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23 August 2006
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Exploring British Villages

What is a Village?

by Dr Greg Stevenson

It is estimated that there are over ten thousand villages in Britain, yet defining the term 'village' isn't as simple as it may at first sound. When does a hamlet become a village? And when does a village become a town?

Strictly speaking the term 'village' comes from the Latin 'villaticus', which roughly translates as 'a group of houses outside a villa farmstead'. Today a village is understood as a collection of buildings (usually at least 20) that is larger than a hamlet, yet smaller than a town, and which contains at least one communal or public building. This is most commonly the parish church, though it can be a chapel, school, public house, shop, post-office, smithy or mill. Villagers will share communal resources such as access roads, a water supply, and usually a place of worship.

A hamlet is a smaller grouping of buildings that doesn't necessarily have any public or service buildings to support it. A significant difference is that it won't have a parish church like a village does, and most hamlets contain only between three and twenty buildings.

The point at which a village becomes a town is difficult to determine, and is probably best defined by those who live there. However, since the Middle Ages the term 'town' has been a legal term that refers to the fact that the community has a borough charter. The situation is confused by the fact that there are many town-like suburban communities calling themselves villages (for example, Oxton Village in Birkenhead), as well as designed suburban 'villages' such as those built under the Garden Village Movement.

The 2001 census shows us that approx 80% of people in England live in an urban environment, with under 7% living in rural villages (the remainder live in rural towns or outside concentrated settlements). This is the exact opposite of the situation two centuries ago, when under 20% of the population lived in the town, and the majority lived in rural villages. As late as 1851 agriculture remained the largest single source of employment in Britain, yet today under 3% of us work on the land.

It is essential to remember is that villages were created and have evolved because of particular combinations of geographical, commercial, economic and social factors. They expand, decline, move and fluctuate with the times. This article introduces some of the common forms of village to be found in Britain.

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