Up and down the land the remains of abandoned villages can only be recognised by a comment on an Ordnance Survey map.
There are around 3000 sites of such places up and down the country where the words Medieval Village in Gothic type with the words ‘site of’ in brackets underneath record all that is left of a once thriving community.
One of these deserted villages once stood in what are now fields slightly to the north of Conksbuy, on the back road between Youlgreave and Bakewell. Just a few humps is all that can be seen of buildings where families once lived and worked.
In some quarters the term ‘lost village’ might be used but it is more accurate to call them deserted, because lost they are not. When the last person moved away from a place that had been home to generations of his forebears, he left a simple mud walled dwelling that had accommodated both him and his family as well as the animals he depended upon. Probably in the hope that one day he or his children might go back to the place, the buildings that is if they had been abandoned willingly, were simply left to the elements. Over the years nature grassed over what was left, leaving the enigmatic humps we might see today.
The reason why places were abandoned is complex. Climate change drove away the pre-historic settlers who had farmed the land that is now covered by acid moorland above the Derwent Valley. What was once a place that grew crops gradually turned sour when temperatures fell to something like those we experience today, together with higher rainfall. It is likely that those people moved lower down the hillsides, gradually cutting down the forests covering the valley bottoms and creating forerunners of the villages lining the riversides. Further south, the names Cold Eaton or Hungry Bentley suggests that they were once abandoned places when weather conditions spoilt traditional crops the villagers tried to grow. The success of modern day farms and settlements surrounding them is due to improved husbandry, plus less reliance on crop growing, concentrating mainly on dairy herds.
Throughout the Roman occupation and later when the Saxons and Norsemen settled what was then a sparsely populated land, a thriving agrarian economy made England seem like a land of milk and honey. Through ambition and enmity, the country was taken over by King William and his Norman knights after their successful battle in 1066. When the Conqueror’s knights came to take over their promised lands they met with stiff resistance, a resistance encountered by harsh reprisals that led to the massacre of whole populations: this was genocidal cleansing, almost on a level of that experienced in the twentieth century. Such was the devastation that when King William’s scribes toured the country recording everything in what became known as the Domesday Book, they could only record what had once been profitable lands as ‘wasta est’, ‘all is waste’. Everyone had been killed along with their animals, leaving a situation that took decades to recover.
Changes in farming practices led to the removal of simple-farming methods, converting the land to huge sheep runs owned by a handful of monasteries. Population decline also took its toll, especially during the Middle Ages, when the Black Death killed off well over half of the population.
Sometimes, folk stories and mythology speak of long dead villages. Leash Fen is a boggy area above Chesterfield where, according to tradition there was once a market town older than Chesterfield. Unlike say Conksbury, no visible clues remain to confirm whether there was such a place, but there are three headless crosses all within a hundred yards or so of the site. It has been suggested that the crosses were originally Neolithic standing stones later ‘taken over’ by the new Christian faith.
Drastic changes have taken place almost to the present day. During the Victorian era, villages on ducal estates, such as Chatsworth’s Edensor were moved, out of sight during the landscaping of the owner’s park. The pretty village of Ladybower was drowned by the last of the three reservoirs in the upper Derwent. Closer to home, urban sprawl has engulfed ancient settlements, leaving only the names of suburbs like Mickleover or Mackworth to record their passing; but the name of Derby’s Roman predecessor Derventio disappeared when Little Chester grew along the riverbank.
The finest example of a deserted medieval village is high on the Yorkshire Wolds, off the B1248 Hull to Malton road. Perched on the side of a remote dale Wharram Percy presents a perfect example of an abandoned village, untouched for centuries. Years of archaeological research and careful farming methods have unearthed the history of this once thriving village.
A sunken track 2-3000 years old leads down from the English Heritage roadside car park, down into a quiet valley. Here the medieval track divides to pass on either side of what was once a village green. Surrounding it are the outlines of simple ‘long houses’ where the family lived at one end and cattle sheltered in the other. Each house had its own strip of arable land or croft attached to it that was ploughed on a rotating system to prevent the land becoming over-used by a single crop. Immediately by each house is a toft, the forerunner of kitchen gardens. Here vegetables and herbs could be grown and chickens and the odd pig or two were kept for selling at market, or to help feed the family. The remains of the earthen walls of a manor house stand towards the northern edge of the village, home of the squire. Another house, slightly larger than those immediately surrounding it, was probably the home of an overseer.
The village was self-supporting, with its own flour mill. Apart from the excavated foundations of the mill, its pond is still there in the valley bottom, naturalised by the passing of at least nine centuries. Nearby is the shell of the village church which served Wharram Percy and surrounding villages from around AD 1050 until 1845. Scientific analysis of bones excavated from the churchyards gave an insight into the health and everyday living of people dwelling there. Apart from the odd case of leprosy and old age, the locals were reasonably healthy even by modern standards. They even had the help of a surgeon: one excavated skeleton was of a man whose life was saved by trepanning (removal of part of the skull), following being hit over the head.
The group of three still standing cottages to the east of the church were the homes of Victorian farmworkers. The houses are built on the site of a small farmhouse dating from the 1770s. Until the Beeching Axe closed the line, Wharram Percy had its own railway station, but all that is left is the station nameplate now fastened on to the gable end of one of the cottages.
While the site of Wharram Percy village is owned by English Heritage, access is free and the site is open all and every day.