HOW can I choose only a handful of favourite English villages? One of the marvellous things about them is their huge variety. Even neighbouring villages can develop very differently, their characters reflecting their own particular histories and the people, influences, mishaps and opportunities that have shaped them over centuries. It is a joy to explore an unfamiliar village and stumble across some unexpected, extraordinary feature that I haven’t seen before and it’s almost possible to find a favourite for every day of the year.
This selection includes those I love that illustrate some key village-heritage themes and share characteristics with many other places. It’s probably no coincidence that they are also great to visit for various non-historical reasons—not least good walks, a cup of tea and a slice of cake or a decent pint.
1 West Stow, Suffolk: the origins of English villages
The present-day village of West Stow has some notable historic features: a Tudor manor house and a church mentioned in the Domesday Book. The origins of the village, however, lie even further back in time. In the 1960s, archaeologists excavated the remains of an early Anglo-Saxon settlement here. This was an important leap forward in our understanding of ‘Dark Age’ England. Most English villages get their names from settlements founded in this period, but physical evidence of those village ancestors is elusive.
The timber buildings of Anglo-Saxon West Stow, built between 400AD and 650AD, had all gone centuries before the Norman Conquest. What remained were impressions of the holes that held structural posts, large hollows that defined grubenhaus (or ‘sunken-feature’) buildings and the discarded artefacts of everyday village life. This was enough to inspire the experimental reconstruction of the buildings and their contents on the original sites. We can now wander in and around village homes as they appeared about a millennium and a half ago. At West Stow, we get a feel not only for the origins of many English villages, but also for the origins of the English. www.weststow.org
2 Castle Acre, Norfolk: a Norman powerhouse
Today’s villages did not all develop seamlessly from their Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Many we now think of as classically English in their layout (with properties lining a main street, a church at one end, a green or market square, a manor house) are the product of Norman and Angevin redevelopment. As the new regime took hold, old villages were replanned and entirely new ones built. Creating centres of military, spiritual and commercial power were the goals of many of the foreign lords.
The de Warennes, for example, put the ‘Castle’ into Acre—and much more besides. William de Warenne fought at Hastings and the vast estates he acquired in 13 counties were the spoils of the conquest he helped to achieve. The fortified house he built at Acre was later rebuilt as an imposing castle. The old village was redesigned and gained defences, a market place and a new parish church. A substantial Cluniac priory was founded here. Castle Acre didn’t go on to develop as the major town in the region, but the scale of Norman dominance and ambition is still visible for all to see. www.english-heritage.org.uk
3 Gainsthorpe, Lincolnshire: a ‘lost’ village
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