Building Beginnings

Surveying the landscape

It’s always hugely rewarding when you turn the pages of a leather-bound volume containing a detailed survey, in search of a particular property. Whether the book covers the parish, the manor or an estate, the excitement is palpable as you look at exquisite hand-drawn coloured maps in search of your prey. You marvel at the detail the maps include. Property outlines, field boundaries and roads are perhaps to be expected, but other features can sometimes be included: land use indicated as water-coloured arable, pasture, meadow and woodland (conifer and deciduous); hedges and fences; and, above all, property names.

1746 Rocque map legendSurveys were benchmark documents, recording the ownership, occupancy, acreage and use of land and its value. Estate proprietors commissioned surveys periodically, particularly when significant purchases or exchanges had been made, or when a new generation inherited. Surveys were also made in preparation for a sale, although these tended to be of the more basic type – a plan and accompanying sale catalogue.

Whatever the reason for their creation, surveys are invaluable for tracking ownership and tenancy, the size of individual properties within an estate, and changes to buildings: new ones appearing, old ones disappearing, and modifications in outline and extent to others. Finding more than one survey covering the same area at different dates is, of course, every house historian’s dream, providing map-based evidence which can be supplemented by other sources.

Surveys are a fantastic historical resource, but they can also contain flourishes of artistic creativity. The frontispiece might be adorned with great scrolls and swirls of ink surrounding the title, while rural scenes and occasionally figures in the lower part of the page lie in the shade of great trees that reach up each side. I get the impression that this is where the artist really showed their true potential, and hope that these works were appreciated as much by their contemporaries as they are by me.1772 survey intro

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