Where did they all go?
I’m standing on the edge of a hill, and ahead of me the turf gently slopes away, splattered with muddy paths, until it reaches the water’s edge. The wind howls, the low trees shiver. It’s not much of a view – but once it was home. Welcome to the village of Southorpe, dead and abandoned for the last 400 years.
It’s a popular travel cliche that Britain has more history than anywhere else. (If you think about it, everywhere has exactly the same amount, but you know what they mean.) Behind me are lumps under the grass, long, rectangular earthworks. When they were first recorded as houses of clay and twigs, Columbus hadn’t landed in the New World, and wouldn’t do so for another 400 years – the same amount of time that separates me, now, from the last time Southorpe village was occupied.
The cold wind is slicing through me, and it’s tempting to assume that’s why the villagers fled, so that’s what I tap out on Instagram. It’s probably nonsense, because this is a prime spot for a settlement: good access to food (fish & birds), tillable, well-drained land, lots of wood to chop down for fuel, and twigs and clay for the wattle and daub they probably build their houses from. If this was a game of Civilization, my settlement advisor would have popped up, cheerily urging me to start building. It’s a sweet place to make a home, and according to taxation records from 1374, some 60 souls (including 28 poll tax payers) did just that.
So why leave?
There are an estimated 3,000+ deserted medieval villages dotted round the UK, shadowy remnants of the past that can only be seen when the sun is low on the fields, or when snow turns the landscape monochrome. It’s easy to stand as I’m doing right now, imagining some catastrophe, smelling smoke and hearing screams – but history is rarely like that. Perhaps I should be imagining a fairly depressing time-lapse, involving the Little Ice Age, failing crops, shifting landowner regulations, the Black Death, hard times in abundance . . . and finally an empty shell of a place, up on a windy hill, waiting to fall apart. An ex-home. But the people? The people did what people do – they moved on, taking ‘home’ with them and planting it elsewhere. When times are tough, you go elsewhere and fight to reinvent yourself. It’s far from a modern phenomenon.
A World War 2 pillbox squats in one corner of the field, a modern glacial erratic left by a violent tide of European history. I shine a light in through a gun-slit, making myself jump as shadows leap around. I could crawl in, so I’m sure local kids have, although I can’t see any beer-cans of cigarette butts. This was never home for anyone, even when it was occupied (if it ever was, even fleetingly). It was never truly made for people; abandoned the moment it was built. I wonder about the people who poured its concrete, how they felt in making something so brutishly hostile to everything around it. But I suppose hostility was the whole point.
They probably went around the lake, the Southorpers – into a village that would accumulate enough mass to weather the storms of history and turn into a quiet, neat, inoffensively modern town of 10,000 people called Hornsea. There’s no way of knowing the details, who was last to leave, who perhaps planted their heels and set their jaw and refused to go. Perhaps everyone was all too eager to get gone, and just needed the right economic excuse to do so. Perhaps they were utterly desperate in a way I’d never understand. The real stories are lost, so we have to make them up.
It’s dangerous to speculate about these things – but it’s also dangerous not to. My time as an Archaeology student sunk one fact deep into me: people in history may have had different technology, different beliefs, different ways of seeing the world, but they were still recognisably us. We’re allowed to cast our imaginations back and imagine what happened because really, we’re no different. Home is a slippery, elusive concept, and sometimes it can disappear right from under us – but we’re still driven to seek it out, and to feel the poignancy of a place once loved, but no longer.