American Small Town vs English Village

Lately I have been thinking about the differences between small town USA, where we used to live, and a village in the Cotswolds, where we live now. I have been comparing my daily life here and to my life in the US. The differences are not big, but there are differences and I think they are caused by the way the towns and villages are situated here. The physical layout of this place affects how I live.

England is a small and crowded island, with a population of 51 million and a density of 1023 people per square mile.* It is the second most densely populated country in Europe (Malta is first), and it is densest where we are in the south. Everything has to be smaller so that it will all fit. The cars are smaller, the roads are narrower, the houses are smaller, things have less space between them.

The only way that I have come up with to describe the differences is to start with a model of an American small town and then turn it into an English village.

Create a Model of an American Small Town

Get out your lego pieces. Make a grid. Put down rows of houses on straight roads. Each house sits in the middle of its property and has a driveway, a garage, a front yard and a back yard. Main Street in the center of town has the shops. Let’s ignore the hideous box stores and strip malls for now (we have those here too). The town sprawls out and ends, then the countryside begins. If you are lucky there is a National Forest or State Park outside town for hiking, or some good parks in town.

Now, let’s turn this American small town into an English village.

Transform the American Houses to English Cottages

The average house size in England is 800 square feet. You get a small kitchen with an under the counter fridge. No laundry room because the washing machine is in the kitchen. Forget the clothes dryer, we hang our clothes on racks that spend a day or two in a hallway or near a sunny window. There will be a dining room if you are lucky, or maybe an eat-in kitchen – or you may have to squeeze a small table into a corner of the living room (which they call a lounge). The bedrooms are smaller than American bedrooms. What they call a “single”, I call a “closet”.

Village Street
Village Street

Now you have the typical English cottage, but we are not finished. Stretch it up to three levels. Remember this island is small so the houses must have a small footprint. There are houses on one level (bungalows), but most houses are two, three, even four levels. Make the staircases narrow and steep because you don’t want to waste too much floor space on them. (You have to have healthy knees to live in an English cottage.)

Change the American Town into Villages Scattered Around a Town

Next we change the layout of the town. In your model divide the town into segments. One segment will be the larger town, the rest will be villages.

Create your first village. Wrap your hands around a group of houses and streets and squeeze them all together into the center. You get a heap of houses surrounded by green space.

Painswick, a village in the Cotswolds
Painswick, a village in the Cotswolds

The houses are no longer in nice rows – four or five of them may be lined up and attached (a terrace). Sometimes two stick together (semi-detached). Occasionally one falls into its own space (detached). Frequently they jumble together so that you have to go through the garden of one house to get to the house behind. Instead of each house having a good sized front and back yard, some have gardens, some have small courtyards, some have no garden. Hardly any of them end up with a driveway and a garage – waste of space anyway when you can park on the street.

A few houses fall back the way they started – detached house, garage, driveway, front and back gardens. These are the 1980s housing estates built on the edges of English towns and villages. Driving through these areas I feel like I am back in the US (except these houses are much smaller than you find in US neighborhoods).

During this transformation the roads become narrow, usually one lane. Maybe a little wider to let everyone park their cars. Driving on roads in villages is always a challenge – you dodge and weave your way down a street.

Create the rest of your villages and then the town, which is just a slightly larger version of a village. What you end up with is a dense small town, surrounded by countryside and dense villages. Villages back onto farm fields or woods or open common land. No matter where you live in a village, you are close to the countryside.

The Special Ingredient – The Countryside and Public Access to Private Land

And that is what makes all the difference in the English village – the proximity to rural life. Sheep, cows and horses grazing in some fields, crops growing in others. Large areas of protected woodland. Working farms outside the villages.

The countryside is crisscrossed by footpaths. Some of them go along rivers or through protected woodlands, others go through farm fields. We have walked on some footpaths that go right into someone’s garden and out the other side. I am waiting to find a footpath that goes through someone’s house!

England’s “public access to private land” means you can live close to your neighbors but be walking in beautiful countryside in a few minutes. You don’t have to own your piece of the countryside, it is there for us all to use.

My English Village

Our house is in a group of five attached houses. Its footprint is small because the house is on three levels (one and half rooms per level). We are on the edge of a village with farm fields and woodland outside our front door. We put on our hiking boots and head out on the miles of trails. When we get bored with these trails we drive over to the next valley.

Instead of living in a small town like Santa Fe and driving through town to different neighborhoods, I drive through farmlands to the next village. Or to town. I drive to the Waitrose in Stroud for groceries. For the Post Office or to pickup a newspaper I walk up the hill to the center of my village. The best bakery is in Nailsworth. For afternoon tea we go to Minchinhampton. If I need something from a department store like Marks and Spencer, I drive to Cheltenham. Everything is within a 30 minute drive.

