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The English Village Explained: Britain's Living History

The English Village Explained: Britain's Living History

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The English Village Explained: Britain's Living History

3/5 (1 évaluation)
244 pages
1 heure
May 12, 2011


English villages conjure up rural harmony and a history of happy communities woven into the broader pageant of England’s past. But each of them has a different story to tell, and it is usually a vibrant and an interesting one—a long way from those histories that become mere lists of changing lords of the manor. Trevor Yorke, using his own colour illustrations and photographs, describes the changes that took place over the centuries, both through the buildings and the occupations of the people who lived and worked in them. So much of this change is still visible and, with a few directions and hints, you can learn to spot the clues by dating buildings and recognizing features in and around the villages today. The knowledge gained from this book will make each visit to a new village one of discovery, besides acting as an introduction to tracing the history of your own village.
May 12, 2011

À propos de l'auteur

Trevor Yorke is a professional author and artist who has studied and written about various aspects of England's architectural and industrial heritage. He has produced many illustrated books that introduce the reader to these topics and writes articles and reviews for various magazines. He lives in the UK.

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The English Village Explained - Trevor Yorke



Nestling amidst gently rolling hills or down leafy lanes, the English village is a timeless idyll far removed from the modern world. A rustic stone church, timber-framed houses, thatched cottages and a pub set around a village green form a familiar and potent image.

Yet this picture which we assume has been unchanged for centuries, representing traditional values in a rapidly-shifting industrial and technological world, is far from the truth. The idea was first put into our heads by paintings of rural scenes at the end of the 19th century but the charming tumbledown cottages which featured within them were recording the hardship of agricultural depression, a scene which could not change due to declining fortunes. These images, however, struck a chord and throughout the 20th century growing numbers have fled the towns and cities by bike, train and car to visit or settle in villages, many of which have now been fashioned to suit our image of a traditional rural scene rather than the demands of farming or industry for which they were probably first established.

This reshaping of settlements is just another example of change which despite our preconceptions has occurred in most villages throughout their history. What really excites me is that much of this change is still visible and with a few directions and hints you can learn to spot the clues by dating buildings and recognising features in and around the village today. By using my own drawings, diagrams and photographs, this book sets out to empower the reader to do just this.

The first section takes you on a brief journey through the history of villages, the events which could have affected them, the changes in agriculture and industry which shaped them and how they may have appeared in the four selected periods. At the end of each chapter from 2 to 5 an imaginary village illustrates the changes which may have occurred. The second part of the book looks in detail at the features in and around villages today, including fields, roads, bridges, churches, houses and the green. The illustrations highlight particular details to look for. These can help with dating and show what some mysterious bump or structure was originally used for. The final section is a quick reference guide with details on how you can set about tracing the history of a particular village in more detail, with suggested websites, books and other sources of information. There is also a list of my favourite villages which are worth visiting, with the grid reference and postcode for each.

My love of villages was born out of drawing and painting them when I was young. It was only when I had to research them for walking books that I was surprised to discover that they had a far more vibrant and interesting past than their traditional image would have you believe. I hope this book enlightens the reader in the same way and adds another dimension when you visit them, or even acts as an introduction to tracing the history of your own village.

Trevor Yorke


To keep up to date with new projects and to post questions, go to Trevor Yorke – Author on Facebook and click ‘Like’.

FIG 1.0: One of the distinct characteristics of villages is the vernacular material from which their buildings are made, reflecting the colour and nature of the surrounding landscape. It was only with the advent of the railways and new manufacturing processes that mass-produced bricks and slates became available on a nationwide scale, heralding the demise of local materials. Some of the more distinctive types of stone and timber building are shown above. Mud mixed with straw, sand and stones, was used to build up layers and form walls in Devon, where it is known as cob, and in selected areas like Buckinghamshire where it is called witchert.






FIG 1.1: An imaginary Saxon village on the eve of the Norman Conquest, with church and manor house in the foreground and mill and bridge at the rear. This chapter will outline what defines a village and the development of the landscape through prehistory and the Dark Ages which led up to settlements like this evolving.

What is a village?

There seems to be no strict definition of when a settlement is large enough to become a village and yet be small enough not to be classed as a town. Should it have a church and post office before it can be referred to thus, or is a large group of houses remote from the urban sprawl sufficient? There are old settlements now stranded within cities which are still called villages and many which have been established in the last century around industrial or military bases with all the criteria but not the quaint image we expect.

Part of the problem is that over the past hundred years villages have been transformed into fashionable and desirable icons of a bygone age. Property prices have soared as those families who, four or five generations ago, deserted the country for opportunities in the industrial towns and cities now aspire to find a home back in a new rural idyll. Those who cannot afford to move there or prefer the urban life can still find themselves in housing estates or new developments on the edge of towns which are optimistically titled ‘villages’.

