The 7 mysterious ‘lost towns’ of East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 18:30 19 April 2020 | UPDATED: 14:32 20 April 2020
Discover the settlements that time forgot - and then remembered again thanks to the power of archaeology
It’s well-known that the region of East Anglia is steeped in a deep and fascinating history. Home to an array of ancient ruins and deserted settlements, the area has been graced by the footsteps of many – including the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and the Iceni tribe.
We spoke to Dr Andrew Rogerson, former senior archaeologist at Norfolk Historic Environment Service, who helped us delve deeper into some of the towns and villages that have been ‘lost’ to time – and brought back to life once again thanks to the wonders of archaeological exploration. Dr Rogerson said: “None of these places have been ‘rediscovered’ – they have never really gone away. Until the 1950s, very little attention was paid to the archaeology of medieval, as opposed to prehistoric and Roman settlements.”
We start off our list with perhaps the most famous deserted settlement in the East Anglia region, Dunwich. Located on the Suffolk coast, roughly seven miles north of Leiston, Dunwich was the capital of the Kingdom of the East Angles during the Anglo-Saxon period.
At its height, it was an international port, and comparable in size to 14th century London. The Domesday Book of 1086 put its population at over 3,000, and by the mid-13th century, it was around 250 hectares in size.
Dr Rogerson said: “There were 10 parish churches, a small monastery, two friaries, two hospitals (religious institutions) and a house of the Knights Templars.”
Its thriving port welcomed in ships from places such as Germany and the Low Countries.
However, two huge storms in 1287 saw the beginning of the decline of Dunwich, and over the following years, additional storms caused consistent devastation to the town, including one in 1347 that swept around 400 houses into the North Sea, and Saint Marcellus’s flood in 1362 which destroyed a large majority of the remaining town.
Dunwich’s 13th century buildings now unfortunately belong to the sea – including eight of its churches. Local legend has it that at certain times and tides, the church bells can still be heard ringing from beneath the sea.
What still stands in Dunwich today are the remains of Greyfriars, a Franciscan priory, and the Leper Hospital of St James.
“What remains of the town is not great, but it is still worth a visit, even if just to ponder on how much has been lost to the North Sea,” said Rogerson.
Today, the village now has an estimated population of 183.
Head a few miles north along the coast and there you’ll find Easton Bavents, another Suffolk coastal town that was once an important historical parish – but it too has fallen victim to the effects of coastal erosion. Once the most easterly parish in the British Isles, it was recorded as having around 65 inhabitants in 1086.
“Easton Bavents was granted the right to hold a market in 1330, but this did not last into the post-medieval period,” said Rogerson.
The parish also was home to St Nicholas church. However, records show that the church disappeared into the North Sea sometime towards the end of the 17th century due to the cliff collapsing.
Today, Easton Bavents is now a hamlet, and has been featured in both the local and national press due to the perils of continual coastal erosion, with many homes coming dangerously close to the cliff’s edges.
Caistor St Edmund (Venta Icenorum)
Cross the county lines and head up to Norfolk where you’ll find the village of Caistor St Edmund. Located a couple of miles south of Norwich, the village is home to the remains of Venta Icenorum, a Roman foundation which was capital of the Iceni tribe.
Rogerson said: “It seems to have been founded on an almost virgin site, and we can assume that most of its inhabitants were locals, with a few Romans and people from other parts of the Roman Empire and Roman Britain. These locals were Iceni.”
Dr Rogerson said: “I would not hazard a guess at the size of the population, which would have fluctuated probably quite wildly throughout the 400 years of Roman Britain.
“The maximum size however was around 70 acres.”
Evidence suggests that Venta Icenorum was home to an amphitheatre south of the walled area, a temple in the north-east, a town hall, a central public place, running water and baths.
Today, the site is open to the public, and the remains of the early third century walls are visible.
Situated south of Fakenham in Norfolk, between the villages of Tittleshall and Whissonsett is Godwick, a deserted settlement that was first inhabited during the Anglo-Saxon era.
“Godwick was about the same size, in terms of population, as Easton Bavents in 1086, but it hardly grew during the medieval period,” explained Dr Rogerson.
It is believed that the town struggled to prosper due to having heavy, wet clay soils which were difficult to cultivate and harvest.
“Godwick was largely deserted by the end of the 16th century. The deserted village has managed to keep some impressive earthworks, which survive under pasture and are publicly accessible.
“The medieval All Saints’ church has gone, but, ironically, the west tower was rebuilt in the early 17th century as a folly,” Dr Rogerson said.
On the north Norfolk coast is Eccles-next-the-Sea, an ancient fishing village which has mostly been swept into the sea.
“Eccles-next-the-Sea shared a similar fate with Easton Bavents,” Dr Rogerson said. “It was larger in 1086, with around 125 inhabitants.”
When the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, Eccles-on-Sea was a thriving community of some 2,000 acres, but as it was situated in a low-lying area on the North Norfolk coast it was prone to inundation.
Today, not a lot remains, “though traces of the medieval village have been recorded by archaeologists,” Dr Rogerson said. Some of these traces include a medieval church and a churchyard.
15 miles south of King’s Lynn is the current village of Beachamwell, which was listed in the Domesday Book as Wella, and was a flourishing settlement throughout most of the Middle Ages. However, there has been some debate over its true location.
Dr Rogerson said: “Wella has a very confused history and indeed location. I follow the late (and great) Norfolk historical geographer Alan Davison, and consider the southern part of Beachamwell, with the All Saints’ church (one of three churches in the village) as the Wella of the Domesday Book, whereas other authorities have suggested Upwell.”
Low walls of parts of the church are still visible in grassland, and amongst the artefacts excavated in the area include Saxon jewellery, Roman coins and prehistoric tools.
The village of Bawsey is four miles east of King’s Lynn and is perhaps best known for its hilltop ruined Norman church, which can be visited by the public.
Dr Rogerson said: “It had been a place of some importance since the 8th century, and in 1086 its population was around 140. It grew in the 12th and 13th centuries but went into decline in the late medieval period.”
Evidence shows that Bawsey’s St James church was built in the early-mid 12th century, and has been in ruins since at least 1745.
Eagle-eyed readers may also remember Bawsey and its church from a 1999 episode of Channel 4’s Time Team, where the group – which included Dr Rogerson – fieldwalked, metal detected and dug their way to finding coins, a Bronze Age arrowhead, a medieval tiled floor and an array of skeletons.
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