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We tend to see modern towns and villages as permanent things. They may change, but it’s hard to imagine the landscape without them and easy to take it for granted that they will last forever. Yet the world is littered with places that have been lost along the way – abandoned communities, traces of old civilisations. In a crowded little place like Britain, dead settlements are all around you; some known, others long-forgotten. In fact, deserted villages are a national feature – apparently we have about 3,000 of them. Some have been destroyed intentionally, perhaps savagely; others have faded away due to disease, emigration, economic factors – or for reasons we will never know. One such community that many people will have heard of is Wharram Percy, in the Yorkshire Wolds, which I had been wanting to visit since first learning about it.
Wharram Percy is reputedly the most famous and intensively studied deserted medieval village (DMV) in England. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised to find no one there when we visited. We drove from York, a 25 mile meander to a narrow country lane off the B1248, a little south of the tiny village of Wharram-le-Street, culminating in 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 both the activity and technology contrasted markedly with the ancient windswept and empty pathway to the vanished medieval community. It had been busier hereabouts hundreds of years ago, I thought. Anyway, off we went, coming upon the DMV after about ¾ of a mile.
Wharram Percy once stood on the west side of a valley called Deep Dale. In the 14th century, it had two parallel rows of houses, of a type known as toft and croft. The toft was the area of land facing the street, including the house and any outbuildings, and the croft (or garth) was an enclosed area of land to the rear used for crops or grazing stock. 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. 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.
An enormous quantity of material – animal bones, pottery shards, metal objects – has been excavated since the 1950s at Wharram Percy, enabling archaeologists to discover a considerable amount about the place. The site was farmed long before a village emerged. It is common for a community to exist for many generations and in the case of Wharram Percy occupation, or use, spanned a five-thousand year period, from Neolithic times to the 16th century. There are indications of a high-status settlement during the Iron Age just to the north of the medieval village and finds from the Romano-British period suggest that the community expanded over this time. It is possible, but not proven, that there was continuous settlement from the Roman through sub-Roman to Anglo-Saxon periods. There is evidence of several farms, and metalworking, in the 7th-8th centuries before a village formed in the Late Saxon Period – around 9th or 10th centuries. The Domesday survey of 1086 shows that the principal pre-Conquest landowners possibly had Danish or Norse ancestry – their names were Lagmann, Carli and Ketilbjorn. The community, subsequently owned by a branch of the powerful northern Percy family, who bequeathed their name, peaked between the 12th and 14th centuries, survived the Black Death, famine, Scottish raids and declined in the 15th century when the then local landowners, the Hiltons, wanted the land to graze sheep. It is thought that 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 1949 and is still in occasional use today. 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 have revealed some notable facts. Children were commonly breast-fed up to the age of 2, helping to explain what appears to be 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. The bones of Wharram Percy’s villagers, women as well as men, are larger than those of contemporary city-dwellers – evidence of the hard labour necessary to survive in this medieval rural community, irrespective of sex. 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!
More gruesome research by Historic England and the University of Southampton has revealed bodies that have been decapitated, burned, or cut post-mortem, which the experts conclude is evidence that the good folk of Wharram Percy wanted to prevent the dead from walking. A dental analysis has also shown that these people grew up near to their final resting place; these were native villagers, not interlopers.
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 ordinary community, where children used to play and generations went about their lives with no concept of it ever coming to an end. Their ghosts watch you as you walk over their hearths and houses, now so exposed, where they once lived, loved and died. 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 if you don’t want to drive or cycle there, you could make a weekend of it…