Conserving the past at the cost of the future? Self sufficiency and sustainability in Marshfield, South Gloucestershire

July 2009, edited and updated November 2010
Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In the concept of “needs”...and in responding to needs, the recognition of limitations upon technology, of social organisation, and upon environment, are key issues...Sustainability is thus basically a social concept of people’s needs and aspirations, and has to do with the relationship of those needs and aspirations with local environments. Relationships between the satisfactions of “needs” and perceptions of the environment are probably stronger at many community levels than they are in centralised or remote technological and economic cons- iderations. Cultural linkages between society and environment are perhaps the strongest links of all”.i

Meeting the needs of the present with resources available in the present, requiring nothing from outside, would be self sufficiency. Once the pride of life, self sufficiency meant that what you didn’t have you did without. Then a little used word, sustainability was achieved by not wanting, not being willing, or not being able to afford, anything that was not available by everyday means. In these terms but in different times, except on infrequent occasions, life was contained within the community.

Challenges in the past to self-sufficiency were severe weather, house-fire, and illness sometimes caused by epidemic, all of which were accommodated, treated or relieved by locally organised assistance. What are today’s challenges and how does any community profess its sustainability, especially if in a conservation area, and how will it continue to do so in an uncertain and hazardous future?


Marshfield is a large village, once a town, on the western and high side of an escarpment which forms a southerly extension of the Cotswold Hills; London is 165 kilometres to the east, Bristol in the Severn Valley is 20 kilometres to the west, and Bath on the Avon is seven miles to the south. The one-and-a-half kilometre Marshfield High Street was once a part of the principal road between London and Bristol. When distances between settlements were governed by a day’s travel, Marshfield was strategically placed and is well connected by road with its nearest larger towns.
The Severn valley to Marshfield’s west is defined by the escarpment ridge, close to which, at 187 metres above sea level, the village is one of England’s highest. In spite of its name, Marshfield is considered unlikely to flood. The Avon river, contained by its valleys, flows through Chippenham, 16 kilometres to Marshfield’s east, Bath, 11 kilometres to its south-west, and Bristol, 18 kilometres to its west, and onwards to Avonmouth where the river Avon joins the Severn.

In 1701, numerous Marshfield farms were bought by the Codrington Estate, as were a large number of village properties in 1730. Sir Christopher Codrington, as Governor-General of the Leeward Islands, owned sugar plantations on Barbuda and Antigua and slaves as labour. Closely coincident with the ending of slaveryii and declining plantation profits, “The Manor or Lordship of Marshfield in the County of Gloucester & and divers Messuages Farms & Lands therein described...” was sold to individual private buyers in 1826 and 1844. Marshfield’s population grew and peaked in 1875 at 1,750.

Marshfield’s early prosperity in the 14th and 15th centuries had been based upon wool but changed to malting and candle making in response to becoming an overnight staging post. Seven inns and public houses provided shelter, food and drink, for which barley was the local crop; seven maltsters were recorded in 1850, along with three butchers, five grocers and two bakers. Stonemasons, carpenters, plumbers, glaziers and painters maintained the buildings; three tailors and a draper, milliner, hatter and dressmaker clothed the people who could afford them; and six boot and shoe makers protected their feet – an indication of distances walked. The Market, granted in 1462, set up its stalls in the Market Place on Tuesdays and fairs were “held on the 24th May and 24th October – the former for cattle and sheep, and the latter for horses, sheep and cheese”. In 1850, those children of families who could pay, attended “academies and schools” - boarding and day, independent, endowed, church and private.
In 1831, two thirds of Marshfield’s population worked in agriculture and another quarter were engaged in manufacturing crafts and retail outlets. Similarly, in 1851, two thirds of the population were classed as “labourers and servants” while “employers and professionals” numbered no more than ten percent.
Almshouses had been built by Elias Crispe in 1625. Seventeenth and eighteenth century houses form each side of the High Street, almost all different but each contiguous with the other, all built of locally quarried pale-grey stone, and all reflecting a once wide range of income and variable quality of life. Many had combustible thatched roofs, since replaced with Welsh slate, locally quarried stone tiles, or clay pan-tiles brought up from the valley. Vegetable growing and the rearing of hens and pigs in private gardens, some of which extended 165 metres well beyond the shadow of their buildings, a more usual length being 75-90 metres, most with outbuildings and barns. Water was provided from public pumps and many wells, some with shared rights of use.
Marshfield was necessarily self-sufficient; what it didn’t have it did without - or waited a long time for whatever it was to be brought from somewhere else. Piped gas became available in 1934, replacing oil-fuelled street lamps and offering improved domestic lighting. Piped water became available in 1936 but electricity not until 1951, only slowly replacing candles, oil lamps, gas-light, and “accumulators” charged-up elsewhere.
In as much as quality of life can be measured by domestic amenities, the 1951 census recorded “piped water, a cooking stove, a kitchen sink, a 'water closet' meaning a flush toilet, and a 'fixed bath' - as distinct from a tin bath hung on the wall between uses”. Changes came slowly; not until 2001 were key amenities expected to comprise “central heating, and 'sole use of bath/shower and toilet'“.
Austerity after World War 2 meant less to communities where life had been austere by necessary habit and by which self sufficiency had been maintained. But now that Marshfield had the same utilities as anywhere else, more houses were bought by “outsiders” with cars to take them to workplaces out of the village. Into a community that had been self reliant and “sustainable” for centuries, outsiders brought new money, new needs, new ways and new values. Commuting and street-parking increased, walking across the fields to work declined, and vegetable gardens were converted for lawns, shrubs and flowers.

