BBC The secrets of Britain's abandoned villages

Tony Gosling tony at
Thu Nov 18 23:26:41 GMT 2010

Three periods of change ... and an article with a snazzy clickable 
map of the UK
In 14th Century, large number of villages abandoned due to falling 
population linked to Black Death.
Switch from arable to sheep farming in Tudor times meant many farm 
workers were cleared off land suddenly enclosed for pasture.
Big country houses and parks built in the 18th and 19th Century

The secrets of Britain's abandoned villages
By Tom Geoghegan - 18 November 2010 Last updated at 11:16 - BBC News Magazine

The ghosts of thousands of long-forgotten villages haunt Britain, 
inhabitations suddenly deserted and left to ruin. As a new campaign 
begins to shed further light on these forgotten histories, the 
Magazine asks - what happened and why?

Albert Nash, blacksmith for 44 years in the village of Imber, 
Wiltshire, was found by his wife Martha slumped over the anvil in his forge.

He was, in her words, crying like a baby.

It was the beginning of November 1943, a day or two after Mr Nash and 
the rest of the villagers had been told by the War Office they had 47 
days to pack their bags and leave, to make way for US forces.

Within weeks Mr Nash had died. Folklore had it that the death 
certificate said the cause was a broken heart.

Imber, once a Saxon settlement, is one of thousands of British 
ex-villages - once thriving communities that succumbed to natural or 
human forces, like disease, coastal erosion, industrial decline, 
reservoirs or war.

To mark the launch of the new Times Atlas of Britain, its publisher 
Collins wants people to send in their memories of such places, to 
create a digital archive dedicated to these lost locations.

"While compiling the first comprehensive atlas of its type to be 
published in the UK in over 40 years, we were not only interested in 
how the United Kingdom had changed geographically over time, but the 
implications of this for residents of our islands," says Jethro 
Lennox, senior publishing manager at Times Atlas.

"Initially, we found that natural factors such as coastal erosion and 
flooding had made some places uninhabitable... while economic, 
military or industrial-related reasons also contributed towards an 
abandonment of settlements, including Dylife, Imber and Radcliffe."

The anguish of Mr Nash shows the pain that such events in history can 
wreak on families and communities. Mr Nash's grandson, Ken Mitchell, 
now 84, remembers the eviction well.

"It was a bombshell dropped on the villagers. The elders were called 
together for a meeting in the schoolroom and when they were told, it 
was a complete surprise.

"Albert was very upset and it hit him very hard. He moved to Bishops 
Cannings, near Devizes, but he had lost the will to live and only 
survived four or five weeks."

Ken was 17 at the time. He had for a time worked with his grandfather 
in the smithy but was now seeking a career in the RAF.

After leaving Imber and the vicarage where he worked, Ken's father 
became a labourer on a farm about 15 miles away, and took his wife 
and three children there, although a year later Ken joined the Army.

All 155 villagers left, most of them scattered around the Salisbury 
Plain area, working as farmhands. Their demands to return after the 
war came to nothing.

"There was no anger at the time. Dismay and disappointment, yes, but 
the anger took a long time. They felt they were helping the country 
and helping the war effort, and they thought they were coming back. 
My mother was visibly upset but I don't think it really affected the children."

For a few weekends a year, the Ministry of Defence allows public 
access to Imber, so Ken and other surviving villagers return, but the 
thatched cottage he left behind has been demolished and the Victorian 
vicarage destroyed.

The story of Imber has long fascinated Rex Sawyer, a former 
headmaster in Wiltshire and author of Little Imber on the Down, and 
he says it's now part of the county's identity.

"It has such a grip on the hearts and minds of Wiltshire people. When 
Imber opens, people flood there, but the village is in a very sad 
state now, just a few buildings."

For many other "ghost" settlements, there are no remains at all, so 
long ago were they inhabited and then deserted.

Villages, hamlets and farms have been moving around since the 
Neolithic Age, when people settled down for the first time, says 
Trevor Rowley, author of Deserted Villages, although some periods in 
history such as the Black Death in the late Middle Ages, have been 
more turbulent than others.

"These changes happen in places previously desirable but no longer 
worth living in because you can't make your living there any more. So 
it reflects on social history and economic history," says Mr Rowley.

Archaeologists are happy because the remains give them an undisturbed 
snapshot of society, he says, but there is an underlying sadness to 
these events. Although some people affected were rehoused, many 
others took up a life of squatting while the most unfortunate turned 
to vagrancy.

One of the most infamous examples in British history was the 
Highlands Clearances in the 18th and 19th Centuries, which displaced 
thousands and had a deep cultural impact.

Around the same time, Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith evoked feelings of 
melancholy in The Deserted Village, about returning to his village 
after a long absence, to find it neglected and empty - "desolation 
saddens all they green" - apart from one lonely widow.

Stephen Fisk, who visits Britain's abandoned villages and documents 
them on his website, says his devotion was stimulated by the human 
stories behind evictions and resettlements.

"I wanted to know what it was like for people forced to leave their 
homes and land, and how they coped afterwards. When it's a wealthy 
landlord forcing people out for one reason or another, I think 
there's more anger. You can't help but feel indignation on their behalf."

But when it's due to natural causes, it is at least a gradual 
process, at least in the UK, says Mr Fisk. Dunwich in Suffolk was a 
very important port in the Middle Ages but it was washed away by the 
sea, in a process that probably happened over hundreds of years.

In the last 100 years, societies have proved to be remarkably 
versatile, he says, and the general decline in industries has not 
claimed as many villages as one might think.

"Communities have survived or developed a new purpose, or even just 
become commuter places for the town or city nearby."

Resettlements have become less likely to happen today, because the 
power structures don't exist and we're better at resisting them, he 
says, although the village of Sipson in west London only escaped when 
plans for the third runway at Heathrow Airport were cancelled recently.

Still today, there are reminders of abandonments of the past - a 
solitary church or a strange bump on the landscape. And in the Dorset 
village of Tyneham, a more poignant tribute.

As if frozen in time, the coat pegs in the schoolhouse still bear the 
names of the children evacuated 70 years ago, when the village become 
an Army training base for the D-Day landings.

+44 (0)7786 952037
"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."

"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which 
alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung
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