Katie Gregory and Steve Pill take a stroll along the prettiest roads in Britain to uncover charming architecture, chequered histories and cinematic vistas
Few streets conjure up such vivid images of medieval Britain as York’s Shambles, or The Shambles as the maze of surrounding lanes is collectively known. Wander along the main street where timber-framed buildings peer down over passersby, the overhanging façades leaving just a narrow slip of blue sky in between.
Indeed, in some sections, the gap at street level is so narrow that one can touch the buildings on both sides with outstretched arms. Yet their proximity is far from accidental. In fact, this medieval street, which served as a string of butchers’ shops and slaughterhouses, was carefully designed this way. By closing the gap between opposite sides, the tall buildings provided shelter for the rows of meat strung up on shelves beneath, keeping the goods out of direct sunlight. Raised pavements on either side provided another practical solution, allowing the butchers to wash away all the gory leftovers.
Today, visitors to the city will be pleased to learn that conditions are far more sanitary. The pretty Shambles shop fronts have been restored and now house a variety of quaint cafés, antique shops and independent boutiques, with highlights including award-winning local produce at Ye Olde Pie and Sausage Shoppe, and guided tours at York’s Chocolate Story, which celebrates the home of confectionery giants Rowntree’s and Terry’s.
Despite the restorations, eagle-eyed visitors might spot some of the original shop-front shelves. A key element of this iconic street’s history (the very name Shambles is thought to have derived from ‘shammel’, an Anglo-Saxon word for shelves), they’re well worth seeking out.
Castle Combe, Wiltshire
Regularly voted the prettiest village in England, the cute Cotswolds community of Castle Combe is so small that most of its appeal rests on a single thoroughfare, known rather definitively as The Street. Snaking down the hill from Upper Castle Combe to the babbling By Brook, it is something of a two-colour street, as the green tree arches that encase the top of the hill make way for the honey- gold of the Cotswold-stone cottages.
The Street opens out at the junction with West Street with the 14th-century market cross, a lasting reminder of the parish’s once-popular clothing market that was supplied by Wiltshire’s various mills and dye houses, the last of which died out in the early 1800s. With hanging baskets brightening every doorway and an adjacent Grade I-listed church, the marketplace paints a vivid picture of English village life, so much so that keen-eyed viewers of Downton Abbey and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse may realise they have seen this all-too-familiar scene before.
If you’re keen to spend some time here, Castle Combe is blessed with plenty of historic accommodation despite its size. The five-star Manor House backs onto its own 18-hole championship golf course, while its sister property, the medieval Castle Inn, looks out onto
the market cross. Refreshments are also available on The Street courtesy of The White Hart pub and the 15th-century Old Rectory Tea Room, complete with secret garden, while the cities of Bath and Bristol are also just a 20-minute drive away.
In the shadow of Wells Cathedral lies Vicars’ Close, believed to be the oldest surviving example of a complete residential street in Europe. Under the guidance of Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, work began on the 42 original houses in 1348. To put that into context, this was more than 350 years before the founding of the oldest residential street in the US (Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia), and the year the Black Death was sweeping across Europe claiming tens of millions of lives.
The first houses were built, as the street name suggests, for chantry priests on land granted by the Archdeacon of Bath, Walter de Hull. By the mid-15th century, the distinctive chimney shafts were added and the vicars requested gardens, which changed the look of the place from a wider, university-style quadrangle to the more direct street as it appears today. Many of the modestly apportioned houses have since been renovated or two adjacent properties have been knocked through to create one larger residence (there are now 27 in total).
In fact, while this picturesque close remains almost entirely residential, there are plenty of nearby attractions in England’s smallest city. The cathedral’s interior is a must-see, a symphony of colour and curves with the ornate stained glass of the Jesse Window and the dazzling Scissor Arches, a ‘modern addition’ to the 12th-century building in the mid-1300s. Several of the replaced cathedral statues can be seen in the adjacent Wells and Mendip Museum (alongside a fantastical Jurassic-era sea dragon fossil), while to the south lies the Bishop’s Palace with its moat – popular with swans – and 14 acres of diverse gardens.
For more of Britain’s prettiest streets, see the October/November 2017 issue of Discover Britain