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Historic Landscape Characterisation

Historic landscape characterisation (HLC) can be used to help secure good quality, well designed and sustainable places. It is a method of identification and interpretation of the varying historic character within an area that looks beyond individual heritage assets as it brigades understanding of the whole landscape and townscape into repeating HLC Types.

Revealing patterns and connections

Characterisation reveals the patterns and connections within a landscape, spatially and through time, for example in relation to buildings and patterns (of fields, streets and routeways). It also enables consideration of inter-relationships between places, and it provides a framework for the recording and evaluation of the views and perceptions of people, such as their experiences and memories.

A coastal landscape
In Historic Landscape Characterisation, all is connected. A view west from Golden Cap, Wiltshire © Peter Herring

Uses and users of HLC

HLC provides society with numerous benefits though recognition that the historic environment contributes everywhere to our sense of place and need for well-being, good growth and well-informed and carefully managed change and carefully designed place-making.

  • HLC helps society meet government policy objectives relating to landscape, neighbourhood and community. It assists in the meeting of community aspirations and the delivery of planning policy (national and local)
  • Because it is area-based and embraces inherited character, historic characterisation can take into account all aspects of a place and provide a basis for an integrated approach to its planning and management. By offering a broader and more inclusive approach it complements the longer-established designation-based approach to managing heritage. And because it is essentially about place, it can provide the basis for local planning that empowers communities
  • Historic landscape characterisation is of use to all those involved in planning and designing, or assessing and managing change in urban, rural and coastal places. It is especially useful for local authorities because of their key role in place-shaping and local planning. But HLC is also relevant for any part of a local authority that influences the interaction of people with place, for example community engagement, housing, regeneration, conservation, environmental planning and management and cultural services. HLC is also of use to developers as well as those who own and manage land and can be of interest and help to local groups and communities
  • As it can be undertaken at different scales and in ever-greater detail at successive planning and design stages, it can flexibly guide rural and urban development. The attributes that are recorded when developing HLC enable a user to consider and establish values and significance
  •  It supports the holistic, values-based, integrated approach to place set out in Historic England’s Conservation Principles (2008).

A review of the applications of HLC, Using Historic Landscape Characterisation, was prepared by Historic England (when still English Heritage) and Lancashire County Council. It is available via the Archaeology Data Service website and an updated replacement is currently being prepared by Historic England.

Two people walking in a lane in a small town with Georgian buildings.
People experiencing a quiet corner of an ancient town: approaching Castle Street, Launceston, Cornwall. © Peter Herring

Background to HLC

HLC begins from the premise that all landscape is historic, all is of interest and value, and all can be managed appropriately. Its primary object is not, therefore, an arbitrarily selected authentic or traditional aspect of landscape, not just its ancient or medieval elements but all of the shimmeringly varied landscape we live in, the one we manage, and the one we build the future on. So HLC maps the predominant historic landscape character of discrete patches of land, whether that character is still based on the products of prehistoric and medieval activity or is of much more recent origin. This landscape character can range from medieval-derived field patterns, deer parks and common land to early twentieth-century conifer plantations, Second World War airfields, 1960s golf courses, 1990s industrial estates and 2010s distribution complexes.

Systematic, region-wide sources for earlier landscapes, especially early maps and aerial photos, are also characterised to ensure that what preceded plantation, airfield and golf-course sits behind the present-day HLC. Earlier landscapes can then be displayed and interpreted with varying degrees of confidence. Areas and patterns, not individual sites, determine HLC mapping, but components, including sites, are drawn in via the associated text, which makes full use of any detailed work of the kind undertaken by archaeologists and landscape historians.

The material HLC works with and produces is comprehensive and where a place has experienced much change it can be complex. Consequently HLC mapping is normally installed on a GIS, with records of the attributes of character recorded within an associated database that can be interrogated to create custom-made mappings that meet the needs of the user.

