In his King's England series, Arthur Mee refers to Cawood as "the Windsor of the North". It used to be the residence of the Archbishops of York. The name is believed to come from the characteristic noise made by crows in the nearby woods. Cawood is south of the point where the River Wharfe flows into the River Ouse which subsequently forms the northern border of the village. Cawood Bridge is the only bridge from the village which spans the river. The bridge was opened in 1872: before then the only means of crossing was by use of a ferry. Dick Turpin is said to have forded the river when he escaped to York, which lies ten miles north of Cawood. The River Ouse used to flood the village regularly in winter. Since the floods of January 1982, whose height is marked on the bridgekeeper's cottage, river defences have been raised so that the fields on the northern side (Kelfield Ings) and the former Ferry Boat Inn, also on the Kelfield side, are now the only areas that flood, even at times of exceptionally high waters, such as in November 2000.
The village used to house a host of public houses, but the Anchor, Thompson's Arms and the Bay Horse have closed. The three remaining pubs are:
In the 19th century there was a weekly market on Wednesdays, and a wide range of shops. During the 20th century, these gradually closed as village commercial life became dominated by the nearby market towns of Selby, Leeds and York. Today there is just a post office, a plant nursery, a hairdresser's and All Saints' Church.
There is an annual craft festival over August bank holiday weekend, in aid of the work of All Saints', where the villagers and local craft workers display their products at various venues throughout the village.