The reason that we are living in an English village, instead of an American small town, is the access to the footpaths and walking trails. We used to vacation here for a couple of weeks each year, just to go walking. Now we are lucky enough to go walking year-round. The sun just came out – time to put on our boots and go for a walk!

Notes

We spent 20 years in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe is as close to a European small town as you get in the US – it is a few hundred years old with neighborhoods of historic houses, the center of town does not have high-rise buildings but is a collection of historic buildings around a plaza (like the “piazza” in Italy or the “village green” in England), houses are jumbled together and many of the roads are narrow. Our house in Santa Fe was historic and small, probably about the same as the one we are in now, but on one level. And we had a driveway and a garage. We had good access to hiking trails in the Santa Fe National Forest, which was close by, but nothing like the amount and variety of trails that we have here.

* From Wikipedia – England, 395 people per square kilometer (1 square mile = 2.58998811 square kilometres).

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.

19 thoughts on “American Small Town vs English Village”

    1. I ceretainly look forward to our first trip to Cotswolds this Fall. What truly amazes me is the ability of European families to fit into an 800 square fit cottage, which the square footage of an American house continues to rise. While there is certainly plenty of land and the density of the population is nowhere near that of England, is there ever a reason for a 4,000 square foot house with a multitute of furnished rooms?

  1. I and my wife lived on the German economy outside of a small village many years ago. It was its own self inclusive two story barn, the main home, and two apartments. One upper and one lower. A separate building for egg laying chickens and another for farrowing pigs and the exposed basement of the house had feeder pigs. This arrangement was a rarity, for most farming villages the above buildings were in the village. We lived there for a year and six months. A wonderful experience. We were able to take many walks.

  2. I was born and brought up in the land you describe in this post. England is not an island, it’s firmly attached to Wales and Scotland.
    Please try studying our history and geography and you might learn why our towns and villages are the way they are, due to centuries of history.
    Lots of Brits do have dining rooms.
    Are you sure you’ve actually been here and not some weird theme park?
    I’m sure other Americans like your portrayal of “England” but I’m happier living in the real place, with its cosy pubs and centuries of fascinating history.
    Please look again and talk to real Brits about their homeland. Thanks!

    1. I have visited England as my parents were from Great Britain. I love how quaint the villages are and how the history of your country shows pride in your past. I didn’t feel crowded, I felt calm and glad I spent time seeing what I could. I agree about the friendly pubs, so many welcoming people.

      I believe it is wrong to give a negative review about how the people of the U.K. live. All those I met seemed happy with their way of life. Very few complaints. When in England, live like the English!

  3. You are obviously only talking about small town America OUTSIDE of New England. I lived most of my life in New England villages and spent 6 months in England and I can tell you that they are exactly the same in a way that is almost shocking despite the passage of 400 years when New England’s first villages were settled. No grid pattern streets, houses and cottages (based on the original English models with steep roofs, etc) grouped closely together around a common or green. They are splayed out across the countryside in a land-respecting cobweb pattern of hedgerow and forest-lined lanes around larger market towns. The cultures are so much the same too with strong community spirit, respect for the past, with the local tavern or country inn and parish church dominating village life. And in New England all private land is open to the public unless posted and registered with the village or town clerk. When you’re back in the states, pay a visit to rural New England anytime you feel nostalgic for old England.

    1. We have lived in New England and loved it. You are right that it is similar to England. And I was thinking more of the western US towns when I wrote this.

      This post was written in 2012 when we were living in a converted mill. After that we moved to a bungalow with a dining room, garage and parking (and a dryer)!

  4. Hmm…I am from California…I have a good friend from England…she is from a Village called Paull outside of Hull [big city]…we have been having this argument or debate for years now. I have always said that our small towns are just like her villages…of course, not as old…but extremely similar…the words are actually interchangeable; small town/village…I would beg to differ with the writer of this article in that she may be from Santa Fe, but she can’t speak for all of us in the USA…seems she didn’t get out much beyond her own area…to say; “We had good access to hiking trails in the Santa Fe National Forest, which was close by, but nothing like the amount and variety of trails that we have here.” Excuse me, “nothing like what we have here”???? My dear, you have got to be kidding on that one. First of all, the only mountainous area is in Snowdon, which is in Wales…most of the rest of the island is hills and dales. Nothing like the USA…sorry, you had me until you said that 🙂

    1. I defend my article! First, I did not say I represented all Americans. I am writing about how I see the difference between small towns in the US and the UK – my personal view. I have traveled all over the US and have lived in several different places – Boston, rural Massachusetts, rural Pennsylvania, Seattle, Hawaii, and Santa Fe.

