In praise of local distinctiveness

Aren’t we lucky? Every few miles, the English landscape changes. This country must be one of the most visually diverse in the world. Rolling hills and valleys, rocky outcrops and moorland, woodland and plains, they all translate into exciting vernacular buildings, constructed with varied materials.

© Carol Taylor Bruce - The Grey Cottage, Disley

Geographical and geological textures are the key to this richness. Then, there are many different periods and building styles, some discussed in previous blog posts, that left their mark. So, let's look at some of the building blocks, which make for local distinctiveness.

Stone and quarries

Traditional materials may be more expensive than modern factory-made products, but they fit into their surroundings more harmoniously, giving them what is known as local character. Therefore, listed buildings need to be repaired with similar materials to the original to retain their distinctiveness.

Bath Stone, the oolitic limestone originally quarried at Coombe Down and Bathampton, was used for many 18th century buildings in Bath, designed by John Wood, the elder and his son. Skilfully restored in recent years, much of Bath is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Near to where I live, on the edge of Cheshire and Derbyshire Peak District, local quarries still produce stone. My home, the Grey Cottage, is built of gritstone, a hard type of sandstone, as are all the buildings in our local conservation area, evolved over several centuries. Even the roofing tiles, heavy stone slates, known as Kerridge slates, come from the village of that name. The ridge where the quarries lie, along the western edge of the Pennines above Macclesfield, looks down towards the Cheshire Plain. Within a few miles, stone houses with slate roofs become fewer giving way to Cheshire black and white half-timbered houses, farms and barns with brick bases.

Larger country houses reflect landscape change too. Lyme Hall, at 800 feet above sea level, is built of gritstone from several quarries on the estate, and incidentally was the home of Jane Austen's fictional Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) in the TV series, 'Pride and Prejudice'! However, five miles south, away from the hills, Adlington Hall is half-timbered in its older part, with a newer 18th-century brick Georgian front and tall classical stone columns, reflecting its owners’ rise to power and influence.

Reading landscapes and townscapes

Towns and villages across the country give clues to local geology, and from local industries you can guess how people earned their living in earlier times. Stamford in Lincolnshire, built of local limestone quarried at nearby Clipsham and Casterton, was the first town to be designated a conservation town in 1967 with many outstanding buildings. In Cornwall, distinctive tin-mining towers stride along the north coast, and in South Yorkshire the waste coal tip-heaps, now largely re-landscaped into parks and open spaces, tell us what happened in these areas. Generations of miners toiled underground for minerals that changed landscapes resulting in close communities.

Industrial mills and villages

The industrial revolution, particularly from mid-18th century, saw rapid expansion of mills and factories and many of these survive to this day. Previously, people worked in cottages, on handlooms, but new inventions changed working practices, and designs of the new palaces of industry made their mark.

Earlier mills, like country houses, took their designs from classical influences, such as Cressbrook Mill in Derbyshire. Mills, houses and workers' cottages were the fabric around which social and working life took place, and Saltaire in West Yorkshire is a later example of a stone-built 'grand design' village owned by an industrial patriarch. Sir Titus Salt had his workers' education and welfare at heart, as well as his profits, a philosophy known as enlightened self- interest.

Another example is Styal Mill in Cheshire, which included an Apprentice House where children, who had been picked up from the streets of Manchester in poor condition, lived and learned to become effective mill workers, disciplined but not hungry! Here the building material is Cheshire brick, warm in tone, and used throughout the village development.

Estate villages

Examples of planned villages such as Harewood, Ripley and Sledmere in Yorkshire or Edensor serving Chatsworth in Derbyshire reflect changes in agriculture. Built by local craftsmen using local materials as part of expanding private estates that exuded power, many of these built communities retain their local character to this day.

A later development, Port Sunlight on the Wirral, built in Arts and Crafts style, with 900 houses, shows an almost medieval relationship between the industrialist, Willam Hesketh Lever, Lord Leverhulme, and his workers.

Infinite variety

By contrast, the Yorkshire and Derbyshire Dales and the Cotswolds are almost ‘organic’ in their centuries’ old development, yet with a harmony provided by their local stone. In counties from Norfolk, Kent, to Somerset, decorative flint stone has been used to good effect. While thatched cottages roofed with heather, reed and straw have become less popular, in areas where they still flourish materials may still be produced locally. Or look out in East Anglia, particularly Suffolk, for pargeting, where ornate plasterwork enhances house exteriors, often showing animals, birds and details from nature.

There are many examples around the country, so try to work out whether materials, particularly in older buildings, have been quarried, grown or made nearby. Are they built to a style or pattern, employing local crafts? Whose vision was responsible for that? Your local history group and library may provide some answers. So yes, let’s praise local distinctiveness in all its richness and look for clues in the surrounding landscape.

If you are interested in learning more about local distinctiveness, it's worth checking out Common Ground and its campaigns.