If you were to design an old world mountain village, where would you begin?
You would probably want to start by looking at history. The old world villages were typically built over a long period of time, often several centuries, and ending up with multiple architectural styles. This is the look we wanted to achieve in the design of this village.
European villages are typically charming and quaint, and have that “village feeling”. It is often the combination of several architectural styles that bring variety, while flowing together organically with the landscape to form a unique and appealing whole. These days they draw enormous crowds to such places as the Cotswolds in England, and Mont St. Michel in France.
During medieval times, people lived in thousands of villages across the United Kingdom and Continental Europe, all generally within a few miles of each other. Most of these villages still stand today. Many have become towns, and some have even evolved into cities.
Villages are small communities in rural areas. A village is bigger than a hamlet (which is a small village without a church, and roughly up to one hundred people), but smaller than a town (roughly a thousand to twenty thousand people). The oldest villages typically began with a few cottages gathered around a small public space or a street. As they grew, these settlements became hamlets and later, villages.
Villages are sized differently depending on the country. In Italy, a village has less than two thousand people, in England it’s often a few hundred to five thousand, while in The Netherlands, a dorp (village) applies to settlements smaller than twenty thousand.
The Village Layout
There is no typical village. It could be centered around a village green or a castle (though castles were most often in towns). Later, when defense wasn’t as important, villages would grow along a road, wrap around or along a body of water or stream, or be scattered loosely. Each village is an individual and dynamic entity that changes with the times.
Most villages included:
The Cathedral or Parish Church
This was usually the major public building in the village or town, and often the only one built of stone. It was usually in a prominent position, on high ground or near a market. Because of its mass, as well as its towers and spires, it was often the first thing a visitor would see when arriving.
The Cathedral/Church was the center of village life, a place of worship, a meeting place, and a symbol of village pride. Traditionally, these spaces were used for social gatherings, weddings, funerals and community activities, often hosting small arts and food markets, which along with cafes and pubs, attract many visitors. Churches were also village halls where the parishioners would gather to watch plays and participate in church ales (communal drinking of ales and dancing). The money from these events was often used to buy something special for the church, such as a new bell.
Originally these buildings were built by generations of villagers that generously gave their time and money. Each parishioner was expected to contribute ten percent of their wealth, whether it be cash, every tenth pig, corn, etc. The lucrative wool trade paid for many of the churches, especially in places like the Cotswolds, where numerous stone churches were built.
These buildings were usually built with the most durable construction that the village could afford. They were enlarged during times of prosperity. In the worst of times they were a sanctuary from mobs. The earliest churches were built with wood, and later rebuilt with stone. They were a mixture of styles from Early Christian architecture to the Byzantine churches of the Roman Empire, to the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and various Revival styles from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. As a village grew, most churches built several additions throughout the ages. Most of the stone churches are still standing today.
In their size and style, the churches reveal much about the village they serve, its past prosperity and the piety of the parishioners. The monuments may record the names of important local families going back hundreds and hundreds of years. The gravestones in the churchyards will tell you the names and ages of generations of the more humble folk.
The Castle or Village Hall
These were the buildings of political power and where the law was enforced. Many town halls and castles have a public place in front of them, large enough to allow people to gather to witness hangings and other executions. These spaces were also used for trading, especially traders arriving from faraway lands, as not everyone could enter the fortress.
Towns were more likely than villages to have castles. Most “respectable” villages and towns couldn’t do without stone fortified bridges and walls. Most of the town walls were very expensive to put up. Villages and towns became independent to castles as the need for defense declined.
The Village Shops
Merchants often lived in the floors above the shops. Any servants of the merchants would live in the top floors. Though they had to climb more stairs, they ended up having the best views.
The shops were typically located along the street that connects the political and religious power buildings.
This street would often be called High Street, as the two powers (castle and church) were typically built high up on the hills, to be able to see an attacking enemy.
