Parish Summary: Fritton and St Olaves

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 joined parish of Fritton and St Olaves, formerly in Suffolk, is situated in the very south of Norfolk, and is defined by the River Yare to its west and the River Waveney to its south. The name Fritton comes from the Old English for ‘fenced in village’, St Olaves being named after the medieval priory (see below). The Domesday Book of 1086 gives extensive details of Fritton’s population, land ownership and productive resources, showing the area was well established by the time of the Norman Conquest.

The earliest evidence of human activity comes in the form of Neolithic flint tools, including polished axeheads (NHER 10483, 10487, 10714 and 28830), a knife (NHER 28101) together with flakes and scrapers (NHER 10481). Subsequent evidence of activity until the medieval period is patchy, with only a copper alloy knife and spear fragment (NHER 28338) representing the Bronze Age, and no Iron Age Finds at all to date. Roman finds are a little more numerous, and include coins (NHER 17853), a brooch and seal box lid (NHER 24463) and pottery fragments (NHER 28068). The only Saxon finds are a couple of Late Saxon brooches (NHER 25859 and 28337).

The medieval period following the Norman Conquest has left the parish with its oldest surviving buildings, and probably the earliest of these is the church of St Edmund’s (NHER 10504).Situated to the west of Fritton Old Hall (see below), this is an unusual and attractive round-towered church with a thatched roof. The chancel, sanctuary and the east part of the nave are the oldest parts, and date to the 11th or 12th centuries. Most of the rest of the building is late 12th century. In the 14th century the tower was heightened and the nave extended south, and later alterations culminated in a full restoration in 1855, when the south porch was added. Inside, among many items of interest, are 12th and 14th century wall paintings and a 14th century chancel screen. The well-kept churchyard has a good collection of carved headstones and some rather grand tombs. 

Photograph of the brewhouse of St Olaves Priory. The rest of this small Augustinian Priory is now in ruins. It was founded in about 1216, and named after the patron saint of Norway. The priory was dissolved in the 1530s.

The brewhouse of St Olaves Priory. The rest of this small Augustinian Priory is now in ruins. (© NCC.)

St Olave’s Priory (NHER 10715) in the west of the parish is probably the next oldest structure, although now in ruins. This small Augustinian priory was founded in about 1216 and named after the patron saint of Norway. The priory was dissolved in the 1530s, the site being bought by the Jerningham family, who pulled down most of the church and built a mansion incorporating some of the old priory (the mansion was mostly demolished in 1784). In 1823, the remaining priory buildings were extensively looted of stone to repair Herringfleet church. Despite this, parts of the church, cloister and refectory survive, in particular the refectory undercroft, which is in excellent condition.

Other medieval survivals are less impressive, but nonetheless interesting. Fritton Lake (NHER 13527) has had many uses over the years, including that of a World War Two training site (a wartime tank sits on the lake’s bottom, victim of a training exercise that went wrong), but in fact was originally medieval peat workings which later flooded. Bell Hill (NHER 10484), a seven metre high tree-covered mound, may be medieval or date to the Civil War, but it is certainly man made, and was probably a gun emplacement covering the River Waveney. 

Photograph of Fritton Decoy pond. From Picture Norfolk.

Fritton Decoy Duck Pond.

© Courtesy of Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service.

Both St Olave’s Priory and the mansion built by the Jerningham family feature as incorporations in later post medieval buildings, and as complications, too. The north block of Priory Farmhouse (NHER 42877) is 16th century in origin, and was built on the site of part of the priory, reusing many medieval bricks. The south block of the farmhouse dates to the 19th century, but incorporates two surviving rooms from the Jerningham house. Just to add to this mixture, the whole farmhouse has been extensively altered over the years, particularly in the 20th century.

The 16th century barn (NHER 42876) to the east of Priory Farmhouse, much altered, and now a restaurant, has similar characteristics. The south wall of the barn may form part of the east end of the Jerningham house, and it also contains reused medieval brick.

More straightforward is Fritton Old Hall (NHER 10505), which although subject to numerous extensions and alterations, was originally a timber framed house dating to about 1540. The timber framed west front of the Bell Inn (NHER 15097) is late 16th century, infilled with brick in the 17th century, the rest of the house and pub being later altered and extended. The final buildings from this early post medieval period are the two barns at Caldecote Farm (NHER 34080). One is a 17th century timber framed thatched and weatherboarded building, its west end later replaced with brick. The other is also timber framed, and dates to the 17th or 18th century.

The later post medieval building are exclusively related to water. There are three windmill sites in the marshy western region of the parish, all for the purposes of drainage. Caldecote or Bell Hill Mill (NHER 10493) was built in 1844, and stopped work in the 1930s, the sails being removed shortly thereafter. The tower was gutted by fire in 1991, and although it still stands, has been boarded up. St Olave’s Marsh Drainage Mill (NHER 15098) is a rare smock mill built in 1910. It has a square tapering tower with tarred weatherboarding sides, and is held down by heavy concrete blocks. The mill fell into disuse and disrepair in the 1960s, but was restored in 1980. It retains all its internal machinery, although today the drainage work is done by an adjacent electric pump. Fritton Marsh Windpump (NHER 15093) is a mid 19th century wind pump with a tarred brick tower. Its sails have long gone, though it retains some internal machinery and external gearing for a traction engine. A fourth windmill (NHER 28069) is referred to in old documentary sources, but no trace of it remains today.

St Olave’s Bridge (NHER 11913) is a Victorian road bridge over the River Waveney. Built in 1847, it replaced an earlier bridge of 1509 and an even earlier ferry site. An early cable stayed bridge, it is an important example of cast iron construction. The decking was replaced in 1920, and a pedestrian walkway added in 1960.

The location of the parish around rivers (which form natural defence lines) meant that in World War Two, it was an area included in the anti invasion defence network spread over the whole of East Anglia. Most of the defences were dismantled after the war, but an anti tank mortar base (NHER 34345) is still to be seen east of the river.

Piet Aldridge (NLA), 24 January 2006.

 

Further Reading

Brown, P. (ed.), 1984. The Domesday Book, 33 Norfolk (Chichester, Phillimore & Co)

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

 

 

 

 

 

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