Parish Summary: Somerton

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

The parish of Somerton is situated close to the east coast of Norfolk. It lies to the west of Winterton on Sea and to the north of Hemsby. The name Somerton derives from the Old English meaning ‘summer enclosure’. 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. This document reveals that before 1066 the lands were under the jurisdiction of various individuals including Archbishop Stigand, Wymarc and Berard. Some of the lands here also seem to have been of some value, of pounds rather than shillings.

The earliest archaeological find recovered from Somerton dates to the Mesolithic period. The artefact in question is a flint axehead (NHER 13694) and is the only definitively dated find from this period. However, the finest prehistoric object recovered is a polished flint axehead from the subsequent Neolithic period (NHER 8561). The only other finds from the Neolithic and Bronze Age period are the flint flakes (NHER 16781 and 17153) commonly produced during the manufacture of flint tools.

Somerton is not without prehistoric sites, and several appear in the archaeological records for the parish. Aerial photography has identified numerous cropmarks of ring ditches (NHER 13178, 15514 and 43429) in the area of Collis Lane. These ring ditches mark the location of prehistoric mounds or barrows. The dating of these features is uncertain as although such monuments are normally date to the Bronze Age, the shape of some of the examples here suggests an earlier Neolithic date (e.g. NHER 43429). More ring ditches, of a similar nature to those discussed above, have also been recorded at Top Farm (NHER 21772 and 27462) and High Barn Farm (NHER 43425). However, the most exciting prehistoric site is located at Gibbet Hill where the cropmarks of up to four ring ditches have been recorded (NHER 11651). It seems likely that a Bronze Age round barrow cemetery existed here and the location of the their general character and location on a prominent, south-facing spur of land is compatible with this interpretation. This evidence clearly suggests a reasonable investment of human activity within the landscape during this period, with these different barrow clusters representing important ceremonial or funerary centres.

After such a wealth of finds and sites dating to the Neolithic and Bronze Age it is surprising that we have very little archaeology relating to the Iron Age in Somerton. The cropmarks of field systems that have been found at Blood Hills Farm (NHER 11650) and Top Farm (NHER 21270) date to a variety of periods. Therefore it is possible that they could indicate that farming occurred here during the Iron Age. However, this is by no means certain and the lack of any characteristic Iron Age artefacts may suggest a drop off in human activity at this time.   

Rather more Roman artefacts have been found in Somerton, and these consist primarily of pottery sherds (e.g. NHER 16781, 18347 and 32033) and coins (e.g. NHER 16782, 30086, and 36640). It has also been suggested that some of the bricks used in the construction of St Mary’s Church in West Somerton (NHER 8581) may be of Roman origin, probably re-used from a nearby Roman building. The earthworks of a causeway (NHER 17707) running parallel to Holmes Road have been suggested to be the remnants of a Roman road, but the discovery of 18th/19th century bricks indicate the road was likely a much later, post medieval, feature. A limited number of finds from the subsequent Saxon period have been found, although no sites have been identified. Artefacts recovered include sherds of Ipswich Ware (NHER 16781) and Thetford Ware (NHER 16141) pottery along with a French-style buckle (NHER 31345), strap fitting (NHER 31478) and an early brooch (NHER 36158). 

Two churches dedicated to St Mary existed in Somerton during the medieval era (NHER 8573 and 8581). The one sited in East Somerton (NHER 8573) is now ruinous, with only the roofless nave and tower surviving. Records indicate that it was last in regular use in the 17th century. The church in West Somerton (NHER 8581) is in a rather better state of repair having undergone recent restorations. The main fabric of the building dates from the 11th to 14th century, with the impressive round tower being built in the mid 13th century. This church is noteworthy because it contains a number of important 14th century wall paintings. Another ecclesiastical foundation in Somerton during this period was St Leonard’s leper hospital (NHER 8562), now a part of modern Hall Farm. This hospital was established in the 1180s and dissolved in the late 14th/early 15th century when it was described as 'desolate'. Human bones have been found here, with the site now being used as a garden. Other medieval features noted in the records for Somerton include a possible peat cutting/sluice on Martham Broad (NHER 13508), which was identified by a series of timber posts, and a gibbet atop Gibbet Hill (NHER 15544) that was marked on a 1797 map and which presumably gave the hill its name! Additionally, the site of a medieval to post medieval post mill (NHER 27462) has been found at Top Farm, as the characteristic ring ditch surrounding a central cross-shaped pit is visible on the southern edge of the summit here.

Metal detecting and fieldwalking across the parish have recovered a range of medieval artefacts to complement the evidence provided by sites. Along with more mundane finds such as coins, buckles and pottery sherds were a number of finer pieces. These include a 14th century seal matrix featuring the pelican of piety and three of its young in their nest (NHER 30086) and a gold finger ring set with a blue stone (NHER 35750). A lead Papal bulla of Sixtus IV (NHER 41367) was also recovered, perhaps a fitting artefact for this apparently pious parish.

Many of the records concerning post medieval Somerton deal with the drainage of lands around Martham Broad. A number of drains and drainage ditches (NHER 42371, 42372 and 42373) have been identified from earthworks and cropmarks visible on aerial photographs. We also know that windpumps and pumping engines were employed to help drain/irrigate farmland. Nothing survives of the West Somerton Engine (NHER 8410) but the brick tower of the West Somerton March Drainage Pump, built around 1900, does survive as a testament to this activity (NHER 8409). Recourse to the 19th century tithe map for Somerton also shows that a wind pump (NHER 17708) was situated northeast of Leath Farm, presumably to aid with the drainage of fields in this area.

Perhaps of more interest are the two impressive post medieval halls in the parish, namely Burnley Hall (NHER 8574) and Somerton Hall (NHER 17705) (sometimes merely referred to as ‘The Hall’). Burnley Hall (NHER 8574) is a grand red brick building dating to the early 18th century but underwent restorations in the 1980s. It has all the requisite features one would expect of such a mansion including stables, carriage house, icehouse and dovecote. The history of Somerton Hall is slightly more complex. The main building dates mostly to the 16th and 18th century, but later 19th century additions are also present. The most noteworthy feature of the Hall is the fact that several of the large wooden joists in the cellar were probably originally ships timbers. It is also worth noting that, unlike other Norfolk halls, neither of these two has an associated historic park.

An assortment of finds from this period have been recovered. The majority of these are rather uninspiring pieces such as glass bottles (NHER 8563) or metal tokens (NHER 31345) although a rather nice silver thimble (NHER 18346) with a written inscription has been found within the parish.

Given the proximity of Somerton to the coast it is unsurprising that the most recent archaeological sites relate to World War Two. Two pillboxes (NHER 42387 and 12842) were identified from wartime aerial photographs. Sadly neither survives as one was demolished in September 1945 whilst the other was demolished during more recent farm rebuilding works. Additionally these photographs show a searchlight battery (NHER 42471) to the southeast of Manor Farm. This type of site would have used a radar-controlled projector mounted on a wheeled trailer and, as well as the operational equipment, it would have probably had gun emplacements. A number of bomb craters (NHER 42375, 42377 and 43424) scattered across the parish have also been recorded, but most of these are barely visible now. The final record relating to World War Two, and the last one discussed in this summary, concerns the crash site of a Wellington Bomber (NHER 14450). Sources show that this aeroplane crashed to the south of High Barn Farm in July 1941 although the reasons for this catastrophe are not known.

Thomas Sunley (NLA), 8 February 2007.

 

Further Reading

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

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

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