Parish Summary: Outwell

This Parish Summary is an overview of the large amount of information held for the parish, and only selected examples of sites and finds in each period are given. It has been beyond the scope of the project to carry out detailed research into the historical background, documents, maps or other sources, but we hope that the Parish Summaries will encourage users to refer to the detailed records, and to consult the bibliographical sources referred to below. Feedback and any corrections are welcomed by email to heritage@norfolk.gov.uk

Outwell civil parish is situated right on the western edge of the county of Norfolk; its neighbour to the west, Elm, is part of Cambridgeshire. Indeed, up until 1990 Outwell parish itself was split in half between Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, the boundary falling along the old line of the Nene and cutting the village in half. Outwell parish is part of the West Norfolk local government district. In 1935 the part of Outwell which was in Cambridgeshire was reduced in size to enlarge Emneth. 

The parish is criss-crossed by drains, and the eastern corner is cut north to south by the Middle Level Main Drain, and east to west by Well Creek. The villages of Outwell and Upwell now run together along the line of the A1101, but they retain separate parishes, the boundary falling in the Allotment Gardens between the two villages. To the north and east the land is largely arable and pasture fields, the eastern area referred to as Walsingham Fens and the north as Well Moors. On the edges of the village a small amount of woodland survives near Birdbeck Field to the south and Church Field to the east. 

The name ‘Outwell’ is derived from Old English, and may indicate that it is a later settlement that sprang up out of Upwell. This suggests that the village of Outwell as we know it was established during the Saxon period, however there is a small amount of evidence for exploitation of the parish during previous times. The construction of a new sewerage pipeline across a large number of fields on the western side of the village recovered a small number of worked flints (NHER 37156), and a possible Bronze Age ring ditch just 800 metres east of the village (NHER 32065), as well as a fragment of an axe head from an area to the very north of the parish (NHER 41077).  

There is a little evidence for the Roman period, with two possible turbary sites (NHER 31429, NHER 31432) being identified. Of most interest is part of a Roman period complex indicated by cropmarks on aerial photographs of the area, possibly linked to a Romano-celtic temple site just across the border in Cambridgeshire (NHER 25829). Unfortunately we have only very limited evidence to support this suggestion, although 350 metres to the southeast a large amount of Roman pottery has been recovered, as well as a small number of Roman coins and a brooch (NHER 25842). To the north of the parish a scattering of Roman metalwork has also been recovered, including coins and personal adornments (NHER 41077, NHER 44753).  

The lack of evidence of monuments suggests that occupation during the pre-Saxon period was not of any particular density, however metal detecting has only been taking place sporadically in this parish since the beginning of the decade. As this parish is explored more, we can hope that further coins, pottery and metal objects will be recovered and shed further light on the this period of Outwell’s history.  

However, Outwell does possess rare evidence of Early Saxon occupation. Evaluation trenches on the site of the Post Office (NHER 37647), sheltered in the crook of the Nene in Outwell village, discovered deposits of Early Saxon pottery, a fragment of bone comb, and domestic rubbish which included charred cereals, egg shell, fish bone and crustacean fragments. The recovery and analysis of this form of evidence has only recently become possible, and indicates that Saxon occupation of Outwell began early in the Saxon period. 

Mullicourt Priory, also known as St Mary de Bello Loco Priory (NHER 4211), on the eastern bank of the Middle Level Main Darin, may have been a Benedictine priory in the Saxon period, though there is little evidence for this site. Saxon material has also been recovered from other sites, including a Late Saxon brooch (NHER 31930) from the south of the Great Sandy Field area, and a large number of Saxon objects, including coins, from the northern area (NHER 41077) where Roman occupational evidence has also been recovered. A small scattering of Saxon period finds have also been recovered around the village and near to the Saxon settlement site (NHER 37647), largely dominated by pottery sherds (NHER 44753, NHER 42846).  

Photograph of a gargoyle on St Clement's Church, Outwell. Photograph from www.norfolkchurches.co.uk

A gargoyle on St Clement's Church, Outwell. Photograph from www.norfolkchurches.co.uk (© S. Knott.)

The Domesday Book has little to say about Outwell, although it is mentioned, and it could be that much of the parish was included in the assessment of its possible parent, Upwell, which was large and highly valued. However, by the 13th century the parish church of St Clement’s had been built (NHER 4224). The 13th century tower and nave west wall remain today, the body of the church dating to the 14th century, although it underwent thorough remodelling in the 15th and 16th century. The exquisite hammer-beam chapel roof is one of the best in Norfolk, and the roofs of both the aisles and nave are also original. In addition, there are also a good number of medieval stained glass fragments, and a depiction of the Presentation in the Temple which is almost complete. A number of gargoyles also survive on the outside of the church, including a very attractive little winged demon visible in the photograph.