Aerial photograph of a medieval settlemet overlain by ridge and furrow fields.
Medieval settlement and overlying ridge and furrow fields at Nobold, Northamptonshire. © Historic England Archive, Image reference NMR 21907/31

Accessing HLC

Historic Landscape Characterisations (HLCs) typically cover a whole county or protected landscape (National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and have been created in England since 1993. Over 99% of the country has now been covered. Historic England supported and guided the programme of work, but each county or local authority undertook its own HLC, tailoring it to the particularities of its own landscape. HLCs are typically held by the relevant local Historic Environment Record; many are also available on-line from the ADS website.

A similar form of characterisation, Historic Land use Assessment (HLA), developed from the method deployed in the original HLC undertaken in Cornwall in 1993 has been applied to the whole of Scotland by Historic Environment Scotland.

Now that the whole of England has been subjected to HLC Natural England  has funded a gathering together of the numerous local HLCs into a National HLC. This has involved simplification and translation of local types into a national scheme so cannot replace the usefulness of the finer grained county HLCs for most uses, which will be local and require understanding of the particularities or peculiarities of local landscape. But it does allow HLC to contribute to a broader-brush representation of the whole of England that will be invaluable for those who require a strategic overview of the country’s historic landscape.

A map of Historic Landscape Characterisation for Cornwall.
The first Historic Landscape Characterisation was for Cornwall. © Cornwall County Council

HLC and the European Landscape Convention

From the outset the creation and application of HLC has been guided by a set of principles that were established at the same time as thinking about holistic and integrated approaches to landscape, place and values were being developed across Europe and which led ultimately to the European Landscape Convention (ELC).
HLC’s method and principles therefore align well with the ELC’s definition of landscape as ‘an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors’. The perception that is at the heart of this definition includes that which comes from increased understanding about how the landscape developed.

A group of people entering a deer park with a castle on higher ground in the background
A group of people talking and thinking about a historic place, entering the former deer park beneath Launceston Castle, Cornwall © Peter Herring

Guiding principles for HLC

  • The present-day landscape is the main object, though characterisation of that will require understanding and representation of a place’s history. Landscape in an intensively occupied, used and experienced place like Britain is more about history than geography: its most important characteristic is its time-depth; the appreciation that change and earlier landscapes exist in the present landscape
  • Not only is the historic landscape itself the product of change, but continuing change, whether rapid or gradual and incremental, is a key part of its character. Characterisation recognises that landscape is and always has been dynamic and that society and its decision makers are most often involved in the  careful management of change rather than preservation in the face of it
  • HLC-based research and understanding are concerned with area not point data
  • HLC itself provides a valuable context for understanding individual heritage assets
  • Semi-natural features (woodland, rough ground, hedges etc.) are as much a part of landscape character as archaeological features; in Britain, where all parts have been affected by the actions of people, bio-diversity and aspects of ‘wild’ topography (like scree, cliffs and marshes) are cultural phenomena. The value of habitats, communities and species is increased, not diminished, by acknowledgement of their historical meaning.
  • HLC does not attach an expert’s ascription of significance or value, recognising that these are not immutable. The ways that the heritage sector and wider society appreciate aspects of landscape, or certain HLC Types, have already changed considerably since HLC was first developed in Cornwall in 1993
  •  All aspects of the landscape, no matter how modern or fragmentary, are treated as part of historic landscape character. HLC does not concentrate on areas that might be considered more important by archaeologists, landscape historians, or planners, or indeed by developers, government departments or local communities. The aim is to ensure that the whole of a region is treated even-handedly, that there are no unregarded white bits on an HLC map and that all users can have confidence that the material is of consistent quality
  • It is possible and desirable to use the records of a place’s attributes that HLC contains in its database and that have informed assignment of places to HLC Types to prepare statements of significance and to model degrees of sensitivity to particular change scenarios
  • Characterisation is designed to be a spatial framework that can accommodate people’s views, enabling collective and public perceptions of landscape to sit alongside more expert views
  • Users of HLC need to be confident that it is reasonable and robust material, so the process of characterisation is transparent, with clearly articulated records of data sources and methods used
  • For the same reason, HLC maps and text have been made to be jargon free and easily accessible to users. Most HLC results are integrated into other environmental management records, most often HERs

A modern public space with a water cascade.
A modern public space in Sheffield. Historic Landscape Characterisation also includes modern aspects of the landscape. © Peter Herring

The core method

An outline of the core method can be drawn from the Oxfordshire HLC completed in 2018.

