In the current climate of anxiety about the future and its possible effects on our familiar habitats, what could be more appropriate than this energetic study of lost places in Britain that were once thriving communities? Many have heard of Dunwich on the east coast, the most famous of several one-time populous towns, the churches, religious houses and burghers’ dwellings of which have been slowly swallowed by the sea. But how many readers will know that on the Welsh borders there was once a similarly bustling settlement, a centre for the manufacture of arms, that has also now vanished? Or that scores of villages have disappeared since the Middle Ages? Or that when the population of the remote western archipelago of St Kilda began to be ‘discovered’ in the 18th century, its level of technological development was the same as that of the Neolithic people of Skara Brae on Orkney some two thousand years before? For these and many other insights, I am indebted to the author of Shadowlands.
Matthew Green’s previous books have been mainly on London and, in spite of his apparent desire to be called ‘Dr’ on podcasts, his tone is generally touristic rather than scholarly. His knowledge and enthusiasm are obvious in these, though there is a little too much plum-picking. In his London, taverns, cockpits, bear-baiting grounds, coffee shops and ‘stews’ abound, rather than the general population going about their daily lives, working, arguing, studying, believing and evolving. In Shadowlands, however, he has alighted on a more original subject, one that encompasses the totality of human existence. Along the way, he has done a great deal of walking – through abandoned landscapes, along lanes that peter out into ploughed fields, round a part of Norfolk to which he gained entry only after making persistent overtures to the Ministry of Defence.
The usual explanation given for the long-ago abandonment of villages is the Black Death – the effect of which on Britain, as opposed to continental Europe, is routinely overstated – or the desire of wicked landlords to dispossess peasant farmers in order to breed sheep. Green presents the same arguments at one point, quoting sources for Black Death annihilation that are nearly all continental, but he also offers more varied and complex reasons for individual decline. We know that Winchelsea, a once-thriving medieval port bigger than Southampton, was partially destroyed by the surging sea in 1252 and then more completely in 1288 – but then what of New Winchelsea, which replaced it on higher ground? This too has now substantially gone and the place that remains is hardly more than a village, surrounded by fields that were once the sites of marketplaces and walls. Partly, the sea was again to blame, narrowing over time a once-sizeable estuary to a ‘dismal little stream’, but essentially New Winchelsea was a grand artificial construction, put up under Edward I to serve as the main port for wine coming from Bordeaux. It flourished while the English crown still retained Aquitaine, and when corks were unknown and wine had to be drunk fresh. But as all these things changed, inhabitants deserted Winchelsea like ‘clairet gushing from a hogshead in one of its cellars’ and in 1415 the civic authorities ‘decided to shrink the town’.
The theme of loss is, naturally, a repeated one in this study, and nowhere is it found more clearly than in the case of St Kilda. The homogeneous, thriving and apparently cheerful population, about which followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau once enthused, had by the early 20th century been reduced by epidemics and other contaminating influences to just thirty-six. Most of the young had emigrated to the mainland or much further afield; in 1925 even the minister made off to Canada. Dependent now on charity and tourism, the surviving members of the community recognised that it was non-viable. Negotiations were entered into and an evacuation by boat agreed. One misty morning in August 1930, the remaining residents drowned their dogs in the surf and abandoned their houses and all their traditional gear, leaving doors ajar and peat fires still smouldering; in one a Bible was left open at the Book of Exodus.
At least the Kildans were resigned to their departure. Very different was the experience of a Welsh community forced to give up their valley so that Liverpool could be supplied by a new reservoir. Still more devastating was the evacuation of the half-dozen scattered villages in Norfolk that were taken over by the War Office in 1943 so that the territory could be used as a practice ground for the planned invasion of Normandy. The villagers were promised that in that magic land ‘after the war’ their cottages, farms, lands and roads would be returned to them. It never happened, and a residue of bitterness survives among former residents and their descendants. Among the ruins of one-time homes were created a series of fantasy foreign villages. The first were built to look like they were German, but as the Cold War began these gave way to ones redolent of eastern Europe. In more recent times there appeared an extraordinary simulacrum of an Afghan bazaar, complete with mosque, recorded noise, cluttered alleys, savoury food smells and rotting rubbish. Strange thought that, in the time since Shadowlands was completed, it’s likely that this shadowy confection will itself have joined the other mock places in the equality of oblivion.