The Lost Village of Wharram Percy, Yorkshire

By Dyer, Christopher | History Today, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Lost Village of Wharram Percy, Yorkshire


Dyer, Christopher, History Today


* You approach Wharram Percy across the Yorkshire Wolds, so this is not rugged, gritty Yorkshire but chalk country with smooth slopes dipping into the valleys of small streams. The landscape seems large in scale, with expanses of upland, big cornfields, and long distances between villages and farms. The place-names on the signposts around Wharram -- Wetwang, Grimston, Duggleby -- indicate that you are in Danish England, only twenty miles from York, a tenth-century Scandinavian capital, and for the rest of the Middle Ages the trading and administrative centre of the region.

When you reach the village site, walking the last half mile from the car park on the outskirts of Wharram le Street, you find yourself on a track, cut into the side of an almost empty valley, in the bottom of which stands an uninhabited brick building (once three cottages) and the ruined shell of the church, with a pond beyond. The church is the first indication that this place was once inhabited, but the shape and scale of the abandoned village only becomes clear when you walk up the side of the valley to find a plateau covered with banks and depressions. They mark the foundations of houses and the boundaries of rectangular plots in which houses once stood, with long narrow crafts behind. A large complex of grassed-over foundations to the north belong to the former manor house. These earthworks spread over two modern fields, and you realise that there had been dozens of houses in this large village.

The site is not unique: about 3,000 English villages were deserted between the fourteenth and the eighteenth century. Dozens of sites from Dorset to Northumberland have physical remains as well preserved as at Wharram, with the outline of streets, boundary banks and walls, house foundations, even doorways and internal partition walls, still to be seen in the modern turf, showing the fabric of daily life when the last villagers departed five or six centuries ago.

The `lost village' of Wharram Percy has become important because in June 1948 a lecturer in economic history from Leeds University, Maurice Beresford, visited it while in the early stages of collecting evidence for deserted villages. He returned in subsequent years, dug a little to be sure that there really were house foundations under the humps in the grass, and was then joined in larger scale and more scientific excavation by an archaeologist, John Hurst. The digging continued every July for forty years. The excavation involved much more than the uncovering of peasant houses, manor houses, church, vicarage and other parts of the village, because it was the focus for a research group with the aim of locating every deserted village site in the country, and in developing ideas about medieval settlements. Every year archaeologists, geographers and historians came to the site to look at the excavations and to give talks about their research. Theories about the development of villages were discussed and tested against the Wharram evidence.

This makes the summer gathering of diggers at Wharram sound like a heavyweight academic seminar, which to some extent it was, but for hundreds of students and volunteers of every kind, from professors to borstal boys, three weeks digging in rather spartan conditions (sleeping in cottage bedrooms on grubby mattresses, sometimes in close proximity to Maurice Beresford's snoring dog) was a formative social and academic experience. Many students who dug there were inspired to become historians and archaeologists. Excavation has now stopped, but today Wharram is an English Heritage guardianship site and, as well as the earthworks, visitors can see the outlines of building foundations laid out on the turf.

On seeing the grassy mounds where houses once stood, most people are bound to ask immediately, `Why was it deserted?' The same question was uppermost in the mind of Maurice Beresford when he first visited Wharram. Historians unaccustomed to using the evidence from fieldwork had not appreciated the scale of desertion, and so the problem was new. …

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