Deserted Villages in Norfolk


Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made.
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith

It is estimated that there are over 150 deserted villages in Norfolk - more than almost any other county in England. Originally it was thought that all abandoned villages in the county were the result of the Black Death which occurred in 1349 - but today it is known that other factors were involved.

Godwick Church Tower by Nick Stone

Godwick Church Tower - photograph © Nick Stone

The Domesday Book shows that Norfolk was the most densely populated county in England in the 11th Century - so it is not surprising that a number of these settlements declined and became deserted over the centuries.

St Edmund, Egmere

The remains of St Edmund's Church Egmere

Norfolk is an arable county and many deserted village sites have been lost under the plough. However, earthwork patterns often reveal themselves through aerial photography. (Visitors on the ground may find these much harder to distinguish.)

One of the other ways of identifying deserted villages is the presence of a church with no visible community. Norfolk has many isolated churches - as at: Oxnead, Braydeston, Cranwich, Shotesham St Mary, Great Hautbois and Hales. Sometimes, as at Cranwich and Oxnead, there are clear signs of earthworks nearby.

Braydeston Church

Braydeston Church

In the case of coastal erosion or emparking, it is easy to determine the cause of desertion. However, in other cases, the exact cause is less easy to identify and may have been the result of a number of different factors working over a long period of time. The Domesday Book provides important information - as do the Lay Subsidies and the Hearth Taxes during the medieval period. By following the number of households liable for taxation it is possible to trace the economic decline of villages. Hales, for example, had a substantial population at the time of the Domesday Book but by 1334 was considerably smaller. Today the modern village lies a number of miles away from the beautiful, round-towered Norman church. 

Below is a list of the main deserted village sites in the county - based largely upon the work by Alan Davison. However, this list is not definitive and there may be other abandoned, shrunken or shifted settlements out there.

Alethorpe | Appleton | Arminghall (possible) | Ashby | Babingley | Barmer | Barningham (North) | Barningham (Town) | Barwick (Great) | Bawsey | Bayfield | Beachamwell | Beeston St. Andrew | Beeston St. Lawrence | Bickerston | Bittering (Little) | Bixley | Bodney | Bowthorpe | Braydeston | Broomsthorpe | Brumstead | Buckenham Tofts | Burgh | Bylaugh | Caldecote | Choseley | Colveston | Cranwich | Didlington | Earlham | Eccles | Egmere | Felbrigg | Foston | Frenze | Fritton | Gasthorpe | Godwick | Greynston | Gunton | Hales | Hargham | Harling (Middle) | Harling (West) | Hautbois (Great) | Hautbois (Little) | Haveringland | Heckingham | Herringby | Hockham (Little) | Holkham | Holverston | Houghton | Houghton-on-the-Hill | Illington | Ingloss | Irmingland | Kempstone | Kenningham | Kilverstone | Langford | Letton | Leziate | Longham | Lynford | Mannington | Markshall | Mintlyn | Morton-on-the-Hill | Narford | Oby | Oxborough | Oxnead | Palgrave (Great) | Palgrave (Little) | Pattesley | Pensthorpe | Pudding Norton | Quarles | Rackheath (Little) | Riddlesworth | Ringstead (Little) | Roudham | Rougham | Roxham | Ryston | Santon | Saxlingham Thorpe | Shingham | Shipden | Shotesham St Botolph | Shotesham St. Mary | Shotesham St Martin | Snarehill (Great)|  Stanford | Stanninghall | Sturston | Summerfield (Southmere) | Sutton | Tattersett | Testerton | Thorpe Parva | Thorpland | Threxton | Thuxton | Wallington | Waterden | Weasenham St. Peter | West Tofts | Westwick | Windall | Winston | Witchingham (Little) | Wolterton | Wreningham (Little) | Wretham (West) |

Here are some the main causes of abandonment in Norfolk:

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) Disease/Pestilence

The Black Death occurred in 1349 at a time when the population was already weakened by lack of food. Although the Black Death doesn't account for all the deserted villages in the county, it certainly had a profound effect upon the population of 14th century Norfolk. It is estimated that the Black Death killed between 30-60% of the population of Europe. In some cases the Black Death would have further weakened the ability of communities to survive.

By 1428, the village of Godwick near Fakenham had only 10 households  and numbers were further driven down by a series of bad harvests and by the heavy clay soils. By 1525 it had only five households paying tax and it was finally abandoned at the end of the sixteenth century.


3) Farming Practices

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, 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. This type of enclosure would have been a major cause of deserted villages.

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) 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.


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, 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.

For anyone interested in finding out more about deserted villages in Norfolk, there is an excellent book by Alan Davison (my old geography teacher at Thorpe Grammar School) entitled Deserted Villages in Norfolk. It is published by the Poppyland press (see link). Other useful resources include: Maurice Beresford and John Hurst's Deserted Medieval Villages (1971) and Francis Blomefield's History of Norfolk.


More Photographs of Norfolk deserted villages

Norfolk Deserted Village Haiku

Map of Norfolk deserted villages






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