Parish Summary: Gressenhall

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

Gressenhall is a large parish in central Norfolk, close to the town of East Dereham. Settlement in the parish is fairly dispersed; the main village of Gressenhall is in the north of the parish, and the hamlets of Sparrow Green and Bushy Common are in the south of the parish. The parish of Great Bittering is now divided between Gressenhall and Beetley, and the settlement, which has an obscure history, is now known as Bittering Street. 

Prehistoric finds have been found scattered throughout the parish. Prehistoric flint flakes (NHER 285772923929242 and 29249), Neolithic axeheads (NHER 2791279713796 and 14872) and a barbed and tanged arrowhead (NHER 29257) have been found. An oval enclosure of unknown date (NHER 30563) is visible as a cropmark on aerial photographs. The enclosure may date to the prehistoric period. A number of Bronze Age pot boiler sites (NHER 2801 to 280829243 and 29244), or burnt mounds, have been identified in the parish. In 1999 an excavation carried out by Network Archaeology revealed a ditch (NHER 29247) containing Neolithic and Bronze Age flints and prehistoric pottery. The cropmark of a ring ditch (NHER 17590), probably dating to the Bronze Age, is visible as a cropmark on aerial photographs in the east of the parish.

The only evidence of Iron Age occupation is pieces of Iron Age pottery (NHER 32609 and 40973).  Roman pottery (NHER 29237, 29239, 29241 to 29248, 30563, 32609, 33362 and 33651) and Roman coins (NHER 22808, 31428 and 40973) have been found during fieldwalking and metal detecting. A Roman brooch (NHER 39361), a Roman quern (NHER 11356) and fragments of Roman tile (NHER 34445) have also been found. No definite Iron Age or Roman settlement can be identified with any certainty. More detailed fieldwork may be able to establish the location of specific settlement sites.

A single fragment of pottery (NHER 29247) dating to the Early Saxon period has been found. Middle Saxon pottery (NHER 30563) and Late Saxon pottery (NHER 2820, 7292, 12588, 29239 to 29241 and 29246) have been found. Gressenhall comes from the Old English meaning a ‘grassy or gravely nook of land’. In the Domesday Book the land was held by William de Warenne, and prior to the Conquest the land had been held by a free man named Toki. The holding was a reasonably valuable one, it was worth £4 in 1086, and had mills, woodland, meadows, and an outlying portion of land in Scarning. Bittering comes from the Old English meaning ‘settlement of the family or followers of a man called Beorhthere’. There are entries in the Domesday Book for Bittering, but it is unclear whether they refer to Great Bittering, or the nearby settlement of Little Bittering. 

View of St Mary's Church showing the central tower, the chancel and the south porch.

St Mary's Church, Gressenhall. (© NCC.)

The parish church of Great Bittering was dedicated to St Nicolas (NHER 2816). The church had vanished by the 18th century, and the site is marked by the detour taken around the site of the churchyard by the parish boundary between Beetley and Gressenhall. St Mary’s Church (NHER 2835) in Gressenhall is a large Norman cruciform church, which was altered in the 15th century and restored in the 19th century. The church contains a medieval carving of the stoning of St Stephen and many Norman architectural details.

In the 13th century the Chapel of St Nicolas (NHER 2822) was founded on the site of what is now Union Farm. The chapel had a college of priests, and mid 15th century accounts mentions a timber framed mill, perhaps on the site of the later watermill (NHER 12758), and a building with a hall and a solar chamber for the master of the college. The land held by the chapel became known as the manor of Rougholm, and the site is marked on a 17th century map the site of Rougholm Manor. The chapel and other buildings on the site had fallen into disrepair by the 18th century.

The earthworks of a medieval moat (NHER 7292) survive at Sparrow Green. The moat is associated with another ditched enclosure, and an earthwork ditch probably represents the edge of the medieval common. A possible medieval moat (NHER 25435) is visible as a large rectangular cropmark on aerial photographs in the far south of the parish, near Bushy Common. The site of the medieval manor of Herfords (NHER 33746) is marked near Bushy Common on a 17th century map. St Agnes’ Well (NHER 12467) is a spring reputedly used by pilgrims on their way to the shrine at Walsingham.

Sparrow Hill Farmhouse (NHER 11621) is a timber framed house that probably dates back to the 16th century. The house has a 17th century brick façade. Spring Farm (NHER 19081) and a house on Dereham Road (NHER 16875) are also timber framed 16th century buildings. A 17th century map of the parish shows a deer park near the site of Gressenhall House. Gressenhall House (NHER 2823) was an 18th century mansion that was demolished in 1948. A small park surrounded the house, and the surviving outbuildings date to the 18th century.  The presence of an earlier deer park suggests that was a substantial building on the site before Gressenhall House was built in the 18th century. 

The east wing of the workhouse.

The 18th century former workhouse in Gressenhall. This wing is now the offices of the HES. (© NCC.)

In 1777 a House of Industry (NHER 2819) was built on an area of former common land in the west of the parish. The main workhouse buildings date from the late 18th century, whilst the chapel and other buildings in the complex date from the 19th century. Union Farm (NHER 2822) dates back to the 18th century, when it was the workhouse infirmary. The workhouse became an old people’s home in 1948 and is now the Norfolk Rural Life Museum and the headquarters of Norfolk Historic Environment Service.

Chapel Cottage (NHER 14160) is a 17th century timber framed cottage, with a 19th century clay lump extension that has been used as a Methodist Chapel since the 1920s. During the 19th century a large watermill (NHER 12758) was built on the site of a medieval watermill. The mill burnt down in 1914, but the miller’s house is still standing. During the 19th century a smock mill (NHER 20064) stood in the area near the bowling green in the village of Gressenhall.

Sarah Spooner (NLA), 24 January 2006.


Further Reading

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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