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The burgage plot, a space overlooked

Updated: Sep 5, 2020

The problem for burgage plots is that they are simply a space, a garden, a yard, gap or path between buildings, walls and fixtures that have been built, removed, replaced and updated for hundreds of years. That the burgage plot itself is likely to be medieval in origin doesn't help as space is pretty intangible. A listed building is afforded a significant degree of protection but its garden? It is the poor if not distant relative that bears the brunt of the any development. There's no impact on the listed building, it's at the end of the garden, so where's the harm? While there may be any number of exchanges with the conservation officer over the merits or otherwise of a double glazed roof light, the burgage plot and its intrinsic relationship with the listed building, is prey to infill, its meaning and context immediately nullified, its purpose confused.

It has meaning because, of course, its meaning revolves around the dwelling, shop or office that currently sits at its street facing end. It's a symbiotic relationship and it's worth remembering that without the marking out of the plot x perches in width by x perches in length many hundreds of years ago, the building wouldn't be there in its current form. Naturally enough, many plots have necessarily disappeared as dictated by the various needs of the occupants and the obvious need to maximise the commercial benefit of space in an ever more prosperous, dense granular town or city centre plan. Most recently as developers seek to maximise the last few remaining open spaces in our towns and cities. This continual development, almost from the day the plot was available to rent, has provided some of the most interesting vernacular architecture imaginable as being hidden behind a shop or grand facade, the honest, practical and least ornate structures and features remain pretty much unseen.

But there is a point at which it has to be said that enough is enough. So few burgage plots exist in whole or part form. Their importance in our being able to develop a better understanding of the contextual whole, of urban growth and development across a millenia, social change and meaning of 'space' in the urban core many hundreds of years ago, is vital. The plots which remain undeveloped should be considered a critically important element of the urban setting, worthy of conservation and protection. We justifiably concern ourselves with the built environment, preserving and conserving these elemental roofs, walls, rooms and corridors haunted by a thousand previous inhabitants. But the space outside, the cobbled yard or vegetable patch where these ghosts once stood to take the air, is inextricably linked to the meaning of the dwelling it supported. Without these, the building loses a critical element of its context with the invaluable space around it.

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I'm looking at burgage plots in Bridport. There are about 150, most of which clearly identifiable, although subject to redevelopment. Not only are site boundaries preserve, but some have retained the original size.

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