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A History of English Villages

Clovelly, north Devon

English villages are known throughout the world for their beauty. But what makes them attractive, and how did they develop as they have?

Although generalisation is difficult, it can be said that most English villages were founded at the time of Anglo Saxon settlement, and in the early Middle Ages, between 700 and 1300AD. The Saxons, unlike the Romans who they superceded, were not an urban people. Once the Romans left early in the fifth century, their cities and towns were abandoned, to be replaced by rural settlements. These eventually became villages. Most villages were laid out to a regular plan. The original focus of a village was usually a church, since this had been the main money earning establishment for the lord of the manor. Ten percent of villagers' earnings had to go to the lord for church upkeep, and money was also charged for burials. Quite soon, however, churches were sidelined in favour of a village green, which as a market place, became the new economic focus of villages. The wealth of a local lord still tended to go into the church, but the green was where money was made. Village form then remained fairly settled until the huge shake up that was to occur after 1348 when bubonic plague decimated populations. Houses and their plots were left vacant. Some villages disappeared completely, but in those where people survived, plots were merged. In general the original regular layouts were loosened (see Tracing The History of Villages by Trevor Yorke). A second great period of change came in the early seventeenth century when enclosures began. A revolution was occurring in agriculture. Tools were improving and techniques were becoming more streamlined. As part of this development the practice of farming scattered strips of land was brought to an end. Scattered holdings were enclosed so that landowners had a block of land in one place. Many smaller landowners were dispossessed. The pace of these changes accelerated towards the nineteenth century, and many people now landless either emigrated, or tried to find work in newly industrialised towns and cities. Back in the village it no longer made sense for farmers' houses to be gathered together. When the village had held a central location amidst many scattered strips of land it had been a convenient place to live. Now farmers moved into new buildings on their enclosed farms. The village houses were left to the landless labourers, Today the old open field system of farming survives in only one small location in Britain, at the Vile, Rhossili Bay, on the Gower Peninsula in south Wales. The site is owned by the National Trust, which now acts as landlord, renting out strips to local farmers.



The estate village of Groombridge on the Kent/Sussex border. Note the front doors painted in the same colour, a typical feature of an estate village


Even before the time when villages had become largely impractical, an idealisation of village life had begun. Since the sixteenth century the gentry had stopped spending their money building churches, and now concentrated on building impressive mansions and gardens. Villages were often built, or rebuilt, as attractive accessories to an estate. Nuneham Courtney in Oxfordshire is an example. The rebuilt village became a picturesque introduction to the estate itself. The houses of such villages had a satisfyingly uniform architecture, and coordinated details, such as doors all painted the same colour. Dumbleton, near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, Woburn in Bedfordshire, and Groombridge village on the border of Kent and Sussex are all estate villages. The remains of Upper Ettington can be seen at Ettington Park , a village moved by the Shirley family of Ettington when they enclosed the parkland surrounding their manor house in 1795. (The Shirley manor house at Ettington Park is now a luxury hotel, and accommodation can be booked through InfoBritain.) Lord Ragnor remodelled the Oxfordshire village of Coleshill in the mid nineteenth century, a village still run as an estate, with the National Trust as landlord. As can be seen almost all estate villages are of comparatively recent origin. Apart from a few important exceptions - such as Clovelly which is a genuinely ancient estate village - estate villages are an idealised recreation of the past rather than the past itself.




A Cottage in Selborne, Hampshire

By the time of the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution villages had lost their central position in English life. A few model villages were built around water powered cotton mills - such as Richard Arkwright's Cromford in Derbyshire, Jedediah Strutt's Belper in Derbyshire, Samuel Greg's Bollington in Cheshire, and David Dale's New Lanark in southern Scotland. But for the vast majority of people home was now the industrial towns. Many might regret the passing of village life, and see an urban society as opening the way for social problems. In reality it seems that for most of the nineteenth century unrest virtually never involved the new urban working class. The people who turned to violence during the nineteenth century were more likely to be agricultural workers in the south and east of England. This latter group faced a precarious life working for farmers. They were more poorly paid than their counterparts in the towns, and their life would not be one that a factory worker would envy. Early forms of trade union organisation developed first amongst agricultural workers, with Dorset's Tolpuddle Martyrs being the earliest and most famous of these groups.

All of this of course did not stop people looking back fondly at the age of the village. William Cobbett wrote his Rural Rides in the 1820s, describing journeys around the villages of southern England, just at the time when many were falling into decay. Idealistic industrialists such as George Cadbury and William Hesketh Lever tried to recreate the past at Bournville and Port Sunlight. Great Tew in Oxfordshire, which has all the appearance of timeless charm, was largely built by nineteenth century lords, who laid out the green, and surrounded it with new or rebuilt houses with a common rustic architectural theme. In 1845 Irish MP Feargus O'Connor attempted to recreate an entire village economy, launching his Chartist Land Plan, a scheme to buy large estates, and provide tenants with three or four acres of land and a cottage. This plan to resurrect old England failed miserably, and O'Connor ended his days in an asylum. Some of his cottages remain however, and can be seen at Snigs End and Lowbands near Staunton in Gloucestershire. They remain as testimony to an idealised past coming up against a changing world. Other well known villages tell the same story. Selborne in Hampshire, where Gilbert White wrote his classic Natural History of Selborne, became an icon of lost village life in England. Selborne had been involved in rural riots, so we can be confident that life there was as difficult as it was in most rural areas. Yet only a couple of years after the riots, a journalist from the New Monthly Magazine visited the village and chose not to see such problems. Instead he presented the traditional idealised picture: "Chimneys reeking with evidence of clean hearths in full activity, walls neatly covered with vine and creepers, in full bloom, and trim little gardens prank'd with flowers, seemed here to tell only of cheerful toil and decent competence" (New Monthly Magazine Dec 1830: Quoted in Gilbert White by Richard Mabey). Like Selborne, the ancient village of Clovelly in north Devon became a nineteenth century icon of a more innocent past. Tourist steamers would bring thousands of visitors in from Ilfracombe and south Wales. The image, inevitably, could not correspond to reality. The popular Victorian writer Charles Kingsley lived in Clovelly as a child and loved it, which is not surprising for such a beautiful place; but he could also be realistic about life there. In one of his most famous poems, The Three Fishers, Kingsley wrote about a fishing tragedy out in Bideford Bay. Three young fishermen leave for their day's work, waved off by wives and girlfriends, but they are drowned in a storm. The village seems cold in its attitude to the deaths: "Men must work and women must weep." Life grinds on. People came to Clovelly in the nineteenth century to escape the business of the their urban lives, but in reality fishing, Clovelly's industry, was a tough business like any other. And so was tourism. The idea of Clovelly as a survival from a better, more community minded age was still being played on in an information film I saw at the visitors centre. Personally when I visited, I preferred listening to a recording of The Three Fishers in Charles Kingsley's house. Kingsley gave me the feeling that he loved a real place, and not an idealised place.




