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In investigating urban culture, historians have understandably tended to focus on the man-made and the modern, and have paid less attention to the role of nature and the past, which seem the opposite of what the town stands for. This survey, which takes as its case-study England, argues that nature and the past have always been part of urban life, but as urbanization gathered pace, particularly from the eighteenth century, they became if anything an even more important element in city and town culture.
The expansion in consumption that marked the British economy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was based not only on a growth in material goods, but also of experientially and culturally rich products such as leisure and tourism. Underpinning the latter of these, and of key importance in the rise of the seaside resort, was the process of visualisation. The ‘tourist gaze’ became a commodity in its own right, geared around environmental and social subjects, and facilitated by a transformation in the content and reproductive potential of visual culture and an engineering of resorts to deliver views.
Shortly into his path-breaking study of The Small House in Eighteenth-Century London, Peter Guillery remarks that ‘houses are principally interesting because people live in them’ (p. 10). To urban historians the observation might seem unexceptional, even banal. To many architectural historians his comment would be incomprehensible. Therein lies the difficulty for the urban historian with a concern for housing, public buildings and planning. There is a wealth of serious academic studies of architecture, but the majority are written in a language which can seem arcane to the uninitiated and address an agenda which appears little interested in those who inhabited the buildings. At the heart of the problem lies the requirement to treat the built form primarily as a work of art, so that what is studied has to justify itself as an object worthy of aesthetic consideration, and has to relate to an established stylistic canon and chronology. Judged in this light, considerations of user and usage are largely irrelevant, and can appear an invitation to slip into the sort of popular architectural discourse, common in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, in which dwellings are valued primarily for the celebrities and anecdotes associated with them. People are germane only to the extent that they designed buildings, as architects, or commissioned them, as patrons of the arts. Among the two most influential figures in developing and in particular disseminating the art-history perspective on architecture in twentieth-century Britain were Nikolaus Pevsner and John Summerson. Today their presence is felt not only in the world of scholarship, where it has not gone unchallenged, but also and more importantly in popular perceptions of architecture, as mediated through guide literature, the amenity societies (like the National Trust, the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society) and the conservation movement. It is an influence which has been ambivalent. On the one hand, it has led to a far deeper popular understanding and appreciation of architectural form and its history, and has saved many fine buildings. On the other hand, it is has led to a dissociation of form and human usage, a devaluation of structures and traditions not defined as canonic and a blindness to the subjective and ideological nature of architectural history itself.
The publication in 2000 of the three-volume Cambridge Urban History of Britain presented British urban historians with an ideal opportunity to take stock of the current state of research in their discipline. For Welsh urban historians it raised a number of particularly thorny issues. Whilst it contained some important chapters focused exclusively on the history of Welsh towns, it also identified Wales as one of the most under-researched areas of urban Britain. This special issue, dedicated specifically to Welsh urban history, has been conceived in part as a response to that finding. It also represents the collective efforts of scholars, new and established, whose research on urban Wales was presented at a conference on ‘Understanding Urban Wales’ at the University of Wales Swansea in September 2003. The event demonstrated the existence of a healthy ‘critical mass’ of scholarship, at both postgraduate and postdoctoral level, on Welsh towns and their development.
Interdisciplinarity has proved to be one of the enduring tenets of British urban history. As Fiona Kisby points out in her contribution to this special issue of Urban History, its centrality is enunciated in the agenda set by Jim Dyos in the 1960s, as the subject emerged as a self-conscious subdiscipline of British history, and in the editorials that launched this publication as a Yearbook and subsequently as a journal. The appeal of an interdisciplinary approach is that it allows those involved to transcend the straitjacket of traditional research and explore a given issue or subject from a multiplicity of angles. However, prioritizing such a methodology, though it might allow the intellectual high ground to be occupied temporarily, provides a real hostage to fortune, raising expectations that it often proves impossible to fulfil. Interdisciplinarity simply cuts against the dominant grain of academe. Where British urban historians have crossed the disciplinary barricades, they have tended to head in the direction of the social sciences (such as sociology, economics, geography and anthropology). A rapprochement with the arts (painting, film, literature, architecture, music, and the like) is less easy to discern. Yet with the growing interest in the last decade or so in cultural history the time is ripe to redress the balance. This music issue of Urban History, like that of August 1995 on ‘Art and the City’, can be seen as an attempt to do this. Its appearance coincides with the publication of a pioneering volume of essays, edited by Fiona Kisby, on Music and Musicians in Renaissance Cities and Towns, whose avowed aim is to ‘bring musicology within the sphere of urban history’. Though that collection is predominantly focused on western Europe (with six of the essays on the British Isles, six on the Continent, and one on South America) and on the years 1400 to 1650, it provides a model for how the agendas of musicologists and urban historians might be productively merged.
long before the orthodox onset of the Industrial Revolution, and well before Europe was facing a similar shake up, the traditional urban order in Britain was experiencing the forces of change that were to reshape its character. An important feature of the transformation underway was the emergence of the so-called ‘new towns’, and among these one of the most novel and distinctive categories was watering-places – inland and coastal resorts devoted to the provision of health and leisure. This chapter will examine the evolution of the resort from about 1700 until the arrival of the railways, an event whose influence can be exaggerated but which none the less represented a watershed. Four sets of issues will be explored. First, the chronology and pattern of development. Second, the broad factors responsible for this. Third, the urban status of watering-places, their relationship to other towns providing similar services, and their typology. Fourth, the particular economic, social, political and cultural characteristics of resorts. Because of their newness and distinctive profile, spa and seaside centres provide a litmus test of the urban transformation unfolding in the long eighteenth century. Though apparently very different from the classic ‘new newtowns’ of the Industrial Revolution, they were to form a vital element in the urban network which emerged.
CHRONOLOGY AND PATTERN OF DEVELOPMENT
In Britain the earliest commercial development of spas as a health cure for the social elite dates from the late Tudor and early Stuart era. This parallels the beginnings of a period of discovery and rediscovery of springs in France, though in Italy there seems to have been a network of widely used watering-places since at least the later medieval period, whose clientele included the aristocracy. In the case of Britain, Phyllis Hembry has located the foundation of sixteen spas in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and there are clear signs of exploitation of the springs at Buxton, Harrogate, Tunbridge Wells and most notably Bath (see Plate 3), which saw substantial investment in the health and visitor facilities.