Parks and Gardens: A Researcher’s Guide to Sources for Designed Landscapes

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

David Lambert, Peter Goodchild and Judith Roberts, Parks and Gardens: A Researcher’s Guide to Sources for Designed Landscapes, 3rd revd edn by David Lambert (Reigate: Landscape Design Trust in association with English Heritage, 2006), 64 pp., illus. in black-and-white, £9.99 (pbk), ISBN 0951837788

This is a very welcome update of the essential guide to researching historic designed landscapes. It first appeared as Researching a Garden’s History from Documentary and Published Sources (1991), was republished in 1995, and it is indicative of the rapidly changing landscape conservation scene that not only has the publication’s scope widened, but also its title now refers to ‘designed landscapes’. This book makes it clear that those who are concerned with historic green spaces need to consider cemeteries, industrial, housing, institutional, and urban landscapes as well as the more familiar parks and gardens, which were the focus of the earlier editions. Although ‘history’ has been dropped from the title, this is still the focus of the present volume.

This edition has also been updated, in a smaller, snappier (A5+) format with new illustrations and useful additional information, separated from the main text, such as the English Heritage Register Criteria, an explanation of Ordnance Survey maps and PPG17 typology of open space; in this way it draws together a great range of information into a slim and user-friendly volume. Where else would one find guidance on unravelling the mysteries of historic map symbols, or understanding historic administrative areas and the recommendation to visit urban sites by bicycle?

As before, it combines a description of research methodology, for both district surveys and individual sites, with checklists and explanatory details of repositories, references and bibliography. It, therefore, acts as an introduction to the process as well as a reference work for researchers. There is a more detailed contents page than previously, but perhaps an index in the next edition would increase its usefulness as a reference work.

Although it is likely to be used primarily for reference, this book is very readable. The Introduction and following section on practical application give a succinct view of the great progress in landscape conservation over last decade. The growing awareness at a local level, nurtured by the expanding network of Garden Trusts, has been acknowledged at the political level. The assessment of historic landscapes contributes to Local Authorities’ role in developing greenspace strategies and the sustainability agenda. Conservation practice is more widely understood; ‘CMP’ is now a commonly understood term, and the preparation of a Conservation Management Plan, of which historical research is a vital part, has almost become a mainstream activity, which can inform and enrich practical projects. Largely through the availability of lottery and agri-environment funding, many greenspaces have been rejuvenated since the last edition and this new edition is a timely reminder of the fundamental role of researching landscape history in developing these projects.

In a context where aspects of a site such as wildlife and economic and social use tend to be given more attention than historic designed landscape, the book firmly places historical research as the essential first step of the process, while acknowledging that the site’s garden history is just one aspect of understanding a site. For example, the role of field evidence, the recent growth of specialisms such as garden archaeology, and the crucial concept of significance, which takes account of a wide range of values, are discussed. A great range of issues contribute to our understanding of the significance of a place and may often be informed by the same range of sources outlined in this book.

As well as the developing application of research and the changing policy context, information on sources has been largely rewritten to reflect current web-based research practice. Websites with online search facilities are developing at an increasing rate and even frequent Internet users are likely to find new resources in this guide. The ready access to catalogues of national archives is a tremendous advance, although it also serves to indicate just how much more material there is scattered throughout the country than was previously readily traced. There is also an expanded section on maps, including the widespread use of digital mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

It is of course inevitable that the web-based reference material will soon be out of date, and perhaps the next step will be to place the information on sources on a website, where it could be regularly updated and expanded, while awaiting the next edition of this guide. Perhaps a future role for the Garden History Society?

Sarah Couch

34:1 (Summer 2006)

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