ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 56, December 2000


History in planning

From Mr Mike Thomson

Sir: As a town planner and an amateur landscape historian, I was interested in your article about a recent planning inquiry in Berkshire (News, October). In rejecting three large-scale housing allocations in Wokingham District south of Reading, the local plan inspector cited conservation of historic landscape character as a material consideration. This, says the article, could stand as an important precedent.

To my mind, conservation of historic landscapes has long been a material consideration in planning decisions. At the highest level there are National Parks, and at the local level there can be the admittedly rare rural Conservation Areas in which field and settlement patterns are determinant elements in the declaration of such areas.

I am not aware of what, if any, statutory protection applied to the proposed housing areas in Wokingham District. It is, however, a common misconception that mention of an apparently novel matter by an inspector represents some change in Government attitudes. In fact, it is a long-standing principle of planning law, upheld by the courts, that inspectors or even the Secretary of State cannot introduce matters into planning decisions which do not already form part of the published background or which have not been put forward as representations at an appeal or local plan inquiry.

What may be unusual in the Wokingham case is that the inspector seems to have been presented with some form of historic landscape assessment which he considered added weight to his conclusion that the housing allocations should be rejected on general policy grounds (mentioned at the end of the article and the only part I recall being mentioned in the planning press).

The lesson from this seems to be that a good historic landscape assessment, cogently argued at an inquiry (or perhaps not even contested) should result in an inspector giving it substantial weight in his or her conclusions. If this results in a greater input by local historians and archaeologists into the planning process, then it's something to be welcomed.

Yours sincerely,
Mike Thomson
Tywyn, Gwynedd
30 October

Skara Brae

From Mr Roger Carter

Sir: I think that the `enigmatic carved stone object' illustrated in your article on Skara Brae (Great Sites, October) is a core weight for a wool ball.

It is impossible to knit from a skein without getting the wool in a knot. The wool has to be made into a ball but even then, in our modern world, the ball tends to run away during use and knot in the last few metres. In the Skara Brae object, you can see how cunningly the top and base ridges are off-centre, allowing it initially to be held vertically. Ridges are then provided at right angles for the second course of winding. The third group of ridges is set horizontally and the fourth at right angles to that.

This arrangement is also seen in other objects from the same site.

A practiced knitter might be able to add to these observations.

Yours sincerely,
Roger Carter
Chard History Group
30 October

Bell rings

From Mr Alec Hamilton

Sir: The hoard of Roman bells found by a detectorist in Essex `buried in a circle' (News, October) is suggested by you as being the result of `some forgotten ceremony'.

The image immediately suggests to me the phrase `Ring O Bells'. This is a popular pub name in both Devon (there are three around Holdsworthy alone) and Yorkshire. But there is something very odd about that name, because the phrase `ring of bells' is not used in bell-ringing. Ringers tend to refer to a `peal' or a `touch'. Perhaps some learned folklorist would like to opine on any connection between bells in a ring (ie, a circle) and boozers.

Yours sincerely,
Alec Hamilton
20 October

Old scythe

From Ms Carol Anderson

Sir: I was delighted to see the late Roman scythe from Farmoor feature in British Archaeology as George Lambrick's favourite find (Favourite Finds, October). Readers may be interested to know that this scythe, together with a second example from Hardwick, can be seen in the new Roman Gallery at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock.

Yours sincerely,
Carol Anderson
Oxfordshire Museum
1 November

Roman end

From Dr Ken Dark

Sir: I was interested to read Neil Faulkner's article (`Decline and Fall', October) and, as one of the few archaeologists mentioned by name, offer these few comments by way of an initial response.

Faulkner, Meheux and Newman have drawn attention to interesting evidence questioning the wealth of late 4th century Britain. Moreover, Faulkner has - in a series of other papers - made an important contribution to the study of Romano-British towns. However, his interpretation of the end of Roman Britain presented here is seriously flawed. Problems include its misrepresentation of other studies, a disregard for regionality, and internal contradictions in his version of events.

Archaeologists arguing for a longer survival of Romano-British culture do not usually rely solely on the evidence of single sites, nor suggest that late 4th century towns remained unchanged from their earlier form. Faulkner's view of late 4th century towns as rubbish tips surrounded by walls is novel, but most aspects of his picture resemble those envisaged by other scholars. Proponents of what he calls the `long chronology' agree that towns had changed, but were - as he admits - `still towns'.

Like Faulkner, those favouring a `long chronology' argue that administration and defence were priorities. Unlike him, they envisage larger urban populations, for example interpreting `dark earth' deposits common on 4th century sites as evidence of intensive low-status occupation, with an elite still living in (albeit far fewer) `Roman' town houses. All we see is a change in the nature of towns, not urban decline.

Toward the end of the article, Faulkner almost concedes the validity of this alternative picture, in contrast to his earlier comments based on statistical data. First he says that in towns `little (was) left in most places but a wasteland of ruins and rubbish' - and later claims that `these places were still towns', which he goes on to depict somewhat in the manner just outlined. Either the former passage of his article is greatly over-stated, or the latter contradicts it.

Nor do other scholars claim that villas survived in their 4th century form after the early 5th century. So-called `squatter occupation' (and other indications) suggest 5th century occupation at some villa sites but most were disused in or by the early 5th century, even according to the `long chronology'. For Faulkner to cite the interesting work by Meheux and Newman is questionable, because their results could equally well be encompassed within a `long chronology'.

It is misleading, too, to give the impression that other scholars have examined fewer relevant sites and to claim either that historical sources or the broader imperial context have been hitherto neglected. A key feature of the `long chronology' is placing the end of Roman Britain in its broader imperial context. Equally unhelpful is the lack of regionality: places may have had divergent post-Roman histories depending on 4th or 5th century factors.

These and other problems render Faulkner's view untenable, and a `long chronology' for the end of Roman Britain remains the best interpretation of the evidence as a whole.

Yours sincerely,
Ken Dark
University of Reading
3 November

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