General view of the former textile mill's west range from the north-west

What is a Conservation Area?

There are more than 10,000 conservation areas in England. With 59% being rural and 41% urban, there’s a lot of variety.

There are more than 10,000 conservation areas in England, spanning 2.2% of the country and roughly the same size as Luxembourg.

Conservation areas are managed by local authorities, who have identified those places of special architectural or historical interest as deserving of careful management to protect their character.

With 59% of conservation areas being rural and 41% urban, there’s a lot of variety. Every local authority in England has at least one conservation area. The largest is Swaledale and Arkengarthdale in the Yorkshire Dales at 71 square kilometres, while the smallest is Heath Passage in the London Borough of Barnet at just over 1000 square metres.

We asked a number of local councils and societies to tell us about the conservation areas near them. Here are 6 examples of amazing conservation areas.

Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire.

A general view of Church Street in Bradford on Avon
Bradford on Avon’s Church Street. © Historic England Archive. View image DP137120.

Some conservation areas have value as a single architectural scheme or as the product of a particular period. Others appeal for the many layers of history they embrace.

The centre of Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire is the perfect example. Today it is a picture-postcard small town, rich in creamy masonry and stone-tiled roofs.  Scratch the surface, though, and a grittier past linked to woollen cloth manufacture emerges.

General view of the former textile mill's west range from the north-west
Abbey Mills, Church Street, Bradford on Avon. © Historic England Archive. View image DP137110.

The built evidence of this industrial past, including water mills, weaving lofts, dye houses, and wool-washing platforms are still very much part of the conservation area.  Present too are many clothiers’ houses, paid for by hard graft and competing for kudos. 

The town was an important river crossing from early times, and its street plan and famous Saxon church indicate these origins.  A boom period for the town came in the 17th and 18th-century houses, when the cloth industry flourished, but good later buildings exist too such as the Catholic Church (formerly town hall) designed by Thomas Fuller in around 1854 to 1855.

Today’s well-cared-for town can be enjoyed as a result of conservation campaigning in the past and present. 

After the Second World War, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) produced a report that helped save some of the town’s terraces (then considered ‘slum’ housing) from demolition. For over 50 years, the town’s Preservation Trust has helped rescue individual buildings while protecting others from unsympathetic alteration. 

Bradford on Avon is well worth a visit, but leave your car at home if you do. There is a good railway link and the one blight on the town’s central conservation area is an excess of modern traffic.

Matthew Slocombe, Director of SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings)

Greyfriars Conservation Area, Leicester

Liecester Guildhall
Leicester Guildhall. © Amanda Slater via Flickr

How many conservation areas can say they have a King, and not just any King, but the last of the Plantagenets? Greyfriars Conservation Area in Leicester can. 

In 2012, in an astonishing sequence of events, archaeologists found the remains of Richard III under a car park here. But Greyfriars has much more to offer and the history of the city is written in its walls.

St Martin's, Leicester. Part of Greyfriars conservation area
St Martin’s, Leicester. Part of Greyfriars conservation area. © Historic England.

Most of the buildings are listed and many are being revived as grant funding is encouraging investment and a new sense of confidence, encouraging more visitors.

In reverse chronological order; the Victorians provided the landmark gothic revival, Leicester Savings Bank, now an award-winning deli, and the Turkish Baths are a hidden gem on Friar Lane; the Georgians built New Street which meanders around the old legal chambers and reveals an excellent view to the Cathedral; and the 14th century Guildhall is Grade I listed and free to visit.

The area is named after the grey-caped Franciscan Friars who made the area their home in the 13th century. Richard III liked it so much that he hid in a car park for over 500 years!

Leicester City Council, Conservation Team

Tiverton Conservation Area, Devon

DP139733 Leat Street, Tiverton, Dv, PW, 25 May 2011
Tiverton Factory Housing, Tiverton, Devon. © Historic England Archive. View image DP139733.

In the 12th century, Tiverton Castle became the stronghold of the Earls of Devon and later Tiverton grew into one of Devon’s most prosperous towns, being a leading centre of the West Country woollen industry and a thriving market town.

Despite four devastating fires and several planning disasters, many fine buildings and townscapes remain in the Tiverton Conservation Area first established in 1973, which reflects these varied strands of the town’s history.

Tiverton Castle dominates the north-west part of the town. Other listed buildings reflect the wealth of 16th and 17th-century wool merchants, including the flamboyant Greenway Chapel at St Peter’s Church; Old Blundell’s School; Chilcott School; The Great House, a surviving merchant’s house, and two fine almshouses.

18th century buildings of note include St George’s Church and Gotham House. West of the River Exe is a notable area of planned 19th-century housing.

Tiverton greenway chapel geograph-5372823-by-Michael-Garlick
Tiverton, St. Peter’s Church: The south porch and Greenway Chapel exterior. © Michael Garlick via Geograph.

Despite its designation as a conservation area, there are frequent examples of inappropriate development in the Tiverton Conservation Area, while several fine buildings, including the Grade 1 St George’s Church, are neglected and little used. The designation of the area as ‘Heritage at Risk’ by Historic England is very fitting and the problems urgently need to be addressed.

Jeremy Salter, Chairman, Tiverton Civic Society

Wavertree Garden Suburb, Liverpool

Southway, formerly Northway. Wavertree Graden Suburb. before 1914. © Mike Chitty of The Wavertree Society.

