We tend to see towns and villages as more or less permanent things. Yet most settlements are relatively recent, and the world is littered with places that have been lost - abandoned communities, traces of vanished civilisations. In a crowded little place like Britain, they are all around you; some known, others long-forgotten. Deserted villages are a national feature – apparently we have about 3,000 of them. Some neighbourhoods have been destroyed intentionally, perhaps savagely; others have faded away due to disease, emigration – or for reasons we will never know.
Wharram Percy is reputedly the most famous and intensively studied deserted medieval village (DMV) in England. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised there was no one there when we visited. It was about 25 miles from York, then a drive along a narrow country lane off the B1248, a little south of Wharram-le-Street, to a small car park where there was just one other vehicle. Clambering out and pulling on boots, we heard aircraft wheeling and diving above. They seemed to be putting on a show and it struck me as quite a contrast with the old path to a medieval village, which had been busier hundreds of years ago, but which was windswept and empty now. So off we went, coming upon the DMV after about ¾ of a mile.
The village once stood on the west side of a valley called Deep Dale. It had two parallel main streets and the houses fronted the streets – the ‘toft’, which was an area of land including the house and any outbuildings, with the ‘croft’ – an enclosed area of land used for crops or grazing stock – behind that. Now, there is nothing much to see except the shell of the church, St Martin’s, a reconstructed fish pond and the remains of an 18th century farm complex. The humps and bumps in the turf show the location of buried walls and some of these, including the outline of two manor houses on higher ground, have been highlighted by archaeologists. Useful information boards have been placed around the site, to explain various features and show how the village might once have looked.
Despite the attention Wharram has received, practicalities have meant that excavation has been relatively limited. Even so, an enormous quantity of material – animal bones, pottery shards, metal objects – has been found. And the experts have discovered a considerable amount about the place. The site was farmed long before a village emerged – a community like this is usually preceded by thousands of years of human activity and occupation. Ancient man has left his mark all over the nearby landscape and it is believed there was, at least, a Bronze or early Iron Age ranch at Wharram. Evidence of two Romano-British farmsteads have been found on the site, which continued to be in use during the 7th-8th centuries before a village formed in the Late Saxon Period – around 9th or 10th centuries. The community peaked between the 12th – 14th centuries, survived the Black Death, famine, Scottish raids and declined in the 15th century when the local landowners, the Hiltons, wanted the land to graze sheep. The last families were evicted by 1517.
The church of St Martin is actually a typical English parish church, despite its ruinous state. Built on the foundations of an earlier Saxon church, it grew in prosperous times and shrank when things were bad. It continued to be used by the parishioners of nearby Thixendale until as recently as 1870, when they got their own church – but I have also read that St Martin’s was attended right up to the 1950s. The grave markers you see now date from the 18th century. But nearly 700 medieval skeletons have been excavated from the cemetery, and studied. They show that children were commonly breast-fed up to the age of 2, helping to explain a relatively low rate of infant mortality. DNA tests on TB sufferers showed they had been infected by other humans – not the cattle that hunkered down at the other end of the house. One particularly remarkable discovery was the skeleton of an 11th century man who had suffered a severe blow to the head; however, the injury had been treated by carefully cutting away bone to relieve pressure on the brain, following which the patient went on to live a (presumably happy) life for many years. So much for primitive medical care.
Places like Wharram Percy will not appeal to everyone; it lacks the cachet of a stately home, or even a dilapidated castle; there is no gift shop or café. But it is a curious sensation to walk in the footsteps of a long-gone community, where children used to play and generations went about their lives with no concept of an end to it all. These were our ancestors; I wonder who will be looking back at us in the centuries to come.
Wharram Percy can only be reached by foot, as explained, and there is no shelter – you need to dress accordingly. It is also on the Yorkshire Wolds Way, a footpath running just short of 80 miles between the Humber and the coast near Filey – so you could make a weekend of it…