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The Lost Village of Wharram Percy

Christopher Dyer uncovers a hidden village in North Yorkshire.

You approach Wharram Percy across the Yorkshire Wolds, so this is not rugged, gritty Yorkshire but chalk country with smooth slopes dipping into the valleys of small streams. The landscape seems large in scale, with expanses of upland, big cornfields, and long distances between villages and farms. The place-names on the signposts around Wharram – Wetwang, Grimston, Duggleby – indicate that you are in Danish England, only twenty miles from York, a tenth-century Scandinavian capital, and for the rest of the Middle Ages the trading and administrative centre of the region.

When you reach the village site, walking the last half mile from the car park on the outskirts of Wharram le Street, you find yourself on a track, cut into the side of an almost empty valley, in the bottom of which stands an uninhabited brick building (once three cottages) and the ruined shell of the church, with a pond beyond. The church is the first indication that this place was once inhabited, but the shape and scale of the abandoned village only becomes clear when you walk up the side of the valley to find a plateau covered with banks and depressions. They mark the foundations of houses and the boundaries of rectangular plots in which houses once stood, with long narrow crofts behind. A large complex of grassed-over foundations to the north belong to the former manor house. These earthworks spread over two modern fields, and you realise that there had been dozens of houses in this large village.

The site is not unique: about 3,000 English villages were deserted between the fourteenth and the eighteenth century. Dozens of sites from Dorset to Northumberland have physical remains as well preserved as at Wharram, with the outline of streets, boundary banks and walls, house foundations, even doorways and internal partition walls, still to be seen in the modern turf, showing the fabric of daily life when the last villagers departed five or six centuries ago.

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