In 1196 Bishop John de Coutances commissioned his surveyor to layout burgage plots and roads for the new town of Stratford-upon-Avon (1). With a roman road and strategic riverside position as the focus plus a foundation charter which demanded that each plot would be 3.5 perches by 12 (18 x 60m - just over a quarter of an acre in area), the layout of a number of intersecting streets on a roughly regular grid pattern was the adopted approach. Existing roads and the shape of boundaries formed by curved field systems and existing settlement patterns distorted the possibilities for a truly rectilinear plan (see image below) but it was important to accommodate an established community and the 'ideal' was adapted accordingly.
The resulting plan provided about 250 newly appointed burgesses with full burgage plots rented at one shilling a year, many of which, within fifty years, had been sub-divided into many smaller units, halves or thirds, quarter and so on down to an eighth or less until further division became impractical. These smaller sub-let plots were rented for sums proportionally far greater than a fair share of the 12d rental for the original primary plot. If considered as a prime location a small sub-let space could command a high rent.
On busy streets most houses in contained a shop (or several) fronting the street (2). These could be as little as 5m x 3m in size. Behind the primary dwelling there were often temporary structures built to serve a certain need for living or work, often made of timber and simple to erect or remove as need dictated if associated with a fixed-term sub-lease or as the needs of the freeholder changed. On the basis of there being perhaps 250 primary plots in Stratford's new town, there were clearly many more than a thousand sub-let spaces within a few decades, whether shops, homes or places of small scale manufacture.
Fast forward to 1851 and a survey of the town records the survival of many of the original primary burgage boundaries. It was only in the 20th century that development obliterated many of the medieval plot patterns in the UK's medieval towns and cities. Stratford's charter, detailing the ordained size of plots, makes looking for a pattern a relatively simple exercise. Despite subdivision and amalgamations, many of the primary plot boundaries remained intact, recognisable and measurable for more than 700 years. This in turn enables the mapping of lost plots.
Boundaries exert power. Once established and recorded with watchful neighbours concerned for their investment, they are persistent and hard to erase, becoming definitive - physically and legally.
Terry Slater has written extensively on urban morphology (the study of the formation of human settlements and the process of their formation and transformation). This post draws on one of his papers which discusses the new town and burgage development in Stratford-upon-Avon.
1. Terry Slater, 'Ideal and reality in English episcopal medieval town planning, 1986
2. Clarke 2000, 59; Rees Jones 2008, 68