After a bye-pass was completed in 1967, street conversations could re-commence and mud was no longer splashed through bedroom windows. As the price of houses began to rise, farms with access onto the High Street sold their buildings for conversion and their land for development, many long garden plots being subdivided for new buildings. House prices continued to rise, local buyers were squeezed out, and opportunities for local work diminished. After the early diversion through Bath of the London to Bristol route, Marshfield’s second bye-pass moved traffic away from the village but new housing development quickly occupied the land between – moving the village back to the traffic. The now already twice bye-passed village was bye-passed again by the M4 motorway completed in 1969.

Present day

As a conservation area, Marshfield is assured of its continuity as a historic place, as Marshfield’s triple bye-pass has ensured its continuity as a relatively unknown place. Continuity of Marshfield’s self-sufficiency, however, has been displaced by self-satisfaction as money in its millions has been spent on historic properties and millions more spent on internal modernisation. A new primary school made the 1861 old school redundant which, with disregard for a local questionnaire on its future use, was divided into two dwellings, with a third in its contiguous headmaster’s house and seven more in its former playground.

Designed to “fit in”, these and numerous other new houses have filled once characteristic intersticial spaces, in a village that has vigourously survived the centuries. Marshfield has no need of picture-book images, architectural and otherwise, of “country living” in order to continue to do so – nor dogs or four-wheel-drives. Adopted sartorial rusticity expresses the new self-satisfaction, not the former self-sufficiency; symbols of rural living are now more important than the achievement of the reality it once was.

A richer village has made feasible a revitalisation of the small number of remaining local shops, pubs, small builders, and other services: an upgraded mini-market, newsagent, butcher, pet-foods and seeds, two garages, an estate agent, a sub-post office – but no bank - all reflect the new milieu. The old post office - to which once “letters from all parts arrived from Chippenham every morning at nine, and were despatched thereto at half past four in the afternoon”, with letters sorted and delivered in situ - closed in 2002, was offered space at the back of the butcher’s, again survived threatened closure in 2008 and may be threatened again. Although some remaining long established businesses have been revitalised, not discounting maybe 100 small private ones, no new shops have emerged and one pub has closed. In 2001 and with a population of 1,616, more than half of households had two or more cars, two thirds of the population drove to work out of the village, one sixth worked at home, and one tenth walked to work.
Marshfield is thriving, not declining, and its continuity is assured for the foreseeable future; in that sense, it is sustainable. But as new families are attracted to the primary school, young people have only rarely been able to afford to continue to live in the village, necessitating a mortgage 20 times a local salary and to commute away for an income that would support it - or to move away for good. In that sense, Marshfield is not sustainable and, though it is not yet a preserve of the rich, nor even the elderly, it may be on its way to becoming one.
As most construction materials, consumer goods, and supplies of food and drink, come from out of the village, sustainable life-styles are remote; four-wheel drivers might change their domestic light bulbs but more rigorous challenges to quality of life appear unlikely to be addressed voluntarily.


Conservation of buildings thrives in prosperity and, in times of high property prices is, to most people, little more than an irritation. In the past, conservation was a bi-product of making do with things as they were but now, internal rehabilitation and reorganisation express a yearning for modernity, space, daylight and natural ventilation that have all silently suffered due to controlled restrictions on external appearance and architectural “fitting in” –where ecological fitting-in is not a consideration. What quality of life there may be within rehabilitated or converted dwellings, is severely constrained by required applications of remotely initiated planning and conservation controls.

