Parish Summary: Harpley

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

Harpley is a parish in the northwest of Norfolk. It is located south of Bircham and north of Little Massingham, and the Peddar’s Way (NHER 1289) forms the west part of the parish boundary with Flitcham with Appleton. The village is recorded in 1086 in the Domesday Book as having half a salt house and this may be important when we consider the derivation of the name. ‘Harpley’ comes from Old English and can be translated in a number of ways. One possible interpretation is ‘clearing with a salt harp’. A salt harp was a type of sieve used in the production of salt. Alternatively the name could mean ‘clearing of the harp’ or ‘harp-shaped clearing’. The Old English derivation of the name and the recording of the village in the Domesday Book suggest that Harpley was founded during the Saxon period. Archaeological evidence indicates that the parish was an important focus for a different type of activity much earlier in the Bronze Age. 

Aerial photograph of Bronze Age round barrows at Harpley. The concrete posts around the barrows protect them from ploughing.

An aerial photograph of Bronze Age round barrows at Harpley. (© NCC.)

The earliest find from the parish is a Mesolithic or Neolithic flint pick (NHER 29229).  Two Neolithic flint axeheads (NHER 16172 and 3525) and other Neolithic flint tools (NHER 3526) have also been recorded. There is a Neolithic long barrow (NHER 3637) on Harpley Common to the east of the parish. A Beaker period flint arrowhead (NHER 28755) has been found in a garden in the village itself. In the Bronze Age several round barrows were constructed on Harpley Common (NHER 3527, 3528, 3529 and 3531) clustering around the earlier Neolithic long barrow. Some of these barrows have been severely damaged by ploughing in the 20th century and can no longer be seen (NHER 1005, 3530 and 4759). Others are only identifiable as possible ring ditches (NHER 11818, 11819, 12813, 17442, 17443 and 17444) seen on aerial photographs. Despite the damage done to some of these monuments it is clear that the area was an important focus at this period. Most of the barrows are located northwest of the modern village, although a few are more scattered throughout the area. A series of undated pits (NHER 3538) recorded on the Common may also be Bronze Age although it has been suggested that these are natural features. Bronze Age objects including a Bronze Age copper alloy axehead (NHER 3533) and flint axe hammer (NHER 4943) have also been recovered.

It is interesting that the Peddar’s Way (NHER 1289), a Roman road, runs through the cluster of Bronze Age barrows recorded above. Despite the presence of this busy thoroughfare however there is very little other evidence for Roman activity in the parish. Two coins (NHER 3534 and 23302) have been recorded and some fragments of Roman pottery (NHER 11980 and 16172) have been found. Despite the documentary evidence for the Saxon settlement of Harpley there is little archaeological evidence to reinforce this interpretation. It has been suggested that St Lawrence’s church (NHER 3550) may incorporate parts of an earlier Late Saxon building on the site. The present building was built between 1294 and 1332 and was significantly changed in the 15th century.

Earthworks in Harpley Hall Park show that in the medieval period Harpley was a much larger settlement than it is today. The medieval papal seal (NHER 23735) found in a garden in the modern village would have been used by Pope Martin IV to seal important documents. Early medieval pottery was also found during the excavation of one of Harpley’s Bronze Age barrows (NHER 1005).

Harpley Hall (NHER 3551) unfortunately no longer exists. Other post medieval buildings have fared better. Manor Farmhouse (NHER 22259) was built during the 16th century. Manor Farm barn (NHER 12642) may have been built in 1656. A post mill is marked in Harpley on Faden’s map of Norfolk made in 1797. This was replaced by a tower mill (NHER 12644) in 1838. The hexagonal building now called The Roundhouse (NHER 12643) was built in 1844 and William Herring’s Almshouses (NHER 43058) are dated to 1850. The pretty Primitive Methodist Chapel (NHER 12641) built in 1871 has now been converted into a house. Much of the post medieval landscape also remains. The north part of the parish is still part of Houghton Park, a landscape and deer park that was founded around 1707. Cross’s Grave (NHER 3648) is on the eastern parish boundary with West Rudham. Reputedly this is the grave of a man called Cross who committed suicide and was buried here.

The most modern archaeological site in Harpley recorded in the database is a telephone box (NHER 43056) on Nethergate Street! Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed this K6 type cast iron telephone box in 1935.

Megan Dennis (NLA), 6 February 2006.


Further Reading

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

Knott, S., 2005. ‘St Lawrence Harpley’. Available: Accessed: 6 February 2006.

Lawson, A.J., Martin, E.A. and Priddy, D., 1981. 'The Barrows of East Anglia' East Anglian Archaeology Report 12, (Norfolk Museums Service, Suffolk County Council and Essex County Council)

Lawson, A.J., 1976. ‘The Excavation of a Round Barrow at Harpley’ East Anglian Archaeology Report 2: Norfolk, (Gressenhall, Norfolk Archaeological Unit) pp 45-62

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

Neville, J., 2005. ‘Norfolk Mills – Harpley tower windmill’. Available: Accessed: 6 February 2006.

Norfolk Museums and Archaeology, Unknown. ‘Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service: Norfolk Monuments Management Program’. Available: Accessed: 6 February 2006.

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

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