Remains of Britain's abandoned villages could be lost during construction of HS2 railway line

The high-speed train is due to dissect the country, cutting down travel time for the modern commuter, but in the process tearing through 1,000 years of history

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The Independent Online

Five hundred years ago, the English village of Doddershall was destroyed when Thomas Pigott, the rags to riches Lord of the Manor, evicted the tenants, pulled down their houses and turned the land over to sheep farming. The locals "went tearfully away and were brought to idleness, ending their lives in extreme poverty", as Cardinal Wolsey noted. Now, present day locals are wrought up as the remains of the village in Buckinghamshire could be completely lost with the construction of the HS2 railway line.

The high-speed train is due to dissect the country, cutting down travel time for the modern commuter, but in the process tearing through 1,000 years of history. The earthwork remains of Doddershall are considered to be "a heritage asset of high value as an extant example of medieval settlement," according to an Environment Statement Cultural Heritage report.

The Bucks Archaeological Society, supported by the local community, has written to HS2 Limited, appealing for a full archaeological survey and excavation of the remains of the village that was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1085.

While the Government yesterday designated a handful of medieval villages in Northamptonshire as "scheduled monuments", meaning they will be protected from development, Doddershall over the border wasn't so lucky. And neither were many other villages across the country that are under threat more than ever because of modern life.

Without similar protection, they may well join the thousands of "ghost" villages that have already been lost, abandoned and destroyed – some visible, others not. Each has its own history, and own circumstances surrounding its demise, from the Black Death or landslides to the construction of motorways or airports.

But while their "passing" often caused devastation and hardship for the locals at the time, little is known nowadays about them. Places like Tyneham, in Dorset, abandoned during the Second World War for use as a training base but never returned to the villagers. Or Lowfield Heath in West Sussex, which had been around since the Domesday era, but which disappeared when Gatwick Airport was built in the 1950s.

Stephen Fisk, who set up, points out that Lowfield Heath was once a busy settlement on the main road between London and Brighton. "But when Gatwick Airport was developed, the road was moved and didn't go through the village any more," says Fisk. "People gradually and reluctantly moved out and now it's just an industrial estate. All that remains is a beautiful old church, but even that is threatened by the plans for a second runway at the airport."

Warning sign: The Army's training ground at Imber

Another example of paving over history is Carlbury in Durham. The quiet hamlet with its own mill (until 1889) was demolished in the 1940s to make way for the A67. While in Stanstead Abbotts, many historical buildings have been demolished and replaced by residential properties, and the traditional maltings are now a business park.

Many lost villages sit on private land with limited or no public access, which is often why few people know about them. Several of these were abandoned or destroyed hundreds of years ago and only lumps and bumps in the landscape now indicate where manor houses, roads and shops used to be. Trevor Rowley, the co-author of Deserted Villages, says that the high-water mark for villages in England was in around 1300.

"Since then," he says," about 2,000 of those have been deserted and another 2,000 have been shrunk, moved, shifted or destroyed. The biggest desertion was between 1300 and 1350 because of the Black Death killing off many labourers, resulting in a major change in the agricultural system from arable to sheep farming."

While many villages were abandoned and lost this way, the parish churches remained in use. A great number still stand today, not only because they were made of stone but also thanks to the fact that "the rector still had money coming in from the land", according to Rowley. "He was supported by tithes, so one tenth of the profits from the sale of the sheep's wool," he explains. "If you visit one of these churches now, you'll probably be standing on a lost village."

The landed gentry were also to blame for some of the destruction in the 18th century with the craze for emparkment, when wealthy aristocrats destroyed or moved entire villages from their land to make way for landscaped gardens for their Georgian houses.

These varied from hamlets to the market town of Milton Abbas with its grammar school, alms houses, shops, inns and brewery. In the process, churches, bridges, bath houses, cemeteries and more were destroyed. But these actions were met with surprisingly little resistance. Apart from in Milton Abbas, where tenants had more rights, and an infuriated Lord Milton lost patience and released the dam holding his half-completed lake to swamp them.

The remains of one village in Buckinghamshire could be completely lost with the construction of the HS2 railway line

Villages were also drowned in the 20th century when reservoirs were built. The most evocative of these is Mardale, which the Manchester Corporation submerged to form Haweswater Reservoir in 1935. The remains of the medieval village occasionally still rise eerily when the reservoir level is low.

Natural causes, such as coastal erosion and landslides, have claimed their fair share of villages, too. Ravenspurn, once a bustling coastal town that featured in several Shakespeare plays and hosted medieval kings, was lost to the sea by coastal erosion and still can't rest in peace due to natural gas drilling in the North Sea.

Concerted efforts to protect and excavate lost villages only really came about in the 1970s. Previously, many disappeared because they weren't looked after or understood properly. Some were destroyed by deep ploughing, including Newbold Grounds in Northamptonshire. "It wasn't discovered until someone saw an aerial picture of it before it was destroyed showing good earthworks, depicting roads and property boundaries," says Rowley. "I did a survey in Hertfordshire where about half the abandoned villages I located had already been ploughed out."

Since then, greater protection of lands has been put in place so that changes in use, including destruction, cannot be made without excavation first.

"Planning permission has also been one of the great saviours of English landscapes, stopping the Americanisation of our country," says Rowley. "Plus, great advancements in archaeological techniques, such as geo-physics, aerial photos, infra-red and the like will help us identify and monitor lost villages that we know about – above and below ground – and also find new ones, which have not yet been discovered."