Hunt for cropmarks with a new online tool featuring a century’s worth of English aerial photography

Why are we so obsessed with seeing the world from above? Tap into the history of the medium – and the UK – with a tool featuring 400,000 aerial shots.

24 March 2022

Before seemingly everyone and their mother had a drone, seeing aerial shots of the world below was a bit more of a rarity. Mainly used for military and research purposes throughout the 1900s, the intriguing history of aerial photography – which dates back to 1858, pulled off with hot air balloons in France! – is now available to explore in a new tool from Historic England. The Aerial Photo Explorer tool makes over 400,000 aerial photographs from the last 100 years available to view online for the first time, allowing users to see the changing face of the UK from a new perspective, dive into the history around the photography technique, and spot a bizarre array of “cropmarks”.

Visitors to the online tool can search for a city or location and see results of corresponding aerial photographs shot in the area, including flight date stamps; the tool covers nearly 30 per cent of England’s landmass. Images discoverable in the archive include: shots of blimps, the remains of ancient archaeology, World War II anti-invasion measures, bomb damage, the building and demolition of nuclear power stations, war-time adaptations (such as shots of allotments in Greenwich Park in 1946) and, very interestingly, “‘cropmarks’ showing hidden, archaeology beneath the surface”, adds the release from Historic England. The images also allow you to see the gradual development of the medium over the century.


Bedford, the British airship R101 (Copyright © Historic England, Aerofilms Collection, 1929)

The release continues: “By opening up these images to the public through this accessible online tool, Historic England hopes that people will use it to research their local areas, offering an insight into a century of changes and development. This will allow them potentially to make their own discoveries about their local areas.”

Around 300,000 of the 400,000 images featured in the collection are from Historic England’s Aerial Investigation and Mapping team, created to discover and map archaeological areas. The remaining 100,000 images come from the Historic England Archive aerial photography collection, which numbers over two million images in total, and includes historic photography, including interwar and post-war images from Aerofilms Ltd and The Royal Air Force.

Over the coming years, Historic England aims to expand the platform, as more of the six million aerial images in the Historic England Archive are digitised.

GalleryAerial Photography Explorer


Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, buried Iron Age or Roman settlement (Copyright © Historic England, photographer Damian Grady, 2011)


East Hecla steelworks and Meadowhall in Sheffield, South Yorkshire (Copyright © Historic England, Aerofilms Collection, 1946)


Sixpenny Handley, Dorset, buried ditches of an Iron Age settlement (Copyright © Historic England. photographer Damian Grady, 2005)


Manchester, the Town Hall, Library and Albert Square (Copyright © Historic England, 1934)


Fen Drayton, Cambridgeshire, 2014 flooding of the Great Ouse River (Copyright © Historic England, photographer Damian Grady, 2014)


Keysoe, Bedfordshire, buried Iron Age or Roman settlement (Copyright © Historic England. photographer Damian Grady, 2011)


Tees Newport Bridge (Copyright © Historic England, Aerofilms Collection, 1933)

Hero Header

Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire, cropmarks at John O’Gaunt’s House Keysoe (Copyright © Historic England. photographer Damian Grady, 2006)

Share Article

About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. In January 2023, they became associate editor, predominantly working on partnership projects and contributing long-form pieces to It’s Nice That. Contact them about potential partnerships or story leads.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.