Ghost towns of Britain

From ancient hamlets to wartime evacuations, the British countryside is dotted with half-hidden places, abandoned through natural disasters or the actions of human beings.

Each village, town and homestead has a sad tale to tell – and many sites can still be visited today.

Medieval remains

Britain is home to thousands of deserted medieval villages known as DMVs. To qualify for the title DMV the place has to be identified as a former settlement which was abandoned during the middle ages leaving traces behind such as earthworks or cropmarks.

Some may have a few homes still standing but if more than three are inhabited it’s an SMV – a Shrunken Medieval Village.

England alone is home to around 3,000 DMVs with the best known being Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire, which was steadily excavated between its discovery in 1948 up to 1990. The ruined church and former fishpond are still visible.

But there are dozens more deserted places around the country – lost, alone, half-buried but still there if you know where to look.

Natural disasters and man’s interference

Hampton-On-Sea, Kent

Hampton on Sea 1910  Fred C Palmer, d.1941, Wikimedia
Hampton begins to fall into the sea 1910. Image Fred C Palmer, Wikimedia

Poor old Hampton was already a village on the brink of decline when some buildings fell into the sea in the early 20th Century and others were demolished. It grew from a tiny fishing hamlet in 1864 at the hands of an oyster fishery company but was abandoned in 1916 and finally drowned due to coastal erosion in the early 1920s.

Edmund Reid, head of CID in Whitechapel during the infamous Jack the Ripper case, retired to the village and fought a lone battle to save it. He renamed his house Reid’s Ranch, painted castellations and cannon on its side and became known as the eccentric champion of the beleaguered residents.

Edmund Reid at Hampton on Sea, Herne Bay, Kent, England Wikimedia
Edmund Reid at Hampton on Sea, Herne Bay, Kent. Source Wikimedia

As the sea inched closer and closer Reid displayed a cannonball in his garden along with a post from the end of the old pier and a flagpole flying the union flag. From a wooden kiosk he sold cold drinks and postcards featuring himself and the fast-vanishing remains of the village.

The sea flowed ever closer to his property and in 1915 he finally admitted defeat, abandoned his house and moved to nearby Herne Bay.

Hampton Inn Hampton on Sea Kent © Linda Spashett, Wikimedia
The old Hampton Inn lives on © Linda Spashett, Wikimedia

All that remains of Hampton now is a tiny bit of the original pier, the Hampton Inn, and the rocky arc of the settlement’s ruined coastal defences… and possibly the ghost of Edmund.

Mardale Green, Cumbria

Haweswater reservoir © Joe Hayhurst, Flickr
Haweswater reservoir © Joe Hayhurst, Flickr

The hamlet at the head of the lake was submerged in 1935 when Manchester Corporation raised the water level of Haweswater to form a reservoir. Most of the village’s buildings were blown up by the Royal Engineers during demolition practice with the exception of the small church which held its last ticket-only service there in 1937. The church was then dismantled and its stones and windows used to rebuild the water tower which stands on the lake’s western shore.

Water tower, Haweswater © Joe Hayhurst, Flickr
The ornate water tower at Haweswater © Joe Hayhurst, Flickr

The ruins of the abandoned village occasionally reappear in very dry weather when the water level in the reservoir is exceptionally low.

Hallsands, Devon

Hallsands, Devon © Andrew, Flickr
Empty homes of Hallsands, Devon © Andrew, Flickr

One stormy night in January 1917 was all it took to sweep away 29 homes in the tiny village, leaving just one property still standing. It had long been a tight-knit fishing community, with everyone helping haul in the catch.

Hallsands, Devon ©  steve p2008, Flickr
Hallsands, Devon © steve p2008, Flickr

Today the village is off-limits to visitors but there is a viewing platform where you can take a look over the cliffs to see the empty homes below.

Derwent, Derbyshire

Ladybower Reservoir © Tim Hill, Pixabay
Ladybower Reservoir © Tim Hill, Pixabay

Another drowned village, Derwent was flooded deliberately when the Ladybower Reservoir was created in 1940s. Most of the buildings were demolished before the waters closed over them, but the historic packhorse bridge was determined to be a monument of national importance and was removed stone by stone and rebuilt at nearby Howden Reservoir.

Derwent’s church spire was also meant to be saved as a memorial but instead it was dynamited in December 1947 on safety grounds.

