the power of the sea can catch you off guard.”
It’s possible to walk, under strict supervision, across Morecambe Bay from Arnside to the town of Grange-over-Sands. The guide on the walk goes by the title of the Queen’s Sandwalker. Michael Wilson took over from Cedric Robinson, who retired in 2019 after 56 years of leading walkers across the treacherous tidal bay. It’s an invigorating round trip of around six hours. Arnsiders tend to go it alone. To them it’s a rite of passage.
There’s little sign of Downham till you get there. And, assuming you do, there’s no sign that you’ve made it. This time capsule in the Ribble Valley shuns all forms of signage. Neither does it permit television aerials, satellite dishes, overhead cables or even road markings – apart from those deposited by passing cattle. You could be excused for thinking the villagers were living in a time warp or had cleared the decks for a period drama – Downham Abbey? Cars are the only giveaway.
Ralph Assheton, the second Baron Clitheroe of Downham, whose family have owned the village since 1558, has an aversion to street furniture. “It’s not so much a philosophy, more a wish to save the good things and avoid the ugly ones,” he says. “We agreed to put a bus timetable next to the telephone box, but there’s no sign for the bus stop. We don’t need it.” Makes you wonder whether the telephone box is on borrowed time.
There’s a medieval order to Downham. The church and Downham Hall sit on a ridge with 32 estate cottages arranged in two neat groups. Shimmering, sometimes glowering, in the background is 557-metre Pendle Hill, an isolated mountain detached from the Pennines. Moody and beloved of hikers, it’s synonymous with witchcraft. In 1612, 10 women were hanged here for a series of murders in what was then bandit country.
It’s still pretty wild, in the nicest possible sense. The old baron, now in his 90s, climbs Pendle Hill every day – probably to get a signal on his phone. In the meantime, his son continues to play God, or “balance the population”. He seems to be getting it right: out of 100 tenants, there’s a three-way split between over-65s, thirtysomethings and under-18s. However, the present has finally and regrettably caught up with Downham: both the Assheton Arms and the village store fell victims to lockdown. Ralph is looking for new managers. You might fancy it …
Youlgrave is proud, stubborn and self-sufficient, especially when it comes to water. Ever since the 1860s, when Youlgrave Waterworks was established, underground streams have filled the kettles and bathtubs of what was predominantly a mining community – much to the chagrin of Severn Trent Water, which has tried once or twice to take over, but underestimated its rival. The water is processed in the corner of a field at a small bunker containing an impressive mesh of wires, pumps and gauges. John Wardle, a local plumber, once told me: “Youlgrave water’s like champagne. I can tell it from Severn Trent blindfold.” He could, too. We tested him three times.
In the village square, protected by iron railings, is a circular stone fountain where women once queued to fill their buckets. It took so long, they brought their knitting. One woman apparently finished an entire cardigan. Behind the fountain is Thimble Hall, the smallest detached residence in the UK. It measures 3.6 by 3.1 metres and stands a mere 3.7 metres high. A ladder connects upstairs and downstairs. It sold for £39,500 in 1999 but has been empty ever since. There were plans to turn it into an ice-cream parlour then a craft centre, even a thimble museum. But it’s still empty.
Trevor and Froncysyllte, Wrexham County
Head south-west to the Cheshire/Wales border and you can have two extraordinary villages for the price of one. Trevor and Froncysyllte are suspended on high at either end of Britain’s tallest aqueduct. Thomas Telford’s Pontcysyllte (the bridge that connects them) was declared a world heritage site in 2009, putting it on a par with the Statue of Liberty and Great Wall of China. It carries the Llangollen canal more than 38 metres above the River Dee. It’s a spectacular sight best viewed from the old packhorse bridge.
Trevor and Fron, as the locals know them, couldn’t be more different. Fron’s the poor relation, basically a turning point for boats heading back over the aqueduct. The village cafe looked worryingly quiet when I was there. Most of the goodies come Trevor’s way: there’s a canal basin offering boat trips and day hire, a waterside pub and a visitor centre. By canal, it’s 300 metres between the two villages. The trough can only take one boat. For passengers on the unguarded side, who stare straight into the abyss, 300 metres can take for ever. The brochure asks: “Are you brave enough to cross it? If so, are you brave enough to look down?”
Froncysyllte got its own back on Trevor by singing its way to glory. Its male voice choir has won Llangollen Musical Eisteddfod four times, and was signed up by Universal Music – its album Voices of the Valley has sold over a million copies – and invited to tour New York. It is still going strong.
I chose to walk back to Trevor along the narrow footpath, eyes focused away from the drop and towards a gentle north/south current that carries almost 7 million litres of water every day to Crewe and Nantwich. The final stretch took me high above the last cottage. It must be comforting to gaze out of your bedroom window and see narrowboats floating over your head! And equally disorientating for fish to have birds flying underneath them.
A short hop down the Severn valley brings you to a place neither the AA nor the RAC included in their road atlases. It’s an understandable oversight. Jackfield exists, but only just. What’s left of the original river port, where bars and brothels once heaved with beer-swilling trowmen, now clings to the riverbank, bent, cracked, buckled and forgotten. Nature, provoked and plundered by industrialists for 150 years, eventually hit back.
Clay mine owners ignored warnings about water gathering in the shafts and, sure enough, Jackfield broke in half and slid into the river in 1952. Terraced cottages and roads disappeared. The railway line lay twisted in knots like a length of wire. Jackfield’s industrial revolution was over in 24 hours.
I’m pleased to report that the village not only survived but prospers in relative anonymity. Although the population has shrunk and they don’t make encaustic and decorative tiles any more, they’re proud of what’s left. The Half Moon Inn for a start. It was built on rock, not sand like the rest of the village. Then there’s Mrs Dirk’s little tin sweet shop. And a former brothel converted into a bed and breakfast. Strolling around this village of a thousand cracks, where rooftops peep through the greenery at silly angles, you realise that nature has done a decent reclamation job. Jackfield’s become a desirable place to live. If you’re looking for a holiday cottage, join the queue.
The last stop on this quirky expedition should help you appreciate that Northamptonshire isn’t just a place that takes ages to drive through on the M1. It’s as pretty as the Cotswolds, its undulating countryside peppered with thatched cottages of honeyed ironstone. Badby is dominated by its grand Tudor house, Fawsley Hall. To most people’s surprise, it played host to Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, for two summers towards the end of the poor chap’s life.
Granted his wish to escape his London hospital and enjoy some fresh air, Merrick was taken from Euston in a blacked-out carriage that was shunted into the sidings at Long Buckby. Then a horse and carriage with heavy curtains took him the short ride to Badby. Merrick’s rural summers were made possible by a well-known actress of the late 1800s called Madge Kendal, who persuaded Lady Knightley of Fawsley Hall to help the 25-year-old hideously disfigured by a disease we now know as neurofibromatosis.
Lady Knightley befriended him. So did some of the villagers. Others were fearful. Merrick was intelligent, artistic and well read. For those summers at Badby, he was given the use of a gamekeeper’s cottage and more or less left to his own devices. He wrote enthusiastically to his surgeon, Dr Frederick Treves, about foxes and badgers he’d seen on the Fawsley estate, violets he’d picked in the woods and trout he’d seen in the River Cherwell. In case he bumped into other walkers, he wore a broad-brimmed hat with a veil, rather like a beekeeper. Dr Treves wrote: “It was the supreme holiday of his life.”
Once lockdown is over, Fawsley Court and its grounds will reopen to the public. After retracing the Elephant Man’s imagined routes, it’s a handy spot for cream tea – or something stronger.