In the introduction to her now classic Pleasure of Ruins (1953), the British writer Rose Macaulay conceives multiple reasons for the complex pleasure we take in decay, from the imaginary reconstruction of a ruin to the “masochistic joy” in common destruction. Nearly seventy years later the American literary critic Susan Stewart, in The Ruins Lesson, was still asking why “we so often are drawn—in schadenfreude, terror, or what we imagine is transcendence—to the sight of what is broken, damaged, and decayed.”*
In Matthew Green’s Shadowlands: A Journey Through Britain’s Lost Cities and Vanished Villages, ruins offer a bittersweet therapy. They confer perspective on Green’s own distress—his father has just died and his marriage ended—and he becomes obsessed, even comforted, by absence itself, by failure, in cities and settlements that have all but vanished from the map. His chosen ruins are not the grand British ones (no wrecked abbeys or Stonehenge) but eight sites closer to total oblivion.
He approaches these chronologically, from the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae through medieval towns such as Winchelsea and Dunwich to places of modern abandonment: the Hebridean island of St. Kilda and the Welsh village of Capel Celyn, drowned beneath a reservoir. Although Green stresses “the continued impact of these unseen places on both the landscape and imagination of Britain,” their destruction arose less from the deep shifts of social evolution than from wayward climate or accident: the corrosion of cliffs, the silting of harbors, the fortunes of war.
By far the earliest of the sites is Skara Brae, “amongst the oldest built structures anywhere on the planet,” exposed in 1850 when tempests stripped away the topsoil from the largest of the Scottish Orkney Islands to reveal a cluster of cavernous houses. Their foundations reach back to at least 3100 BC, and successive settlements continued for some seven hundred years, marking Skara Brae as the earliest near-complete example—with its plentiful residue of livestock bones—of a food-producing community at this latitude. Whereas timber-built dwellings would have perished, this complex was built from the treeless island’s delicate, easily carved sandstone. Its walls were insulated over the centuries by ever-mounting organic waste—ashes, excrement, bones—until at last the inhabitants of its sunken houses were communicating by tunnels burrowing through refuse.
Sealed beneath millennia of sand, the rooms are still astonishing. Bed frames, stone boxes, and dressers surprise us in their domestic intimacy. Scattered beads betray where the women slept. A dish of pigment and a precious pendant of walrus tusk lie abandoned on the floor, and two cooking pots still contain bones. Such signs suggest Skara Brae’s sudden desertion, but precisely why this happened is unknown.
This community is a lone prehistoric forerunner among Green’s chosen sites. His next, which he calls “the lost city of Trellech,” is firmly embedded in the chronic medieval wars along the borderlands of Wales in the thirteenth century. The label “lost city” is perhaps purposely ambiguous. Trellech not only seems lost in the Welsh landscape, but as a true city it goes little recorded.
Trellech broke into public celebrity after 2002, when a local farmer noticed shards of pottery among the molehills in his field, and an alert young student of archaeology, Stuart Wilson, began excavating a stretch of neighboring pasture. Affronted professional archaeologists had labored on a nearby site for Trellech twenty years before, and posited it as less a city than a modest settlement. Wilson, they felt, was an unreliable sensationalist; he responded that they were pedants who had been digging in the wrong place. The rivalry, Green records, became bitter:
No one could have predicted that the moles’ retrieval of the little shards of pottery from the ground would trigger a protracted archaeological conflict…played out not just in the rustic fields of Trellech but in the mud-slinging coliseum of Twitter, in the orderly pages of peer-reviewed journals and the headlines of tabloid newspapers, on television, radio, and in the vituperative comments of newspaper websites. It shows no sign of abating.
But Green is exercised above all by the swiftness of Trellech’s rise and fall. At first a meager village, it expanded over forty years from 1246 to an industrial boomtown for iron mining and the manufacture of arms, and may momentarily have been the second-largest city in Wales. Its decline—like that of many communities dependent on a single resource—was drastic. Its suzerain lords, the belligerent dynasty of de Clare whose Welsh wars had powered its rise, were extinguished in 1314, when the last of them fell, encased in his chain mail, at the Battle of Bannockburn.
A tenuous continuity connects Green’s chosen ruins. Skara Brae signals, for him, the dawn of permanent settlement itself; Trellech marks the efflorescence of urban life for three centuries after the Norman Conquest, when towns lost their quality of fortified intrusions and “became naturalised within, rather than imposed upon, the landscape”; later the deserted seigniory of Wharram Percy reflects the aftermath of the 1348–1349 Black Death and the spread of enclosed pastureland.
