A good few years ago Cameron Self and I were discussing DMVs or Deserted medieval Villages on Flickr, we’d both been to a few too take photos, thus began an obsession with them, not just the Medieval ones, actually all of them. There’s an oddly romantic notion about Medieval Desertion, pictures of lonely churches stood in the middle of nowhere, or grand churches that outweigh their modern population conjure with images in your head.
Facts are rather different, and factors at play are many. Norfolk seems to be particularly susceptible to various sets of circumstances; emparkment, enclosure, erosion, engrossment and economics, contrary to popular belief and I suspect our instinctive inner darkness having a giggle, most weren’t really much to do with the Great Plagues or Black Death which were such a feature of the early to late middle second millennia although these would have been factors in the interplay between the landscape, economics, weather, food supply and the people living in it.
The shift in farming from feudal agriculture to flockmasters and sheep farming, particularly on the big estates would have been a bigger factor, a simple case of ‘get orf moy laand’ to the people that lived there who had been raking the master’s bean harvest until recently. Because sheep make wool and meat, and make money. People farming vegetables make money slowly. Locally wool powered the East Anglian economy for many years even giving names to types of cloth, such as Walsham and Worsted which live on. This unsurprisingly is the main reason that a lot of villages ceased to exist, landowners farm massive flocks, the farmers become weavers elsewhere.
Soils also play a part, this is particularly true of the area around Fakenham where growing things on the ridge of heavy poorly-drained soils was a struggle until the advent of more modern farming techniques and more modern crops like spuds which actually make this stuff more friable. Godwick is one example of this and Pudding Norton another. While Holkham, Gunton and Anmer are examples of emparkment or engrossment, or a bit of both. When a community had already become weakened by bad westher, crop failure or disease it often hastened their demise.
Another factor in a county with a long coast is loss to the sea, particularly on the soft east coast when we had no protection from storms or surges instead of little protection which we have now. Hence the loss of Eccles, Shipden, Ness and Whimpwell and so on. Another reason is the suburbs of other settlements sucking out the population or occasionally eating them, this is particularly true of Bowthorpe and Earlham where the city being so close just left them empty. Others like Catton or Hellesdon retain their character, they just become encircled.
One area that is of special interest is STANTA, also known as The Stanford Training Area; These are modern desertions, so villages like Stanford and Tottington just stopped being villages during the war and have never returned to their previous role. Oddly some have been rebuilt and should you go in there you will see bits of Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan in the Norfolk countryside. Perhaps even more curious is there are actual Medieval desertions in there too.
Some settlements of course just fade away. Not all of them have any real remains, some you can see old trackways and housing platforms, the ubiquitous church or ruin, others may have some crop marks on Google maps, some cease to have any physical presence beyond the records that still exist saying where they once were, or not in some cases (the grey markers). Another problem is that some actually just shrink or drag their sorry arse up the road a bit and reconvene elsewhere. That said we are spoilt for ruins, go and find some.
Anyway, back to the chats Cameron and I had, he chased around taking photos of loads of them, I started making a map, then got distracted for five years, until now… So here it is.
Incidentally Cameron’s List is here on Literary Norfolk, it doesn’t actually match this map either, but I’ll rectify that in due course.
This isn’t complete in that I’ve not broken them down by type, yet. Bear with me, another five years won’t hurt.
Feature photo: Sturston. Nick Stone © 2017