England’s towns were once enclosed by towering defensive walls that minimised the chances of would be attackers entering and causing havoc. And they performed an important role in regulating business – meaning that only those that were part of official guilds or livery companies could trade.
Looking at illustrative maps and accounts from bygone years, I find it fascinating to discover how humans (and animals) were crammed into packed spaces among the grime of what became increasingly smelly industry. Except for a few religious institutions on the outskirts of cities, this is where the majority of urban dwellers lived and worked.
Then, as the medieval period faded away, the suburbs outside the walls expanded in periods of intense urban sprawl. And when peace conditions ensued following the English Civil War in the 17th century, the walls were in many cases torn down or simply crumbled over the years so that land could be developed in the great explosion of commerce.
Today, bar places like York, where considerable sections of wall remain, for the most part tourists only get to look at mere fragments. Elsewhere, sadly our historic quarters have in many cases been forgotten and are unloved – you only need to see the depressing state of old towns in Bristol and Hull where many buildings are boarded up.
That said, even in places where the walls have been removed, I still feel that there is some element of distinctiveness in the old towns up and down England that should be preserved.
Bristol is a case in point in this story. Three hundred years ago this city in the South West was home to the second most important port in England. Not far from the dockside, in the old town merchants traded with one another and made use of the ever increasing number of financial institutions.
And even when Bristol lost its second city status to Liverpool, the old town continued to develop – the fine Victorian buildings on show to visitors today are testament to the ambition of that era.
Fast-forward to the 1900s and with financial institutions moving to areas on the outskirts of the city, the leisure industry flooded in. New bars and clubs opened to entertain the masses on a Friday and Saturday night. Growing up in the city during that era, I remember how busy some of venues got at the weekend and, when you could get to the bar, the drink flowed freely.
Then the recession kicked in and many of these venues closed down and were left boarded up. Bristol’s old town is no longer the buzzing place that it was ten years ago. Many people choose instead to drink at home now.
Bristol’s old town needs some life urgently injected into it. That’s why the plan to spend £10 million converting Bristol’s 19th century Guildhall into the city’s first five star hotel is a welcome step forward. It’s part of a council scheme to make the area around Corn Street, which is being marketed as the Old City, a tourist destination.
Hull is another place that could do with an injection of cash into it’s old town. I’ve written before how there’s a lot of fascinating history to be found there. But when the fishing industry collapsed several decades ago, the city fell into a downward spiral – unemployment is particularly high. Despite the charming historic buildings, the old town is hardly a pleasurable place you’d want to spend a Saturday night out. What life that remains in these quarters seems to just be endless drunken brawls.
Of course, transforming old towns is more than just about bringing in high end hotels. I’ve argued before that the City of London should be a place where people both live and work, so that it remains lively once offices have closed for the day. Tatty office blocks should be pulled down (rather than converted into residential properties as the government wishes at the moment) and replaced with housing for people of all budgets – not just those with a couple of million pounds to spend.
It’s time for us to look back to when our old towns were loved and lived places. Only through exploring our past can we hope to make them successful again in the future.