The places that keep the countryside running
Market towns are the glue that holds the British countryside together, and most of them have done that job for centuries, if not millennia. They have lived on more or less unaffected by periodic attempts from governments to tinker with administrative boundaries and to redefine counties. They provide the services of a bigger centre to the villages and communities in the local region, a rationale as relevant now as it was 1,000 years ago.
Often today they contain a range of specialist shops, bigger supermarkets, a library, secondary school, medical facilities and administrative offices. Most of them quietly, unobtrusively go about their business, but some rise to specialist fame. Ludlow, for example, is renowned for its food and restaurants; Hay-on-Wye for its books and literary festival; and Stow-on-the-Wold for antiques.
Evolving over time
Around a sixth of Britain’s population lives in the 1,700 or so market towns in Britain. The towns have clear regional characters, with distinctive architectural styles and building materials. Traditionally they drew on local sources so, for example, timber-framed and cobb (mud and lime) buildings are common in areas that lacked readily available building stone, such as East Anglia and the South West.
Whereas the Cotswolds are renowned for their mellow limestone buildings, in Scotland and Wales the darker sandstones and granites give a solid and robust feel. The rich diversity of our current market towns is also because they have evolved over time, taking up new influences and responding to new residents.
A sense of community
From Perth in Scotland, to Mold in Wales and Ludlow in England, a few of our smaller towns have joined the ‘slow movement’. This is not about congestion, but about fostering a greater sense of community, encouraging sustainability, buying locally, preserving traditions and enjoying a slower pace of life.
Akin in some ways to the idea of the ‘Big Society’, it prompts us to ponder, given the mobility of our population, questions such as ‘whose community’ and ‘which traditions’?