For the purpose of this book we will be focusing upon settlements which usually have around ten or more houses but do not have the institutions associated with a town. The definition is vague because, as you will find, there are towns which have shrunk to be little more than a village and hamlets which have expanded rapidly to become similar in size to one. Neither is how long a settlement has existed important as to whether it is a proper village, some will be much older than at first imagined, others surprisingly modern.

FIG 1.2 COVEHITHE, SUFFOLK: This dramatic end to the road shows how coastal erosion due to local geology and changing climate is threatening villages today, as it did at Dunwich 5 miles further down the coast, which was a busy medieval centre and is now under the sea!

The village through the ages

The following chapters are a journey through time looking at the development of villages and highlighting the fact that they are always adapting to changes in agriculture, industry, transport, climate, and not least to the whims of the lord of the manor. Unlike towns and cities, swings in fortune can have a more devastating effect upon these smaller settlements: when times are more favourable the population grows and will express its confidence in new buildings and institutions, but when there is a downturn there can be shrinkage and even complete abandonment. This boom and bust was very much the case when we look for the origins of villages in the centuries before the medieval period and further back into prehistory when hamlets and farms dominated the landscape.

The countryside

As the last ice sheets retreated from this country some 12,000 years ago and the climate warmed, settlers established seasonal camps, probably collections of tent- or wigwam-like structures, near sources of food. Later there are increasing signs that these people were managing their environment, clearing areas of forest, and trading, which perhaps brought them into contact with people from the Continent whose lives revolved around a new idea: farming. From around 4500 BC, fields of livestock and crops appeared on the landscape and with agriculture came permanent settlements, small collections of usually round huts within a defined boundary, forming at best a hamlet. Larger groupings are sometimes found, often within later hill forts. By the time of the last millennium BC much of the country was laid out with a network of farming tribes, with the earlier irregular-shaped fields replaced by sometimes complex networks of rectangular ones which had left them with less woodland than we have today!

The effect of the arrival of the Romans in AD 43 was not to physically change this intensely farmed landscape, but to refine the system; firstly with technological improvements, notably the plough, which helped achieve higher yields, then secondly by putting in place an economic structure, a transport network and a ready market for surplus agricultural produce. This success and stability pushed the population of the country to an estimated four to five million people.

When the Roman legions left these shores in AD 410 there was no great collapse in the system of farming. The remaining population, which must have still numbered in millions, and the incoming Saxons, more likely in just thousands, continued to use the existing fields during these so-called Dark Ages. The transition to a mainly Anglo-Saxon kingdom over the following centuries was probably piecemeal so some estate boundaries laid out in the Iron Age or Roman times may have survived the later change of owner, and some can still be found today in the form of a parish boundary.

Religious sites

The most commonly found and easily recognisable parts of prehistoric society in our landscape today are the remains of their religious endeavours. Long before churches were the focus of a village’s devotion, mysterious and powerful beliefs inspired people to construct henges, temples and barrows. We can endlessly hypothesize on the purpose behind them but can be more certain that the organisation and numbers required to build them imply a stable, social structure possibly with settlements nearby. Silbury Hill in Wiltshire took an estimated 1,000 labourers seven years to build, while at Avebury the stone circle required more than a hundred sarsen stones to be dragged from the fields and 200,000 tonnes of chalk to be dug out of the surrounding ditch.

Many of these sites and features were revered by the later Anglo-Saxons, with their burials sometimes made in old barrows until the 7th century when Christian missionaries from the north and south converted most of the people. These missionaries established a network of central minsters with outlying sites where travelling priests could preach to a congregation. Many of these sites had no building, just a cross and perhaps a burial ground, and it was not until later changes in the system that the familiar church and parish became the norm.

FIG 1.3 AVEBURY, WILTS: Part of the stone circle around the present-day village which was in use from 2500–1600 BC. These huge sarsen stones would have had to be dragged from the surrounding countryside in an operation which would have required a level of organisation implying a stable society.

Types of settlement

Villages were not the main type of settlement in England during prehistoric times. Even under the Romans it was a network of farmsteads, villas and towns which dominated the countryside. Where groups of people did gather in sufficient numbers for it to be termed a village, they tended not to stay very long. Perhaps limited agricultural techniques led to soil exhaustion, or simply a rudimentary belief that permanent occupation encouraged disease meant they chose a new site sometimes after only a few generations. There was, however, even in the Iron Age, an intensity of hamlets, farmsteads and some village-type settlements. Over much of the Midlands and the South, sites were only a kilometre apart, while in the upland regions they were often within two or three kilometres of each other. Despite the rarity of villages at that time, archaeologists do find examples all across the British Isles, and at some of the more famous sites you will not require a trowel to appreciate them!

In many cases the settlements which we know existed have left little trace.

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