What do we mean by the historic built environment?
The South Downs National Park has a wonderful inheritance of buildings and standing structures from the past thousand years of human habitation. From the Saxon tower of Sompting Church to the hurried invasion defences of 1940, a rich pattern of settlement and development is apparent in almost every corner of the landscape. There are Norman castles, a rich legacy of churches of every date and famous country houses, set in designed landscapes of the highest quality. Still more remarkably, the National Park displays an intricate pattern of everyday historic settlement, of scattered farmsteads and agricultural cottages, villages clustered on the spring line of the South Downs or along river valleys and small market towns that have thrived on trade for hundreds of years. It is possible to read the history of almost all of these places in the incremental layers of change and development that each generation has left.
But this gradual deposition of history only remains as legible as it does because the change it records has been relatively gradual. Although the Weald was once the national hub for metal-working, the explosive development of industrial processes and organised labour we recognise as the Industrial Revolution took place in the North and the Midlands. While London has always exerted a certain gravitational pull, the South Downs were just sufficiently distant to retain a continuity with the rural past well into the railway age. Only with the growth of car ownership did the South Downs become fully accessible from the capital and by that time, fortuitously, unrestricted suburban growth was on the point of containment by the concept of Town and Country Planning and the introduction of the ‘Green Belt’.
Early attempts to consciously preserve features surviving from the past had usually been predicated on ownership of the asset; for example, the first building purchase of the National Trust was Alfriston Clergy House, in 1896. The first attempt by Parliament to interfere with traditional property rights for heritage reasons came with the Ancient Monuments Protection Act, as long ago as 1882. This had enshrined a list of sixty eight archaeological monuments across Britain and Ireland which for the first time might be voluntarily passed from the care of their owners and thence protected from harm by a Commissioner appointed by the State. Today’s sophisticated legal protections for the historic environment can be traced back to this very tentative beginning almost a century and a half ago.
The current National Heritage List contains a range of Heritage Asset types and can be explored here.