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Settlement patterns in the UK countryside - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Settlement patterns in the UK countryside

I have long owed lucubratrix an answer to what began as a simple question about villages in (as asked) England; a question that grew to encompass the issue of settlement patterns in Britain as a whole (‘and what a whole it is’).


We begin in Downton.


Why is Downton here?  Why does a Downton exist?  And why does it exist just here?


Of course, Downton, as such, has not always been here.  But there has been continuous human habitation in the area that is now Downton and its environs, for some 7000 years.[1]


This provides us with two clues – or clews, like twine in a labyrinth – at once.  The first is that, whatever may be the permanent terrain factors that promote the establishment and maintenance of settlement, they are, for the Downton area, at least 7000 years old.  The second is that, given so long a period of people buggering about with the landscape, the British environment is in material measure as much man-made as it is natural.  There is no, or effectively no, true wilderness in the British Isles.  Someone has ever been there before, changing the environment.


Put simply, Downton is where it is for the same reasons any hamlet, village, town, or city is where it is.  The area has access to resources.  It has water, both for drinking and for small shipping.  It can feed itself: as certain areas in West Africa demonstrate, or used to do, if, for example, you are up to your oxters in gold, but have no salt and must import it, the market price of salt settles at its weight in gold, or you abandon your gilt village for someplace where you won’t sodding starve to death because you can’t preserve a leg of gazelle in the larder.  It has a road, and a ford.  It is in an area that is defensible.  And the resources, agricultural, extractive, and manufacturing, are such that cooperative life, trade at least within the area (and in this case, beyond), and the division of labour, make sense, impelling people to live together, a farmer cheek-by-jowl with a potter and a miller and a smith and a weaver and so on.




Wiltshire being south of the ice in the Palæolithic,[2] the Kennet and Avon valleys were already being traversed by man the hunter – two of whom dropped their flint axes, dozy sods,[3] at Salisbury and at Knowle Farm in Savernake Forest, which is how we know the buggers were there – between 18ka (‘ka’: ‘thousand years’) and 11ka ago.  By the Mesolithic, circa 8500 years ago, there was hunting (well, stalking: no pink coats were yet in evidence, no foxhounds, no Hunt Balls), tree-felling, and some early gestures towards herding and cultivation, which led to encampments at such places as Downton and Cherhill.  Between 4ka and 3ka, the beginnings of real agriculture, both pastoral and arable, had begun, and Neolithic man had started changing the landscape and settling in to stay: including by engaging in such occupations as pottering[4] and weaving.[5]  Perhaps most importantly, they were sufficiently organised that they were creating sacral, ritual spaces, barrows, monuments, henges, and places of inhumation for the dead.  Perhaps no less importantly, they were cooperating in creating field systems for planting and harvest.  This tied them to the land; and it tied the land to them, as they remade it.


Take, for example, the Sweet Track in the Somerset Levels: a prefabricated wooden causeway from ca 3800 BCE, the oldest surviving engineered roadway in the world.  This is not something the local farmer and his pig man ran up over a weekend in their spare time (as if farmers, in the Neolithic as now, had ‘spare time’!): it implies organisation, and settlement in communities, both in its making and in the need to make it, as a route from Point A to Point B, points which are, naturally, settled communities.  By the time of the Bronze and Iron Ages, fields, enclosures such as banks, ditches, and possible hedgerows, settlements, tracks, coppiced and managed woods, granaries (as at Little Woodbury), the enclosure of settlements as well as of farmsteads and fields, earthworks, and hillforts (eg, White Sheet Hill, Mere, Fovant, Grovely Castle, and Old Sarum), all had changed the face of the countryside.


People had begun to gather together for mutual support and cooperation: ‘you grow the grain and don’t worry about throwing pots, I’ll do that, you just pay me in barley, that way I haven’t to interrupt my kilning to go plough the bloody field’.  As they were now storing excess production and no longer living hand to mouth, they had reason to gather together in mutual support for defence, as well, to protect the grain pit from the marauding greedy or the improvident desperate.  If these factors are allowed to persist in an area over any substantial period of time, then, with or without any input from the Powers That Be, a settlement will form: a hamlet even without the prince.


