Parish Summary: Northwold

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

Northwold is a large parish in the southwest of Norfolk. It lies to the south of Oxborough and to the north of Methwold and ranges across small tracts of fen and a more extensive area of Breckland. The name Northwold is derived from the Old English meaning ‘north woodland’. The parish has a long history and was certainly well established by the time of the Norman Conquest, its population, land ownership and productive resources being extensively detailed in the Domesday Book of 1086.

A huge number of prehistoric finds have been recovered from the parish. The earliest recorded finds are Mesolithic flint implements (NHER 32863 and 34736) including microliths (NHER 4803) – the quintessential artefact from this period. However, Neolithic objects are by far the most numerous of any in the parish. The majority of these were found through extensive fenland fieldwalking in the 1990s. The principal discoveries were of flint and potboilers scatters, with these especially concentrated around the High Fen area (NHER 23208, 23209, 23210, 23381, 23382, 23383, 23671, 23672, 23673 and 23679). A huge range of flint implements have also been recorded and include axes, both polished (NHER 14753) and chipped (NHER 4808), scrapers (NHER 34479) and projectile points (NHER 4751 and 4807). Unsurprisingly, this wealth of evidence clearly shows heavy fenland exploitation in this parish, probably on a seasonal basis and for the purposes of lithic production and hunting. This activity was likely centred on islands in the Fens such as Herringay Hill (NHER 13458), a Neolithic flint-working site, which continued to be of importance into later prehistory.

Indeed, there is evidence for continued activity in the Bronze Age. A characteristic round barrow has been investigated at Herringay Hill (NHER 13458) and another with an associated ditch (NHER 29471) has been tentatively identified 300m south of College Farm. The most crucial find site relating to this period lies in a field to the north of High Fen Drove (NHER 23680). Excavation of the horseshoe-shaped barrow here yielded pottery sherds from a domestic assemblage as well as uncovering a storage pit with wooden boarding. This likely occupation site may have earlier origins as attested to by numerous ditches and pits that predate the mound. Further evidence of occupation and agricultural exploitation take the form of numerous ring ditches (NHER 35572, 35573, 32251, 22996 and 22995) and an unusual five-causewayed enclosure with a central barrow (NHER 4814). Finds of a nature similar to those from the Neolithic, like socketed axehead (NHER 17714, 11409 and 11254), arrowheads (NHER 14832, 4752 and 4736) and a spearhead (NHER 4795) suggest a smooth continuation of the occupation and activities established earlier on.

The archaeological record is much more sporadic in the Iron Age and subsequent Roman period. The Iron Age finds in particular are uninspiring and consist solely of random pottery sherds (NHER 4809 and 4810). Metal detecting has recovered some nice Roman finds, but none of these suggest any significant presence or occupation. The most noteworthy of these are two fine pewter plate hoards dubbed ‘Northwold A’ (NHER 4777) and ‘Northwold B’ (NHER 4778) but their presence amongst the scatter of mundane buckles (NHER 4724), coins (NHER 21100, 20691 and 32863) and pottery sherds (NHER 4776, 36652) seems slightly baffling.

As we move towards the medieval period there seems to be more activity in Northwold. An Early Saxon inhumation cemetery (NHER 4811) was found here in 1838-9 and produced a vast array of finds including brooches, swords, forty shield bosses, a silver bracelet and eighty or so glass or amber beads. A particularly striking Saxon gold pendant fashioned from a Byzantine coin has been recovered and Viking artefacts including a twisted copper alloy finger ring (NHER 33938) and spearhead (NHER 4812) have also been found.

The medieval period saw the construction of the splendid St Andrew’s Church (NHER 4836) in the centre of the village. The majority of this building is 13th to 15th century in date and may owe some of its finery to the patronage to Hugh of Northwold who was the Bishop of Ely from 1229-54. Any visitors should take particular note of the Aztec-style carved head on the exterior of the chancel. Inside is the largest Easter Sepulchre in the country and spectacular tomb depicting soldiers from the reign of Richard II. The only other standing medieval structure is the 14th century Northwold Cross (NHER 4813) but this wayside monument has undergone numerous later repairs. According to documentary sources there may once have been a grand hall called ‘Hovell’s Manor’ (NHER 4831) here, and aerial photography has identified moated enclosures possibly relating to this building.

Artefacts found through metal detection and fieldwalking add to the picture of medieval life in Northwold. In addition to the pottery sherds (NHER 4776, 4827 and 36652) a couple of elegant artefacts deserve a mention. The first is a magnificent lead seal matrix (NHER 29191) with elaborate trefoils and well-preserved inscription. The other dates to the end of the period and takes the form of a sword scabbard chape with fleur-de-lis decoration (NHER 32901). These both indicate that there were at least some prosperous individuals in residence here at this time.  

Photograph of Northwold watermill photographed around 1900. Photograph from Norfolk Mills website.

Northwold watermill photographed around 1900.

A return to fenland exploitation occurred in post medieval times, with a watermill (NHER 14494) and a number of lime kilns (NHER 41779) being built around the turn of the 20th century. The remains of the water mill, which was situated at the edge of the Didlington Estate, are still visible but sadly no trace is left of the kilns. Maps also show two post mills: Northwold Mill and Manby's Turret (both NHER 14495) were in operation during the late 17th/early 18th century. A desire to reclaim fenland also led to the construction of drainage pumps like the one erected by Hardings of King’s Lynn in 1849 (NHER 4797) which was retained in some form until 1942. Therefore all in all it seems there was a step up in agricultural and industrial action during this time.

A stroll along the High Street of Northwold shows there to be an impressive collection of 17th and 18th century grade II listed buildings (NHER 46834, 46835, 46836, 46890, 47087). Perhaps the finest of these is Number 43 (NHER 47115), formerly known as Sycamore House, which has a grand Classic-style entrance complete with Doric surrounds and Ionic columns. Other buildings worth a look include Manor House (NHER 21680), with its impressive full height 18th century entrance tower, and Manor Farm, which incorporates part of an earlier medieval aisled hall (NHER 4830). Both are situated across the road from St Andrew’s Church. It was also during the post-medieval period that the other ecclesiastical foundation in the parish, Christ Church in the village of Whittington, was built. This church (NHER 4799) is unusual as it is a late single period construction erected in 1874-75 by local architect R. M. Phipson and dedicated to Reverend Charles Norman by his widow. Of note is the fact that the organ is a recent insertion (in 2000) from St James, Harpur Hill in Buxton.

The most recent archaeological sites recorded are defences that were set up during World War Two. The first is a spigot mortar emplacement (NHER 32688) found in a wooded area at the easternmost extremity of Northwold village itself. The other is a collection of defences (NHER 28806) including a gun emplacement, searchlight battery, barracks and circular emplacement visible as soilmarks to the east of Brookville on aerial photographs taken in 1946.

This concludes the overview of archaeological evidence for Northwold; those wishing to dig a little further should see the detailed records.

Thomas Sunley (NLA), 4 December 2006.

 

Further Reading

Brown, P. (ed.), 1984. The Domesday Book (Chichester, Phillimore & Co.)

Norfolk Federation of Women’s Institutes, 1990. The Norfolk Village Book (Newbury, Countryside Books) 

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

Silvester, R. J., 1991. The Fenland Project Number 4: The Wissey Embayment and the Fen Causeway, Norfolk (Gressenhall, Norfolk Archaeological Unit)

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