The Making of Our Urban Landscape by Geoffrey Tyack - review by Jerry White

Jerry White

Talk of the Town

The Making of Our Urban Landscape


Oxford University Press 464pp £25

The British are essentially townies and have been for generations. The movement into towns in mainland Britain was far in advance of that in any of our European neighbours and, indeed, in any other country in the world. More people were living in Britain’s towns in 1851 than in the countryside, a ratio not reached in France until a century later. Towns, then, have a peculiar significance for our island and our people. Geoffrey Tyack has produced a rich and exhaustive almanac that shows just how – and often why – our urban landscape has evolved over time.

Tyack’s survey proceeds chronologically, and although there are different possible ways to organise his complex story, his approach works well. Inevitably, perhaps, he gives the greatest space to the period that has left the most visible mark on the towns around us. Two thirds of the book are devoted to the period since 1800, and as we come nearer to our own times the detail gets richer and richer. His is an all-British story, with the towns of Scotland and Wales (especially Edinburgh and Cardiff) contributing their own unique features to the national picture. The detail at times can be overwhelming – on one page we are invited to consider Bury St Edmunds, Stratford-upon-Avon, Conwy, Witney, Henley-on-Thames, Birmingham, Bridgnorth and Perth, and this is no extreme case. But the reader must stick with the author’s pointillist approach because it brings solid rewards, picking out the defining features of places among nationwide patterns of development.

Those patterns are etched deep into Britain’s soil. Tyack’s narrative begins with the Romans. If British towns existed before those energetic colonisers reached our shores – as surely they must have done – they have left little trace, everything having been largely obliterated by the heavy hand of the

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