But we are getting ahead of ourselves.


All of these things are the result, yes, of human endeavour, but the human endeavour was directed upon a given environment.  Anthropogenic change was the change of something: specifically, of a natural environment created by natural forces.  And where it succeeded, it was because it worked upon ready natural material.


It is a commonplace to observe that Great Britain slopes from North to South, from West to East: the higher ground is above a line drawn from the mouth of the Exe to the mouth of the Tees.  It is perhaps more important to realise that the older and harder rock, as a rule, is to the North and West.  And a good damned thing, too: if it were the other way round, with the fetch of the Atlantic rollers and the usual south-westerly winds in the Channel and the Atlantic coasts, Great Britain would consist of a long rock on its easternmost side, orienting North-South, a sort of Novaya Zemlya.


As matters stand, however, the competent rock forms a protective rind around Britain, and the Gulf Stream keeps the place habitable (consider that if the islands were moved westwards, they’d be in Hudson’s Bay, if eastwards, Siberia).  But of course this accident of geology, and consequently of geography, does a great deal more than this.


The inclined plane that is Britain in cross-section powerfully affects settlement patterns.  Unless you are a Cistercian abbot with a particular religious motive, you don’t set a community on the high, sheep-dotted moorlands of the Pennine slopes: the upland hills are the domain of largish farms, dispersed and largely isolated, whence the inhabitants come down the dale to towns and villages to transact business.  And this is equally so amidst Northern sheep and West Country cattle and sheep, due, simply, to the carrying capacity of the land: the amount of acreage required to graze a sustainable number of beasts.  Similar strictures apply to crofts in the Highlands and to subsistence farming in Wales.  A settlement in such areas would not support itself and would only take up precious land needed for the wide-ranging graziers or would require to be built on the only land flat enough to be arable, thus creating a community at the price of starving its inhabitants.



A bit further down the slope, one tends to find minerals for extraction, and water for motive power and for shipping; cornlands appear and communications networks, track, then road, and eventually rail over the passage of time.  Mine, mill, manufactory, corn, commerce, wheat and woollens, river and canal, all together tend to support the coalescence of habitation into settlements ranging from hamlet to city.  Further downhill and downstream, of course, ports emerge, urbanisation, shipping and commerce, and the supplementation of diet by fishing.


All of this is a consequence of geology, as modified by millennia of human habitation.


In the South of England, particularly in the Southeast, the geology tends to form concentric ellipses: arcs, in effect, insofar as only parts of these ellipses are onshore.  A simplification of the Chilterns, the North Downs, and the South Downs shows the effect: the oolitic limestone is a moderately successful aquifer, and a primary source of building material; the chalk is a superb aquifer, giving rise to many streams, and, by weathering and other forms of erosion, creating downstream soils; the area within and below these is, in our notional example, highly fertile Wealden clay.  (The schematic somewhat resembles the weir at Pulteney Bridge, at Bath.)


Hops, anyone?



Now, obviously, the geology and the resulting topography exert appreciable influence on life and settlement patterns.  By creating areas of riparian arable in floodplains, by creating differences in soil and elevation, by dictating the placement of settlements with reference to protection from natural hazards (see for example the villages of the River Wylye and its Valley in Wilts, which are consistently located at a point just upslope from the historical flood levels), by dictating the placement of settlements with reference to defences and protection from enemies, topography influences settlement patterns and the formation of communities.  Communication routes, both fluvial and terrestrial, are also hugely influenced by topography, as witness the Ridgeway and the Icknield Way, where men may go dry-shod even when the vales are in flood.


Topography influences these things: but it does not absolutely dictate them. 


