Parish Summary: Houghton (West Norfolk)

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

Houghton is a small parish in the northwest of the county, and the modern landscape is almost completely dominated by the park surrounding Houghton Hall. Houghton comes from the Old English meaning ‘farm on, or near, a ridge or hill’.

The earliest archaeological finds from the parish are a Palaeolithic flint axe (NHER 13406), a Mesolithic or Neolithic stone mace-head (NHER 1713) and a Neolithic or Bronze Age stone axe or axe-hammer (NHER 3621). The Norfolk historian and naturalist W.G. Clarke noted that there was a Bronze Age round barrow (NHER 3524) at New Houghton, although the exact location of the barrow is unknown. A ring ditch (NHER 17445) is visible as a cropmark on aerial photographs close to the village of New Houghton. The feature may be the remains of a Bronze Age round barrow or an in-filled pit. The sole Roman find recovered from the parish is a coin of Constantine (NHER 16997) that was found close to Forrester’s Lodge.

In the Domesday Book Houghton was held by William of Warenne as an outlier of a manor at Rudham. By 1307 the Walpole family had established themselves as Lords of the Manor of Houghton. In 1870 medieval building foundations were discovered in the gardens of the Hall. The remains were thought to be those of the medieval manor house, although early estate maps show the Old Hall on the site of the present hall. The medieval village of Houghton was within the area of the park, and the well-preserved earthworks of part of the village (NHER 28476) survive to the north of the Hall. The village street is flanked by tofts and house platforms, and is within a wider relict landscape of medieval field boundaries and ancient trees. The village gradually shrunk during the medieval and early post medieval periods, and by the 1730s the northern part of the village may already have been abandoned. The remaining villagers were removed when the park expanded in the early 18th century, and the earthworks of the southern half the village (NHER 3543) were comprehensively levelled, leaving only a few slight banks and the village pond. The base and shaft of a medieval stone cross (NHER 12564) was moved from its original location to stand on the site of the medieval village. St Martin’s Church (NHER 3549) is the only medieval building from the village to survive within the park. The church dates back to the 14th century, but was largely rebuilt in the 18th century, including a new west tower that was probably designed by Thomas Ripley.

Houghton Hall and surrounding park. Parchmarks of the former garden lay out can be clearly seen behind the hall

Houghton Hall and surrounding park. Parchmarks of the former garden lay out can be clearly seen behind the hall. (© NCC.)

Houghton Hall (NHER 3546) itself was built in the 1720s for Sir Robert Walpole, who was Britain’s first Prime Minister. Walpole inherited the estate in 1700 and set about modernising the Old Hall. In the early 1720s the Old Hall was demolished and construction began on the present Hall. Various architects were involved with the design of the Hall, including Colen Campbell, William Kent, James Gibbs and Thomas Ripley. The house is built in the Palladian style but with Baroque references, such as the domes on the four corner towers of the central block. The magnificent interiors on the first floor, the piano nobile, were designed by William Kent to house Walpole’s art collection.

The house has been surrounded by a park since the 17th century, and was expanded during the 1720s and 1730s. The house was originally surrounded by formal gardens and a complex network of avenues that focussed on the house. The expansion of the park necessitated the removal of the remains of the medieval village of Houghton, and the creation of a new village outside the park. New Houghton (NHER 3547) was constructed to the south of the park in the 1720s, with two rows of identical estate cottages (NHER 44188 to 44199) on either side of the road. As the park expanded a new design was also being implemented. A plan of 1735 shows the new design, which was only partially finished. The design has been attributed to Charles Bridgeman, who was the leading landscape designer for the Whig elite in the early 18th century. Bridgeman’s design shows stark, simplified geometry with large blocks of planting, and simple areas of grass and wilderness instead of complex parterres.  

Photograph of Houghton Hall water tower. Photograph from Eastern Daily Press.

Houghton Hall water tower.  Eastern Daily Press.)

In 1742 a large cutting was created to the east of the Hall, opening up the view of the park in that direction. The spoil from the cutting was used to created a series of mounds (NHER 3542) on either side, some of which were used for tree clumps, and the 18th century icehouse (NHER 3523) is underneath a massive mound created from the spoil. The walled kitchen gardens (NHER 44247) date to the 18th century and have been restored as an ornamental garden in memory of Lady Sybil Cholmondley.  The Water House (NHER 3548) was designed in 1733 by the Earl of Pembroke and is his only documented building. The building has an open Doric portico on the first floor with a pedimented door and a Venetian window. A nearby well-house (NHER 15660) pumped water to the Water House, which supplied the Hall.  The South Gates and lodges (NHER 12562) were designed by William Kent in about 1730. The North Lodge (NHER 44203) dates to the early 19th century.

Park Farmhouse and Cottages (NHER 12565) are a row of early 18th century brick cottages with arched Gothick windows. Hall Farm (NHER 12561) and Village Farm (NHER 44270) are 18th century farmhouses on either side of the village of New Houghton. Hall Farmhouse and barn may have designed by William Kent. Carpenter’s Yard Barn (NHER 44246) is a mid 18th century barn built on a Greek-cross plan, and may originally have been used as kennels for fox-hounds. North Pole Farm and barn (NHER 36116) date to the 19th century and contain reused blocks of medieval ashlar.

Sarah Spooner (NLA), 18 April 2006.


Further Reading

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

Houghton Hall, no date. 'Houghton Hall'. Available: Accessed: 18 April 2006.

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

Moore, A. (ed.), 1996. Houghton Hall: The Prime Minister, The Empress and the Heritage (London, Phillip Wilson)

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

Pevsner, N. and Wilson, B., 1997. Norfolk 2: North West and South (London: Penguin)

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

Williamson, T., 1998. The Archaeology of the Landscape Park: Garden Design in Norfolk c1680-1840 (BAR British Series no. 268)

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