When I was a child, at this time of year we used to make an annual trip from Hampshire to north Wales (via Wolverhampton) for our summer holiday. Our regular route, the stops on which are as engrained in my memory as those to Santiago de Compostela on the mind of any pilgrim, included the north-Cotswold village of Broadway. I remember my mother mentioning that it was said to be the most beautiful village in England, though on what authority I don't know. It turns out that she was not alone in saying so, though. Thumbing (via Google) through The Great Western Railway Official Guide, 1909: Holiday Haunts, England and Wales, Southern Ireland, and Brittany, I see that the same claim is made there, and treated as something of a truism, or at least a familiar notion.
However, Broadway is not without its rivals, and these days its "most beautiful village" claim appears to have been largely eclipsed - it has to make do with being "the jewel of the Cotswolds" instead.
Meanwhile, on 8 August 1890 William Morris remarked in a chatty letter to the designer Kate Faulkner that Bibury in the east Cotswolds was "surely the most beautiful village in England, lying down in the winding valley beside the clear Colne". This casual remark has been relentlessly leveraged ever since, in Bibury and beyond. I find it referenced from the early '20s right up to late Pevsner:
William Morris, who knew England well and this district intimately, for Kelmscott lies not many miles away, declared that Bibury was “ surely the most beautiful village in England." Probably every Gloucester man will agree with that sentiment. (The Architect and Building News, 1922)
The village of Bibury was "discovered" by William Morris, who called it the most beautiful village in England . (Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England Vol. 40, 1970
Nowhere is that letter quoted more than in Japan, where Morris is held in high regard (I'd say he's more famous there than here, in fact). It crops up in many a Japanese tourist guide, of course, but also in more unexpected places. For example, the website of the Hotel Monterey Grasmere, which (as you will remember) contains a replica of Brockhampton Church, Herefordshire, on its 22nd Floor (or 21st, British style), levers it in in garbled form, even though Brockhampton is not by any means in the Cotswolds:
The design imitates the churches of the Cotswolds, described by the renowned designer William Morris as the most beautiful in England. Our chapel recreated the beauty of the Cotswolds, from its rolling green hills to its traditional arts and crafts culture.
Yesterday I saw an itinerary for a two-week homestay being undertaken by some Japanese school children in the Cotswolds, and the first day's activities were described thus:
23rd July, 13.00-18.00
Cotswolds Village Tour
We will tour representative Cotswold villages.
We will visit Bibury, which the poet William Morris praised as "the most beautiful village in Britain", and so on.
In Japan at least, Bibury has no rival, but in 1962 the English Tourist Authority put the cat among the pigeons by holding a competition to find... the most beautiful village in England. The winner? Step forward, our old friend Castle Combe, in the south Cotswolds. It too is often referred to by this title, although according to this 1993 article the poll was actually a fix, "dreamt up by a senior BTA official who had a friend in the village". The whole article makes it sound very Midsomer Murders.
Castle Combe's rival on the other side of the M4 may be only 30 miles away, but there appears no sense of dissonance, or really of rivalry - they both get more visitors than they can easily cope with (their combined population comes in at under 1,000).
Who is the better judge of such matters? William Morris, or the demos? Why do people feel the need to decide such a thing at all?
(Other most beautiful villages in England are available.)