Parish Summary: Rackheath

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

Rackheath is a parish situated in the Norfolk Broadlands to the northeast of Norwich, a mere two miles from the River Bure. Sprowston borders it to the east and Salhouse and Wroxham to the north. The origins of its name are unclear but it could derive from a phrase in Old English meaning ‘landing-place near a gully’. This would certainly fit as a tributary of the Bure flows past All Saints’ Church, which may have provided enough water for a small harbour to be formed away from the marshes. 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.

Aerial photography of the parish can certainly confirm that was an active area in the past. Numerous cropmarks have been recorded that identify features such as pits (NHER 18152), enclosures (NHER 17676), trackways (NHER 18329), earthwork entrenchments (NHER 9688), ring ditches (NHER 29561) and possible barrows (NHER 21125). Unfortunately most of these cannot easily be dated and thus interpreted but readers of the summary should bear in mind that some of these may relate to the more specific finds and activities that are discussed for the archaeological periods below.

Prehistoric activity in the parish seems to be concentrated to the northwest of the village centre, clustered around All Saints’ Church. The most significant discovery made is that of a possible flint-working site (NHER 12630) which yielded a large number of worked flint pieces including flakes, blades, borers and a scraper. The earliest examples found here were of Mesolithic date. Additionally, a number of worked flint pieces and implements were found scattered in the immediate surrounding area (NHER 19345, 19346, 19298, 18329). The sheer amount of flint pieces suggests that some sort of lithic production was carried out here during the prehistoric period. A large number of Neolithic flint axeheads have also been reported for Rackheath from locations such as the Park (NHER 8149), School field (NHER 8148) and garden of a private property (NHER 8147). However, the recovery location for many is inexact and it is possible that these too came from the northwest site (NHER 12630), which with its close proximity to a water source at Dobb’s Beck may have been suitable for occupation. A prehistoric pot boiler (NHER 17248) was also recovered from along the footpath leading to All Saints’, again highlighting the density of finds in this region.

The quantity of archaeological finds diminishes in the Bronze Age. A barbed and tanged flint arrowhead (NHER 36254) was retrieved near to the electricity substation in Craske Drive, south of the main centre of Rackheath. One of the only other artefacts from this period was a high brimmed globular-based pottery vessel (NHER 8057) discovered near to Dobb’s Beck in 1834. Some of the flints from the previously discussed flint-working site (NHER 12630) also dated to the Bronze Age. These sparse finds do at least imply some continuity of activity into this period in the northwest of the parish.

Apart from a possible Iron Age terret (NHER 40112) no other artefacts or sites were definitively dated to the Iron Age but this is not necessarily an indication of a lack of activity, as perhaps many artefacts still await discovery. Roman finds are also surprisingly few although metal detection has recovered a variety of coins including examples from the reigns of Diocletian (NHER 8150), Antonius Pius (NHER 14237) and Magnentius (NHER 19163). A couple of sherds of Roman greyware were also retrieved (NHER 19296) along with a fragment of a ‘dog dish’ (NHER 19297) near to All Saints’ Church. Few Saxon finds have been recovered other than odd pottery sherds, one of which is of the Thetford Ware type (NHER 18329).

Rackheath has an interesting medieval heritage. The medieval village appears to have been located some 400m northeast of All Saints’ church. This area is now heavily overgrown but house platforms from the remnants of the village have been observed along Dobb’s Lane (NHER 12638). However, the main settlement area subsequently moved south which explains why the medieval church of All Saints’ (NHER 8175) now stands alone in the fields. This 14th century church was rescued from dereliction by the local people and is worth visiting to see the numerous fine commemorative monuments to the wealthy parishioners of the past. Documents also suggest that a church was also situated much nearer to the modern centre of the village, but this church at ‘Little Rackheath’ (NHER 12639) had decayed by the 16th century. Three to four inhumations were found during a house extension on a property in the nearby area. Their position and alignment suggests they originate from the churchyard of this long gone church. Documents also show a number of medieval tracks and hollow ways run from Norwich through Sprowston and onto Rackheath. These are named as Ravengate Way (NHER 8127), Ranworth Way (NHER 8166) and Horning Ferry Way (NHER 8128) but little trace of these can now be observed. Amongst the mundane medieval artefacts and pottery sherds recovered were a nice leaf-decorated copper alloy strap end (NHER 19297) and the quillon from a dagger (NHER 40112).

In the post medieval period the two most prominent features of the parish were Rackheath Hall (NHER 8172) within the glorious Rackheath Park (NHER 30518). The Park existed by 1588 but was greatly enhanced in the early part of the 19th century with the formation of new lodges and an avenue. The gold-painted cast iron gates (NHER 8173) made by Cottam and Hallen were installed at this time but sadly do not survive. The deer that populated the woodland at this time were presumably for the enjoyment of the hall’s residents. The Hall, also dating to around the early 19th century, enjoys a magnificent setting and has a particularly striking appearance with giant Ionic pilasters supporting the central bay and a beautiful Tuscan porch. There is also a brick bridge with elliptical arches (NHER 20138) over the pond behind the Hall that links the kitchen garden to the estate road. Anyone going for a wander around the expansive park should stop off at the Hall as it has now been converted into an antiques shop.  

Aerial photograph of Rackheath airfield.

Aerial photograph of Rackheath airfield. (© NCC)

Traces of an industrial past are far and few in the parish. The remains of a hydraulic ram (NHER 17247) erected in 1890 lie to the southwest of All Saints’ Church and a map of 1836 suggests that lime kilns (NHER 15933) were located in an area near to the Rackheath/Crostwick parish boundary line but no physical evidence of these structures remain. Episodes of metal detecting have uncovered random post medieval finds from across the parish, the most glamorous of which was a lead powder charger cap (NHER 40112).

Only one World War Two site has been identified in Rackheath but it was one of great importance. The airfield (NHER 8170) located here was used during the war by the United States Eighth Air Force as a station for B-24 Liberator bombers, and it presumably operated as a satellite field to Horsham St Faith. After the war the site returned to farming and private usage. Many runways were broken up for aggregate but some still survive, as does the control tower, which is currently being used by a scrap merchant. The Americans were so grateful for the use of the Rackheath airfield that a memorial was erected near the village sign on the Salhouse Road, adjacent to All Saints’ Church.

Thomas Sunley (NLA), 12 December 2006.

 

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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