Parish Summary: Methwold

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

Methwold is a large parish in the West Norfolk district. Many prehistoric finds were recovered from the area in the 18th,19th and early 20th century and the fen area was extensively fieldwalked in the 1980s and 1990s as part of the Fenland Survey. This enables us to understand the diverse and exciting archaeology of this part of the parish, although the breckland to the east and immediate environs of the villages are less well recorded.

The boundary of the parish follows both natural and artificial features including the King’s Dyke (NHER 29183) a flood defence system that was mentioned in documents as early as 1609. The modern village is on the Breckland plateau a little inland from the fen edge. The place name derives from Old English and Old Scandinavian. The first part of the name is Scandinavian and means ‘middle’. ‘Wold’ is English and means ‘forest‘. Methwold Hythe is situated on the fen edge. Methwold Warren was once famous for its rabbits (note the site of Rabbit House, NHER 22008) but is now surrounded by Forestry Commission conifer plantations.

The earliest records are for a concentration of finds dated to the Upper Palaeolithic to Mesolithic period (NHER 4738). These are indicative of occupation. Activity seems to have been concentrated on Catsholm ridge during the Mesolithic (NHER 20991 and 2533). The River Wissey passes close to the ridge and would also have done so in the Mesolithic period before taking a rather different route in the west part of the parish. Forest would have covered both the fen and upland areas at this time. A second area of activity (NHER 4755) has been located on the southern edge of the Hythe Valley. This site may also have been alongside a major river in the valley that has since dried up.

Many finds dating to the Neolithic period including axeheads, scrapers and knives have been recovered. Occupation sites have been identified at Methwold Severalls (NHER 20346) and Methwold Hythe (NHER 23117). The spread of debris at Methwold Severalls includes Neolithic bowl pottery (NHER 20346). These scatters seem to be concentrated on sandhills near the River Wissey. These little ‘islands’ in the fen were used less intensively by the Late Neolithic period. Surprisingly there seems to be very little Early Neolithic activity on Catsholm ridge and the south side of Hythe valley despite the concentration of activity here in the Mesolithic.

Many concentrations of Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age worked flints have been recovered during the Fenland Survey fieldwalking. Occasionally it is possible to identify and date a site more accurately, for example the Late Neolithic occupation (NHER 21194) on Methwold Common. More commonly the scatters of lithic material can only be described as indicative of Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age occupation (NHER 21138, 21139, 21192, 23045, 23236 and 24494). It is likely that many of the prehistoric burnt flint scatters (NHER 23135, 23219 and 23230) recorded also belong to this period. The amount of activity on outlying islands decreases during the later Neolithic. Instead occupation seems to be concentrated on the fen edge. There are occupation sites on the southern edge of Catsholme Ridge (NHER 23236) and a possible barrow (NHER 23235) has also been identified here. Closer inspection revealed that the mound was a result of underlying geology but a possible prehistoric buried soil layer and a ditch that contained Neolithic worked flints were recorded. A possible Neolithic to Bronze Age skeleton (NHER 2546) was found close-by in the peat in 1932.

A number of Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age sites have been recorded on the fen edge south of the Hythe valley (for example NHER 21138 and 21139). These sites seem to be located on adjacent ridges. This suggests that settlement may have moved from one ridge to another over time or that larger scale settlement was spread around the damp hollows between the ridges. There is also some evidence for occupation further east along the valley (NHER 4780).

Several possible Bronze Age human skeletons (NHER 2534 and 2542) have been recovered. These inhumations were found with no accompanying grave goods but have been assumed to date to this period. Several Bronze Age burial mounds or round barrows (NHER 4945, 11941, 13114, 23235 and 24628) have been identified and two further ring ditches (NHER 35571 and 36369) can be seen as cropmarks on aerial photographs. Although the archaeology of the dead is quite visible during this period, evidence for settlement is not clearly discernible. 

Two Bronze Age socketed spearheads.

Two Bronze Age socketed spearheads found in 1894. (© NCC)

Many Bronze Age objects have been recovered. These include axeheads (NHER 31037), a torc (NHER 2537), a bracelet (NHER 2539) and a possible hoard (NHER 17713). The location of a Middle Bronze Age hoard (NHER 5235) has been more thoroughly investigated. Excavations on the site suggest that the hoard had been redeposited at this site along with some Iron Age objects probably during a flood in the Iron Age.

Three Iron Age settlement sites have been identified at the head of the Hythe Valley (NHER 23385, 24486 and 24487). Another settlement lay to the west end of the inlet (NHER 21216). South of Methwold Hythe there is evidence for another site (NHER 4848). These sites seem to be fairly evenly spread along the fen edge although it cannot be assumed that there were people living at all of the sites at the same time. Occupation was either sited adjacent to the fen edge or streams where water could be easily collected and also closer to the chalk plateau where water would have been more difficult to come by. It is unclear whether these different locations represent two different types of settlement. The only other evidence for Iron Age activity is a pit (NHER 35423) that was excavated during an archaeological watching brief for the construction of a reservoir.

There is no evidence for a change in settlement pattern in the Roman period. Sites are even more regularly distributed. A scatter of Roman pot found near the Feltwell parish boundary probably reveals the location of a Roman farmstead (NHER 23654). Unfortunately it is likely that the site itself has been destroyed by the construction of the Cut-Off Channel. Close-by the cropmarks of a possible Roman enclosure (NHER 36379) may be related to this farm. More evidence for settlement can be seen on the southern slopes of the Hythe valley (NHER 22364). The material from here dates from the 2nd to the 4th century AD. Metal detecting has also recovered Roman coins (NHER 22053) from the area. 

