Why is this once proud Norfolk village now deserted?
PUBLISHED: 08:45 26 May 2019
Beneath Norfolk’s fields lies a hidden medieval world now lost amidst the sands of time. ALAN TUTT of Cromer Museum uncovers one of our most notable deserted villages, Godwick.
Oliver Goldsmith's poem, "The Deserted Village" published in 1770, is a work of social commentary, condemning rural depopulation, the enclosure of common land and the pursuit of excessive wealth.
After describing a nameless deserted village as 'Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain", Goldsmith then decries its current parlous state, abandoned by villagers, its buildings ruined:
"Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o'ertops the mouldering wall;
And trembling, shrinking from the spoiler's hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.'
This could just as easily apply to poor old Godwick.
Situated south of Fakenham, in the east of Tittleshall parish, between existing villages of Tittleshall and Whissonsett, Godwick is one of the best preserved of several hundred deserted or 'shrunken' medieval villages in Norfolk.
It can be found in an area that became pasture in the 16th Century, not long after the last few villagers departed.
It had never suffered deep ploughing or flattening for cultivation.
Visiting the site of the deserted village of Godwick
Thus, amateur historians and landscape enthusiasts can walk in the sunken remains of the village streets, trace outlines of medieval buildings, and marvel at the spectral ruins of the church still standing.
The site has benefited from a management and conservation marriage between English Heritage and landowner. Visitors are free to wander in the daytime, though dogs should be kept on leads and the Country Code observed.
The earthworks are a Scheduled Ancient Monument so it is an offence to disturb the site or use metal detectors without the written permission of English Heritage.
Alternatively one can accompany landscape historian, Ian Groves, on a special guided tour organised by Cromer Museum, taking place on Saturday, June 15. Indeed,
Ian enthusiastically described the walk thus: "If you've not been to Godwick before, please sign up. It's an amazing, atmospheric site. We'll walk around the earthworks and ruined church and talk about why villages became deserted, why churches became dilapidated and, if it's like any of the other Cromer Museum guided walks, cover a whole host of other topics."
The church at Godwick was abandoned when the village died but Godwick remained a distinct parish until absorbed into Tittleshall during the nineteenth century.
The nearby church at Tittleshall sheds light on dark history as it contains monuments to Norfolk's famous Coke family. Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice under James I and originator of the Coke family fortune, enshrined into law in 1628 the dictum that 'an Englishman's home is his castle'. Walking towards Godwick one passes the remains of a moat, dating to circa 13th-15th centuries, the site of a manor house, Peak Hall.
Godwick's decline and fall
Godwick has Anglo-Saxon origins and is listed in the Domesday Book. The 12th and 13th centuries saw a gradual increase in Norfolk's population, with people seeking new areas to settle.
But Godwick's population was never that large, and the heavy clay soils thereabouts were difficult to cultivate. The Black Death reached Norfolk in 1349 and may have killed over a third of the county's population.
However, this epidemic is not solely to blame for the fall in numbers. That began in previous decades - through poor harvests, agricultural problems, and a colder, wetter climate.
While the plague is often blamed for the desertion of villages, physical evidence for this is thin on the ground.
Reasons for desertion are complicated. Many later medieval farmers found it most profitable to specialise in sheep farming.
Many village abandonments - although not Godwick - were the result of clearance of depleted villages by greedy landowners who wanted land put to grass. Others just faded slowly away.
Godwick was never a prosperous place but serious decline seems only to have set in the 15th Century, several decades after plague bit.
In 1428 there were less than 10 households.
In 1508, over half the properties on the northern side of the street were vacant.
In the years that followed
The land had been bought in the 1580s by Edward Coke. By 1585 he had built a large manor house in Godwick, visible on a map of the village of 1596, but by this time there was almost nothing left of the original village.
The manor house was adjoined by a huge brick barn.
The barn still stands, although the manor house was demolished in 1962, but can still be seen in outline, and the ornate barn was restored and being used for wedding receptions on my last visit.
The Church of All Saints was demolished early in the 17th Century, apart from the 13th Century tower which was retained by Coke as a folly - it is the only original building left. The churchyard looks a little raised now - eerily, Godwick's medieval inhabitants still lie buried beneath.
Again, Goldsmith words are a suitable epitaph for the demise of a once vibrant village:
'No more the farmer's news, the barber's tale,
No more the woodman's ballad shall prevail;
No more the smith his dusky brow shall clear,
Relax his ponderous strength, and lean to hear;
The host himself no longer shall be found
Careful to see the mantling bliss go round;
Nor the coy maid, half willing to be prest,
Shall kiss the cup to pass it to the rest.'
Tour Godwick and beyond
Cromer Museum Archaeological Walks - Cost £4 or £3 with museum pass, 1.45pm for 2pm start: booking on 01263 513543 or firstname.lastname@example.org: Godwick Deserted Village and Church, Saturday, June 15; Salthouse Prehistoric Barrows and St Nicholas Church, Saturday, July 20; Brampton Roman Town, Saturday, September 14.
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