Parish Summary: Hilgay

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

Hilgay is a large parish in the southwest of the county. It is part of the west Norfolk district. The villages of Hilgay and neighbouring Southery to the south are on one of the largest islands in the fens. Hilgay village is to the north of the island located on the banks of the River Wissey that was once a busy route way for barges carrying goods from Stoke Ferry to the port of King’s Lynn. It is now more frequently used by holiday boats. Beyond the island the parish stretches to the north across Great and Little West Fen to the River Great Ouse. The village is thought to have Saxon origins and the name Hilgay derives from Old English meaning ‘ island of Hythla’s or Hydla’s people’. The village is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1087 when the main manor was owned by the monks of St Benedict of Ramsey who built a priory (NHER 4459) here. There is plentiful evidence for earlier settlement on the island however. The Fenland Survey, a large-scale fieldwalking project, has recovered finds from almost all the fields in the parish. These have enabled us to put together a picture of how and where people were living in the past.

The earliest recorded finds date to the Neolithic period. Casual finds of a Neolithic adze (NHER 2498), flint knife (NHER 2510), scraper (NHER 15872), ‘pestle’ (NHER 4449) and several flint axeheads (NHER 4448 and 15798) are evidence of activity on the island at this time. All these finds are located on the edge of the island. Fieldwalking as part of the Fenland Survey also recovered evidence of a concentration of activity here. A group of Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age flints (NHER 24258) may indicate significant activity. Smaller groups of prehistoric worked flints (NHER 23231 and 23656) are harder to interpret but are also located at the fen edge. Burnt prehistoric flints (NHER 23442, 23654, 23655, 24256, 24257, 24258, 24292, 24314, 24315, 24318 and 24367) are more prolific and eleven sites have been recorded by the Fenland Survey. These cannot be dated within the prehistoric period although some are located so close to the fen edge that they must have been flooded by the Bronze Age. Dating to around the same period as this increase in water levels in the fen is a Beaker period vessel (NHER 4450) found near Wood Hall in 1847.

Bronze Age finds are concentrated on the island. Here a Neolithic to Bronze Age axe hammer (NHER 4451), several Bronze Age copper alloy palstaves (NHER 2499, 11405, 14420, 17488, 17489, 17493, 17890, 17968 and 36785) and three copper alloy axeheads (NHER 4452, 13891 and 15766) have been found. Unfortunately the exact locations of some of these are not recorded as they were found back in the 19th century. The evidence for activity in the Iron Age is less plentiful. A group of Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age pottery found at the site of an earlier concentration of worked flints (NHER 24258) may indicate a site of intense activity. Unfortunately a second scatter of Iron Age pottery (NHER 24367) was recovered during bad conditions making it difficult to record the exact spread of pottery and therefore interpret the finds.

There appears to have been an increase in occupation of the island during the Roman period. One of the most exciting discoveries made by the Fenland Survey was the existence of earthworks of a small Roman farmstead (NHER 4455) to the west of the village.  The survival of this type of remains is incredibly rare. Two ring ditches associated with the farm have been interpreted as stack stands for drying hay in the rather soggy landscape. Other pottery concentrations (NHER 24317, 23706 and 24367) identified by the survey may also indicate other centres of activity. Together with a third smaller cluster of Roman pottery (NHER 23368), a scabbard chape (NHER 17414), a possible Roman finger ring (NHER 11405) and a 4th century Roman disc brooch with a glass ‘stone’ (NHER 17903) there is considerable evidence for the presence of Roman settlement on the island under the modern village. This occupation may be characterised by several small farmsteads like that to the west of the village or a rather larger settlement. To the east of the parish parts of a possible Roman road (NHER 25273) were recorded but have been destroyed by deep ploughing since the 1940s. The road has been tentatively identified as Akeman Street.

Despite the suggested Saxon origins for Hilgay village there is very little evidence for Saxon activity. A burial excavated in the churchyard has been interpreted as Early Saxon (NHER 4453) and the discovery of parts of two Early Saxon small-long brooches (NHER 17797) nearby have led to the suggestion that this may be an Early Saxon cemetery. A few pieces of Late Saxon pottery (NHER 13903) recovered by the Fenland Survey suggest a later medieval settlement to the northeast of the modern village may have had Late Saxon origins. Other evidence for Saxon Hilgay may be underneath the modern village. 