If a medieval town was to grow and flourish, then trade was key, so market areas were uniquely important. The marketplace was an outdoor area where salespersons could come from all over and showcase their wares. This often helped stimulate the growth of a village.
Marketplaces, especially those with restaurants and cafes, are a huge asset by attracting tourists. Usually at the center of town, the marketplace was often triangular shaped, formed at the juncture of three roads. Markets were also planted outside castle gates and churchyards, until they were banned in the UK from the latter in 1285.
The marketplace came in all shapes and sizes, but size was more important than shape. They needed to be big. In recent times, many of these marketplaces also set up shop as festive Christmas markets in the winter holiday season.
The Tavern/Pub or Inn
Taverns, pubs and Inns were often interchangeable, depending on where you were, and whatever the owner decided to call it. In general, inns catered more to travelers, while taverns and pubs provided more for the locals.
Inns were places where people traveling from village to village could eat or drink, possibly stay the night, as well as feed, water and rest their horses. As a result, most inns were in a central location in the village or where trade roads came together. They typically had a large public space or widened street in front of them.
Some inns had cellars containing exotic wines and beer from all over the world. The food was often simple. Stew, bread and cheese were staples.
Medieval inns are typically large, rambling buildings with slanted walls, creaking stairs, haunted rooms, and grand fireplaces that give joy to tourists today. The Inns brought in a lot of money back in the day. The owners of an inn were typically among the wealthiest and most influential in the village. Not only did they serve meals, but they also hosted large banquets and elaborate feasts. The inn owners also often acted as banker and expediter for money-oriented transactions. Many of them were also deal brokers for merchants.
Taverns and pubs became a social center for the community. They didn’t always provide lodging. They were often owned by licensed brewers and vintners and focused on drinking. In medieval times, taverns and pubs were an indoor meeting place where people met to socialize and talk about culture and politics, and travelers sometimes stayed for short-term overnight lodging.
Pubs would try to gain respectability by attaching the name of the pub to royalty. The biggest advertisements in medieval times were the pub signs. The biggest names during that time were The Red Lion (which was a badge used by Scottish incoming King James I after Queen Elizabeth I’s death), The Crown, The Rose and Crown, The King’s Head, The White Heart (badge of Richard II), and the Queen’s Head. Oftentimes many pubs adopted the name of the local wealthy family name, followed by ‘Arms”. Richard II was the monarch who first decreed that all pubs should have a sign. His badge was so widely adopted during his reign that White Hart became a synonym for ‘pub’.
These days, taverns and pubs are places to eat and drink, and also do business. A pub is the preferred name for a tavern in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and Australia.
Quiet Streets and Alleys
These are often my favorite parts of the old villages. Delightful alleys and enticing passages around the corner help create more character.
Secret, winding streets, through the village, take advantage of the sloped terrain, especially in mountain villages, where there is more depth and interest.
One thing that mountain villages have over flatland villages are, well, hills. Especially in mountain villages, where things become more interesting than flat, level villages.
The Manor House
This is typically the biggest home in the village and used by nobility. It’s often fortified and enclosed by walls and ditches, and sometimes equipped with gatehouses and watchtowers. Eventually they became more stately homes for wealthy gentlemen. Under Queen Elizabeth I, the mansions began to be designed by architects, rather than builders or masons. All manor houses had their own adjoining deer parks, where no hunting was allowed for anyone, including royalty.
If there wasn’t an Inn in a village, the local lord of the manor might often host you for the night. This came in exchange of gifts, but mostly for news, rumors and stories, which were highly valued in a insular medieval society. Traveling troubadours and bards would often sing and perform in exchange for lodging and food at the local lord’s manor. If the local lord was unable or disinclined to host a traveler, village families were happy to share their cottage as long as you had a smile and some money.
These dwellings were fairly close to each other, for socializing and defense, with farmland surrounding the homes. Many of the cottages traditionally hosted animals in the ground floor and had a small vegetable patch on the sunny side. An important characteristic of the cottage prototype is the layout, which has a larger front wall so its width is longer than its depth.
