We are always surrounded by our past. In the landscapes we live in and pass through are so interlinked with the past, that we often use the word “Rooted”. But there is always continual change. As one element grows and develops, it replaces the old. You can see this both in the urban and rural. In the countryside there are ancient boundaries in the form of linear mounds, on top of which are living hedges and trees. Sometimes there are no linear mounds, just a line of trees. These are still very much alive today, with us, breathing, reproducing, and allowing other living creatures to live within them. It is a world within itself, very contemporary with creatures that are only a few months or days old. It is here and now, living and breathing.
This ecosystem makes up something we call ancient; a boundary that goes back thousands of years. We talk about ancient hedgerows, but the very hedge itself, the hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, hazel, spindle, is not 1000s of years old. There is always new growth, replacement, and at the same time, it remains the same. My mother always talked about the broom she had for years and years, only replacing the handle and head 3 or 4 times, but is has gone on for years. I think we call this “Trigger’s Broom”.
The same goes for towns. The most famous must be London, the city itself, where the routes of streets can be traced to the 7th century. It is not the actual asphalt we are standing on that is Saxon, nor the cobbles that sometimes can be found below, but the route of the road is the same as those established 1300 years ago. The roads and alley ways have survived fires, bombs and the worst of them all, redevelopment. We automatically assume redevelopment destroys the history around us, but not always. The ancient pattern is resilient. London is a modern city, using an ancient footprint.
This goes for most towns. There tends to be an ancient centre, often where the present-day commerce and governance takes place. In my adopted town of 20 years, Kingston upon Thames, there is what is called the “Ancient Marketplace”. The tourist Brown Signs point towards it, and it is referred to in such a way by all the literature. And when standing in the Kingston Market place there is an overwhelming sense of the historic. It is gives the town a sense of continuity, depth and gravitas. It makes it a desirable place to go, shop, work and have fun. And of course, you spend your money. Local historians, societies, tour guides, commerce, the town council, museum, and church, all perpetuate this belief of the ancient. But what is ancient? Is it Prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, Medieval? Ancient, when used in a generic term, sometimes has a crossover into mythology. Ancient forests, oaks, waters. It delves into our sub-conscious; perhaps that is where you find the ancient within us. It is a word that we can use to give validity to a thing.
There is also something about historic buildings that re-enforce our belief in them. They have been around for many years, not been destroyed, pulled down and replaced. Therefore, they must be something good, valid and worthwhile. Otherwise, they would not have lasted all these years.
Getting back to the Kingston Ancient Marketplace, when there, you are surrounded by historic fabric. There is an overwhelming feeling of the ancient. The buildings though, are mainly 18th and 19th century, with a smattering of art deco and post war, with wide windows and thin pale bricks. There are the 21st century shop facades, but the look and feel of the marketplace is one of the historic. There are a few 16th century looking buildings, and some have internal structures that go back to the medieval. You would have to go into the cellars and rooves to see them though. On the whole, they are standard marketplace buildings you’d find in many towns. Hitchin is a good example. It has a large marketplace, historic buildings, and the church a stone’s throw away; similar to Kingston. In fact, my hometown of Fareham has an 18th century High Street with buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in Kingston Market.
Some of the Kingston Marketplace buildings have unique facades that gives that impression of this historic continuity, depth and gravitas. One building in particular has the audacity to represent itself as a historic piece, made of timber frames and daub plaster infill. It used to be known as teh “Next Buidling”, because Next was located there; not anymore though. On display in the niches, are famous monarchs, Edward III, Henry V, Athelstan and Elizabeth I. The effect is that many people believe this to be a mediaeval or at least late Tudor. It is closer to early Jacobean. It has all the necessary features of a late Elizabethan/early Jacobean house, the windows, the frames, wood carvings, the pointed roofs. This is what people see, rather than the dates boldly displayed on the front of the building: 1909, 1929. Another building celebrates its age with two dates, AD 1422 and AD 1922, presumably being rebuilt in 1922 to a medieval style to commemorate its origins.
There was a re-invention of Kingston’s history from the 1870s, which was down to a Kingston Mayor, Henry Shrubsole. This is very much another subject, which I will leave for another time.
Back to the buildings, people don’t see dates. The dates are big enough, but for some reason we do not see them. We simply see the overall building which makes us believe it is old. The visual language is so powerful, that we are blind to the obvious. The message has been sent out and people absorb the history around them, whether it is real or not.
