Why bother understanding the historic environment?

The historic environment combines two of my passions

  • a passion for the outdoors, the natural world, urban and rural spaces and how people interact with them.
  • a passion for the past, for past lives, the archive and historic complexity.

It is perhaps therefore no surprise that I am personally drawn to the ‘historic environment’. But what does this term mean? Why is the historic environment important? Why should we value and work to conserve it? In essence, why bother working to understand it in the first place? This blog post is a reflection on these questions.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK

What is the historic environment?

The ‘historic environment’ encompasses a vast range of places, time periods, stories and complexities and includes archaeological sites, historic buildings, landscapes, townscapes, parks, gardens and battlefields. Some people may automatically think of great country houses (or indeed the built environment generally) when they think of historic environments but in fact the landscape itself offers clues about the past. Ridge and furrow fieldscapes, hunting ‘forests’ such as the New Forest in Hampshire/Dorset/Wiltshire or Epping Forest in Essex offer clues about medieval cultural practices; highland landscapes devoid of people should make us question how such landscapes have changed over time – these are all examples of historic landscapes that offer forward clues regarding the past.


The UK Government statement on the historic environment (2010) suggested that the historic environment is a legacy of trade, population movement, architectural and artistic endeavour, economic, political and social development and the use of natural resources from prehistory to the present (UK Gov, 2010). It is certainly all of these things and more but this suggests that our management focus should be placed purely on the past. In conservation it is necessary to generate value and argue a good case to conserve the thing in the first place. This usually means making it relevant and thus embedding the focus on the present as much as the past. The past can be translated in a myriad ways – hence why 10 different histories of the Battle of Agincourt can offer ten very different viewpoints. History is not simply a recall of events and actions but the analysis of these events and actions. Present understanding of issues influences historical analysis. This is particularly true when it comes to analysis of the historic environment and historic landscapes.

The historic environment intrigues us because it is like a foreign country. We have to work to connect with it and because we are somewhat detached from it we often rely on our imaginations to access it. Historians can provide us with analysis of source material connected with that environment and their work is vital in helping us to understand places in broader context – places (or people for that matter) should never be studied in isolation.

Why is the historic environment important?

The historic environment can provide a physical framework for people living today to connect with their heritage and reflect on where we may be heading. It is important that these landscapes are translated and made accessible to as many people as possible so that landscapes can be valued. Without understanding something, valuing it is impossible.


The historic environment is important for all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons:

  • For local communities the historic environment can help foster and define local identity and bring people together.
  • For tourists the historic environment can provide great variety to a place and aid understanding of the place being visited.
  • For environmental historians the historic landscape and environment is a source material in itself. As has already been suggested it provides clues to decipher past worlds and thus a narrative can be constructed to explain landscape change.

It is important in a general sense for many reasons including:

  • As a setting for events and activities
  • To provide us with a sense of place and underpin our cultural identity
  • To give us a long term view of environmental, cultural and social change
  • To provide regional and local differences in architecture and landscape
  • To be a focus for regeneration in rural and urban areas
  • To provide tourism related jobs – e.g. 83% of visitors to Scotland visit primarily to see historic sites
  • To help maintain traditional skills
  • To provide a focus for lifelong learning and education
  • To help our understanding of how environmental change and human activity has affected resource availability and use over time.


In conclusion, there are many reasons why working to understand the historic environment is important. Places have different meanings for different people and so each and every one of us have different narratives for the same places. It is the combination of these individual narratives that generate our shared cultural narrative and these can be plotted and translated through studying the historic environment.


Where are your own favourite historic places and why? Please feel free to comment below.

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/229834/Acc_HeritageVision_Part1.pdf (UK Government, 2010)

http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/index/heritage/valuingourheritage/why-is-the-historic-environment-important.htm (Historic Scotland)

3 thoughts on “Why bother understanding the historic environment?

  1. ”The historic environment intrigues us because it is like a foreign country. We have to work to connect with it and because we are somewhat detached from it we often rely on our imaginations to access it.”
    That’s an interesting thought and a useful way to advertise the subject.
    Here at Midhurst we have been trying to do landscape history regarding our commons and woods over the past few years.
    We are blessed with a well preserved deep valley mire with a near continuous 8,000 year pollen history which shows, for example, that the first farmers settled here in about 3,000 BC.
    Half a mile away and adding to this treasure trove is a mediaeval mill and fish pond waiting to be investigated if we can ever get funding. It was created in the 11th C and has the distinction of remaining mostly undredged thereby leaving a twenty three foot pollen rich sediment.
    Sites like this are rare in the south east due to past mining for peat fuel and over-zealous cleaning out of village ponds. These natural archives are essential for adding another window onto the climate variability – both recent and long ago.
    Another item to put on your list?
    Ref.: Midhurst, Magilton J., Thomas S., Chichester District Archaeology 1, (2001), The prehistoric vegetation of Midhurst: a pollen study of New Pond by Rob Scaife, pp 95-102.
    Sorry: haven’t read your book yet, but looking forward to that.

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