Historic Landscape Characterisation

In order to have a better understanding of the historic dimension of today’s landscape, Buckinghamshire County Council has undertaken an Historic Landscape Characterisation Project. This two-year desk-based project used information gleaned from aerial photographs, modern and historic maps to create a countywide character map of the historic landscape of Buckinghamshire’s countryside. The Historic Landscape Characterisation project assesses the various components of the landscape such as fields, woodland and settlement, and maps the results into a computer- based Geographical Information System (GIS).


Vertical aerial photograph of ChartridgeIt seeks to overcome the traditional emphasis on archaeological sites by looking at the whole landscape (Countryside Agency et al 2003). HLC was developed by English Heritage as a broad-brush approach to enhancing the knowledge and effective management of the historical landscape. HLC projects are desk-based studies using GIS as a method for defining the historic dimension of the present day rural landscape. HLC can identify areas whose appearance is thought to be the result of certain processes, distinguish landscape’s time depth and facilitate sustainable management. The landscape is assessed by looking at all its major component features (for example fields, woodland, parklands, mineral extraction, industrial and urban areas) and by determining their origin and development through morphological analysis supported by documentary evidence, aerial photographs, historical mapping and chronological editions of Ordnance Survey maps. The information gained is then mapped onto GIS resulting in a multi-faceted digital map that enables sophisticated analysis and interpretation of the predominant historic character in the present landscape.


The same area coded by Historic Landscape CharacterisationThe HLC methodology mainly records those historic patterns that are still visible and mapped within the present day environment. By examining the differences between early and modern cartographic sources we can also map and assess changes within the landscape through time – the ‘time-depth’ that survives in the modern landscape, whether as dominant forms or less obvious indications of past land use.


The HLC approach offers a seamless coverage of the landscape emphasising the human processes that have led to and remain evident in its current appearance. The primary aim of HLC is to create a consistent model of the historic landscape that is as transparent as possible, inclusive, repeatable and above all has comprehensive spatial coverage (i.e. no un-mapped ‘white’ or blank spaces). The whole of Buckinghamshire’s landscape has a record of its historic dimension, instead of only having points where there are archaeological monuments or historic buildings. This can help to highlight where more investigation needs to be done. It is possible to do a project using older maps and/or fieldwork to elaborate what has already been recorded. The Historic Landscape Characterisation data is available as a series of layers on the Unlocking Buckinghamshire's Past website mapping section.


Aspects of landscape that require evaluation include character, sensitivity and vulnerability in conjunction with the capacity of a place to absorb change without losing its historic depth and links to the past. These can be as important measures as value and significance on their own. A holistic approach is required. This represents the first stage in developing a genuinely inclusive approach to the historic environment.


HLC is fast becoming a valued tool for assisting decision making in a strategic planning context and has been usefully applied in a number of cases, including the characterisation of the Thames Gateway (Clark 2004) and more close at hand as part of an assessment of the draft proposals for the growth of Milton Keynes, (Buckinghamshire County Council, English Heritage and Milton Keynes Council, 2004).


The County Council and District Councils use Historic Landscape Characterisation data to inform Landscape Character Assessments and Conservation Area Appraisals. Parish councils are encouraged to use it in Parish Plans and Village Design Statements. Historic Landscape Characterisation shows how a village or town fits into the surrounding historic landscape. J. Clark, J. Darlington & G. Fairclough, sets out the uses of Historic Landscape Characterisation data in Using Historic Landscape Characterisation (there is a copy in the Historic Environment Record library). The fields, woodland and open lands around a settlement have been shaped as much by human intervention as the settlement itself. The importance of this landscape context should be taken into account when recommendations about future development are made. For instance, it could be recommended that future development respect existing and historic boundaries as defined by the Historic Landscape Characterisation project, rather than cutting across them. The character of a settlement is also mapped and it may be that you can recommend that new development enhances the dispersed or linear nature of the settlement, rather than transforming such villages or towns by infilling the gaps or expanding into the fields behind one major routeway.


Click here for some examples of projects using Historic Landscape Characterisation.


Click for more information on Historic Landscape Characterisation.


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