Bellmouth overflow (Plughole) Ladybower reservoir Derwent © Vaidotas Mišeikis, Flickr
Bellmouth overflow (Plughole) Ladybower reservoir Derwent © Vaidotas Mišeikis, Flickr

A few of the houses still survive above the waterline and the severe drought of 1976 revealed the rest of the village when reservoir levels fell drastically. It’s reappeared several times since then during dry spells most recently in 2018 when a man had to be rescued after getting stuck in extremely thick mud around the ruins.

Dunwich, Suffolk

Ruins of Greyfriars, Dunwich © Mrs Airwolfhound, Flickr
Ruins of Greyfriars Priory © Mrs Airwolfhound, Flickr

How the mighty have fallen – it’s hard to believe this sleepy little East Anglian village once stood proud as the capital of the Kingdom of the Eastern Angles, at one time even matching London for size.

It was a seat of power for the Anglo-Saxon bishops for centuries, an international port, and the Domesday book of 1086 puts the population at over 3,000.

Coastguard cottages Dunwich © Judepics
The modern day Coastguard cottages Dunwich © Judepics

Whilst the village still exists, the majority of its oldest buildings, dating back to the 13th century, are now at the bottom of the sea. Just the Franciscan priory and the Leper Hospital of St James remain above water.

Legend says that, at certain tides, bells can be heard ringing out from beneath the waves from one of the three churches that were swept away in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Spooky!

*Reality check: I spent much of my childhood in this area and took many family walks along the shingle beach at Dunwich. Never heard the bells.

Casualties of war

Imber, Wiltshire

Church of St Giles Imber Wiltshire © Michael Day, Filckr
Church of St Giles Imber Wiltshire © Michael Day, Flickr

In 1943 the 135 villagers were given just 47 days notice by The War Office that their homes were needed for training and they were at risk from the nearby shelling practice area.

Although upset about being forced to leave, most villagers put up no resistance, even leaving canned provisions in their kitchens. They thought it was their duty to make sacrifices for the War Effort although most expected to be able to return once hostilities were over.

Compensation for the move was limited and not everyone went quietly. One farm had to be forcibly taken over by the Army and Albert Nash, who had been the village’s blacksmith for over forty years, is said to have been found sobbing over his anvil. He died not long after, some say of a broken heart at having to leave his beloved village.

After the war, villagers were not allowed to return to their homes and the village remains under the control of the Ministry of Defence with non-military access limited to a few open days each year.

Stanford, Norfolk

Entrance to STANTA Norfolk © David Pashley
Entrance to Stanford Training Area near Thetford Norfolk © David Pashley

The area just north of Thetford suffered the same fate as Imber when it was taken over by the British Army during World War II for training purposes.

The villages of Buckenham Tofts, Langford, Stanford, Sturston, Tottington and West Tofts were all evacuated to create what is now known as the Stanford Training Area. It’s still in use today and is famous as the location for many scenes in the BBC comedy series Dad’s Army.

The parish church of All Saints still stands, fitted with blast-proof sheeting and surrounded by wire fencing to protect it from ongoing military manoeuvres.

Tyneham, Dorset

Post Office row Tyneham © Alistair Mc Garva
Post Office row Tyneham © Alistair McGarva

The instruction in 1943 to move out came as a shock to the 155 residents, most of whom had to become farmhands in the nearby Salisbury Plain area. As with Imber, their demands to be able to return when the war ended came to nothing.

Some of the original buildings still remain but much of the area is closed to the public due to safety concerns. The restored church, the farm and school are still intact and have exhibitions about the village and villagers. They’re usually open at weekends and on public holidays although coronavirus restrictions currently apply and the Ministry of Defence limits access on other occasions.

Industrial decline and fall

Binnend, Fife

The road to Binnend, Fife © RTPeat, Flicker
The road to Binnend, Fife © RTPeat, Flicker

The village grew up at the end of the 19th century to house workers at the nearby shale extraction works, and for those who worked in the associated oil and wax factories.

But when the mines and factories closed people began to drift away. It had a minor resurgence in World War 1 when the houses were used for Admiralty staff and the school was used as accommodation for troops. Its population declined again in the 1920s with most houses being used as holiday homes.

