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Certainly looks like a town to me

We recently visited Shifnal in Shropshire, which in its general feel and appearance is undoubtedly a town, with a population of 6,776, a long main street with a number of historic buildings, and nine pubs currently trading. However, the point was made that, with it being fairly close to a number of larger places, the number and range of shops was rather sparse for somewhere of that size. This raises the question of exactly what qualifies somewhere as a town. (Apologies to anyone bored by this diversion from the usual topics).
Last week, Life After Football wrote about Melbourne in Derbyshire (population 4,843) , which he described as “a village that has almost morphed into a town”, although Wikipedia describes it as a market town, and from my experience it certainly feels quite urban with a large market place and a couple of Georgian streets. WhatPub lists five open and four closed pubs. In my formative years I did a fair bit of drinking in Frodsham in Cheshire (population 9,077), which the locals always describe as a village, but certainly gives the impression of a town, with a long, tree-lined main street, another busy street leading off it at right angles, a street market, a lot more shops than either Shifnal or Melbourne, and (in around 1980) fifteen pubs.
So how can we tell what is a town and what isn’t? The first thing to consider is what it looks like: for example, does it have a market place, a prominent town hall or other civic building, and one or more streets of closely-packed commercial buildings dating back at least to the 19th century? It also needs to fulfil a role as a centre for the surrounding area beyond its own population, through such things as the number of shops, the presence of an active street market, branches of the major clearing banks (although those are now a vanishing species) and a significant number of pubs. A long-established coaching inn-type hotel can also be a good indicator.
Another factor to look at is its administrative status before the 1974 local government reforms – was it an urban district , or better still, a municipal borough in its own right? However, it’s not an infallible guide, as none of the three places I have previously discussed qualified. These designations had also often been overtaken by history, as Much Wenlock, now a much smaller place than Shifnal and barely qualifying as a town, had municipal borough status.
At times this could lead to some anomalies, such as Montgomery, the county town of the eponymous Welsh county, which was until its abolition the smallest municipal borough in the country. However, I suspect it only gained this status because of being the county town, as today, despite having a market place and an imposing town hall, really is no more than a village, with a population of a mere 1,295, and I doubt whether things were much different in 1832. Small size alone, though, doesn’t debar a place from being a town, as Machynlleth, on the other side of Montgomeryshire, undoubtedly qualifies on the grounds of both appearance and hub function despite its population of just 2,235.
In this grey area there are quite a few places that have some of the characteristics of a town in terms of their buildings, but don’t really act as a hub or boast any more shops than a village. In his book The Historic Towns of Britain (which I would thoroughly recommend if you can find a copy), Lewis Braithwaite uses the term “urban village” for this category, and this certainly applies, for example, to several places on the Cotswolds such as Stow-on-the-Wold and Burford. Cheshire has a number of large villages such as Holmes Chapel and Tarporley, both of much stand at major road crossings and have seen their population boosted by recent development, but still fail to achieve that quality of being a town.
But is this a town, or a village?

In the south of the county, Malpas is described as a “former market town”, and certainly in its centre, pictured above, retains a fairly urban feel. However, its population is only 1,673 and it has now regressed to just being a village. It has only two open pubs (and one closed one), and if you want a drink on a weekday lunchtime you’re stuffed, because you won’t find either of them open. Maybe a criterion for being a town should be having at the very least one lunchtime opener.
Further uncertainty can be created where large urban areas have expanded to encompass former separate villages, which have often acquired a very town-like high street lined with shops. This includes areas of Manchester such as Chorlton and Didsbury, but they are really only suburbs because they lack a hub function for a wider area. On the other hand, places such as Hyde and Radcliffe that were previously towns in their own right before being swallowed up by the conurbation can still legitimately be regarded as such. Of the various satellite places within Stockport Metropolitan Borough, the most town-like is Cheadle, which was also an urban district in its own right before 1974, although its inhabitants, as with those of Frodsham, tend to refer to it as a village.
In the end, for many places the question of whether it is a village or town is always going to be a subjective issue and one people are never going to agree on – but it may provide a stimulating topic of debate in the pub.