All rural places and buildings are a reflection of how people have lived, worked, thought and related to each other throughout history. They form an integral part of landscape. Rural landscapes are characterised by a mixture of distinctive settlement patterns which have developed as a result of the unique combination of physical and cultural influences that make one place distinct and recognisable from another. Patterns of settlement display an enormous variation and buildings relate not only to each other but also to the shape and extent of their building plots, routeways, fields and other features in the landscape. Work on settlements has shown that these distinctions have their roots in the medieval period (Roberts and Wrathmell, 2000 and 2002), and work on farmsteads has indicated that their layouts and the dates and types of their buildings are related to local variations in farmed landscapes (Lake and Edwards, 2006).
The following Research Framework aims to guide professionals working with whole landscapes, as well as local researchers, to step back and consider both how landscape can enrich our understanding of buildings and places and how buildings and places can enrich our understanding of landscape. It aims to promote a broader layer of understanding to building research which can then be followed by more detailed recording and research if required.
The historic character of England’s landscape results from the way that people since the medieval period and earlier have lived within and used the land and its resources. Rural settlement – the villages, hamlets, farmsteads and houses that we call home and visit – is at the core of our everyday lives, connecting us to each other, and to our shared sense of history, and providing a base from which we view and enjoy the wider landscape.
Although all landscapes display a variety of different settlement types, most areas are associated with a dominant settlement character. In England the two most dominant historic settlement patterns are dispersed settlement and nucleated settlement. Many nucleated and dispersed settlements are linear or row plan (they form a long line), following a historic routeway and smaller roads that branch off these main routes, others grew around an area of pasture (a green) for common grazing.
Maps show how an area has developed over time, the most easily available being Ordnance Survey maps, dating from the 1880s for Worcestershire, and tithe maps dating from the 1840s. Considering the recorded date of earlier buildings – especially those dated from the 17th century and earlier – and where they are located, is also a useful way of mapping the historic development of an area, complementing the evidence provided by settlement patterns, routeways, fields and woodland. In areas of planned or regular enclosure, early recorded buildings may relate to earlier phases of land use and/or enclosure which have been largely over-written by later change.
Early buildings are generally much sparser in distribution in those areas of England where settlement in the medieval period was dominated by nucleated villages and extensive communally-farmed fields, and where patterns of wealth were less evenly spread and more hierarchical in structure. The growth of nucleated settlement was often driven by affluent landowners wishing to champion their influence, on a landscape and community, and open up markets, from which to increase profits.
While the majority of buildings within our settlements are domestic, some buildings, and the plots they sit within, facilitate a range of industries, businesses and activities from farming, market gardening, orcharding and craft industries to places of worship, commerce and community. Trade and manufacturing made an enormous contribution to rural communities from as early as the medieval period. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, which brought about cultural, social and economic revolution in the techniques of making things, further transformed Britain’s economy, enabled by the development of an extensive transport network. Although specialised commercial areas and buildings developed early, and the numbers of shops grew substantially in the 17th and 18th centuries, few buildings pre-dating the 19th century survive in rural locations.
Rural buildings can be incredibly diverse in their architectural style and design, with even later buildings often having a greater variety of designs and materials than first appreciated. The date and form of buildings can provide an indication of conformity to national fashions as well as the persistence of local trends and adaptation to local circumstances as well as patterns of investment – i.e. the dates of buildings can reveal peaks in prosperity and economic activity, reflect lack of investment in agriculture or industry or a desire to maintain a historic link with the past or sweep away what has been inherited.
The location and orientation of the houses suggest how their owners saw themselves and how they wanted themselves to be seen, which may have changed over time – for example, a house re-fronted to look away from its working farmyard into its own driveway or garden, with a prospect over the wider landscape, may reflect the burgeoning wealth and status its owner or tenant.
At one time, most of the population around Evesham and Pershore in Worcestershire were employed in market gardening or a related industry. A wide variety of vegetables, fruit, herbs and cut flowers grown by independent growers were sold at markets up and down the country from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. As all gardeners know, a shed is essential for storing equipment, produce and providing shelter. Market gardening was no exception: rows of timber, corrugated iron and occasionally brick built structures once lined the ends of their grounds. Generally built to market gardeners’ own design and requirements, each was unique in both design and function. Some doubled up as temporary accommodation for hired hands, some were used for keeping racing pigeons or brewing homemade alcohol and one even served as a monthly barber’s shop!
Locally known as ‘hovels’ (or ‘ovels), these distinctive small buildings once dotted the landscape and were significant social hubs, as well as practical buildings. Hovels are a distinctive and unique aspect of market gardening in the Vale of Evesham, as they do not appear to have been built in other market gardening regions. Since the rise of commercial horticulture and gradual decline of market gardening during the latter half of the 20th century, these small buildings have been slowly disappearing through abandonment and change of land use.
Hathaway , E and J. Lake. 2017. Synthesis of Rural Buildings in their Setting: Project Report, Case Study and Research Questions. Worcestershire County Council and Historic England report.
Lake, J and B. Edwards, ‘Farmsteads and Landscape: Towards an Integrated View’, Landscapes, 7.1 (2006), 1-36.
O’Hare, N. 2021. An overview of market gardening hovels in the Vale of Evesham.
Roberts, B.K. and S. Wrathmell. 2000. An Atlas of Rural Settlement in England, English Heritage, London.
Roberts, B.K. and S. Wrathmell. 2002. Region and Place: A study of English rural settlement, English Heritage, London.