It is estimated that Our Norfolk has over one hundred and fifty deserted village sites; more than almost any other county in England. Evidence of these sites is mostly lost under the plough though aerial photos reveal earthwork patterns. Isolated churches often remain, with no visible communities. A primary reason for the cessation of many rural settlements was the Black Death of 1349, which had a profound effect on 14C Norfolk.
Examples include Godwick near Fakenham, Pudding Norton, Little Bittering; all mentioned in Domesday but gone by 1500. Hard winters, famine, plague, all contributed to depopulation across Europe reaching a staggering 30-60%. However, other factors were involved.
Causes of abandonment in Norfolk include:
Coastal erosion – off Cromer, Shipden gets washed away in the 14C, in 1888 there’s a lively account of a tug striking the top of St Peter’s submerged church tower! Eccles on Sea ends up IN the sea after a particularly violent storm in 1604. This image is of its enigmatic church tower, ‘sinking gracefully into the sand without tipping out of its perpendicular’.
Engrossment – the lord of the manor gradually withdraws land from tenants.
Emparking – 18C villages cleared to make parkland or simply to ‘improve the view’. Examples of this include Houghton, Felbrigg and Holkham.
Military training areas – villages lost from a more recent past. At a public meeting held in Tottington in 1942, villagers were given the news that they had one month to move out; one thousand people from a seventeen acre site. The military said they could return but they never made good this promise. In 2009, one such evacuee was allowed to be buried in St Andrews Church, the first for fifty years. Still officially within the military zone, he wished to be buried alongside his family as he had been christened there. Once a year, the church is open to former residents who are allowed a retrospective look round. The roof is still clad in blast-proof sheeting, its pantiles stored inside awaiting a return to public service. The site is currently a mock Afghan settlement used for warfare training.
Unless you’re having a particularly gloomy day, I don’t assume you’ll want to go out singularly to hunt for abandonment in Our Norfolk. Why not keep in mind whilst generally enjoying our countryside and see if you can spot evidence of past habitation. Tell us what you see, (or not, as the case may be!) we’ll share it on line and try to tell you what it was if you’re unsure.
Norfolk is littered with isolated churches and has more ruined ones than any other county. In particular, why not look out for Babingley, one mile NW of Castle Rising, said to be the oldest Christian church in Norfolk and our chosen story image. Or try to locate this totally ivy clad church at Testerton, between Great Ryburgh and Fakenham.
Cheat and let an information board tell the tale. Pay a visit to Godwick’s deserted village, just outside Fakenham, co-managed by its landowner and English Nature. Undisturbed by ploughing, the site supported ten households in 1428 but by 1528 only five were left paying taxes, the site abandoned by the end of 16C. Nothing much to show for five hundred years continuous settlement except aerial pictures of houses called tofts, the village pond, strip farming. Curious folk can visit between April and September, 9.30 am till sunset.
Let your imagination fill in the blanks.
The sheep remain unbothered.
Alternatively, armchair explore with ‘Deserted villages of Norfolk’, Poppyland Press, Alan Davison ISBN 0946148511. Borrow a copy from your friendly library, 28 copies available county-wide.
The subject of ‘Deserted Villages’ has its own section in ‘Literary Norfolk’, an informative website. My thanks to Cameron Self for his agreement to use his site for both content and the enigmatic Eccles tower image.
A very quirky site called Urban Ghosts has an excellent story on overgrown churches, as well as abandonment in general – motorways, institutions, settlements, ‘urbex’ – urban exploration. Tons of fascinating content and I thank them for allowing us use of the Testerton and Babingley images.