Topography also influences the creation of localities, of pays.  It is for example due to the ‘rind’ of competent rock facing the seas that a river may, say, rise a few miles from one sea yet flow across a county or three to debouch in another sea, thus creating a network of links for trade and for invasion – in either direction – for defence and for political cohesion.  At the same time, trade between these tiny early lordships and kingdoms becomes especially lucrative; and of course, there is the desire of the various tiny polities to try to absorb their neighbours – and to keep from being absorbed by neighbours equally bent upon expansion.  The creation of shared identities over a region defined in large measure by simple topography is a potent factor, and one based on the underlying geology.  This is why there are so many villages, and so many rivers, with the same damned name: regional isolation.  And what natural forces create – harbours, say – they can also destroy, and do: thanks to such phenomena as longshore drift (and Britain is not precisely your choice for tropical beaches, I may note), your town may go from being a Cinque Port in one reign to being sunk as a port in the next.


Topography influences these things: but it does not absolutely dictate them.  Man has always been determined to master nature, and to exert influence over and in despite of the strictures of geography.  This impetus is most simply expressed in deforestation or afforestation or reforestation, in ploughing and in irrigation; at its extreme, it involves major public works, conquest, and railways.


Moreover, as technology changes, what man can, and will, do to and with the landscape changes as well.  Changes in the management of livestock change the effective carrying capacity of pastures; changes in the management of land change the efficacy of agriculture both for graziers and for arable farmers; changes in plough technology enable the exploitation of new soils, which were too heavy for earlier ploughs; changes in fertilisation technique, by marl or manure or water meadow, change productive capacity; changes in the very corn and cattle, through selective breeding, change everything.


These sorts of change in turn then affect, markedly, and may even wholly effect, changes in settlement patterns with respect to density and distribution.  Formerly isolated farmsteads coalesce, or the other way round; villages contract or are abandoned as the tide of trade, disease, or agricultural fertility ebbs and flows.


And these things are not, of course, occurring in a vacuum.


Changes in the technology of warfare influence even a peaceable landscape (Salisbury Plain comes to mid), both directly, with the abandonment or refortification of ancient hillforts; the siting of new castles and forts by Roman, Saxon, or Norman (or Dane) – and the reasons why they did or did not reuse the previous sites; the creation of strong-points such as Alfred’s burhs when the land was threatened and their abandonment when peace was imposed and unification achieved; and indirectly, as the overlords of the land changed in response to distant battles and conquests, each with his own views on land management in his demesne.

Peace and quiet.

Well, a footpath is all right, just mind you shut they gates!

A hillfort ... d'you feel we're being ... watched?

New building estate?  There goes the neighbourhood.

Wharves, bridges, bloody Norman castle, no wonder the rates are too high!


Changes in transportation technology in turn affected agricultural, topographical, and indeed military factors in the settlement patterns, and were affected in turn by these same factors, changing, say, Swindon from a rather dull small town to a very large, dull, dire town,[6] or transforming Manchester from a country market town to a manky industrial blot, all dark Satanic mills.[7]  Railways and canals had an obvious impact, but the replacement of track with, successively, way and herepath and Roman road and metalled roadway was still more significant in its time.  For example, linear settlements whose sole reason for existing was that they were at a waypoint, the end of a day’s march, on the road network, and that grew up around a public house or inn, would have come and gone as to location as the measure of where a day’s march ended, changed.

As it says on the tin


Obviously, every change to the political landscape remade the physical landscape: the dissolution of the monasteries, say, changing the sheep economy of the Pennines, the vast changes in Wales with the English occupation, the Highland clearances, even changes in forms of land tenure incident to the evolution and then the eventual disappearance of the feudal system: all had their impact.


Finally, there is the influence that is so often and foolishly overlooked, that of the ritual or sacral landscape – and of changes to it.  Profound influence upon settlement patterns is exerted by ritual spaces (Avebury, say, or, over a longer time and under several religious regimes, Glastonbury), holy wells, Minster church foundations, pilgrimage churches and shrines (Canterbury, Walsingham, Bury St Edmunds), and cathedral foundations – not least because for most of the period, in England, city status went with the possession of a cathedral.  And of course, where folk gather to worship, they will buy and sell as well, and an entire economy – and the settlement that goes with it – can spring up to serve the pilgrims.

