Best of British: Market towns
This medieval town was formerly known as the Kingdom of the West Saxons. Not only are King Alfred’s elder brothers both buried in the abbey, the riverside location has attracted many notable figures over the centuries.
Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, took a shine to the place and built the Elizabethan mansion now known as Sherborne Castle.
There’s also Sherborne School (founded in the abbey in 1550) to attract those seeking a top-class education, and plenty else besides for non-school-age visitors.
“The town offers an unbeatable combination of beauty, heritage, culture, an interesting high street and delicious food and drink,” says Sherborne’s Janet Schofield.
The Green Restaurant is especially popular—and will refuel you nicely after a day of exploring.
The Cornish coast is a classic destination for a home-turf getaway, and Helston is the perfect place to provide a bit of good ol’ English fun.
Among many other historic buildings, it’s home to the Blue Anchor. Originally a rest house for monks, this was converted into a tavern in the 15th century and remains a private brewery to this day. It’s certainly worth trying the local brew Spingo but—be warned—it’s strong stuff.
Each May, Helston also plays host to a raucous celebration on Flora Day.
“Make sure you catch the Furry Dance, which is the star element,” says Visit Cornwall’s Julia Hughes. “See locals dressed in their finery weave their way through the lively town and join the celebrations that last from dawn till dusk.” It’s a day of dancing, re-enactments of St George slaying the dragon and consistently sterling performances from Helston Town Band. Be sure to pack your Elizabethan costume…
This town has been around since at least 1086, but it’s emerged from its historical hardships like a phoenix from the flames. Almost literally, in fact—in 1708, a vicious fire destroyed almost all the medieval town in three hours.
Various accounts describe how the flames didn’t even leave the butchers enough time to retrieve their meat from the market stalls.
The nation rallied round, however, and donations enabled the town to be rebuilt in the wake of the fire. There’s an abundance of Georgian architecture to behold, and the whole town has a wonderfully convivial vibe.
Enjoy the cafe culture in the summer, lose yourself in the galleries when it’s colder—and don’t leave without snapping up some edible treats from Bakers & Larners. (“It’s the Harrods of Norfolk,” says Visit Norfolk’s Pete Waters.)
Marlborough holds the rather spurious but brilliant claim of having the second-widest high street in the country (after Stockon-on-Tees). This is the perfect setting for the vibrant market—on Wednesdays and Saturdays—featuring good old fruit and veg, locally produced meat and an especially good cheese stall.
Non-market days are a treat too. An afternoon can easily be whiled away by leafing through tomes in the ancient White Horse Bookshop, perusing the knick-knacks in The Merchant’s House and eating creamy cakes in Polly’s Tea Rooms. Kath Pinchen, a resident for 57 years, says, “The high street is always busy and friendly. There’s a good selection of shops and lots of alleyways leading to old town cottages.”
If you can bear to leave, nearby Savernake Forest is a wonderful setting for a leafy walk.
This quaintly named town is one of the smallest on our list (population around 5,000), but its reputation is far-reaching.
Once one of the Cinque Ports—a collection of five coastal towns historically used for trade and military purposes—it’s now two miles from the sea but its medieval centre is beautifully preserved. Incidentally, TV aficionados may recognise the scenery, as it’s also home to cheery couple Steph and Dom from Channel 4’s Gogglebox.
The best way to enjoy Sandwich is simply to amble around. History buffs will delight in the White Mill Rural Heritage Centre, nature-lovers will relish Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory and more casual tourists can’t fail to enjoy one of the many listed public houses— and funnily enough, The Market Inn is a particular favourite.
Of course, the other reason Sandwich is on the holidaymaking map is its two world-class golf courses, Royal St George’s and Prince’s. What more could you want than a quick putt before the pub?