Quiney, Anthony & Robin Morrison. The English Country Town.

NY: Thames & Hudson, 1987.

In Britain, urban historians and architects have generally been able to classify conglomerations of people by size. At the top, historically, were a few large cities, such as Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and especially London, which was always in a class by itself. At the bottom were thousands of villages and hamlets, established close to the land their inhabitants worked.

In between were the country towns, which served the villages, often grew up around castles or monasteries or river fords, provided markets and transportation loci, and spread their cultural influence beyond their own boundaries but through a relatively limited geographical area. The cities became industrial centers and the surviving villages nowadays are more likely to be the sites of vacation homes, or else have become bedroom communities for the nearest city, but there are still quite a few country towns that have not entirely outgrown their various origins. As Mark Girouard first noted, most towns, for most of their history, have grown not by deliberate planning but “organically,” through the anonymous day-to-day decisions of thousands of their inhabitants. Quiney, who is an academic architectural historian with a number of well-received earlier books on the subject, has attempted to survey the wide variety of country towns as they have survived in England today. His fifty-plus selections are spread pretty evenly through the country (though he ignores Scotland and Wales) and represent all the types noted, from Faversham, a trade center on the lower Thames in Kent, and Totnes in Devon, which developed around a castle that guards a port and a river crossing (and where some of my own ancestors originated, in fact), to Cirencester in Gloucestershire, established by the Romans and still a flourishing market town, and Much Wenlock in Shropshire, which grew up around the convent established about A.D. 690 by St. Mildburga.

But this is primarily a picture book meant to show off Robin Morrison’s gorgeous photography, and while there are some very good historical comments scattered throughout, there aren’t nearly enough of them. Nor are there enough photos, really. For instance, the two pages on Dorchester (the heart of Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex”) include three photos, depicting the 18th century prison, a typical thatched cottage, and a close-up of the narrow frontage of a 19th century hotel. One of the three photos of Tiverton shows only a close-up of an exterior carving on the church — a monkey, apparently, for which no explanation is given. And nowhere in the volume is there a comparison between ancient (or even Victorian) buildings that have survived and modern glass-box structures that took the place of those that didn’t survive. I know most of these towns have central car parks nowadays, and a McDonalds and a Boots franchise — but I don’t believe there’s even a single shot of an automobile in the entire book. So while the photography is of excellent quality, it’s rather misleading, and any would-be tourist is going to be surprised when they get there. Quaintness is all very well but I wish there had been a lot more history.

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Published in: on 8 December 2011 at 8:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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