Binnend Village was formally closed in 1931 because it had no piped water, gas, electricity or sanitation, but still some residents stayed on. In 1952, two couples named the Hoods and McLarens remained in the village, where they lived in adjacent houses. The McLarens moved away when a council house became available in Burntisland. The last inhabitants, Mr and Mrs Hood, remained until Mrs Hood died in 1954 and George Hood (then aged 74) moved away to live with his son.

Today, there is a walking path around the deserted settlement – ruins of the High Binn remain, but all traces of Low Binn are gone.

Temperance Town, Cardiff

Wetherspoons now occupies the old Prince of Wales Theatre in Wood Street © Verbcatcher, Wikimedia
Wetherspoons now occupies the old Prince of Wales Theatre in Wood Street © Verbcatcher, Wikimedia

Nothing remains now of this community, whose name derives from the fact the land was owned by Colonel Edward Wood, a teetotaller, who imposed a condition on the developer that the sale of alcohol would not be allowed.

Development started in the late 1800s with a school and a small church, St Dyfrig’s. But the decline of the local coal industry and fears from the rail company that the area’s obvious poverty would damage their image, the area was demolished in 1937, without consulting the residents who were rehoused elsewhere in the city.

Then World War two came along and the redevelopment plans were scaled down.

Dylife, Powys

Y Star Inn Dylife, Powys © James Emmans
Y Star Inn Dylife, Powys © James Emmans

Another victim of industrial decline, Dylife had been a centre of lead mining since Roman times and reached its peak in the late 1800s. Around that time Dylife was a thriving, settled community with a church, two chapels and a school, three pubs, a grocery and butchery, a smithy and a post office.

But by 1901 the last mine had closed and the population moved to more secure work elsewhere. Some stayed on for a while but eventually the school closed in 1925. The last pub, the Star, remains in business but only the two chapels remain today.

Tide Mills, Sussex

Information board at Tide Mills East Sussex © rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk
Tide Mills East Sussex © rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk

Just a short drive from Brighton, on the East Sussex coast in the shadow of Seaford Head cliff lies the sad, abandoned hamlet of Tide Mills. All that remains are a few crumbling walls and bridges of what was once a thriving local economy.

Wealthy mill owner Thomas Barton was the first to harness the power of the River Ouse in the 1760s but by 1801 it was in the hands of William Catt who was responsible for its rapid growth and the community of around 60 workers and their families which grew up around the powerhouse.

The ruins of Tide Mills East Sussex © rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk
The ruins of Tide Mills East Sussex © rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk

Once the railway line from Newhaven to Seaford was opened, a siding was constructed running between the cottages, enabling large quantities of flour to be transported to Newhaven, and then on to London by sea.

The mill stopped working around 1900 but the villagers stayed on, turning their hands to helping out on local farms. A racehorse trainer set up stables there for a short while, using the nearby sea strand as a place to exercise them and Chailey Heritage charity established a small hospital on the beach, for those who needed sea air to recover from illness or operations.

Chailey Heritage Marine Hospital, Tide Mills East Sussex © Chailey Heritage
Chailey Heritage Marine Hospital, Tide Mills East Sussex © Chailey Heritage
Footings of the Chailey Heritage Marine Hospital, Tide Mills Sussex © rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk
Footings of the Chailey Heritage Marine Hospital, Tide Mills Sussex © rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk

But by the thirties the village was run down and unsanitary and was condemned as unfit for habitation. The last residents forcibly removed in 1939 and the area given over to war-training.

Today the river’s course has changed and the Ouse estuary is a nature reserve so a stroll through the ruined buildings is rewarded with birds, butterflies and beautiful blooms.

Looking towards Seaford from Tide Mills, East Sussex © rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk
Looking towards Seaford from Tide Mills, East Sussex © rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk

At evening-time and on dark days it’s an eerie place but on a bright summer’s day, there’s a gentle sea breeze, the call of skylarks, distant laughter and the buzz of bees bumbling in the mallow flowers.

Read more about Tide Mills’ sad history


Where next?
8 reasons to visit Whitstable
Shoreham Fort
Cambridge a summer stroll

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Copyright © Rosemary and Pork Belly 2013-2020. All rights reserved. You may not reproduce text excerpts or images without prior permission. All trademarks, registered trademarks, servicemarks, and copyrights are the property of their respective holders.

contact us: hello@rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk

Some articles contain affiliate links and adverts which means if you click on them and go on to make a purchase we may receive a commission, at no additional cost to you. For more info see our Privacy Policy.