British local history has its roots in the countryside, and it is significant that the historical study of †towns as physical places has often used rural metaphors without any sense of incongruity. In his pioneering chapter in The Making of the English Landscape (1955), W. G. Hoskins wrote of ‘the landscape of towns’ rather than ‘townscape’, and he and others have also written of ‘urban fieldwork’. A broader term popularized in the past 30 years is ‘urban topography’, an interdisciplinary study of the form, fabric, and layout of towns, drawing on documentary history, cartography, historical geography, town planning, architectural history, and archaeology. Geographers often refer to it as urban morphology, or more simply as urban form.
The study of urban topography in Britain can be traced back to the 16th century, when John Stow adopted a ward‐by‐ward approach in his Survey of London, and was able to make use of the first large‐scale plan of the city by Wyngaerde. Since the 19th century, topographical studies have been revolutionized by, among other things, accurate and large‐scale town plans, and careful reconstructions from documentary evidence. H. E. Salter (1863–1951), for instance, was able to plot virtually every tenement in central Oxford and to trace its ownership, occupation, and use from the Middle Ages onwards, thus pioneering a technique which has since been used in other towns and which has been described as ‘total plot history’. More recently, such empirical work has been enriched by M. R. G. Conzen, who brought to Britain the German approach to urban morphology. His studies of the plans of Alnwick (1960) and Newcastle upon Tyne (1962), followed by his chapter ‘The Use of Town Plans in the Study of Urban History’, in H. J. Dyos (ed.), The Study of Urban History (1968), have been very influential.
The traditional introductory method in studying the topography of a particular town is that generally called by geographers ‘site and situation’, in which a successful town is perceived as having to adapt to its environment, in terms of its hinterland, its precise site, and the way its shape developed. Clearly all of this needs to be taken into account. It is striking, for instance, how nearly all major towns before the canal age were sited on or near the coast, or on a navigable river at a point where it could be forded or bridged; and M. W. Beresford's New Towns of the Middle Ages (1967) provides many object lessons of towns sponsored as commercial ventures but with very variable success, often depending on their siting. However, historical geographers stress the need for more depth and subtlety in analysing sites and plans; and both they and historians give much weight to the conscious human decisions behind town origins and development. Towns, after all, do not ‘grow’ at suitable locations; they are built.
The same increasingly sophisticated approach is now evident in discussions of town plans and layout. Many Roman towns were regularly planned, and similar planning has been well known as a revived tradition in Italy since the Renaissance, with examples in Britain starting with new estates (London's Covent Garden in the 1630s is the first) and then being used for whole new towns (e.g. Whitehaven (Cumbria) from as early as the 1680s). However, many older towns seem superficially unplanned, and a long tradition classifies most British towns between the Romans and the 18th century as ‘organic’, implying that they grew from villages, with little or no overall control. Beresford's New Towns, however, demonstrated that a substantial minority of towns in England and Wales between 1066 and 1350 were planned as a whole, though he and Hoskins believed that there were no post‐Roman planned towns before the Norman Conquest. Since then the identification of deliberately planned settlements has been pushed steadily backwards. M. Biddle and D. Hill, ‘Late Saxon Planned Towns’, Antiquaries Journal, 51 (1971), showed that most of the burhs or fortified towns laid out by Alfred and his successors were planned; M. Biddle, ‘A City in Transition, AD 400–800’, in M. Lobel (ed.), Historic Towns Atlas: London, i (1989), and A. Vince, ‘The Aldwych: Saxon London Rediscovered’, Current Archaeology, 104 (1984), later extended this category to include London; J. Haslam, ‘Market and Fortress in England in the Reign of Offa’, World Archaeology, 19/1 (1987), has suggested planned burhs in Mercia in the 8th century which may have inspired Alfred; and the earliest clearly planned post‐Roman town is now identified as Hamwic (Southampton) as early as about 700; see R. Hodges and B. Hobley (eds), The Rebirth of Towns in the West, AD 700–1050 (Council for British Archaeology Research Report, 68 (1988).