Aerial photograph of medieval ridge and furrow earthworks at Hilgay.

Aerial photograph of medieval ridge and furrow earthworks at Hilgay. (© NCC.)

The primary manor of Hilgay during the medieval period, as recorded in the Domesday Book, belonged to Ramsey Abbey. The Abbey built Modney Priory (NHER 4459) as a Benedictine cell. It was founded before 1291 and was dissolved in 1539. A possible moat, foundations and raised building platform around Modney Farm may be remains of the priory. A moated manor (NHER 4454) may also have belonged to the priory. More lowly dwellings can be identified by scatters of medieval pottery (NHER 13903) and a possible rubbish dump (NHER 13903). Medieval ridge and furrow systems (NHER 14497, 23231, 23232, 24136 and 24137) can be seen across the island. One patch (NHER 24136) is almost 19 hectares in size and is the largest remaining area of medieval ridge and furrow in Norfolk. In one place small medieval tofts (NHER 24314) associated with these fields can be seen. Much of the land of the parish was still at the mercy of the flooding fens and the King’s Dyke (NHER 29183), a large bank to the west of the parish, may have been built as a flood defence. It also marks the boundary between Hilgay and Methwold parishes. The site of a medieval windmill (NHER 13456) is still called Mill Mound. The parish church is All Saints’ (NHER 4453). This was built in the 14th and 15th centuries although the Victorians heavily restored it. The rivers were important route ways at this time and a canal (NHER 24368) may have been built to link them together. 

Ten Mil Bank Bridge, demolished June 2004.

Ten Mile Bank Bridge was built in the late 19th century and demolished in 2004. (© NCC.)

Drainage became a major issue in the post medieval period and the fens were drained by many wind pumps. The sites of many of these are marked on old maps (for example NHER 2504, 2505, 12487, 14490, 14491 and 14492). The Abbey continued to have an important influence on the parish and in 1579 they built Wood Hall, a grand building slightly isolated from the village to the southwest of the island. Hiam’s Tramway (NHER 13750) was a horse drawn narrow gauge tramway that was used for transporting farm produce from before 1914 until 1939. St Mark’s Church, Ten Mile Bank (NHER 2507) was built between 1846 and 1847. This Classical style building was built on the site of an earlier drainage wind pump. Other interesting post medieval buildings include Manor Farm barn (NHER 39349) parts of which were built in 1780 and Venney Farm barns (NHER 40772) which were built between 1800 and 1820 and have an interesting and unusual brick arch construction. Other post medieval buildings have been demolished. Ten Mile Bridge (NHER 40938), a lattice cast iron structure, was built in the late 19th century but was dismantled in June 2004. During construction of a new bridge to replace Ten Mile Bridge several wooden posts (NHER 39684) were discovered under outbuildings of the former Windmill Inn. These may have been part of a wooden structure built to support a steam engine driven drainage pump.

There are several buildings surviving from World War Two including pillboxes (NHER 23379, 24365, 32680, 33377 and 37013), spigot mortar emplacements (NHER 32681 and 37013), a gun emplacement (NHER 24369) and a possible Home Guard shelter (NHER 32679). Other sites from the war have been destroyed including a searchlight battery (NHER 33377) and a pillbox (NHER 39776).

Megan Dennis (NLA), 8 March 2006.

 

Further Reading

Brown, P. (ed.), 1984. Domesday Book, 33 Norfolk, Part I and Part II (Chichester, Philimore)

Edwards, M., 2003. ‘Roll of Honour – Norfolk – Ten Mile Bank’. Available:

http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Norfolk/TenMileBank.html. Accessed: 8 March 2006.

Great Britain Historical GIS Project, 2006, ‘Hilgay Norfolk through time. Local history overview for the place’. Available:

http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/place/place_page.jsp?p_id=5463. Accessed: 8 March 2006.

Mills, A.D., 1998. Dictionary of English Place Names (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

Neville, J., 2004. ‘Norfolk Mills – Hilgay smockmill’. Available:

http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Norfolk/TenMileBank.html. Accessed: 8 March 2006.

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

Rye, J., 2000. 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 East Anglian Archaeology Report No. 52 (Gressenhall, The Norfolk Archaeological Unit)

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