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Rural Heritage

Read about Historic England’s research and techniques for managing changes to rural heritage. We explain characterisation, investigation and assessment of significance. We explore how people used the land and left us with the built and archaeological heritage we value today.

England's rural landscape is a jewel of our national heritage, formed by people living on and working the land over thousands of years. It includes a great range of heritage assets from historic buildings to archaeological remains. Some of these survive as functioning or disused structures. Others are monuments, earthworks or may be concealed under layers of change in our landscape. All offer different opportunities for change in the future.

Aerial view of Rosthwaite Fell with Derwent Water and Bassenthwaite Lake in the distance.
North of this tiny tarn on Rosthwaite Fell are the medieval and modern fields and woods of Roswaithe itself, at the heart of Borrowdale. Further on are Derwent Water and Bassenthwaite Lake, with the ancient summer grazings of the Lake District fells all around. Date: 8 August 2012 © Historic England, Dave McLeod, NMR 28320_021

Research and techniques

Our research explores new ways of appreciating and understanding the rural historic environment and informs the ways we manage change to rural buildings and landscapes. We strive to find the most efficient means of using the following techniques:

Characterisation

Characterisation of the whole historic environment is mainly desk-based and interprets existing maps, aerial photographs and other data through:

Investigation and assessment

Investigation and assessment allow us to research and analyse in further detail and then consider the value of those areas, buildings and features that are the most significant, the most threatened and the least understood.

You'll find additional guidance, advice and research on rural heritage through reading: 

House and dog kennels surrounded by fields.
The late 18th century gamekeeper’s house and kennels of the antiquary and archaeologist Sir Richard Colt Hoare near Stourhead, Wiltshire. © Historic England, Peter Herring June 2015

Defining rural heritage

Historic patterns of settlement and land use continue to influence the character of the whole rural historic environment, and the survival and development of this rural heritage. Settlement in England varies from areas where most houses are in villages to parts of eastern and western England where dispersed settlement of small hamlets, isolated houses and farmsteads dominate. The buildings, archaeological remains and landscape settings of these different settlement patterns tell a complex story of England’s variety of farming regimes, rural industries, economies and ways of life.

Rural heritage is also detectable in the ways in which farmland and other resources such as woodland and rough ground were managed. Improving our understanding of these ways provides opportunities to work with the direction of future change and inform habitat restoration and connections.

The best-preserved upstanding archaeological remains are found in land unploughed for generations, especially in England’s uplands. Significant remains also survive buried below ground and we can use a variety of remote sensing techniques to discover and record these.

The irregular, semi-regular and regular patterns of fields result from the ancient, gradual or survey-planned enclosure of medieval or earlier farmland or of previously unfarmed land. Improving our knowledge of these fieldscapes helps us better understand agricultural processes and the historic buildings and archaeological remains that resulted from them.

The trees or hedges, wood pastures and parkland can also have their own historic value, as well as being significant wildlife habitats. Recent work is showing how much apparently ancient woodland dates from after the medieval period.

Our historic estates have also shaped many areas of England, combining agricultural land, designed landscapes and significant buildings. Nearly half of the historic parkland recorded in 1918 has been lost; in some places, these losses have been as high as 70%. Designed landscapes often stretch beyond the park and include sites and features such as model farms, estate cottages and plantations.

People today live and work in these landscapes, actively managing and safeguarding them for future generations.

View west from Lower Jurston, Chagford, looking across medieval fields.
View west from Lower Jurston, Chagford, looking across medieval fields, the central ones derived from former strips, towards the great common grazing on northern Dartmoor. Signs of change can be seen in all parts. A few generations ago the farmland would have included arable intermixed with the pasture fields. We can see the earthworks of earlier fields (some prehistoric) within those and on the open moor. While a modern reservoir (Fernworthy) surrounded by a conifer plantation catches the eye, the areas of scrub and secondary woodland indicate where grazing levels have been reduced. Date: 10 October 2013 © Historic England, Damian Grady, NMR 27859_035
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