Unlocking the past through streets and buildings

By Engaging Places | 9 October 2014

The past has been described as ‘a different country’ – but just how much has our local urban landscape changed? And what can we learn about the history of our neighbourhood by investigating these changes?

Photo of a row of houses, green grass, blue sky

Housing: Bishops Mead, Chelmsford © Ashley Bingham and Mark Ellis at A&M Photography

Teaching young people what has happened in their area helps them ‘appreciate the relevance of the past to their own lives’ (Key stage 3 programme of study for history). Our streets and buildings are a great resource for doing this – they’re on the doorstep, hold exciting clues to the past and are usually free to visit. They also offer rich opportunities for researching historical data and engaging with the community.

We have collated a list of activities, organisations and resources for you to use with your students in exploring your local community.

Subjects: history, geography, citizenship, English

Cross-curriculum dimensions: identity and cultural diversity, creativity and critical thinking

Whole school: Learning Outside the Classroom, PLTS (independent enquirers, reflective learners, creative thinkers)

Track the past
Choose an aspect of history that has had a powerful impact on your local town. Has it got a strong industrial heritage? Has it been shaped by wars? Is it home to different ethnic and religious cultures and groups?

Create a learning trail to help other students explore your chosen topic through local streets and buildings. Find out why they were built and how they have been used over time. What part have they played in the history of your neighbourhood?

The article, Ideas to get out of school and down the street explains how schools in Bristol are learning about the sugar and slave trades in the city through its buildings.

Photo of two male students sitting on the footpath, drawing

Highbury Grove School students: outside the Royal Opera House © Michele Turriani

Build a timeline
Collect pictures of buildings – old and new – in your neighbourhood. Ask the students to help by taking their own photographs or making sketches.

Talk with the students about architectural styles from different periods. How have building techniques and materials changed over time? Then arrange the images into a timeline. Can you relate the changes in buildings to particular events in history? Put together a display showing the research.

Read how Kate Forbes from Cardinal Newman Catholic School uses timelines with her year 7 students in Revealing Brighton.

Be a history detective!
Focus on one building that has played an important role in the history of your local town. It might be the town hall, a theatre, a grand house, castle, library or an old school.

Help your students find out all they can about when it was built and its architectural style. Who has lived or worked there over the years? How has its use changed over time? Give the students opportunities to explore the site for themselves and to talk to local people about their memories of the building. Enlisting the help of a local history expert can be a good way to uncover stories that bring the past to life.

See Building in focus: Tilbury Fort for an example.

Photo of a wall of a ruin, children standing around

Wroxeter Roman City © English Heritage

Map change
Use old photographs and maps of the area to build a picture of the streets in your neighbourhood 100 years ago. Then do the same using up-to-date photographs and maps.

Compare the two to identify changes in local street patterns. Why would people have visited the streets in the past? Why do they go there today? What new buildings have been built? Why have these changes happened?

To access a library of over 400,000 images and resources about England’s heritage, visit Heritage Explorer.

Soundtrack of the street
We experience our towns and cities as a series of sounds as well as sights.

Make a recording of the sounds you can hear on a local street. Listen to it with students and identify the source of the sounds – cars, buses, sirens, aeroplanes, music, skateboards, pedestrian crossings, footsteps, talking, pushchairs, dogs, birds…

Ask your students to imagine they were walking along the same street 50 years ago, then 100 years ago. Which of the sounds would they still have heard? What different sounds might there have been?

Read Learning journey: BSIX Sixth Form College, Hackney for ideas on how to extend work on the relationship between sound, space and buildings.

Photo of a busy main street, people, red bus

Blackett Street: Newcastle © Stephen McLaren

Helpful organisations and venues
Local architecture and built environment centres

There are 23 architecture and built environment centres around the UK. Contact the one nearest you to see how it can help you discover and explore buildings and places in your local area.

Find your local architecture centre now.

English Heritage
English Heritage offers a range of resources to help schools make the most of the historic environment. Visit the to find out about site visits, publications, and downloadable resources.

Local studies libraries
Most large libraries have a section on local studies and a specialist librarian. They can help you find books (including street directories), press cuttings, copies of documents and maps. Visit your local library to find out what’s on offer in your area.

Record offices and archive services
Every county and some larger cities has its own record office. These hold local government records and materials donated by individuals, companies and clubs. The local history section of the National Archives website includes a directory of contacts around the country.

Local museums
As well as displays of items and artefacts from the past, most local museums house a variety of historical documents and photographs. Contact your local museum to find out what it can offer to support your work on the local built environment.

Photo of three students studying artefacts on a table

Students studying artefacts of Wroxeter Roman City © English Heritage


Images of England
A recorded at the turn of the 21st century. Use the website’s search to view images of built heritage in your area, from lamp posts and lavatories to thousands of historic houses and churches.

Building connections website
This website offers a wide variety of information, materials and activities for teachers and students, including resources relating to heritage and how buildings change over time. Activities are designed for Scottish schools but could easily be adapted for use across the UK. Access the Building connections website.

Local history online
Ideas and resources to help you get started with researching the history of your neighbourhood. Includes a list of local history societies around the country. Access the .

Go back to the Cardinal Newman Catholic School case study.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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