Tenterden, Kent - St Mildred's church closes the view, while also carrying the eye upward and outward

Life in Britain today is primarily urban, and thousands of villages have been lost. Those village that remain do so as a kind of idyll of better days gone by. We might know that this image is misleading, and we might tell ourselves that only the best houses of the wealthy have survived, which skews our modern appreciation of village life. Nevertheless villages continue to represent communities which we feel have been lost in the fast moving, often impersonal world in which we live. The way village layouts have evolved helps them continue to play this role. By a strange mixture of accident and design villages have often developed a "closed vista", where an observer is prevented from seeing right through the village to the countryside beyond. This gives a sense of shelter from what Eric S.Wood in Historical Britain terms the "emptiness outside". Irregular placing of buildings, bends in the road or natural bowls in the landscape are all used in the placement of villages to achieve this effect. Many villages in Kent use the bend in the road trick - go to Leigh or Headcorn for example. Villages using natural bowls to close the view include Loose in Kent, Groombridge on the Kent/Sussex border, and Finchingfield in Essex. Clovelly is built on a steep slope, as is Oxfordshire's Coleshill. Sometimes the view is closed by an impressive building. At this point I have to disagree with Eric Wood who suggests that all the visual effects of villages are designed to hide the world beyond. Ironically when the view is closed by a major building, an equal and opposite effect can also be achieved, in the way the grandeur of the highlighted building is exaggerated. Churches are often used to block lines of sight, and within the small confines of a limited view church spires fly higher into a bigger sky. Axbridge in Somerset, and Tenterden in Kent are two of the many villages which illustrate this. Restrictive visual effects, through a sense of contrast, can emphasise space. This can be seen at the famous location of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury in Dorset where the small world of a street on a hill contrasts with the great view out beyond the rooftops. Perhaps the attractiveness of this combination is only natural. People want security, but they want freedom too. The conclusion I have come to sitting in village tea shops is that big desires that carried people beyond the village are there along with a wish that things would stay the same. The most fanciful village in Britain must be Portmeirion, built by William Clough Ellis between 1925 and 1975. Here dreamy village nostagia reaches its peak, and it is fitting that a famous television series caled The Prisoner should have been based here, about a man wanting to escape modern life which he feels reduces him to a number. But the prison he is confined to is The Village.



Since most villages have now been lost, in conclusion here are some of Britain's most famous deserted villages;

New Winchelsea, Sussex - Old Winchelsea on the Kent/Sussex border was destroyed by flooding. The displaced population built New Winchelsea between 1283 and 1288. Eventually the sea retreated leaving new Winchelsea without a harbour, and trade. Today visitors can see towns gates and part of the town walls. A few medieval cellars also survive. New Winchelsea is off the A259 between Hastings and Rye. There are no road signs. National Grid reference is TQ 5904 1173. For sat nav use TN36 4EA. More information at

Godwick, Titteshall Parish, Norfolk - Godwick was recorded as a village of fourteen peasants in the Domesday Book of 1086. Records of shrinking tax returns chart the village's decline in the fifteenth century. By 1525 only five households paid tax. Today the church tower survives as a partial ruin. Banks and ditches indicate the closes where houses once stood. The main street also survives as a long sunken path. Grid reference TF 903 219. For more information go to

Hound Tor, Devon - This small village on Dartmoor probably dates to around 1000AD, founded as a summer settlement for herdsmen. Houses for permanent occupation were added in the thirteenth century. Traces of fields can still be seen nearby. The village was abandoned in the late fourteenth century, partly as a result of a cooling climate, partly as a result of the Black Death. Rather than inhabitants being killed by the plague, a general fall in local population gave space in more hospitable places in the valleys. Today granite foundations of eleven buildings survive, the remains of houses, barns and bake houses. Hound Tor is just south of the village of Southcott, off the B3387. It is marked as a "place of interest" on AA road maps. Go to for more information.

Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire - Wharram Percy is probably England's best known deserted village. By around 1280, there were about forty peasant families living here, farming fields around the village. Scottish raids, famine, disease and economic problems had reduced the small population by half in the fourteenth century, and by the fifteenth century there were only four farms left. By the nineteenth century there was only a solitary farm house. A forty year excavation programme has revealed walls of houses, farm buildings, boundary banks and crofts. There is also a ruined village church. Wharram Percy is now owned by English Heritage, who have provided information panels to help interpret the site, and to show how the village once looked. The village is close to the B1248 about four miles south of Malton in North Yorkshire. It is marked on AA road maps as a "place of interest". See for more information.


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