But few of Green’s places are truly representative. Their destruction, in particular, was mainly swift and near complete. They have been chosen for their dramatic variety. In a book lodged between firsthand scholarship and popular history, Green makes deft use of primary sources—parish records, letters, state and private archives—but has bulked out his wealth of fascinating material with digressions of varying interest (descriptions of the Black Death are strung out to sixteen lurid pages) and occasionally heady prose.
One of the least typical of Green’s vanished towns is perhaps the best known. Old Winchelsea, on the East Sussex coast, was once a flourishing port, trading in goods as remote as Castilian tin and Scandinavian copper. As a member of the Cinque Ports, a confederacy of privileged towns whose ships might sail in the royal service, it enjoyed political liberties and returned high taxes. But it was built on shingle. From 1250 a series of raging storms undermined its foundations, broke down its walls, and swept it away. Centuries later fishermen imagined themselves floating over a watery Atlantis of turrets and quays. Such fantasies exercise a peculiar allure. Today you may dive on the sunken walls of the drowned Greek city of Amathus or snorkel over barnacled cannons in the Caribbean. In Russia, it is said, the drowned and half-mystical city of Kitezh emits a ghostly tolling of underwater bells. Old Winchelsea can offer no such enchantments. Its fragile detritus was scattered to the waves.
Yet what happened next was remarkable. In 1282 the relentless builder and warrior King Edward I ordered the city resurrected on a clifftop high above its wrecked predecessor. Instead of the organic growth of the older town, New Winchelsea sprang into life wholesale on the rational grid plan of the bastides in his French possession of Aquitaine. In its turn, the city flourished—above all on the import of wine (prompting a lengthy digression from Green). By 1350 the town was nearly the size of the City of London, and its checkerboard streets were lined by stone mansions. But during the next few decades it was repeatedly devastated by French and Castilian raiders while slowly, ironically, the sea that had demolished Old Winchelsea retreated from the New, silting up its vital harbor. More than three centuries later Daniel Defoe recorded a ghost town:
The ancient gates stand near three miles from one another over the fields, and the very ruins are so buried, that they have made good corn fields of the streets, and the plough goes over the foundations, nay, over the first floors of the houses.
Anyone walking the town that survives today may sense a strange tranquility: a place too large for its six hundred present inhabitants, yet much of it still buried beneath surrounding fields.
No starker contrast could exist between this landlocked relic and Green’s most poignant medieval site, the once wealthy town of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. Ever since two violent tempests struck it seven centuries ago, the cliffs beneath have been drastically eroding under the winds and tides of the North Sea. By the mid-sixteenth century more than half the town—five complete parishes with their churches—had sunk into the ocean. For years the remains of All Saints, the last surviving church, teetered alone on the cliff edge. Already most of it had tumbled by chunks into the void: first its chancel, then, by degrees, its nave. Finally, in 1922, its bell tower and the graves nearby crashed down the cliff in a shower of human bones.
But in Victorian times this spectral survivor, with a tiny village, became the haunt of artists and writers. They reveled in its melancholy. Earlier ages would have viewed the slow dismemberment of Dunwich with horror, as if at God’s judgment. But the cult of the picturesque and an ensuing Romanticism found in such ruins a peculiar pleasure, first aesthetic, then the thrill of a memento mori. The poet and scholar Edward FitzGerald, whose translations from the Persian of Omar Khayyam were a long meditation on mortality, returned again and again, walking the cliff tops and musing by the gutted Greyfriars abbey, the only other ruin surviving. The illustrator Charles Keene, another addict of Dunwich, would relieve his dark spirits by playing bagpipes along the shore at night, skirling out “Fingal’s Lament” or “The Massacre of Glencoe.”
The delight in ruins “might appear a heartless pastime,” wrote Henry James, “and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.” But in the final decade of his life he found in Dunwich an exquisite desolation. Green, walking the same cliff tops, probes the last remains with his own poetic melancholy: “One need only stare out at the site of medieval Dunwich to understand that an absence can have more presence than what is present. It was something I felt every day.”
In an Anthropocene age the sight of near-vanished towns and villages carries a frisson of premonition, yet to witness returning nature—the resilience of plant life reclaiming buildings—may excite a paradoxical comfort. In her recently published Islands of Abandonment (2021), the Scottish writer Cal Flyn celebrates places worldwide where the exodus of people has brought on a natural redemption. The absence of humans was the condition of renewal.
