Causes of Desertion in Norfolk 

Here are some of the main causes of desertion in the county:

1) Climate Change/Crop Failure

The 13th Century was a period of stable weather - with predominantly warm and dry conditions but by the 14th Century the climate had become considerably colder and wetter. Higher than average rainfall caused harvests to fail in 1315 and 1316 and problems continued in the period between 1319 and 1321 when disease spread amongst cattle. These years of poor harvests and widespread food shortages undermined the stability of many rural communities.

2) The Black Death

It is often assumed that the Black Death was the cause of many deserted medieval villages. It occurred in 1349 at a time when the population was already weakened by lack of food but, with the possible exception of Little Ringstead, it did not cause actual desertions in the county - but it did have a profound effect upon the overall population of 14th century Norfolk. It is estimated that the Black Death killed between 30-60% of people. This would have led to the abandonment of homes and farmsteads and the fracturing and fragmenting of rural communities.

In some cases, reductions in taxation were applied to villages that had lost residents due to the Black Death and these help to paint a picture of the effects of the plague.

Abandoned land may have been acquired by Lords of the manor which may have contributed to the increase in enclosures for sheep (see below).

3) Farming Practices (Flockmasters)

During the medieval period most villages operated an 'open field' system where peasants would farm strips of land. After the hard winters of the 14th century and the decline in the population caused by the Black Death, richer farmers bought up land and used it for grazing sheep. At Gayton, Bawsey, Leziate, Mintlyn and Ashwicken, Thomas Thursby (who was the lord of the manor) enclosed commons and waste land to create pasture for his flocks.

The action of flockmasters was almost certainly to blame for the abandonment of Thorpland and Alethorpe near Fakenham. At Thorpland an unscrupulous landlord named Henry Fermor, who in 1521 owned more than 15,000 sheep, was accused of enclosing common land, destroying houses and buying up land for pasture. At Alethorpe, a certain William Dye was engaged in similar activities and was also accused of driving his sheep across villagers' crops and of being threatening and menacing towards them.

A similar complaint was brought against Edmund Jermyn at Sturston in the brecklands when he tried to take the glebe land which consisted of 400 acres of arable.

The enclosure of land was one of the main causes leading to Robert Kett's rebellion in 1549.

4) Stately Homes or Emparking


........the man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park's extended bounds,
Space for his horse, equipage and hounds.
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth
Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth.

Some deserted villages occurred as a result of the building of stately homes. Many stately homes were built in Norfolk during the 18th Century and some villages were cleared to make way for parkland or to improve the view from the hall's windows. To be fair, some of these villages may have been in decline before the halls were built.

Houghton is a good example of a village that was lost when Sir Robert Walpole created Houghton Hall. A similar fate befell Wolterton when his brother, Horatio Walpole, commissioned Wolterton Hall.

Wolterton Church Tower

Wolterton Church Tower

At Wolterton the old church tower remains just behind the hall. The last burials in the churchyard coincided with the building of the estate. Other villages affected by emparking were Felbrigg, Holkham, Didlington, Westwick, Kilverstone, Haveringland, Bayfield, Narford, Hargham and Gunton.

5) Soil Quality

The Brecklands

With over 30 identified locations  - the Brecklands has the highest concentration of deserted villages in Norfolk. During the prehistoric period the Brecklands were the most densely populated region of England due to the light, workable soil and the ease with which woodland could be removed. The early farmers practised a slash and burn technique and the 'broken' plots of land became known as Brecks.  However, once the trees were removed the light soil had a tendency to blow away and dust storms were a common feature of the area. When the diarist John Evelyn passed through the region in 1677 he remarked:

'The Travelling Sands.......that have so damaged the country, rouling from place to place, like the Sands in the Deserts of Lybia, quite overwhelmed some gentleman's whole estates.'

There is also a local joke which contains more than a grain of truth: 'Which county is your farm in, Norfolk or Suffolk?'  'Well, that depend on which way the winds blowing.'

Faced with such infertile soil it's not surprising that many settlements were abandoned. The introduction of sheep would have further exacerbated the situation by removing vegetation. Rabbit warrens were also a common feature of the area - as at Santon, Stanford, Wangford and Sturston. Sturston became deserted some time in the 16th century and today it lies in the middle of the STANTA Battle Area. (It is a rare example of a doubly deserted settlement.)

Davison, however, urges a note of caution in relation to the 'sandy soil theory' - pointing out that there's not always a direct correlation between the soil quality and the likelihood of desertion.

Fakenham Area

The other main concentration of deserted settlements in Norfolk lies around Fakenham. Here the soil is high in clay - making it poorly drained and hard to work and this was almost certainly a factor in the abandoment of villages such as Godwick. Even today, it is quite common to see the hollow ways at Godwick with standing water - particularly after recent rain.

6) Coastal Erosion

Some villages have became deserted due to coastal erosion. Just off the coast at Cromer is the submerged village of Shipden which was washed away during the 14th Century. In 1888 a tug struck the church tower of St. Peter's Church.

Further down the coast lies the famous lost village of Eccles-on-Sea. Much of the village was washed away during a violent storm in 1604 and in 1895 the church tower slipped onto the beach - where it remained until the sea finally reclaimed it.

Other lost villages of this stretch of coastline include: Clare (near Mundesley), Keswick (near Bacton), Wimpwell (near Happisburgh) and Waxham Parva (near Horsey).

7) Engrossment

Occurred from the sixteenth century onwards and was the result of the lord of the manor gradually purchasing the land of his tenants - usually after they died. Ultimately, this process would culminate in the creation of an estate consisting of a sole manor house, a home farm and a church. Examples of engrossment in Norfolk include: West Raynham, Illington, Threxton and Narford.

8) Stanford Military Training Area

Deserted villages have also occurred in more recent history. During the Second World War an area in the Brecklands was cleared in order to create a military training area - now known as STANTA or the Stanford Training Area. To create this land for army manoeuvres, several villages were lost including: Lynford, Langford, West Tofts, Tottington and Stanford. Villagers in parts of Ickborough, Hilborough, Little Cressingham, Merton, Thompson, Wretham and Stow Bedon were also affected.


Stanford Battle Training Area

Following a public meeting in June 1942 villagers were given one month to move out by the military. In total, nearly 1,000 men, women and children were forcibly evacuated from the 17,500-acre site. It was understood, at the time, that these people would be able to move back to their homes after the war - however the military never honoured this promise.

Many of the churches still remain and can be visited with special permission from the Ministry of Defence. In fact, in September 2009 one of the evacuees, a William Hancock, was given special dispensation to be buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's Church at Tottington next to members of his family. Mr Hancock was the first person to be buried at the church for 50 years; he had also been christened here.

9) Proximity to Norwich

Neil Batcock (author of The Ruined Churches of Norfolk) has suggested that the abandonment of Markshall on the south side of Norwich may have been due to its closeness to Norwich. A large city like Norwich may have sucked population from surrounding marginal villages. A similar fate may have befallen deserted villages such as Bowthorpe, Earlham and Bixley.





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