I’m making the Kingston marketplace sound like a sham, a shameful facade with deceit all over it. It is far from that. It is ancient. At least the roots of it are. As I said earlier, these 18th to 20th century buildings have replaced earlier ones. Due to the legalities and precision of property ownership, the width and length of the properties are all well-defined and have been for many years. The boundary walls do not change. Property ownership has been a powerful force for a long time going back hundreds of years, well before our Thatcherite obsession.
Historically, when a building was constructed, the building prior to that was pulled down, the earth flattened over it, post-holes put into the ground and the building structure erected. That gives us a sort of vertical stratigraphy that archaeologists love to excavate. This has an effect of the ground level rising, and anything in the past being buried deep below. When an archaeologist uncovers a boundary wall in the urban context, they know that boundary would have been there many hundreds of years. Below that wall, they are likely to find traces of an earlier wall, and below that an earlier one, and so on, right down to the foundations or trench of the first wall that was put down.
The important thing is that the building is built on the same footprint as its predecessor, and the same with the predecessor before that, and all the predecessors of the predecessors. And all the neighbours of these predecessors would never allow them to take an inch and incur on their side. The boundaries are fixed and throughout time, have never move. This is the same for all the properties in the surrounding marketplace. All the buildings, over time, have kept exactly the same footprint. So how and why did this start?
The thing that makes this ownership so well defined is that the marketplace has always had a premium rate. These buildings located onto the marketplace were valuable. The shop fronts were where the trade took place and the money was made. The larger the frontage you had, the more money you could make and the higher the value of the building.
The marketplace buildings are narrow, reflecting the high values of the street frontage. Plots can sometimes extend far back, creating a pattern of long narrow strips, which you can often see in market towns. In Kingston though, there is not the space for this as the town is constrained by the river Thames. Sometimes, a business has purchased two buildings next to each other and created a large shop front. Looking closely, you can see this, where buildings although look like one, are in fact two. Look at the rooves.
The market house is a 19th century building, but has been built on the exact plot of an earlier one. The church, one of the oldest buildings in the town, is on the site of the first Saxon church. The church itself has expanded and changed shape from the earliest wood built one, but the “church Yard” hasn’t and the buildings around it butt up against the boundary wall. The graveyard, higher than the pavements, is packed full of bodies as expansion outwards couldn’t happen. The retaining walls barely coping with the mass behind them.
The roads and narrow passageways between the two markets are all the result of the early marketplace and the human activity that demanded a fluid connection between the different areas. All of these can be plotted on that early map of Kingston.
Kingston famously claims its roots in the Saxon period, but in reality, the town never really took off as a centre of trade until the 1100s. The main reason for Kingston being an economic centre, is the River Thames. At Kingston, the River was narrower, making it good for crossing and moving good. That makes it good for trade. People and goods could cross the River joining up north and south. The first bridge was built probably in the late 1100s, and apart from London Bridge, this was the only other bridge that crossed the River Thames, right up into the 1700s.
In the early 1200s, King John granted Kingston a charter to trade. The building plots must date back to this time, if not to the 100 years before. I would bravely say, these plots are over 900 years old. There would have been a period of flux, before all the boundaries were firmly established. Did the developed happen in one go, or over a period in time, like a crystallisation.
Collectively, the individual plots make up the shape of the marketplace. That in turn means, the marketplace itself, has not changed its form, shape, and even function, in over 900 years. The earliest map of Kingston, that looks strangely like a piano keyboard, dates from the 1600s. Yes, a good 400 years after King John’s charter, but put it alongside a modern map; it’s the same shape. The layout of the marketplace must be 900 years old. Surely, that’s ancient.
I’ve used the term “roots” and the buildings with their cellars and earlier boundary walls going into the ground, remind me of teeth. All pushed up against each other. And similar to towns and re-development, we re-generate, to a certain degree, but our teeth do not.
The marketplace also links to an intangible ancient practice that has survived the 900 years. Trade. Kingston is still very much a destination to go shopping, and the very nature of the marketplace has its part to play in that. It creates an enjoyable environment to go, shop, eat, be entertained, spend time and money. It is a destination. It’s worth a visit if you are in the area.
5 thoughts on “Ancient Towns, Ancient Teeth”
Fascinating. The layers of old towns are deep, complex and reassuringly mundane!
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It’s quite mundane when excavating foundations. Until you think about what it is and represents. H
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