It was in ancient Rome, in the Baths of Caracalla, wrote Christopher Woodward in his study In Ruins (2001), that the poet Shelley found future hope:
The structure erected by the cruellest of emperors was crumbling, as the roots of figs and myrtles and laurel loosened the masonry. Their exuberant and wild fecundity promised the inevitable victory of Nature—a Nature which was fertile, democratic and free.
The discovery had the rapture of an epiphany, and in the ruins that spring Shelley regained the guiding trajectory of his short, fiery life. Nature had never seemed more beautiful than in its destruction of tyranny.
No such sentiments could console the refugees of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides, nor the Welsh of Capel Celyn. In Green’s graphic telling, the barren island of Hirta, largest of the St. Kilda archipelago, where the highest cliffs in Britain fall to the Atlantic, was occupied more than a thousand years ago by people who sustained themselves by wrenching seabirds like fulmars and gannets from their precipitous nests in spring.
When travelers rediscovered St. Kilda in the eighteenth century, the romantic concept of the noble savage found a ready subject. The islanders, it was said, were simple, moral, democratic, self-reliant. Their character was a rebuke to the decadence of cities. But in Victorian times a reaction set in, bent on lifting the islanders to a civilizing grace. As steamship tourism took hold, the more commercially minded islanders mimicked the primitive behavior expected of them, yelping at their reflections in the ships’ mirrors, writes Green, “even though they had shaved in their own looking glasses that very morning.” In the end it was the migration of its able-bodied men and the ravages of disease that persuaded the islanders—a mere thirty-six were left—to abandon St. Kilda in 1930, leaving their peat fires still burning and their Bibles open as tradition demanded, but drowning their dogs wholesale.
As for the inhabitants of Capel Celyn, their flight was not consensual. In the late 1950s their tiny, Welsh-speaking community in the Merioneth hills became pitted against the Corporation of Liverpool, the industrial behemoth fifty miles to the northeast, which proposed to drown the village beneath a much-needed reservoir. The conflict became a cause célèbre and a spur to Welsh nationalism. It sharpened a latent sense of grievance that Green traces back over centuries:
England had annexed their nation, beheaded their princes, abolished their laws, impoverished their language, flooded their villages, stolen their youth, diluted their culture and gagged their voice.
But in the end the corporation had its way and Capel Celyn disappeared under a reservoir two and a half miles long.
Green’s most surprising choice is a site whose ruin was grimly purposeful. In 1942, in order to prepare Britain’s army for operations in northern France, a tract of Norfolk flatland was requisitioned by the War Office. Even the simulacrum of a “Nazi village” was created. The inhabitants of the area’s gutted farms and villages expected to return after the war, but with the onset of the cold war the land was repurposed and a Central European “Soviet village” was constructed.
In 2009, in an astonishing attempt at realism, these installations were followed by an “Afghan” settlement for the training of soldiers departing to Helmand Province. Unlike its Nazi and Soviet forebears, this village was not a strategic target but an immersive environment, echoing with the call to prayer and even—amazingly—with actors and Afghan émigrés speaking Pashto: a village where a fake suicide bomber might erupt out of the bazaar.
The landscape today has relapsed into quiet. Green, after tortuously obtaining permission to enter, finds the dwellings of its old 1942 inhabitants crumbling away. There is, of course, nothing uplifting about such desolation. A ruin arouses pleasure only long after the tragedy of its cause has faded. In seasons of drought, when the reservoir waters have ebbed from the drowned village of Capel Celyn, the former villagers have momentarily been able to walk its streets again. But their misfortune is too close for anything but bitterness.
Some of the most lasting images from Green’s arresting book are those not of gaunt ruins but of domestic intimacy: the abandoned cooking pots of Skara Brae, a Trellech roof finial to deflect witches, the grass-sown doorsteps of Wharram Percy. More intimate still are the miscellaneous leftovers recorded in Malcolm Russell’s Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories from the River Thames. “Mudlarker” was the name given typically to the indigent children who scavenged along the riverbanks as early as the eighteenth century, hunting for any detritus they could sell. By Victorian times the Thames had yielded some spectacular Bronze Age and Roman artifacts, and adult mudlarking has since gained respect.
In this impressively illustrated and researched volume, Russell records the flotsam of humbler objects—from buttons to spindle whorls—that have been washed onto the littered Thames foreshore. The primary exhibit of each chapter—often no more than an inscribed cuff link or a counterfeit shilling—is followed by an essay on the custom it suggests and by similar finds illustrated in miniature, with the dates and names of their discoverers duly recorded.