Photograph of Methwold High School students fieldwalking on the site of Methwold Roman villa. Photograph from Eastern Daily Press.

Methwold High School students fieldwalking on the site of Methwold Roman villa. © Eastern Daily Press.

The site of a Roman villa (NHER 4780) at Little Holme was excavated in 1887. A number of rooms with masonry foundations and probably opus signinum floors were recorded. The site was 'rediscovered' in 1932 when pieces of Roman pot and tile were found. Fieldwalking (by the Fenland Survey and Methwold School) and metal detecting have recovered a large number of Roman finds. These include a seal box, part of a column base, a lion's-head waterspout, coins and pieces of pot tile and opus signinum flooring. A resistivity survey demonstrated that walls and floors are still preserved. Although excavations were only carried out in one field it is clear that the spread of Roman material is much wider (NHER 24174 and 24480). It appears that in the Roman period there was a regular distribution of small farmsteads along the fen edge.

Interesting Roman finds include coins (NHER 34264, 31674 and 31672), a copper alloy model of a bull’s head (NHER 19124), a steelyard weight (NHER 31668) and the head of two figurines of the goddess Minerva and a youth (NHER 22637).

In contrast to the wide and diverse evidence for prehistoric and Roman activity there is very little that can be said about the Saxon archaeology of Methwold. The site of a possible Saxon church (NHER 6415) was recorded in 1888, but the exact details of the discovery are garbled. Middle Saxon ditches and burials (NHER 23120) were recorded during the construction of a pipeline. There are few Saxon finds. An Early Saxon small-long brooch (NHER 4894), a possible Late Saxon finial (NHER 33288) and a Saxon vessel mount (NHER 41003) have been recovered. This absence of evidence may not necessarily mean that there was no activity during the Saxon period. It is important to remember the Fenland Survey fieldwalking concentrated on the west side of the parish. There may still be evidence for Saxon Methwold waiting to be found in the east.

The village of Methwold is mentioned in the Domesday Book where it is recorded that Weeting was an outlier of the manor. Seven fisheries and twenty-seven beehives are recorded as belonging to the holding. The inclusion of the village, and its mention in the earlier confirmation of the Ely Abbey’s possessions written in 1050, suggests that the village had Saxon origins. Earthworks of fishponds and medieval tofts (NHER 24980) are may be associated with the medieval hall or castle (NHER 4935) that was finally destroyed in the 19th century. The name however, survives at Hall Farm (NHER 40650). Within the village itself the elaborate church of St George (NHER 4941) was mostly built in the 14th century. Adjacent to the church is Old Vicarage (NHER 6424) which is a 15th century timber framed house.

The foundations of the church of Methwold Hythe, St Helen’s (NHER 22053) were uncovered in 1880. Very little is known of the date or layout of this building. Very close to this site are two concentrations of material recovered during the Fenland Survey that are indicative of medieval occupation (NHER 21217 and 24493). Slevesholm lay to the east of Catsholme and was the site of an Alien priory cell (NHER 4792). This Alien Cluniac cell was founded around 1140. Its mother house was at Castle Acre. It became a proper cell between 1351 and 1374. It was dissolved in 1537. Cropmarks of a trackway leading to the cell and enclosures can be seen on an aerial photograph.

During the post medieval period drainage of the fens was managed by wind powered pumps (NHER 4467 and 41058). Over time these were replaced by steam power (NHER 2559) and later electric and diesel motors (NHER 41060 and 41061) were used. Windmills were also used to grind corn (NHER 4936, 16206 and 16207). Settlement was located in almost an identical position to today although the site of one post medieval building (NHER 23657) was revealed by the Fenland Survey and subsequently identified on an old map. During the post medieval period people adapted parts of the ancient landscape to new uses. A Bronze Age barrow was reused as a boundary marker and a gibbet was erected on it (NHER 13114). The Methodist chapel (NHER 6427) was built in 1831.

During World War One reports suggest there was a prisoner of war camp (NHER 40215) in the parish although the location of the site is not clear. The Feltwell and Southery Farming Company Railway (NHER 18619) ran from a junction with the Wissington Railway's Common Dyke branch and was built to serve a 'large farming estate in the area'. It was in use between 1928 and 1957. A World War Two airfield (NHER 4937) was built as a satellite airfield for RAF Feltwell (NHER 4942) in 1939 before the outbreak of war. A decoy airfield (NHER 25540) was also constructed. There are several pillboxes (NHER 21200 and 32689) and a rare base for an anti-aircraft gun (NHER 28807). There were two aircraft crashes here during the war. A Wellington crashed soon after take-off from the airfield on 6 January 1942 (NHER 45351). The aircraft involved in the second crash (NHER 45357) has not been clearly identified.

Megan Dennis (NLA), 7 July 2006.

 

Further Reading

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

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

Neville, J., 2005. ‘Methwold tower windmill’. Available:

http://www.norfolkmills.co.uk/Windmills/methwold-towermill.html. Accessed: 7 July 2006.

Rye, J., 2000. A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place-names (Dereham, The Larks Press)

Unknown, unknown. ‘Methwold Homepage’. Available:

http://www.btinternet.com/~methwold.homepage/. Accessed: 7 July 2006.

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