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Heritage engineering


Ask a member of the public which profession has had the greatest impact on the historic environment and they will almost certainly start with the architect. Yet the evidence from the past is that it is the civil engineer who has done most to shape the physical world in which we live today, and who continues to provide the inspiration for many of the most dramatic and significant of new developments, pushing the construction envelope to its limit.

Like so many things in England, much of our civil engineering began with the Romans. Their military engineers gridded the country with roads, bridged rivers, dug platforms and graded slopes, constructed embankments and wharves, and located, planned, and provided the water supply essential for, the new towns. Their skills and abilities are reflected in the extent to which today's road map and distribution of towns would be recognisable to a Roman.

Many of the skills were lost in the thousand years that followed the withdrawal of the last legions from Roman Britain; but the great Gothic cathedrals, the fine stone bridges and above all the dominating military form of the castle, all demonstrate the challenges faced by the medieval engineer and the very successful ways in which they resolved them.

The Renaissance and then the Industrial Revolution saw much greater formalisation and differentiation between the professionals;

in particular the responsibility of the architect for design. But it was the engineer who had the greater impact both on the built environment and ultimately, on the aesthetics of construction, particularly through the introduction of new materials. Iron and glass became the dominant aesthetic of the 19th century, as did steel and concrete in the 20th, and everywhere that engineers changed the topography they also designed buildings and structures; around docks and harbours, along the new canals and then the railways, to house water and sewage supplies, and to meet the needs of new industrial processes.

Engineers have left us a wonderful legacy. This supplement will tell you something about it, and about what English Heritage is doing to conserve it. But it is also about the future. Engineers must continue to have the opportunity to deploy their unique skills to create the cutting edge buildings and structures of the future; ones that will meet needs we can only dream of and excite us in ways that we can only begin to imagine. English Heritage will be a positive force to help them in meeting this challenge.

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