A notional scheme


In Scotland, and to lesser extent in Wales, the longer persistence of the Celtic Church, with its non-parochial organisation, conspired with other environmental factors, such as the adoption of crofting as the reasonable solution to local conditions for agricultural cooperation and settlement, and social organisation in kinship groups, to inhibit the creation of villages; a few burghs, to use the Scots term, self-sufficient local centres largely cut of from any long-distance trading due to a poor transport net, were the nuclei of settlement outside the major urban sites.  These burghs tended to evolve less at agricultural foci, strictly construed – and in Scotland, the Isles, and Wales, agricultural produce was partly replaced over large areas with fishery – than at strategic locations for localised commerce or for defence.  By contrast, significant inland communities in England required trade into the interior, and both fed and were fed by a network of commerce, not least because a purely coasting trade was not at all so feasible or efficient in England as it might be elsewhere.  Fife and Cornwall-Devon-Somerset-Dorset are alike peninsular, but the distances involved and the prevailing winds are such that it makes much more sense, is less dear, and is actually less troublesome, for a cargo to be transhipped overland from, say, Southampton or Christchurch to Bristol – which fact is highly applauded by the good people of Trowbridge, Downton, Bath, and Frome.


As noted, these various factors and the landscape that they shape are in constant flux, and there are significant regional variations (within the South of England, between North and South, either side the Pennines, between England and Wales, between England-and-Wales and Scotland, either side the Highland Line, mainland and Isles, the whole bloody boiling, really).  Hamlets, villages, and towns form, fail, are abandoned, lost, re-founded – the number of deserted mediæval villages is notable in some areas, but so too are the dislocations associated with the coming of Rome, the withdrawal of the legions, the Saxon expansion, and the Norman conquests.  What is significant, however, is that, as at Downton, the functions of a community have so often been carried on the same area, if in different forms and patterns, for thousands of years.


This concept of the functional focus area is important.  If one focuses upon and identifies a ‘service area’ of providers and consumers – of resources, religion, state and administrative power, and trade – then one will always find in each such area a site or a linked assemblage of sites, an association of sites, that provide, firstly, an administrative centre and place of assembly, secondly, the consolations of religion, and, thirdly, a market.  The places where these occur may change or merge or be replaced over time, but in the focus region of the service area, these functions and the settlements that grow up around them will always be there in some form or another.  Roman villas and camps, Saxon settlements and Norman foundations, may have been abandoned or built over, but there is still some settled community fulfilling these functions for each service area, either in a single centre or in association, such as the typical triad of settlements deriving from a king’s tun or burh, a Saxon Minster church, and a market town, chepe-or-chipping-or-wick.



Within each settlement, in turn, there will be a focus, or several foci.  Linear settlements may be imposed by geography, by the local topography; or like that ‘lang toun’ of Kirkcaldy, be a ‘ribbon’ settlement that has several foci or whose focus is diffused, similar in the smaller scale to the split of functions between three settlements that we just examined: many of these linear, ‘ribbon’ settlements are in fact, multifocal: as at Lochcarron, Highland (Wester Ross, Ross-shire); cf Morefield, Wester Ross, Ross-shire.  Or they will take a linear rather than nucleated form because they grew not only without planning but in defiance of it, as in linear settlements in the New Forest that grew out of squatters’s encroachments; or the built topography will exert the same influence as natural topography might, where forest or a Saxon bridging point over a river is a focus of the settlement: as in the Horton-cum-Studley area (Oxon); in the Cotswolds valleys; and at the referenced Saxon bridging points (Burford, Widford; see also Todmarton, Upper & Lower Oddington, all Oxon; Riseley (Beds)).

Line by line...


The foci of a settlement are more easily recognisable in a nucleated community, where the houses and support buildings from smithy to shop are grouped around a green, market place, church, crossroads, gentry house, or some combination of these.  What is important to realise is that, whether in a single settlement or, writ large, in a region, the coalescence of households in geographic proximity is a factor of the functions required to sustain a community, and the existence of a focus point for the delivery and consumption of those services.

What more do you want?