The effect is of a demotic history. The low oxygen level of the Thames mud has preserved even Roman leather boots, and has ensured, Russell writes, “an archive like no other”:
The Thames’ currents constantly erode the foreshore’s surface, freeing objects and sorting them, not by period or purpose, but by weight and shape with no regard for rarity or value. Embracing this chaos as a starting point for investigating the past throws up unexpected connections, disrupting traditional hierarchies of information and overturning preconceptions. This is not least because the owners of many mudlarked objects were those marginalized or censured people who remain underrepresented in the history books.
Russell’s book becomes an archive of the criminal, the addict, the deviant, or simply of the less respectable habits of the populace. A sixteenth-century candleholder might have been carried by anyone, but Russell—in a rare leap of fantasy—relates it to the prostitution that flourished for centuries in the notorious “stews” of the south bank. A glass bottleneck betrays the epidemic of gin drinking that threatened social cohesion and economic productivity (it was claimed) from the early eighteenth century. The scourge was shadowed by the spread of addictive gambling, which was castigated as an enfeebling hedonism. (A water-worn die bears witness to the pastime.) From a far earlier period, the ornatrice, or hairdresser—often a slave—is evoked by a lost hairpin, and an uglier servitude is disclosed by a filament of glass from a riverine factory manufacturing beads to barter in the African slave trade.
A multitude of objects attest to the rash of six thousand alehouses that littered London in the early eighteenth century. Lead tokens—the Thames mud has yielded many—granted varied services in such places. These innocent-looking disks are stamped with the name or symbol of the premises: anchor, feather, rising sun. But the alehouses offered more than drink. Some were venues of male prostitution, named “molly houses” for their supposedly effeminate clients. Associated with these in the public mind were the macaroni, wealthy young men reputedly affected by the tastes of continental Europe, sporting face powder, fantastically tall wigs, and the feathers flaunted by a “Yankee doodle dandy.” Putative macaroni embellishments washed up by the river include ornamental seals, elaborate buckles, and clay wig curlers.
As for today’s mudlarkers, they experience the thrill of overleaping time to handle a Roman gaming piece untouched since its owner wagered it, or to pick up a ring dropped from the finger of a sixteenth-century bride. In an earlier study, Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames (2019), Lara Maiklem describes the excitement of discovering an inscribed medieval pilgrim badge and a Tudor money box. Such objects often pose the question: Why were they disposed of? And were they lost or purposely discarded? Many might be jettisoned out of superstition, as if their continued ownership were a curse. In particular, the number of deliberately bent coins arouses curiosity. Coins, in the seventeenth century, were bent and given as tokens of affection. As early as 1598, we learn, Thomas Kennet gave Bennet Dunnye sixpence, “bending yt once, as a tooken and pledge of the bargen and promis passed betwene them.” The musician Thomas Whythorne found his token delivered back to him by the widow he was courting (but he refused to accept it).
Russell’s research has unearthed a whole cast of unknown women and men. Damaris Page, for instance, “the great bawd of the seamen,” ran two energetic brothels (one for officers, one for sailors). She died wealthy. Ann Barrett tried to buy rhubarb at Covent Garden market with a counterfeit shilling and was deported to Australia. Elizabeth Sawyer in 1621 apparently cast a spell on Agnes Ratcleife, who had struck one of Sawyer’s pigs as it ate her soap. After Ratcleife’s sudden death, Sawyer was arraigned for witchcraft—it was said she had been seduced by a demon, in the form of a dog named Tom—and a telltale “witch’s mark” was found on her bottom.
Then there is the apothecary Dr. John Moore, whose worm powder, he advertised, had expelled from a patient’s body “a worm or insect like a Hog-Louse with Legs and…a kind of Down all over it.” And a bottle of Dr. Soule’s Hop Bitters, plucked from the Westminster foreshore, was once a popular cure-all. The American Dr. Soule even supported a baseball team in his hometown of Rochester, New York, giving each player a spoonful before the game (not a consistent success).
But the spectral owners of the artifacts sifted by the river can rarely be identified. Like the ruins of Matthew Green’s villages, they cast a shadow of foreboding. Which of our own villages, Green wonders, “are going to end up like this, faintly pencilled into the earth?” Ecological change or nuclear war may render dead cities commonplace. So a pleasure in ruins may now seem a blindness or death wish. With the risen sea levels predicted by this century’s end, future mudlarkers may be combing toxic detritus in the lower streets of London.
January 19, 2023
When Diversity Matters
Susan Stewart, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2020); reviewed in these pages by Robyn Creswell, July 2, 2020. ↩