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City Local History: Top Tips

By Dr Charles Insley
Urban clues

Image of the ruins of Coventry's medieval cathedral
The ruins of Coventry's medieval cathedral 
The history of every urban centre is unique. Some towns began as medieval ecclesiastical centres (such as Bury St Edmunds or St Albans), others were important market centres (Coventry, Bristol or Northampton, for example) and some began as medieval fortresses (Caernarfon or Conwy).

In North Wales, the medieval defences can still be seen, as they can at York or Chester. Some towns and cities had their heyday in the Middle Ages (places such as Chester or Shrewsbury) while some have only come into their own in the past 200 years (Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, for example). Some towns, such as Milton Keynes and Luton, only have a history as an urban centre that stretches back 50 years.

'Many of our urban centres have also seen massive changes in the past century ...'

Having said that, there are a number of common experiences shared by many urban centres over the last 800 or 900 years (or longer). Some will have medieval origins; others were touched by the mercantile boom of the 17th and 18th centuries - a period that saw the gentrification of many town centres and the beginnings of suburbanisation.

Most were indelibly marked by the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of factories, terraced houses and new forms of transport such as the canal, the railway and, ultimately, the motor vehicle.

Many of our urban centres have also seen massive changes in the past century and, indeed, in our own lifetimes, by the the destruction and damage caused by bombing in World War Two or the tower blocks, shopping centres and ring-roads which followed. In most places, these experiences are written in the stone, brick and wood around you.

Published: 2005-03-07

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