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Reading cities, towns and villages

Updated Wednesday, 18th January 2006

If you keep your eyes open, you can spot lots of clues to the history of a city, town or village. Jonathan Foyle tells you how,

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Nick and Miranda reading

We see the historic environment every day, as we walk out of our front door into a street, past a church and stroll by - or into - a pub. We might claim to be continually experiencing the historic environment. We interact with it. But we might not really understand it without some tools to reveal the distinct layers of the past.

A good start is to look carefully at the names of streets of your town - and the name of the town itself. There is music in names like ‘Oakham’ or ‘Breedon Hill’. The first example is biographical, an Anglo-Saxon record of an overlord, as it means ‘Occa’s fort’. Breedon Hill is an emphatic endorsement of a natural landscape feature, hidden in three languages. The name tells us about the hill which our ancient British ancestors generically called a ‘Bree’; evidently, it was later valued by the Anglo-Saxons, whose name for hill was ‘dun;’ and in the middle ages was added ‘hill’: so, ‘Hill-hill-hill’.

Names like this usually embody a simple honesty, but as records they may not account for changes in circumstance, often present a single viewpoint, and there is a danger that mutated names may be misinterpreted. But some excellent books are available to shed light on street names we take for granted, and are particularly useful in explaining how names change over the years to become abstractions of the original.

Individual streets can present evidence for historic industries at the entrance to towns and cities, where obnoxious-smelling (like tanneries), polluting (like blacksmiths’ forges or potteries) or storage-hungry industries like fulling were situated. York and Lincoln have streets called Pottergate, for example. Some industries required open spaces: brickmakers needed to dig clay and earth, stack bricks to dry and fire them in kilns, whilst dyers stretched their coloured cloths over drying frames called ‘tenters’, arrayed in the fresh air. These occupations, like weavers, millers and bakers, might still be recorded in place-names.

The food industry was always important. Smithfield in London, famous for its meat-market, was once ‘Smooth field’, a rustic area where the cattle reared on meadows stretching north to Camden were gathered and slaughtered for the tables of Londoners: the present -day Victorian - built meat market perpetuates the usage of this site over a couple of thousand years. Commercial life gave us names like ‘Saturday Market’ for a square in King’s Lynn, to differentiate from the nearby ‘Tuesday Market’, telling us not just what happened but when it happened.

Other names refer to means of navigation. River transport was extremely important: London seems to have gained 15% extra area by reclaiming riverside land during the middle ages. Stamford in Lincolnshire is built on Jurassic limestone, rising from a shallow section of the River Welland where the stony river bed offers a ford: ‘Stone Ford’.

Nick and Miranda reading

The arrangements and measurements of streets tell many stories. Winchester offers a particularly long and complex pattern of urban development. At the west end of the city can be seen a series of parallel streets of Victorian terraced houses that rise as if each street were set on a giant step. But this was no engineering work of Brunel or his contemporaries; the streets were built on the side of a great Iron-age hill fort, once protected by rows of ditches and banks. The Romans overthrew this fort to create their new town of Venta Belgarum: a playing-card shaped plan surrounded by a wall, with a central crossroads at the junction of a ‘cardo’ (north-south street) and ‘decumanus’ (west-east street). This crossroads was the public focus of the city and so featured the customary public buildings of forum and temple in an open square.

This arrangement was typical of Roman towns across their empire, and at Winchester they even diverted the river into a canal to achieve regularity. Winchester’s seventh-century Anglo-Saxon cathedral was situated near the ancient forum, and the city was renamed with the Anglo-Saxon suffix ‘caster’, meaning a fortified settlement. The Anglo-Saxon streets were eventually laid out on an irregular grid, with a distinguishing characteristic: all the plots, running perpendicular to the main street, had a 17 feet width upon which were built timber and thatch houses.

Today, if you walk along Winchester High Street, you can see that the widths of the shop frontages have been perpetuated ever since: sometimes, neighbouring properties were purchased and a 2 feet x 17 feet¬†= 34 feet frontage will be the result. But in any case, you’ll be looking at mobile phones and trainers through modern shop windows that silently conform to a scheme fixed a thousand years ago.

Not all towns have a Roman origin, of course. Castles were often imposed on sites to take advantage of defensible locations such as the bend of the River Wear upon which Durham cathedral and castle were built to guard St Cuthbert’s body, taken from the reach of Vikings from Lindisfarne, via Chester-le-Street. Caernarvon (a mile distant from Roman Segontium), built from 1282, is an excellent example of a medieval bastide town with a curtain wall, its purpose being to defend the English command in a newly-conquered Wales (and even to accommodate Edward I and Queen Eleanor of Castile, should they have stayed in their palatial Eagle Tower).

The architect was James of St-George, a Savoyard who employed the defensive technology used in crusader castles as well as those of his native frontier territory of the Alps. The striped masonry and polygonal turrets he supervised on the west side of the castle are unique in Wales but uncannily reminiscent of the Roman city walls of Constantinople that Edward and Eleanor saw whilst on crusade a thousand miles away.

Our cities, towns and villages are physical documents of life in the past. Their names, street patterns and buildings may describe geography, origins, industries, trade, or personal choices. Exactly how much they reveal is up to you.


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