Interior view of roof timbers in an attic.
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Hidden evidence for early urban buildings: interior view of roof timbers at Broad Street, Ely © Historic England, Patrica Payne, image reference DP173787
Hidden evidence for early urban buildings: interior view of roof timbers at Broad Street, Ely © Historic England, Patrica Payne, image reference DP173787

Early Urban Buildings

Historic England is providing support for a series of projects aimed at discovering and understanding early urban buildings.

By their nature early urban buildings can be difficult to identify and understand; they can be hidden behind later frontages, boxed in with modern shop fittings, or survive only as a few fragments in a much-altered building.  

These challenges mean that many early buildings lie unidentified in towns and cities throughout the country.  This presents real challenges for managing development in urban areas, as potentially significant buildings can go unrecognised.  

Where they survive however they can provide valuable information on history of the town; its inhabitants and their lives.

Colour photograph showing a high street of old buildings with various cars and pedestrians
High Street, Sandwich, Kent – a historic town where research has uncovered evidence of the early form of the buildings and the lives of the inhabitants © Historic England

Project aims

Historic England support these projects in order to

  • Promote the study and recording of early urban buildings, by volunteer recording groups and professionals in the historic environment sector
  • Promote the publication of studies on early urban buildings to stimulate academic debate
  • Provide a wider appreciation of the survival of these types of buildings
  • Help protect significant early buildings from unsympathetic development

Current projects

Historic England is currently funding three projects:

Early Fabric in Historic Towns: Ely

This is a project carried out by an in-house team, led by the Assessment Team with support from the Imaging and Visualisation Team.

Ely is an important tourist destination, and its historic fabric plays an important role in its unique appeal, particularly the cathedral.  This appeal, and the city’s good transport links, mean that it is subject to considerable development pressure.

The main aim of the project was to improve our understanding of early, hidden urban fabric in Ely to allow better protection and management of the historic environment in the town.

We also aimed to demonstrate the significance of the survival of such fabric in towns in general.  

The project produced an initial Research Report, looking at 15 buildings in detail, and also an article  'Early Fabric in Historic Towns: Ely, Cambridgeshire' in Vernacular Architecture journal Volume 48, 2017 issue 1 pp1-22.

Download the Research Report on early building fabric in Ely

Detail of carving on a timber beam.
Deatail of leaf moulded stop on a beam from a building at the High Street, Ely © Historic England, Patricia Payne, image reference DP187931

Chipping Norton's Historic Vernacular Buildings

This project is being undertaken by the Chipping Norton Buildings Record and Oxfordshire Buildings Record.  The project will look at the town’s buildings dated before 1750 using street surveys and individual building recording, photography and some dendrochronology (tree-ring dating).  

The aim is to understand better the building history of Chipping Norton, relating the evidence of the built environment to documentary sources.

This research has begun to formulate new ideas as to how some streets have developed due to various discoveries.  Unexpected discoveries include a number of identical 17th century features, identified in properties in one street.  

The two-year study will enhance the findings to date. The project has produced a publication which offers a greater understanding of the town’s morphology, vernacular architecture and social history. The group's book 'The Making of Chipping Norton' is now avaialble via the History Press.

Two volunteers recording details of masonry inside the guildhall, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.
Interior of the Guildhall, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. Volunteers carrying out survey work on the building. © Historic England, DP172791

Early Fabric in Beverley, East Yorkshire

This project aims to extend the knowledge of early fabric of the selected buildings in Beverley, East Yorkshire.

It will add to the work on early buildings done by the Yorkshire Vernacular Buildings Study Group in 2010. More early buildings will be identified and surveyed, dendrochronological surveys and documentary research undertaken.

A recording conference was held in May 2015. All this will form the basis of a publication of findings with analysis at the end of the project.

Black and white archive photograph of a street scene from the 1920s or 1930s featuring the Medieval gate at Beverley, East Riding.
Archive photograph of a street scene from the 1920s or 1930s featuring the Medieval gate at Beverley, East Riding. © Historic England, image reference cc98_00013

Commissioned research

We have also commissioned work to draw together years of research into the early buildings of Hereford so that owners and authorities are aware of their significance. You can see an overview of the project results in Historic England Research magazine Issue 9.


These projects are intended to start a process so that ultimately:

  • There is improved recognition and protection of historic urban environments through better understanding of the form and function of early buildings and the rates and forms of survival
  • The historic environment sector is better equipped to analyse and record historic urban buildings
  • We move towards a national synthesis of early urban building types

Rebecca Lane

Rebecca Lane

Senior Investigator, Historic England

Rebecca worked in the commercial sector for six years as a buildings archaeologist, and latterly as a historic buildings consultant before joining the Architectural Investigation team at English Heritage in 2010.  She is currently responsible for a range of projects looking at Early Fabric in Historic Towns, and has recently drafted the new edition of Understanding Historic Buildings a guide to good recording practice.  

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