Parish Summary: Bircham

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

Bircham is a large parish situated in northwest Norfolk. It is about 10 kilometres southwest of Hunstanton and about 10 kilometres northeast of King’s Lynn. The western parish boundary is very straight, whilst the other boundaries vary from straight to erratically angular. Modern settlement is focused in the northeast of the parish, with concentrations at Great Bircham, Bircham Tofts, Bircham Newton and the Bircham Newton Training Centre. A few farms are scattered elsewhere in the parish.

The earliest evidence of human activity in Bircham comes in the form a Palaeolithic handaxe and a Mesolithic point that were found between 1960 and 1980. Unfortunately the exact location of their discovery is not known. Neolithic artefacts found in the parish include flaked and polished axeheads, flakes and scrapers. Most of their findspots are concentrated in the northwest of the parish. Some are sited on a hill, with others on the slopes leading away from it.

Although a Bronze Age flint barbed and tanged arrowhead was also found amongst the Neolithic concentration, most Bronze Age activity seems to have been focused elsewhere in the parish. Five round barrows (NHER 1705) are located in the southeast, with three (NHER 3521, 4758 and 28075) sited in the southwest. The southwestern barrows are part of a much larger barrow cemetery. Two ring ditches, possibly the remains of Bronze Age barrows, have been identified amongst them and there are further round barrows nearby in Harpley, Flitcham and Anmer parishes.

Beaker pottery has been collected near some of the southwestern barrows, whilst a copper alloy axehead (NHER 16996) was discovered between the two barrow sites. Undated enclosures (NHER 1719 and 28096) have been identified close to both groups of barrows. Whether they were associated with the barrows is unclear.

No Iron Age artefacts are recorded from Bircham and only a few Roman objects have been found. These include coins, pottery and roof tile found close to the centre of the parish and alongside the Peddar’s Way (NHER 1289). The Peddar’s Way was a major Roman road that connected Holme-next-the-Sea with northern Suffolk and its line forms the western parish boundary.  

Medieval lead pilgrim badge, buckle plate and belt tag from Bircham Newton.

Medieval lead pilgrim badge, buckle plate and belt tag from Bircham Newton. (©NCC)

Only a few Early Saxon artefacts have been found in Bircham and all have been come from the centre of the parish. They include pottery, brooches and two 6th century Byzantine coins (NHER 13555). At the same site a large number of medieval finds were made including a pilgrim badge, buckle plate and belt tag. One of the sites (NHER 6062) that produced a brooch also had Middle and Late Saxon ditches. Two Middle to Late Saxon coins have been found in the parish, but exactly where is uncertain.

In 1975 a Late Saxon pottery kiln (NHER 6062) was excavated in Great Bircham village. It would have produced Thetford type wares. Other discoveries in Great Bircham suggest that it was a focus for settlement in the Late Saxon period, if not earlier. These include pottery, metalwork and a forged coin of Edward the Confessor.

Bircham appears in the Domesday Book as ‘Brecham’, an Old English name for a settlement in newly occupied ground. Placename evidence suggests that this name probably originally belonged to Great Bircham and may signify its had its origins as a new settlement in the Early or Middle Saxon periods. The ‘Newton’ element of Bircham Newton suggests that it was established as settlement later than Great Bircham. It is called ‘Niwetuna’ in the Domesday Book and may have been established in the Late Saxon period. As the ‘Tofts’ element is an Old Norse word for ‘homestead’ and because it appears as ‘Stoffa’ in the Domesday Book, the same is probably true for Bircham Tofts. In 1066 Bircham Tofts was held by Stigand; by 1086 it had passed to the Bishop of Bayeux. In both years it was valued  as part of the parish of Snettisham.

The best archaeological evidence for the existence of the three settlements in the medieval period is the existence of a medieval church in each. St Mary’s, Great Bircham (NHER 1722) and St Mary's, Bircham Newton (NHER 1724) are medieval buildings with later additions. St Andrew's Church (NHER 1723) in Bircham Tofts is ruined but includes many medieval elements. The discovery of medieval finds concentrated in and around Great Bircham also demonstrates that it was a focus of medieval activity. Medieval metalwork collected to the south of Bircham Tofts may indicate that it was a focus, although as only a few pieces have been collected they are not conclusive.

The southeastern group of Bronze Age round barrows (NHER 1705) may have been where the moot of the medieval hundred of Docking met. A mound (NHER 1710) on high ground at Bircham Common could be the site of ‘Tauft's Beacon’, a beacon mentioned in documents dating to 1625.

Houghton Park (NHER 30463) encroaches into the southwest of the parish. It is a post medieval landscape and deer park focused on Houghton Hall. The 19th century West Lodge (NHER 44167) and part of the brickworks for Houghton Hall lay within the parish. 

Post medieval buildings in Bircham include Pond Farm House, the Old Rectory, the Old House, Lower Farm, Heath House Farmhouse, the King's Head and the Primitive Methodist Chapel with its associated school room. Great Bircham windmill (NHER 1720) is mid 19th century in date and was restored during the late 1970s and 1980s. Post medieval metalwork and finds have been collected south of both Great Bircham and Bircham Newton. 

Photograph of the married quarters built between 1928 and 1939 on Bircham Newton airfield.

Married quarters built between 1928 and 1939 on Bircham Newton airfield. (©NCC)

Three circular structures and a building (NHER 33735) located to the southwest of Great Bircham and visible on aerial photographs were probably World War Two military structures. In 1918 an airfield (NHER 1793) was established northeast of the Bircham Tofts. It was a Royal Flying Corp training station until 1920 when it became the base for RAF bomber squadrons. In 1936 it became a base for fighter squadrons. After the Second World War it served a number of military functions, before it was closed in 1962. In 1966 it opened as a training centre for the construction industry. Much of the airfield and many associated buildings survive and they represent one of the best preserved former RAF stations in active use.

David Robertson (NLA), 14 September 2005.


Further Reading

Anonymous, unknown. 'Bircham Windmill'. Available: Accessed 14 September 2005.

Brown, P. (ed.), 1984. Domesday Book: Norfolk (Chichester, Phillimore)

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

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

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