In the last decade or so, the Midlands has become a significant reference point in the historic and cultural understanding of England’s national identity. Following the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009, a new account has started to emerge of both the influence and importance of the, once forgotten, place in the middle. As the historian Helen Castor’s recent documentary series, England: Made in the Middle, attests, the Midlands is where the cornerstones of our contemporary English identity were carved. With its foundations firmly set in the Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, the English Midlands was the medieval melting pot for the fusion of political, social and cultural changes that led up to the early renaissance and beyond.
The significance of beginning to understand this new strata of influence allows us to configure a different view of how this region’s built environment may have developed during this time, as well as what influenced its shape and culture. The great towns and cities of the Midlands all prospered during this time to emerge after the renaissance as significant centres of commerce, industry and innovation. One would only need to recount the deeds of the individuals who participated in the Lunar Society to confirm this fact.
A region’s vernacular architecture has always been considered to be an expression of its character, what it built and how it built it was woven into the fabric of its identity. Traditional or vernacular building practices have historically been concerned with utilising indigenous materials and regionally developed knowledge of construction, topography and climate. These elements determined the character of a region’s buildings, how they were built and what they would look like. Whether it is the timber-framed farmhouses and cottages of Warwickshire and Staffordshire, or the Victorian villas and industrial factories and terraces of Birmingham and the Black Country, throughout history, the construction of buildings has always been a response to both changing social needs and tastes, as well as economic necessity.
Boxed timber-framed cottage in Hill-Ridware, Staffordshire
Economic migration, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, changed the dynamics of both town and country, creating a unique schism in English history. The traditional and vernacular buildings of the Midlands, even today, bear witness to this unique juncture. While the central areas of the West Midlands still proudly display the monumental architectural heritage of the Industrial Revolution, the buildings of Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire still project a unchanged pre-industrial form and a vernacular style that distinctly belongs to a very English rural way of life.
The architectural legacies of England”s great industrial innovations still stand as a testament to what is now a bygone age of coal, iron and steam. Whilst its agricultural heritage still provides a rich seam of vernacular interest throughout the region, the agricultural and technological developments of the time changed this built environment in a way that still organises our day-to-day lives today. Being at the centre, the English Midlands has always been influenced by its periphery, it has always allowed the edges to bleed in and participate in its cultural and material fabric. It is because of this unique position and porosity that its buildings and architecture demonstrate an immense diversity in construction, style and function. To truly understand this diversity, and to continue to cherish all that it offers, it is imperative to think about these buildings in their widest context, by which we mean not just their regional character, but their forms and functions, how they were built and why they were built.
Arkwright’s Mill, Cromford, Derbyshire (World Heritage Site)
In this sense, our objective at Hertes of England is a relatively simple one; to build a unique architectural and building resource that explores the rich historical, material and cultural landscapes of the English Midlands, with the hope of understanding the numerous and diverse range of buildings that stand as testaments to the craft and ingenuity of the people who made them.