We all know about ‘Location, Location, Location’ – not just from the television programme of that name but also from the thought behind the mantra. When buying a house we nearly always look first at the area where we want to be before we start to look at individual properties.
And it has always been so – certainly for anyone responsible for siting important structures or founding settlements. We may think it was by chance that a place appears at a certain location on the map; yet, however long ago that happened, it was nearly always a carefully-considered decision.
So when our distant ancestors relinquished an entirely-nomadic life in order to settle, they chose the most advantageous place to do so – a place that was, perhaps, easily defensible from other tribes and from wild animals, where they had a plentiful supply of fuel for fires, where there was a water supply that would not fail (and could not be easily diverted or poisoned) and where food could be found by foraging or by hunting or where land could be cleared for crops.
Settlements would also appear at strategic points along routes used by travellers – perhaps where two important tracks crossed and locals could make some money from feeding and accommodating travellers, or where there was a safe crossing of a river. Ripon would seem to have grown up initially at the point where there was a ford across the River Ure – at the north end of Stonebridgegate, a spot between the current locations of North Bridge and the by-pass bridge.
Just to the south of that crossing, a Celtic monastery was established – again on a major route. By the Middle Ages there were many monasteries in major settlements – but some monks wanted a less-urban life. There were breakaway groups – like the monks from St Mary’s Abbey in York who founded Fountains Abbey – who wanted a life of seclusion and contemplation. They chose wild places; when Rievaulx Abbey was founded it was said the monks chose a place ‘more fit for wild beasts and robbers than as the habitation of men’.
Medieval castles, too, were carefully sited – the best defensive position was chosen, with a wide view of the surrounding countryside. Think, for example, of Warkworth Castle in Northumberland, set on top of a high hill, or Richmond Castle above the River Swale. In more peaceful times it was not so necessary – Bolton Castle, for example, is hardly a good defensive position; nor is Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. And by the 17th century, places like Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire were castles only in name.
It is often difficult for us to understand now just why a building or a settlement was placed in a particular position because its surroundings may have utterly changed. When we visit Fountains or Rievaulx today we see them in beautiful, carefully-tended settings. We consider them, probably inaccurately, as wonderful places in which to have lived. We have a similar reaction, perhaps, to that of the art critic John Ruskin when he visited Warwick Castle; he admired the ruins, but complained that they had been placed beside a very dull stretch of river. His romantic sensibilities overcame his historical knowledge.
As the tide of history has flowed on, it has often severed any close link between places and their origins. Sometimes we find important historic buildings in the most changed of surroundings. A visit to the Saxon church at Jarrow, for example, should offer us a glimpse into the world of the Venerable Bede in the 7th century – yet it is difficult to reconcile the ancient buildings with the industrial landscape of modern Jarrow, with its pylons, cranes and dark riverside.
The same applies to the castle at Newcastle upon Tyne. The impressive keep is still there, and so is the massive gateway, but 19th-century railway engineers built their lines ruthlessly through the castle ward, separating the two. It is said that when Queen Victoria, on her way to the delights of Balmoral, passed through Newcastle on the royal train she kept the blinds down in her carriage – though that may have been to shield the royal eyes from the sight of brutal industry disfiguring the landscape rather than from the architectural vandalism she passed through.
Railways, (and before them the canals) also brought new settlements and new industry with them – just as the ancient trackways had been the catalyst for new enterprise. There are specific canal settlements, like Stourport in Worcestershire, dating from the mid-18th century, where the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal joins the River Severn, and railway towns like Swindon, which, although it has ancient origins, really dates its present eminence to the railway works for Brunel’s Great Western Railway set up there in the 1840s.
Smaller industries were set up beside the railway, too – we have only to think of the long-disused maltings on Ure Bank Top in Ripon, adjacent to the now-lost railway line, for an obvious example.
There are places, of course, that were founded as deliberate acts – often of a political nature. So Washington DC was founded as the new capital of the United States (Thomas Jefferson, who wanted an agriculture-based society, thought it far too grandiose). The site was a originally a swamp – giving Donald Trump the telling slogan ‘Drain the Swamp’ more than 200 years later.
There have been other places founded anew as capital cities – St Petersburg in 1703 by Peter the Great, Canberra in 1908 (construction started in 1913) and Brasilia in 1960. A new capital for Egypt, about 30 miles east of Cairo, was proposed in 2015. All these were politically-inspired moves.
Location, then, has always been important – though the surroundings of what you see today may be utterly changed from how they were in the past. It would be fascinating to be able to return in later centuries to see just how our own projects have fared.