      If you read the whole article you will see that I am writing about walking trails, not just hiking trails in mountains. The UK beats the US in the number of walking trails available to someone living in a small town. Here in the UK there are footpaths out to the countryside from every small town or village that I have been too. In the US you may have a few nice trails in a town, but you have to get out to the National Forests or National Parks to find plenty of trails.

      While the UK does not have anything like the Rocky Mountains in the US, or the Alps on the continent, there are more mountains here than those in northern Wales. The Peak District? Scotland? The Lake District? But we do not restrict our walking trails to mountains – we walk over those wonderful hills and dales, beside the sea, along rivers, through farm fields, into the woods.

      We moved to England because of the abundance of walking trails, footpaths, and we have not been disappointed.

      1. You’ve probably never been to NE Ohio where we have the Metroparks/Emerald Necklace system … tons of walking/biking trails here.

  5. What a delightful article, Pauline. It makes me nostalgic for the short time I was able to rent a cottage in Winchcombe and walked the foot paths. My sister and I would walk every morning before we would visit the wonderful historical sites and the incredible gardens. The access through fields was interesting and exciting. One morning we kept hearing this strange sound and suddenly realized that we were about to approach a rape field where hundreds of thousands of bees were enjoying their morning gatherings.

    I live now in a smallish town set in the middle of cornfields in Indiana, and we do have designated walking paths, but I think what a few of your readers are missing is that here if you dared to tread on other peoples land, you may be faced with at the least, their Ire, at the most, a gun. The joy of knowing that you can safely walk pretty much anywhere in England and view incredible landscapes is something to be treasured.

    Just remembering those sites lowers my blood pressure. Every time I have to go to the doctor for my annual check up, the minute the cuff goes on, I picture standing out on a road outside Sudeley Castle looking out over the valleys. It was a Sunday and many church bells started ringing. Traveling across one valley was a grandfather with a young boy and girl and dog following. The image stays with me and calms my mind and body. It’s like taking a “deep cleansing breath”. Thank you for writing about this beautiful land.

  6. Really good article. As a Brit that’s deciding whether to move to the US (have lived in NYC before ) which places in the US should I consider, that are close to a big city (i.e corporate jobs) yet not too far from nice walking trails.

    Upstste NYC wasn’t too bad although I didn’t sadly do exploring to decide if it had that English village feel.

    As an additional catch I don’t drive and am in no rush to. The UK is served by good public transport so i can get on a train , get to a village, go walking in the hills, have a late lunch in a country pub,, then be back home in good time.

    1. We lived in north-east Pennsylvania at one point and were close to upstate NY. There are some lovely towns there. I liked Ithica.

      Availability of walking trails is getting better in the US and Canada now. Many towns have green belts or parks with walking trails. Not as good as England where you can roam forever around the countryside and have public access to private property.

      Have fun deciding!

  7. What a wonderful article, I was doing a little research on whether US Home Builders construction would benefit in building English Cottages with Mod Cons as retirement villages.

    I lived in England as a a child, we moved a lot, but for the most part lived in the country or small villages. The only town which we lived was Colwyn Bay. In the minds eye, it never seemed crowded. In the 1950’s & 60’s there were a lot less cars, so walking was not as challenging as it is today.

    Not like in San Jose CA where I made my home, which has grown from a sleepy 175,000 in 1973 to over 1 million residents today, and that figure ebbs & flows each day as an estimated 300,000 commute in to work in high tech companies.

    There are trails in the San Francisco Wildlife reserve, that give an hour or two of relaxation from the daily grind.

    The comments were interesting as well.

  8. How did you get citizenship? My Grandmother was born in Scotland but they emigrated to America when she was 2. I have wanted to move to the UK (I lived in Cambridge for 4 months and then London for 2 years previously) but thought it was essentially impossible for an American to get citizenship! Any thoughts? Thank you!!!

    1. If your mother or father were born in the UK you could claim citizenship. That is what I did to get both UK and Irish citizenship. A visitor can stay in the UK for 6 months but after that you are right, it is difficult to find a way to remain. Check out the UK Embassy website to be sure – maybe they allow people to live here if their grandparents are British. Ireland allowed that at one time. These things change all the time.

      I wrote about this in another post: http://www.slowtravels.com/2015/living-in-england/how-i-became-a-citizen-of-several-countries/

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