The Ghost Village

Hundreds of villages were deserted in the Middle Ages. An archaeological detective explains why (It was neither the Black Death nor the industrial revolution).

 

The ghost village of Wharram Percy lies 15 miles northeast of York. Only grassy ruts and ridges remain of streets and buildings where children played, men laughed and women gossiped for hundreds of years. The Church still stands – roofless, windowless, its tower half destroyed: a sign, perhaps, that God has left this place.

wharram percy churchI trudged Wharram’s spectral roads on a freezing, foggy morning with Al Oswald, 37 year-old Archaeological Investigator with English Heritage. Oswald was to show how to accurately picture long-gone places by interpreting today’s landscapes, plus explain what happened to Wharram Percy, and why 3,000 other villages were abandoned from the end of the 14th century.

Some might think it was the Black Death. Others might suggest the famine of 1317-1321. Those were indeed grim times – in the famine it is said people murdered and devoured their own children, and the Black Death killed about half the population – but villages mostly staggered on. Then, a few years later, thousands were extinguished by human greed.

Oswald and I entered Wharram along a road that used to be lined with houses, but is now a track through a bumpy field to an unoccupied farmhouse. The Archaeologist pointed to a flat strip arcing across the grassy slope below us:

“That’s a trackway running into the farmyard, so you know it was built at the same time as farm – 1776. Now, look down, and you see we’re standing on a small rectangular building.” There were indeed four shallow banks forming an oblong, one corner bisected by the trackway. “If you see a rectangle of banks, perhaps with a doorway, it’s most likely a medieval house. Here, the trackway has cut through the building, so it must have come later.”

Oswald’s skill is to look at a site and work out how it developed over time, rather than saying, as archaeology primarily used to do, what was there most recently. He then directs other archaeologists to the best excavation sites.

“A lot of archaeology,” Oswald admitted, “is arcane and complex. The sort of archaeology I do isn’t rocket science. It’s just looking and thinking.”

In the fog-shrouded church, Oswald gestured around the interior: “I ask school groups if they see anything strange. After they’ve got over the fact that there’s no roof, they start asking why the windows are different shapes, why there are blocked doors, and within five minutes they’ve spotted most of the evidence that describes the church’s history.”

Oswald deciphered layers of the church’s development. A carved sword upside-down on the wall outside is from a 13th century knight’s grave, so this wall was built after that, incorporating his headstone. A beautifully-chiselled arch has a rough, irregular central stone, so it was moved from elsewhere. And so on – a sundial, a scribe’s gravestone, a blocked roodscreen door – all explain the building’s morphology.

The Church still stands because it was used for 470 years after Wharram’s demise by the villagers of nearby Thixendale. They got their own church in 1870, so Wharram’s fell into disrepair. The last service was in the 1950s, and the tower collapsed in a 1959 storm.

We walked on, past the beautiful millpond (restored by English Heritage, who manage the whole site) and a bubbling spring. On the higher side of the village, the exhaustively excavated houses of free peasants are the model for understanding medieval houses across Europe. These four large houses were the last to be abandoned. They are sizeable, the houses of relatively prosperous people. Why did they go?

Sheep, Oswald explained, were the chief cause of medieval village desertion. In the 14th century, wool became more profitable than arable farming. Until around 1485, peasants had no rights, so were evicted if not needed. Sheep require comparatively little care, so entire villages were cleared so that their owner might become richer. Deserted houses were pillaged for stone, sheep kicked through the remains, and 3,000 villages disappeared under the soil, leaving nothing but bumpy fields. The final four families were booted out of Wharram in 1503 by a chap called Baron Hilton.

Our tour finished on the remains of the Percy family’s 14th century manor. The outlines of a big house and several outbuildings, including the circle of a huge dovecote, were clear. I pictured children haring about the gardens, parents meeting guests in a grand hall, and, at the manor’s business end, the toil of lumbering ox and rubicund farmhands. By 1380, records show, the manor was derelict.

You might enjoy visiting a deserted medieval village, and transporting yourself back 600 years. Alternatively, look around your own village. Look at the closed pub, the long-gone shops, and the inexorable approach of the nearby town’s suburbs. There’s not always someone as obvious as Baron Hilton to blame, and villages don’t need to be deserted to be lost.

For more on Wharram Percy, see www.english-heritage.org.uk, or Maurice Beresford’s Seminal Work ‘Lost Villages of England’.

 

Deserted villages to visit

Knowlton, Dorest: A derelict Norman church surrounded by an Iron Age henge, and village earthworks. Signposted off the B3078 from Wimborne.

Hound Tor, Devon: The houses’ lower walls are exposed here. Visit as part of a walk on Dartmoor. Off the A30, south of Okehampton

Quarrendon, Bucks: The moat of the old manor, village outlines and the remains of St Peter’s Church are visible. Just north west of Aylesbury, off the A41

To find other deserted medieval villages, call the National Monuments Record on 01793 414600 or email nmrinfo@english-heritage.org.uk,

Article printed 8h January 2006 in the Telegraph, all copyright theirs. Photos copyright Angus Watson 2006