Finding the lost civilisations in whispers from the past

When we lived in Yorkshire, as we did for some 11 years, there were a number of favourite destinations to which we took visitors who were staying with us.

Sunday, 10th March 2019, 12:42 pm
A monument marking the site of Gefrin, an ancient palace and royal township of the 7th century and base of the Kings of Northumbria at Yeavering near Kirknewton. Picture by Jane Coltman

If we wanted a good walk, as well as an interesting outing, then we would journey to the village of Wharram Percy, which is situated on the eastern edge of the Yorkshire Wolds, between Beverley and Malton.

Wharram Percy’s fascination for us, together with the attractive walk by which you make your way there, is that it is a deserted village.

Wharram Percy.

Particularly intriguing is the survival of the church tower and other ruined buildings alongside the dykes and ditches, which one often encounters in abandoned settlements.

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It is indeed those dykes and ditches that are so often the clearest signs of lost settlements, villages and rural communities.

So, for example, if you are travelling up the Great North Road from Alnwick to Berwick, with a view to taking the panoramic road over Quarryhouse Moor (now sadly rather spoilt by the wind farm), then look out to your right over the fields skirting the main road, just before you take that left turn.

Here, lies the eastern edge of the former medieval village of North Charlton.

The remains of the Open Field System of farming, with the accompanying deeply incised ‘strip lynchets’, are a memorable feature of the landscape here.

On the western side of the present main road lay the village itself; the remains of the village are a scheduled monument.

On the north side of the former village survives the remains of one building standing just half a metre above the ground. There are also ruins of what was probably a market cross, this time more than a metre in height and set in a socket stone, surmounted by a square base of three steps.

Nearby, there is a prominent mound, which is most likely to be part of the foundations of St Giles’ Chapel, which is mentioned in documents dating from the mid-12th century.

North Northumberland, now often remarked upon for the sparsity of its current population, is, nonetheless, rich in evidence of former civilisations and communities.

So, at Wandylaw, not far from North Charlton, and then again, further north on the moors around Doddington, are numerous examples of ‘cup and ring marked rocks’, prehistoric art, some of which dates back to the Neolithic (new Stone Age) period, and perhaps reaching back as far as 2,800 BC.

Both in the Cheviots and their nearby foothills are later Iron Age (c.500 BC) settlements and forts: the Ingram Valley, Harehope and Yeavering provide a number of such sites.

Evidence of the next civilisation, that of the Roman legions and their footprints, is most easily discovered in the remarkable survival of their roads, built to serve the defence of the borders of their empire with the Northern tribes in what is now Scotland, and where the Roman Antonine Wall’s earthworks straddled the central lowlands from the Forth to the Clyde.

Dere Street, running from Corbridge, past Rochester and on to Jedburgh, is probably the best known of these Northern Roman highways.

But there are also glimpses of the so-called ‘Devil’s Causeway’, a road running north-south across the coastal plain to Berwick-upon-Tweed, where there was most certainly a Roman villa of some sort to the south of the town, at Springhill.

The Devil’s Causeway is most obviously identified in the amazingly straight stretch of road running north from East Horton, Lowick.

Then, before we arrive back at the medieval period, of which North Charlton is such a good survivor, there is ample evidence of the earlier Kingdom of Northumbria, which acted as one of the ‘cradles of Christianity’ in the evangelisation of England.

Aidan’s monastery at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert’s hermitages on Inner Farne and Coquet Island, and then Edwin and Oswald’s royal demesnes at Ad Gefrin (Yeavering) and Bamburgh take us into the sixth and seventh centuries, so memorably chronicled in the remarkable A History of the English Church and People, penned by the Venerable Bede, in the double monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow.    

Arriving back, finally, then, in medieval times, there are ample examples of deserted villages, which can often be identified simply by making a careful study of either the Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 or even the 1:50,000 maps of the county.

So at Ancroft, the remains of the old village can easily be seen on the south side of the Main Street.

Rather more remote are the remains of Abberwick, some five or six miles to the north west of Alnwick.

Or, taking the old back road to the west of the present A697, and travelling from the Ingram Valley towards Roddam, you pass Reaveley, now just a farm, but once a medieval village.

Perhaps most tantalising of all, however, is the settlement of Old Shipley, which is situated some two miles south of Eglingham and just outside the northern edge of Alnwick Park.

There is now little left apart from a cottage here, but to the north and east of the burn are the earthworks marking part of the former village, or perhaps even a town?

In 1296, there were 12 taxpayers here; there were still six tenants and four cottages in 1693.

The settlement was finally abandoned in the 18th century.

But, it is said that in the 12th century, Shipley had a charter for a market.

Did it lie upon a former prominent north-south through route, which was cut off when the Percys expanded the demesne of their Alnwick stronghold and fortress?

Might one of our readers throw further light on this intriguing mystery?