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deserted villages

deserted villages can be found throughout the British Isles for a variety of reasons. Settlements have been abandoned because their locations proved to be unviable, because populations moved from rural to urban areas, or because a landowner deliberately cleared village sites for a purpose such as sheep pasture.

Villages became deserted in almost every century, although their abandonment has not always been well documented. For example, a great deal is known about those of medieval England through the work of archaeologists and historians of the Deserted Medieval Villages Group which has found and examined sites in great detail. One of the earliest areas to receive the group's attention was Leicestershire, where it was shown that villages were deserted largely because of depopulation caused by the plague. As population declined villagers could no longer maintain isolated communities. A similar process seemed to have occurred at Wharram Percy on the Yorkshire wolds where the population declined to such an extent that its owners initiated the abandonment of the village and its land became grazing for sheep.

An important contemporary account of the use of land was the survey by commissioners in 1517, who gave accounts of the ‘pulling down of towns’ to create pastures. A similar awareness of such melancholy consequences occurred in the works of Oliver Goldsmith, in the 18th cent., and the Revd George Crabbe in the early 19th cent., each of whom wrote on the theme.

One of the most dramatic examples of the enforced abandonment of villages was the ‘Highland clearances’ of the early 19th cent. when landowners removed people to provide pasture and land for hunting and shooting. Protests were made by the evicted people and in popular songs and poems.

One of the most unusual cases of enforced desertion of a village occurred on Salisbury Plain during the Second World War when the government relocated the entire population of Imber in order to provide for military training, including practice in street fighting.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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