The great house of the parish was Beaupre Hall, a late medieval house with a turreted gatehouse, dovecote and chapel, which survived until the 1960s when it was demolished to make way for a modern bungalow (NHER 4210). Mullicourt Priory (NHER 4211), a Benedictine priory dissolved in 1539, is also destroyed, as is Saint Christopher’s Chapel (NHER 25839), the location of which is largely lost. 

What does remain is a scattering of finds across the parish that includes a 14th century iron dagger (NHER 17407), a 14th century seal matrix and a medieval statuette (NHER 31930), a pilgrim icon (NHER 36055), fittings and pendants (NHER 42846) and the more common pottery sherds (NHER 35648) and coins (NHER 41077). Artefacts are also common from the post medieval period, and as well as the more common coins (NHER 41077), tokens (NHER 41348), and pottery sherds (NHER 42846), finds have included a copper alloy metalworking hammer (NHER 36055) and an Elizabethan sword (NHER 34130). 

It is also possible that one other medieval building survives inside Wood Hall (NHER 25963), a rare early 17th century timber hall that encloses the surviving wall of a possible 14th century medieval aisled or raised aisled hall. Wood Hall itself received additions in the 18th and 19th centuries, and sits in a moated site that may support its possible beginnings as a medieval building. Built in the same period is Beaupre Hall Farm, a 17th century T-plan farmhouse (NHER 22169), and Emneth Lodge, a 17th century great house demolished in the early 19th century, fragments of which are incorporated into Welhurn Cottages (NHER 44209). 

It is during this period that the drainage of the Fens was undertaken. Previous to this the parish of Outwell had been marshy, situated on the fenland and dominated by the Nene. Drainage increased the amount of agricultural land, and by the end of the 19th century over 60% of the population were engaged directly in agricultural activity, with over half the male population of the parish occupied as labourers and servants employed by land owners. Mapping of the region in the 18th and 19th century recorded a number of the mills used to move water from the marshes and up into the rivers (NHER 14516, NHER 25831, NHER 16324, NHER 16325), as well as the Mullicourt Aquaduct (NHER 4222), and also provides us with evidence for a small amount of industrial activity in the shape of brick kilns (NHER 43925). 

It is late in this period that the parish received the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway, an unusual tramway in that it ran alongside the road and was constructed to enable the import of coal to the region and the export of agricultural produce, initially potatoes and later flowers. The Tramway’s real claim to fame is that it was the inspiration for Toby the Tram from Rev. W. Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine book series.  Unfortunately it is long closed, and the only remaining part to be seen in Outwell is the goods office (NHER 46816). 

A small number of buildings dating from this successful period in Outwell’s history include the Red Lion public house (NHER 44633), a 19th century red brick inn with later alterations, scheduled to be demolished, Springwood, a mid 19th century red brick house (NHER 47092) and its possibly earlier barn in buttressed brick (NHER 46871), as well as Birdbeck Farmhouse which is largely 19th century although it may contain older elements. 

In more recent times, Outwell also had a World War Two Searchlight Station (NHER 11920) just to the east of Outwell village, and a pillbox in the crook of the Nene, ironically situated just where the Saxon settlement was found (NHER 37647). Within sight of this, on the northern bank of the Nene, a telephone kiosk of the famous K6 design by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott can be seen (NHER  46870).   

Ruth Fillery-Travis (NLA), 15 December 2006.  

 

Further Reading 

Knott, S., 2006. ‘St Clement’s, Outwell’. Available:

http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/outwell/outwell.htm. Accessed: 15 December 2006.

Southall, H., 2006 ‘A Vision of Outwell CP/AP’. Available:

http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit_page.jsp?u_id=10178812. Accessed: 15 December 2006.

Marsden, R. 2006. ‘The Wisbech and Upwell Tramway’. Available:

http://www.lner.info/article/wisbech/wisbech.shtml. Accessed: 15 December 2006.

Morris, J. (General Editor), 1984. Domesday Book, 33 Norfolk, Part I and Part II (Chichester, Phillimore & Co)

Rye, J., 1991. A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place Names (Dereham, The Larks Press)

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