Deserted settlements

November 2016

It was something of a co-incidence that on the very day of this talk I had my hair cut. My barber told me of the complete human skeleton her father found in their back garden when she was eight years old. This was in Caister next to the site of the Roman fort. After telling English Heritage, the bones were re-interred in the garden and everyone was left wondering why the body had been buried there in the first place.

A few hours later Ian Groves came to address the History Group. He is a UEA PhD student researching the two hundred Norfolk villages that have disappeared over the centuries – three thousand across the country as a whole. They have left clues about their existence, but there must be hundreds more that have simply been ploughed into the ground. One type that he described was the “viccus” – the settlement that would grow alongside Roman forts, for security and also to provide “services” for the soldiers. They fell out of use after the Romans left. There’s the coincidence.

Ian’s favourite Norfolk deserted village is Godwick. Here is how it looks from the air. There, right in the centre, are the remains of the church tower and, in the shadows cast by the setting sun, the old roads and the humps which are the remains of the houses. Godwick “died” during the late 1500s simply because the heavy clay soil made it difficult to work and to survive the vagaries of long periods of very wet or very dry weather. (Photo by Hexcam).

What happened to the others? That is the direction in which research is moving. The Black Death and other periodic plagues are part of the answer, but only a small part. Only one village in all of England has disappeared solely as the result of plague. A lot more were simply removed by Lords of the Manor to “improve” the landscape, or to convert arable farms into sheep farms. Great income and only one-fifth of the labour to pay for.

Some land owners were generous and rebuilt the villages elsewhere, often with much better houses that are desirable properties to this day. The sea has reclaimed many including local examples we already know. And in modern times? Well, we like to drown them in reservoirs or move the people out so that we can create military training areas.

How is this research done? Painstakingly comparing the Domesday Book (1086) with the Nomina Villarum (an Edward II survey in 1316) is one of the simpler ways to find out what happened. Forty-six Norfolk villages disappeared between these two surveys. Then there are various tax returns to study – some of them rather odd. Did you know that there was a tax on fire hearths in the 1600s? Strange, but useful. Then there are maps of various dates and now, good old Google Earth, which produces vertical aerial photos for the entire country.

Noel Mitchell


Godwick village
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