For example, house building standards once required areas of window glass to be a minimum of 10 percent of the floor area of each habitable room. As larger windows became more usual, the regulation was discontinued but remains relevant in the Housing Act and useful as a guide to a basic requirement. In at least one Marshfield building, the living-room window glass area is only a quarter of what was once required as a minimum, conservation control preventing larger windows, roof-lights or light tubes. In this building and in twenty-first century Marshfield, occupants are obliged to use artificial lighting most of the time. How sustainable is that?
Options in construction materials, building flexibility, and overall pro-active planning in the community at large, have been inhibited, impeded, restricted and denied by conservation controls within which non-creative minds seek sanctuary in picture-book images rather than today’s realities of rural living.
Conservation of one thing is now at odds with conservation of another. Solar panels on the roofs, and double glazing of listed buildings, are not encouraged nor, in this village of high elevation and above average wind-speeds, are domestic wind turbines.
Conservation ensures re-use of old buildings but inhibits their modification to ease that process. As natural and economic climates change around them, how will buildings of the past maintain their sustainability if they are not permitted to sufficiently change and to adapt? As it is often the evidence of changes in buildings of the past that we now revere, today’s changes to old buildings should be more freely permitted to accommodate today’s needs and contexts, and be of more intense interest in the longer-term future.
With roughly the same size of population as in 1875, community life styles, as they now are, are dependent upon delivery of imported materials and services, vehicular access to regional supermarkets and shopping malls, to other places of work, education and entertainment, and for health care. As a current minority seek to turn “green”, everyday practise requires externally sourced technology for insulation, rainwater harvesting, and power generation, but only if and when permitted or facilitated by remote controlling authorities. Once necessarily capable of sustainability by its self sufficiency, Marshfield’s adjustment to the present and to the future is impeded by its dependency upon technology on the one hand and, on the other, by externally superimposed constraints upon its past and present buildings that render their occupants unable to make responsible adjustments to their wider environment.

The challenges of a changing climate

Storms, heavy rainfall, floods and droughts cause greatest distress when they affect people who are vulnerable to their effects. Earthquakes and storm-surges are not unknown nationally; the earthquake that damaged Hereford Cathedral’s pinnacles in 1896, was felt in Marshfield but was “unaccompanied by any disaster”. On the other hand, when many roofs were thatched, house fires were not infrequent; Marshfield had its own fire engine and a voluntary fire brigade for almost 150 years, from the latter half of the eighteenth century until World War 1. Severe frost also was a once common concern, especially for the poor, when infant deaths were frequent. The Marshfield Coal Club raised funds and, in the severe winter of 1894-95, soup was distributed from the vicarage and a nurse was paid by the village community.

Climate is changing, however. Weather characteristics of the future are unlikely to be the same as they once were. Already emerging new weather patterns will comprise uncomfortably hotter summers, wetter winters, more frequent storms with high winds and heavy rainfall.
Heavier rainfall requires adjustment of rainwater discharge capacities, in roof valleys, gutters, downpipes and soakaways, as well as in municipal drains. Conservation of rainwater will become necessary generally and for the survival of domestic food crops in dry seasons and periods of drought. Roofs of all ages and materials will need to be secured against storms and improved natural ventilation will be necessary in heat waves. Improved insulation will be necessary throughout, inclusive of windows and doors. Adequate preparation against the contingencies of a changing climate is obviously preferable to costly repairs after damage has been inflicted but the adaptation of buildings, for these purposes as well, is being impeded or prevented by introvertial short-sighted controls.
Marshfield could be affected by serious flooding in the region. A storm surge riding up the Severn Estuary coincident with heavy inland rainfall, would not be unprecedented. Seaward egress of a swollen Avon would be impeded, flood waters would spread across the valleys, all Marshfield’s nearest towns would be severely disrupted, and large areas made inaccessible. Marshfield would largely be cut off from its region upon which it is dependent for food, consumer goods, places of work and income. Supplies of water would be interrupted, travel would be difficult, dangerous or impossible and, as it fails easily and repeatedly in present day-to-day circumstances, electricity supply would collapse and digital and land-line communication would be defunct.
The impacts of lesser hazards may have decreased as higher living standards have facilitated their absorption, but has our level of awareness been cushioned so that what was once commonplace is now a disaster? Would local voluntary groups, concerned perhaps with less basic needs, be as quick to respond as was the Coal Fund or the local fire-engine? And will nationally instituted systems, upon which Marshfield now depends, appropriately assist the generation of a new community self-reliance?
As a nation, are we more interested in saving the past than we are in securing the future? Has film-set Marshfield created a mind-set? How long is it going to be before photovoltaic panels, domestic wind generators and window insulation, for example, are permitted in Marshfield and the other 9,300 conservation areas and 450,000 thousand listed buildings in England and Wales? Rather than dependency upon narrow interpretations of regulatory controls, conservation could more usefully embrace issues beyond its present preoccupation with buildings and landscape. It could become inclusive of new environmental technologies alongside the adaptation of selected past practices, towards a renewed and updated community sustainability for which new energy sources would be a requirement.
Hazards, accidents and disasters are the test of sustainability; as village carbon footprints increase and prevail, are we conserving the past at the cost of our futures?

Notes and references

iJames Lewis’ work to do with natural hazards became inclusive of climate change and sea level rise when asked to visit Tuvalu in 1988 and the Maldives in 1989, both before publication of the first IPCC Report. He has lived in Marshfield since 1968.

James Lewis (1999) “Development in Disaster-prone Places: Studies of Vulnerability” IT (Practical Action) Publications. London. p142.

ii Local slave revolts in 1831 ended slavery in Antigua and Barbuda two years before the ending of slavery in other British colonies by the law of 1833.

Full references will be supplied upon request to