The method is desk-based, using maps and aerial photographs as primary sources. HLC’s basic unit is the polygon, an area with relatively uniformly shared characteristics. Polygons are mapped across the whole of the county or area. To create units of a size appropriate for meeting a project’s scope and of a granularity suitable for county-wide analysis, minimum polygon sizes are usually 2 hectares in rural areas and 1 hectare in settlements and complex areas. The generalisation this requires is the essence of characterisation; it is the dominant landscape character that is recorded in each polygon.

For each polygon, which is mapped in a GIS, there is a record in an attached database, which captures various attributes including the Broad and Narrow HLC Types and Sub-types that the polygon is assigned to. The link between GIS and database enables queries to be made on any combination of attributes to display myriad aspects of the landscape's history.

Typical sources include the following:

  • Modern Ordnance Survey maps (usually 1:2500, 1:10,000 and 1:25,000)
  • Historic OS maps, usually early 20 Century, mid-Victorian and early 19 Century
  • Other historic mapping; many counties have 18 Century mapping
  • Aerial photography, usually modern and mid-20 Century, ideally vertical, geo-referenced and loaded onto the GIS
  • Maps of certain aspects of the area, such as ancient woodland, parklands, forms of land cover, including rough ground, saltmarsh, water-meadows, etc

Finer grained HLCs, usually covering smaller areas, may use more sources including other editions of the OS mapping, Tithe maps (c1840), Enclosure Maps (18-19 Century), Lidar, place-names information, and so on.

Historic Landscape Characterisation map of Oxfordshire with broad character types legend.
Historic Landscape Characterisation map of Oxfordshire with broad character types legend. © Oxfordshire County Council

As noted, each polygon is assigned to a Broad Type, a high level categorisation of the historic landscape and a narrower HLC Type, a subdivision of the Broad Type, and usually a sub-Type. HLC Types used across England have been gathered into a Historic Characterisation Thesaurus and new HLCs typically draw their types from this. Broad Types are known in the thesaurus as Classes. In England these have been resolved into the following:

Civic Amenities

Large-scale public amenities, usually grouped into three main types: water supply, waste disposal and flood and sea defence. In all HLCs, these Types and those within all the Broad Types noted below, are usually themselves divided into sub-types.

Civic Provision

Services provided to individuals by national or local government, other public bodies, organised religions, etc. Usually grouped into six main types: civil, education, health, prison, religion and funerary.

Commerce

Transferring goods and services from producers to consumers. Usually grouped into three main types: business, retail and storage.

Communications & Movement

Movement of people, information and freight by land, air and water. Often linear or nodal. Usually grouped into four main types: road, water, railway and air.

Cultural Topography

Topographical forms made cultural by perceptions and use by people. Usually grouped into four main types: coast and foreshore, water body, wetland and bog.

Enclosure

Usually the most extensive HLC type. Also one of those most particular or distinctive to place. Numerous economic, social, agricultural, topographical and cultural factors were involved in creation, maintenance and change of fields. HLC usually corrals this into a scheme that operates at two levels. Ancient, recent and modern field patterns are distinguished first. Then these are divided between fields derived from new enclosure of land previously used for different purposes and farmland organised into various forms of field system designed to serve particular functions (like equitable sharing of land). Age and detail of field form and boundary type are recorded in the polygon’s attributes.

Fisheries & Aquaculture

Coastal and estuarine harvesting of fish and shellfish from the wild or from farms. Usually grouped into two main types: fishing and aquaculture.

Industry

Large-scale creation of material goods or energy. Usually grouped into five main types: extractive, manufacturing, processing, repair and energy.

Military

Society’s sanctioned use of lethal force to either defend or extend its territory or interests. Usually grouped into seven main types: fortification, defences, transport, depot, installation, practice area, residence.

