Currently Completed Counties – Durham

This week we review the deserted settlements listed in 1968 in County Durham. In 1954 seven villages were suggested as classic deserted sites with another nine listed as possibilities (Beresford 1954: 350). One site from 1954, Newton – Archdeacon does not appear on the 1968 Gazetteer, which lists a total of 29 sites. Extensive work has since been carried out in the county and the Historic Environment Record now records over 140 sites.

Deserted settlements in County Durham listed in 1968
Deserted settlements in County Durham listed in 1968

Much of the work has been spearheaded by Brian Roberts’ analysis of village form. Evidence from such settlement investigation in the county and the wider northern England has highlighted that up to 80% of settlements contain evidence of planning in their structure and layout (Roberts 2008, Wrathmell 2012). There are a range of plans that these settlements follow – but many of the settlements listed on the website show clear evidence of the regular two-row format, with the rows facing each other, often on either side of a street or a green. A more complex regular plan can be seen at Walworth which shows evidence of two regular rows to the north and west of a central green, with perhaps further evidence for more tofts on the other sides.

Walworth, County Durham. Copyright Google.
Walworth, County Durham. Copyright Google.

There is a change in settlement pattern in County Durham from east to west, with the east falling within the landscape characterised by nucleated villages. To the west is an increase in farmsteads and a more dispersed settlement pattern with place-names signifying woodland mainly located on Pennine Spurs and High Pennines (Roberts 2008, Roberts et al. 2005). The general pattern of desertions in the county has been studied from a number of different angles and suggests gradual reductions rather than sudden desertions (Roberts 2008: 44).

Deserted settlement sites as classified by the website
Deserted settlement sites as classified by the website


Compared with some of the other counties of England there has been considerable fieldwork on deserted sites in County Durham. In several cases this was due to an imminent threat to the archaeology. One of the earliest excavations was undertaken at Yoden, a site now identified as Horden (Middleton 1885, Turnbull 2004). Excavations in 1884 proved the medieval date of the remains uncovering what were described as ‘foundations of the rudest descriptions, consisting entirely of mere shapeless masses of un-hewn stone’ (Middleton 1885: 186). Since then the site has been encroached upon by Peterlee but a small area of earthworks still survives (Turnbull 2006).

At Swainston at least 10 house sites have been identified and two of these were excavated between 1957-1960 (Booth 1957). The excavated houses were located in the south-east of the site and may have been on the edge of the settlement. Both structures have been dated to the fourteenth to fifteenth century (Wilson and Hurst 1960: 160). A full excavation report has not appeared.

Excavations were conducted in the 1960s at West Hartburn. Earthworks north of the road through the village had been ploughed and the excavations concentrated on the earthworks that still existed to the south (Still and Palliser 1964, 1967, Palliser and Wrathmell 1990). These revealed evidence of a number of different buildings with at least two longhouses uncovered, and a smaller building which is now thought to be a smaller structure associated with one of the longhouses. It is estimated that altogether there were 12 tofts. Pottery dating to the thirteenth to sixteenth century was recovered (Palliser and Wrathmell 1990).

West Hartburn, County Durham, surviving earthworks. Copyright Google.
West Hartburn, County Durham, surviving earthworks. Copyright Google.

The remains of the village of Thrislington were badly damaged during quarrying activity; however rescue excavations were undertaken in 1973-1974 (Austin 1989). These excavations revealed evidence of toft boundaries, a chapel, industrial areas, houses and a manor house. The east-west track present in the 1970s signified the medieval routeway through the settlement and on either side of this were enclosures which backed onto ridge and furrow. These enclosures seemed to represent tofts with building platforms to the front of them. The excavations suggested the manor house was constructed in the twelfth century and abandoned in the early fourteenth century. Excavation of buildings in the tofts suggests they appear in the thirteenth century and some disappear by the middle of the fifteenth century, while others continue until the sixteenth century (Austin 1989).

Excavations were carried out at Castle Eden in 1974 when the site was under threat from development (Austin and O’Mahoney 1987). The earthworks at the site were not clear, but ten trenches were excavated down to the first archaeological features, but not fully excavated (Austin and O’Mahoney 1987). The intention was to show the presence of medieval settlement and the potential of the site while not compromising the archaeology. These revealed a north-south hollow way and suggested houses to either side forming two rows. Pottery uncovered dated from the twelfth to sixteenth century (Austin and O’Mahoney 1987).