The result is quite readily discernible.  It is the highly typical British – particularly English – landscape, in Wessex and in East Anglia, from Wilts to Renfrewshire: the pastoral uplands, grazed, sparsely populated – if at all – giving way to arable, patchwork fields amidst which, along lines of communication in some instances older than fallen Troy or the pyramids of the pharaohs, the immemorial succession of hamlet, village, and market town appears.  The British are an urban people; they simply site their urbs in rure.  They live in villages or towns, most of them, but those are set amidst green fields if at all possible.  London itself is, really, a collection of villages and two of the smallest cities known to man.  But the ideal is a simpler one still: to live where there are enough people in a village for everyone to have a role and receive services, a village large enough for a pub and a village XI, but one shielded from the next village, the ancient enemy, by a greenbelt.  For some thousands of years, the British, generally, and the South of England in particular, have managed largely to carry this off.

Not bad.  Not bad at all.[8]



[1] This is longer than at some other sites, obviously: Warminster, say, has been around for about half that time, in the sense that the area round about the place that we now call Warminster has been occupied for that long.  Non-continuous human habitation in the British Isles is much older than any mere 7000 years.  Even discounting non-modern humans such as Heidelberg Man and the Neanderthals (var. Homo spp.), modern humans (H. [pseudo-]sapiens) have made numerous forays into Britain in interglacial periods such as the one we are now in, finally gaining a permanent foothold through re-colonisation some twelve thousand years ago, in the Flandrian interglacial of the Holocene epoch, after the Late Glacial Maximum.  Hominids seem first to have reached – or can be shown to have reached – what is now Britain some 500 or 550 thousand years ago (although perhaps as long ago as 700ka ago), during one of the warm oscillatory periods of the Pleistocene’s Cromerian interglacial complex (in North America, this is the Aftonian, in the Alps, the Günz-Mindel), as reflected in finds at Westbury (-sub-Mendip, in Somerset), Happisburgh, and, of course, Boxgrove.

[2] Thank God for global warming.  (Bugger, now ‘Dave’ Cameron will lecture me.  Little sod.  Doesn’t he realise that assertions of anthropogenic responsibility for climate change are not accepted as proven even by the House of Lords Scientific Committee?)

[3] A quick way to end up enriching the archæological record with your bones to match your flint hand-axes, in that era.  The technical term for a disarmed hominid in that landscape, was, ‘prey’.

[4] About.  Usually in the garden.

[5] Back from the local.  You can be assured that fermentation had been discovered by this time.

[6] Brunel strikes again.

[7] Arkwright and Fairbairn strike again.  See comments by de Tocqueville, Mme Schopenhauer, Messrs Marx and Engels, and Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and All.

[8] Anyone who can better this paper, do, please.

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5 comments or Leave a comment
lucubratrix From: lucubratrix Date: October 12th, 2006 02:22 am (UTC) (Link)
Oooh, this is just marvellous! I am absolutely enchanted by the thoroughness of your response to what was a much more casually mentioned question. Truly, this is fascinating, and I don't think anyone else could do any better!

Currently living in a city which is really not that much more than 100 years old, and having grown up in an area where my parents' house from 1838 is among the "oldest" things around, this is really a huge contrast. I'll try my best to utilize the wealth of information you've provided in some of my fics.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 15th, 2006 08:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

Oh, good, it WAS helpful, then.

Thanks for saying as much.
leni_jess From: leni_jess Date: November 10th, 2007 09:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've been slowly going through your essays, and downloading those useful for reference (that's most of them). I particularly admire this one, not only for its helpful logic, its detailed illustration, and the sheer amount of work you've put into it, but also for its masterly prose which rarely falters. Vide the manifold virtues of this sentence, These sorts of change in turn then affect, markedly, and may even wholly effect, changes in settlement patterns with respect to density and distribution. I paused to admire them, with a moment of sorrow for the rarity with which I encounter such care and such skill.

Thank you.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: November 11th, 2007 02:54 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you very much indeed.

Although I cannot quite quell my own suspicion that I must have been showing off when I wrote that sentence.
leni_jess From: leni_jess Date: November 11th, 2007 07:38 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you very much indeed.

It is surely one of the purposes of the essay form, to allow one to demonstrate one's ability to write well.
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