Parish Summary: Pentney

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

Pentney is a long narrow parish spread along the sides of the River Nar in the west of Norfolk. It lies south of East Winch and to the north of Marham. The name is believed to derive from the Old English meaning ‘Penta’s island’ or ‘Penta’s river land’ with Penta being a personal name. 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 under the name Penteleiet.  

The earliest find from the parish is a Lower Palaeolithic handaxe (NHER 40727) but pot boilers are undoubtedly the most frequent sign of prehistoric activity in Pentney. A considerable number of pot boiler scatters have been recorded, often with associated flint pieces, from three principal areas along the course of the River Nar: Pentney Island (NHER 19880, 19881, 19882, 23012 and 23013), around Ashwood Lodge (NHER 23116, 23184 and 23641) and near to Ketlam Drain (NHER 23115, 23640 and 23642). These finds are unsurprising, as exploitation of fenland resources seems common in Norfolk’s prehistory. In addition to these pot boilers, fieldwalking has recovered several Neolithic flint implements such as axes (NHER 3911, 3912, 3913, 11249, 14841, 14842, 17637 and 17642), including a possible axehead hoard (NHER 3914), as well as a chisel (NHER 14168) and scrapers (NHER 3915 and 19873). Excavations to the southeast of Little Abbey Farm have also uncovered two prehistoric inhumations (NHER 13400) although there was not enough evidence to assign a more accurate date range.

Little evidence for occupation in the Bronze and Iron Ages has come to light. Cropmarks recorded by aerial photography show an enclosure with associated ring ditch (NHER 11709) but the majority of Bronze Age evidence comes from metal objects found through metal detection. The most glamorous find is that of a gold torc (NHER 3919), which was given to the King’s Lynn Museum after recovery but stolen in 1974! Thankfully this precious artefact was restored to the museum in 1975. The other find of interest is a hoard (NHER 3944) of metal artefacts (mainly axehead and pins) found sometime before 1829. Sadly this may not in fact be a part of the local heritage as it has been postulated that the items reported are part of the Barton Bendish/Boughton Hall hoards. Iron Age finds are similarly thin on the ground although a couple of silver coins (NHER 13400 and 18042) of the Iceni tribe have been recovered with one decorated with a horse head motif (NHER 18042).

The north side of the Nar Valley attracted more attention in the Roman period. The Great Ketlam kiln site (NHER 15170) located here was of great significance and produced Nar Valley pottery vessels that were exported to as far away as South Shields and the Antonine Wall. This large production site yielded an enormous collection of Roman objects, too great to list here in any detail. Suffice to say everything from coins, brooches, pottery and finger rings to gaming pieces, beads and figurines were retrieved, with metal detection proving a very efficient technique. The heavy industrial exploitation of Pentney during this period is also attested to by a lesser kiln site (NHER 13400) and possible iron-working site (NHER 23241) identified by slag on the ridges around the Abbey. As one would expect a similarly large number of Roman objects have been scattered across the parish. Highlights comprise a ring and dot decorated neck ring (NHER 20442) from northeast of the main Roman site and a beautiful Colchester type brooch (NHER 33612).   

Photograph of a Middle Saxon stylus from Pentney.

A Middle Saxon stylus from Pentney. (© NCC)

The most famous finds from Pentney come from the Saxon period. In 1977 Mr William King, the gravedigger at St Mary Magdalen’s Church, unearthed six silver disk-shaped brooches dating to the 8th/9th century (NHER 3941). These rare and astonishingly crafted finds are of international importance and were valued at £135,000. They currently reside in the British Museum, which provides them with the exposure deserving of such glorious artefacts. Finds of Saxon pottery, including Ipswich Ware (NHER 20443) and Thetford Ware (NHER 3923), show that the pottery producing traditions established in the Roman era may have continued in some form. Otherwise evidence is limited to sporadic metal objects such as a copper alloy cruciform brooch (NHER 35698) a stylus (NHER 16583) and pin beater made from bone (NHER 41335).

During medieval times Pentney appears to have been an important ecclesiastical centre within Norfolk. An Augustinian Priory was founded by Robert De Vaux in 1135 and flourished, enabling it to set up other groups including one in West Acre, Norfolk. It is reported that a number of Canons perished during the Black Death in 1381 but despite these losses the Priory continued its good reputation until the Dissolution in 1537. Sadly only the 14th century gatehouse ruins (NHER 3924) remain from this proud building but a wide range of artefacts has been recovered from this location including swords and coins. A secular badge (NHER 40979), cast from lead, may also relate to the Priory, as these were typically given out at religious shrines as proof of a pilgrimage. St Mary Magdalene’s Church (NHER 3941) also originates from this time, being a 12th century construction (albeit now showing the hallmarks of Victorian restorations). This ornate church houses several impressive gargoyles on its roof and the dedication to this particular saint demonstrates the close links between the Priory and church.

Amongst the more typical finds of this era two in particular stand out. The first is an attractive gilt bronze finger ring (NHER 18424) set with a dark stone (garnet?). The other is a well-made lead seal matrix of 13th to 14th century date (NHER 32803). The stamp design is a six-pointed star in the centre with crescent moon, with a legend that reads 'Seal of Robert [the] Fisher'. Presumably this fine item belonged to a man of standing within Pentney.

The 1840s saw Pentney added to the burgeoning rail network in the region with the inhabitants of Pentney sharing a single station with neighbouring Narborough. The iron canopies of Narborough station remain, as do the bridge piers over the River Nar between Pentney and Narborough, with the purple brickwork suggesting a steel superstructure (NHER 13600). This railway may have served as a means to distribute goods produced by the mills recorded in Pentney during this period. The watermill (NHER 3471) was in use until the early 20th century but little survives. A documentary source of 1826 refers to it as the Windmill Inn, which may suggest that the structure had a varied history of usage. The same source records that a corn mill (NHER 36521) was present in Pentney but no further evidence exists for the mill. The other main archaeological evidence comes from metal detecting findspots across the parish. A few of the more unusual items recovered by this are a lead plaque with Corinthian decoration (NHER 32986) that was once possibly part of a carriage, a crotal bell (NHER 16583) and fragment of a copper alloy Jew’s harp (NHER 16583).

During World War Two a number of defences were erected in Pentney to combat the threat of Nazi attacks. Two Type 22 pillboxes (NHER 32402 and 32404) were erected in strategic locations so that their gun emplacements could provide covering fire as necessary. A further pillbox at Bradmoor Common (NHER 32403) was recorded by aerial photography but this has long since been bulldozed into the lake here. The concrete remains of a spigot mortar gun emplacement have also been uncovered in a hedge to the west of the priory gatehouse (NHER 31143). The RAF station at nearby Marham also made use of fields to the east of Abbey Field Farm as a dispersal airfield (NHER 29537) in the earlier part of the war. The inland location meant that Pentney was likely considered to be a relatively safe area and thus the few defences erected would serve adequately.

Thomas Sunley (NLA), 4 December 2006.


Further Reading

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

Norfolk Federation of Women’s Institutes, 1990. The Norfolk Village Book (Newbury, Countryside Books) 

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

Silvester, R. J., 1991. The Fenland Project Number 3: Norfolk Survey, Marshland & Nar Valley (Gressenhall, Norfolk Archaeological Unit)

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