Car parks are not exactly known for having great views. Indeed, that is one of their defining characteristics: whether situated underground, in a multi-storey tower, or sandwiched between shops, they tend to prioritise function over form and practicality over aesthetics. So pulling into Chepstow’s Castle Dell car park was unexpected: as the view of a medieval castle fills up the windscreen, the past and the present begin to merge.
This made it the perfect launch point: MrElaineous and I were here to begin our own journey back in time, meeting up with John Swann of the Travelling History Company. We hopped into his History Machine, a converted camper van that served as our TARDIS for the day, with John as capable a guide as anyone who has ever piloted the famous blue box.
We started off in Lancaut, a deserted medieval village (DMV) along the banks of the River Wye. England has approximately 3,000 of these DMVs scattered across the landscape, and the reason for their abandonment varies. Many likely fell victim to the Black Death of the 1340s, when it’s estimated that 30-40% of the population were killed by plague.* If you ever have the opportunity to jump aboard a real time machine, this is a good period to avoid visiting. Other villages were likely turfed out by landlords who found it more profitable to convert ploughed fields to sheep pasture.
Lancaut sits on a peninsula of land in the Wye Valley, and it’s easy to see how this forested location surrounded by the River Wye has attracted people for millennia. John’s experienced eyes could read the landscape, and he pointed out the remains of an Iron Age fort that was over 2,000 years old. This fort was then recycled to form part of Offa’s Dyke, an 8th century construction attributed to King Offa and built to separate his kingdom of Mercia from the Welsh; the modern border of Wales and England still follows close to this ancient barrier. If you’re up for a long-distance walking challenge, you can follow the Offa’s Dyke Path for 177 miles through the Welsh Marches, a picturesque and historic borderland.
Although we didn’t cover that distance with regards to mileage, we began to clock up the centuries. From the Iron Age to the age of Offa, we moved forward in time as we approached the village, stopping to investigate a lime kiln that sits along the path. Lime is made by heating up limestone, and it was used by people in the past for a variety of purposes: it was the primary binding ingredient in the mortars, renders, and plasters vital to the construction process; it could be turned into limewash to both decorate and protect buildings; it could even be applied to agricultural fields and pastures to reduce the acidity of the soil and provide plants and animals with important minerals. This particular kiln sat against a stone promontory, and it was easy to imagine the former residents of Lancaut chipping away at the limestone and adding it directly to the kiln to convert it into a necessary building material.
Yet today the buildings are long gone, and the only part of Lancaut village that remains is St. James’s Church. Although a 7th century monastery is believed to have been built on the site, the current church dates to the 12th century. John reported that there is some debate about its origins. It may have been founded by monks from the nearby Tintern Abbey. Or, according to botanical evidence, it may have been the site of a leper colony as a number of medicinal herbs were found here, including relevant non-native species. While I personally believe the former explanation is more likely, it does make you wonder what secrets might be lurking in DMVs across the country.
The tombstones in the church date to the 17th and 18th century, and we spent some time trying to decipher them. While much of the text was faded, heart shapes and spiral designs stood out. The spirals were likely supposed to represent an urn, a common motif of the time period, and hearts can represent love, the sacred heart, or love of God. Whatever the reason they were chosen, there is something special about connecting with the past through genuine artefacts and in the very landscape they were created. This is something the Travelling History Company specialises in and which we explored further over a pint at our next stop—a 16th century pub.
* Recent research has shown that rats have been unfairly blamed for centuries; instead, it was likely human lice and fleas that caused the quick spread of the bubonic plague at this time.