Wavertree Garden Suburb, originally ‘The Liverpool Garden Suburb’, was one of about 20 housing estates developed on the co-partnership principle in the decade preceding WW1, within towns and cities in various parts of England.

Their characteristic features were cottage-style Arts and Crafts architecture, gardens front and rear enclosed by hedges and not fences, communal recreation areas, and an Institute where social clubs could meet and community events such as concerts could be held.

The layout, by Raymond Unwin and G L Sutcliffe, was very different from the ‘bye law’ housing which was the norm in British cities. It was estates like this that set the pattern for post-1918 suburban housing development.

Nook Rise, around 1914. © Mike Chitty of The Wavertree Society

‘Co-partnership’ meant that the tenants paid a supplement in addition to their weekly rent. This bought them a share in the ownership of the estate, so they had an incentive to keep the properties in good repair.

Nowadays the houses are owner-occupied, but the area’s Conservation Area status (combined with an Article 4 Direction) enables key features such as the small-paned windows, clay-tiled roofs, hedges, and incidental open spaces to be retained despite the lack of an overall landlord or management company.

Mike Chitty, The Wavertree Society

Tolpuddle, Dorset

Exterior of Martyrs Cottage in Tolpuddle, Dorset as viewed from the south west
Tolpuddle, Dorset © Historic England Archive. View image AA003441.

In 1967, I was living in Dorset and heard very early on about the setting up of Conservation Areas. One of the first to be designated was Tolpuddle, the village of the ‘martyrs’ of trade union fame.

Back then, Tolpuddle was a dull, run-down mess: its cob and thatch cottages huddled together close to the busy A35, being splashed and eroded by the constant passage of traffic. If you could manage to stop and look around you might just find a tree that was said to be where the ‘martyrs’ had met, but very few people bothered.

I went back to Tolpuddle in the summer of 2017 and found a peaceful village now tactfully by-passed: old cottages beautifully restored and new inset housing carefully designed, all with flourishing gardens. It was so quiet you could hear a young man at organ practice in the village church. He rode home on his bike down a now quiet and safe country road. A covered seat commemorating the martyrs invited visitors to sit under the rustling of the leaves on their venerable tree.  I enjoyed a meal at the revived village inn, and it was England at its best.

Who would ever have thought it in 1967?

Kathy Fishwick, Chairman of the North West Civic Societies Association

The Lord Street Conservation Area, Southport

Interior of Wayfarer's Arcade from the north-west
Wayfarers Arcade, 287 to 307 Lord Street, Southport, Sefton. © Historic England Archive. View image AA002818.

Nestled away on the coast of the Irish Sea, the classic seaside resort of Southport is home to one of the country’s most outstanding conservation areas.

The Lord Street Conservation Area was originally designated in 1973 and today features an eclectic array of architecture among a host of impressive public gardens and grand civic spaces.

The town’s history as a fashionable Victorian getaway is clear for all to see. The street retains a notable selection of historic retail outlets, accompanied by a largely unbroken row of remarkable cast-iron verandahs. The buildings developed in piecemeal with some of the oldest properties dating back to the early 19th century.

Public gardens in Lord Street
The public gardens of Lord Street with the Grade II* War Memorial in the distance. Source: Daniel Longman, Sefton Council.

One of the most striking elements of the conservation area is its layout. The tree-lined boulevard is known to be one of the earliest examples of such in the world. What’s more, it is believed the exiled French Prince Louis III, so in awe of the sweeping panorama of Lord Street, recreated the design throughout his home city of Paris on his return to power.

The Lord Street Conservation Area features many listed buildings, one of the most outstanding being the Grade II* War Memorial which stands proudly in the centre of the town.

The monument takes the form of a superb obelisk towering 67 feet skywards, flanked by two classical colonnades and adjoining pools of remembrance. The memorial’s massive scale and exceptionally detailed design, along with the large number of inscribed names, demonstrates the heroism and sacrifice of this small town during the Great War and the immense pride of its people.

The Lord Street Conservation Area is most certainly a place of distinction.

Daniel Longman, Heritage at Risk Officer, Sefton Council

Further reading

4 comments on “What is a Conservation Area?

  1. Sidmouth Esplanade Conservation Area is brilliant, so long as they don’t get their way with the Port Royal ‘ proposals’ they claim aren’t proposals!

  2. I actually did live in a conservation area for a few months this summer. The Walcott Estate in Lambeth, just south of Waterloo off Kennington Rd. Beautiful unspoiled (except by the looming spectres of new Elephant and Castle high rises) early 19thc terraces.

    Of course, because of the lucrative nature of the area, the Walcott Foundation who own most of the properties are pushing to build luxury flats on the garages where my car was. Everyone is against them because they were ugly as sin and just going to be sold for Asian investment portfolios, but, being London, they’ll probably get built.

  3. Campbell Matheson

    Some conservation areas in the London Borough of Hackney have been so badly served by being in the custodianship of the local authority, that Hackney Council are now considering de-designating some of them. So much for the protection of the borough’s heritage.

  4. Maggie Woolley

    Good question – I live in a terrace of Victorian houses, built in 1870s, – I think the first housing estate built in Colchester, outside the roman walls – but the council cannot tell us what this status does for the houses or what we cannot do except put satellite dishes on the front of the houses. When we wanted to replace a dying tree it took years!

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