Orchards and Horticulture

Extensive and systematic commercial cultivation of crops. Usually grouped into four main types: orchard, flower farm, market garden, glasshouses.

Ornamental

Land deliberately designed to be beautiful, picturesque or sublime. Usually grouped into two main types: park and pleasure grounds.

Recreation and Liesure

Complexes and areas set aside for leisure, sport and other recreation. Usually grouped into six main types: country sport, open space, recreation, sports, events and managed heritage asset.

Rural Settlement

Particular settlements, not patterns like nucleated or dispersed. Usually grouped into five main types: isolated dwelling, farmstead, hamlet, village, housing estate.

Unimproved Land

Relatively open land with semi-natural vegetation created and maintained by extensive land management, such as seasonal grazing and the cutting of fuel. Usually grouped into five main types: rough ground, unimproved grassland, marsh, scrub and dunes.

Urban Settlement

The urban residential elements expected in county-level HLC. Note that urban areas typically also include other HLC types, such as civic provision, commerce, communications, industry, ornamental and recreation and leisure. Separation on the basis of broad periods (usually by map regression) is common practice, but the type is usually grouped into five main types: historic urban core, residential area, urban extension and dwelling.

Valley Floor and Wetland

Partly land use, partly topography, but dominated by meadow. Usually grouped into five main types: meadow, water meadow, willow garden, water cress bed and mill water system.

Woodland

Usually grouped into five main types: regularly harvested ancient woodland (pre-17 century by Natural England criteria), more recent plantations for timber or pulp, secondary woodland on land formerly used for other purposes and wood pasture, land where agriculture is at least equal to silviculture.

Fishing equipment on a quay.
Fishing, Whitby © Peter Herring

For each polygon the database record is typically divided into several tabs: Description, Attributes, Previous Type(s), Monuments, Sources.

  • Description includes unique polygon identifier number, types, confidence in the ascription to the types (certain, probable or possible), place-name, NGR, area (hectares), date of earliest dated source that shows the polygon as this type and, if earlier than the first map, the likely period of origin.
  • Attributes are characteristics drawn from drop-down menus specific to particular Broad Types: those for fields differ greatly from those recorded for settlements or industry.
  • The Previous Type gathers information about previous Broad and narrower HLC Types identified via historic maps, LiDAR, or from textual sources.
  • Some HLCs record basic data about Monuments (buildings, archaeological sites, etc) lying within the polygon that are included within the Historic Environment Record.
  • Finally, Sources tab lists the evidence used to define and describe each polygon.

Some HLCs include an ‘iconic’ map, in which the compiler uses the understanding developed during characterisation to display the broad or narrow types in a combination that bests represents the essence of the county or area. But querying of the database, especially the attributes, enables users to generate maps that display other aspects of the area. For example queries could show both former and surviving extents of a type, such as terraced housing or assarted enclosures, or they can establish the general character of a place at a certain period.

A map of Oxfordshire derived from Historic Landscape Characterisation.
Oxfordshire Historic Landscape Characterisation map with a legend showing the variety of detailed Narrow Types of character. © Oxfordshire County Council

Other types of characterisation

The broad principles and method of HLC have been applied to the sea via Historic Seascape Characterisation (HSC).

Urban historic characterisation includes ‘metro-HLC’, a method derived directly from HLC and applied to most of England’s most extensive conurbations (Manchester, Liverpool, South and West Yorkshire, Birmingham etc). Extensive Urban Survey (EUS), used in smaller market, industrial and coastal towns draws on HLC in different ways, usually being a hybrid of it and the finer-grained research and fieldwork undertaken as Historic Area Assessments (HAA). HAA tends to concentrate on particular parts of a city or town, or an area of rural landscape and attempts to establish current assessments of significance, usually in relation to various forms of proposed change.

A map from the Urban Historic Characterisation of the Digbeth area of Birmingham
A map from the Urban Historic Characterisation of the Digbeth area of Birmingham. © Crown Copyright
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