Most historic cottages were built with oak timber-framing, stone or brick walls, or a combination. Roofs began as wattle (sticks) and dab (sticks and a combination of clay, sand, straw and dung/poop), and in later years could be stone, thatched straw (which provided the best insulation), clay, or wood shingles. Floors were often bare earth, covered with rushes. These were a sweet smelling, flowering plant that provided a nice aroma as well as some insulation. Many cottages have become an eclectic mixture of styles.
The Cottage Gardens
Many of the cottages have their own gardens. Flowers, herbs, and beehives, as well as fruit trees. Stored peas and beans were ground into flour. Storage was also made for other vegetables and fruit, as well as spice boxes and medicine chests. Dried aromatic plants were mixed in with the rushes that covered cottage floors.
The Village Green
Often the hub of local life, casual sports, and recreation. Their original purpose was to enclose the village livestock, for safety from attackers and predators. Many villagers had cattle and pigs and exercised their right to graze them on common land.
Village Greens were often deliberately created by a lord who was seeking space for a market. The village greens also provided space for trading and celebrations. They are now used as parks and/or green space and may include manicured lawns, flowering gardens and feature trees. The size of this space is in relation to the size of the village (number of homes) as there was a ratio of the number of cattle or sheep that needed to pasture to feed the town. For obvious reasons, a village green is not always an option in mountain villages, as the terrain is not often inducive for large, flat green spaces.
The War Memorial
Nearly every village now has a war memorial, commemorating those who died in wars, especially the World Wars. Memorials took many forms, including village halls, dedicated parks and gardens, sculptures, tree plantings, church lychgates (roofed gateways to a churchyard), and playing fields.
In Great Britain, World War I has the most memorials, as 1.1 million British died in this war.
Most villagers have a passionate pride in their community. The most knowledgeable people in the medieval villages were typically the vicar of the church or the landlord of the inn or tavern.
The Village as a Whole
Villages are known and admired as close-knit communities, and also as a collection of cottages and other buildings. The special appeal of cottage dwellings usually lies in the way they combine in rambling and unregimented clusters to create charming and evocative vistas, rather than in intentional ways or ornate beauties of particular building styles.
Most of the old world villages have been altered in some way and reflect the building methods that have been in place throughout the centuries. Most villages also contain horses of different ages, styles, shapes and sizes, as well as cows, sheep and pigs. An appreciation of the village as a whole is enhanced by an understanding of each individual.
If you decide to visit a village, try to avoid the weekends in the summer.
More about Villages
Eventually, many of the villages became towns, and even cities, though many still retain their rustic charm, even if they are in the middle of a larger metropolis.
Most village names have meanings. For example, some village names end in “chester”, which is a Saxon derivative of the Roman word “Castra”, which means camp. Villages ending in “ing” come from the Saxon word “ingus” which means “the descendant of” or “the people of”. So Hastings means “Haesta’s people”.
We would love to hear your version of the history of the village in our rendering in the comments. How has history formed this village? What would be a good name for it?
Creating an actual village
If anyone is interested in developing a village, contact us.
Guidelines are important if individual cottages are designed by others. If you’re going for a more historic or authentic look, you would want to make sure that there isn’t a structure that stands out as too modern. We’ve worked with several neighborhood or village associations and have worked on design committees. Design guidelines aren’t entirely necessary, but if the goal is to design a quaint, homey looking village, you’ll want to make sure that something doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. You would also want a place where the homes or cottages don’t all look the same. Make it more authentic and creative, and a village that looks like it has been built over centuries.
The drawings, photos, writing and editing for this post were done collectively by Brian Reeves, Jennifer Filipowski and John Hendricks.
Hendricks Architecture, architects in Sandpoint, Idaho. We’ve designed everything from small mountain cabins and storybook houses, to mountain lodges and estates.
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