A deserted settlement in County Durham – Ulnaby – has also featured on Channel 4’s Time Team in 2008. Survey work and excavations as part of the programme suggested that the settlement was only occupied for a short period from the late thirteenth century to the fifteenth century (Wessex Archaeology 2008). A survey in 2007 had suggested that there was an earlier phase to the site without a green (Grindley et al. 2008). The small-scale excavation though did not support this conclusion (Wessex Archaeology 2008).

Ulnaby, County Durham. Copyright Google.
Ulnaby, County Durham. Copyright Google.

One site, Sockburn, is currently under investigation due to the presence of a possible minster church and pre-conquest sculpture (Semple and Petts 2014). It is in doubt if there was ever a village here, but this project may help resolve this issue.

Smaller excavations have occurred elsewhere such as at Elton where a medieval barn was uncovered (Nenk et al. 1992). Some sites have also undergone detailed survey work. One such site is Newsham which was surveyed in 1972. The earthworks could be seen clearly from the air, located to the east and north of the River Tees. These included hollow ways and enclosures. At least 11 tofts were identified and at least 11 building platforms suggested including one that was possibly the chapel of St James (Pallister and Pallister 1978). These were aligned along a north-south axis which corresponded to the modern farm track, and the house plots were located on either side of a narrow green.

One excellent source of information on deserted settlements in County Durham is the Durham Historic Environment Record that is available online via the Keys to the Past website at


Austin, D and C. O’Mahoney 1987. ‘The Medieval Settlement and Landscape of Castle Eden, Peterlee, Co. Durham: Excavations 1974’, Durham Archaeological Journal 3: 57-78.

Austin, D. 1989. The Deserted Medieval Village of Thrislington, Co Durham: Excavation 1973-1974. London:  Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series No 12.

Beresford, M.W. 1954. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth.

Booth, J.C. 1957. ‘Swainston Village’, South Shields Archaeological and History Society Papers 1, 5: 9-14.

Grindey, C., M. Jecock and A. Oswald 2008. Ulnaby, Darlington: An Archaeological Survey and Investigation of the Deserted Medieval Village. English Heritage Unpublished Research Department Report No. 13-2008.

Middleton, R.M. 1885. ‘On Yoden, A Medieval site between Castle Eden and Easington’, Archaeologia Aeliana 10: 186-187.

Nenk, B.S., S. Margeson and M. Hurley 1992. ‘Medieval Britain and Ireland in 1991’, Medieval Archaeology 36: 204-205.

Pallister, A.F. and P.M.J. Pallister 1978. ‘A Survey of the Deserted Medieval Village of Newsham’, Transactions of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland 4: 7-19.

Pallister, A.F. and S. Wrathmell 1990. ‘The Deserted Village of West Hartburn, Third Report: Excavations of Site D and Discussion’, in B.E. Vyner (ed.) Medieval Rural Settlement in North-East England: 59-78. Durham: Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland Research Report 2.

Roberts, B.K. 2008. Landscapes, Documents and maps: Villages in Northern England and Beyond AD 900-1250. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Roberts, B.K., H. Dunsford and S.J. Harris 2005. ‘Framing Medieval Landscapes: Region and Place in County Durham’, in C.D. Liddy and R.H. Britnell (eds) North-East England in the Later Middle Ages: 221-237. Woodbridge: Boydell.

Semple, S and D. Petts 2014. Sockburn Project, Co Durham.

Still, L. and A. Paliister 1964. ‘The Excavation of One House Site in the Deserted Village of West Hartburn, County Durham’, Archaeologia Aeliana 42: 187-206.

Still, L. and A. Pallister 1967. ‘West Hartburn 1965 Site C’, Archaeologia Aeliana 45: 139-148.

Turnbull, P. 2004. A Deserted Medieval Village off Eden Lane, Peterlee, Co. Durham. The Brigantia Archaeological Practice Unpublished Report.

Wessex Archaeology. 2008. Ulnaby Hall, High Coniscliffe, County Durham: Archaeological Evaluation and Assessment of Results. Wessex Archaeology Unpublished Report 68731.01.

Wilson, D.M. and J.G. Hurst 1960. ‘Medieval Britain in 1959’, Medieval Archaeology 4: 134-165.

Wrathmell, S. 2012. ‘Northern England: Exploring the Character of Medieval Rural Settlements’, in N. Christie and P. Stamper (eds) Medieval Rural Settlement in Britain and Ireland AD 800-1600: 249-269. Oxford: Windgather.