This island race - in seven million snapshots

Huge archive of images of the English townscape and countryside emerges from obscurity
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England's townscapes and countryside may be changing fast, but the coal mines, gas works, workaday farm buildings and parades of mundane shops swept away in recent decades have not disappeared without trace.

Today one of the country's biggest archival resources emerges from obscurity with opening of a gallery and shop to publicise the treasures of the National Monuments Record Centre.

The NMR holds more than 7 million photographs, drawings and maps covering every aspect of the architecture and archaeology of England - all available to the public, although the centre in Swindon, Wiltshire, had only 5,200 visitors last year.

It is the records arm of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, an pounds 11m-a-year state-funded operation whose work belies the dusty image of its formal title.

Consider, for example, the physical transformation of large parts of Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire and the North-east - let alone the social upheaval - caused by the closure of coal mines over the past decade.

Pit-head gear and rail sidings have disappeared and slag heaps have become grassy hillsides of suspiciously regular shape. Yet without the commission there would be no comprehensive picture of what has gone.

Its experts have recently completed a detailed photographic survey of not just the country's coal mines, but all the other buildings that went to make up the mining community - the National Union of Mineworkers' offices, welfare clubs, sports grounds, local shops and colliery houses.

Two long-term projects are the surveying of non-conformist chapels, many of which have been turned into houses, and of farm buildings. Most are unlisted and are often removed from the landscape altogether.

Only the NMR pictures remain to inform historians or interested local people of what a particular stretch of countryside actually looked like. A national survey of hospitals is also under way.

Planners and architects use the NMR to research vernacular building styles and archaeologists draw on its air photographs and historical site details. Old maps and photographs are also used occasionally to settle boundary disputes between neighbours.

None the less, the NMR believes that many more people would use the service if only they knew about it.

The new gallery is intended to lift a corner on what is available. It will hold exhibitions of the cream of the 7 million photographs while further images can be studied on computer screens.

Visitors will also be able to lodge an enquiry to find out what the records centre holds on their town or village.

The gallery, along with the archive itself, is at the heart of exactly the type of much-changed industrial site that the commission has been keen to document. It is housed in a building dating back to 1842 and designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Railway.

However, what was once one of the greatest railway works in the country is now mainly devoted to the contemporary obsession with shopping. The national records centre is hoping that at least some of the 5 million people a year expected to call at the "Designer Outlet Village" will turn away from the smart shops long enough to discover something of England's past.