Things to do
Villages of Breckland
Norfolk is quite a large county, as English counties go. As it was a very prosperous one, with very good farmland, it was quite densely populated in the past.
There were over 730 villages in the early 19th century. Before that, there were many others which had become emparked, abandoned, eroded away by the sea or incorporated into other towns and villages or the City of Norwich.
In the Breckland area, we have over 130 towns and villages and, although some of our present villages are tiny, like Illington or Little Bittering, with just a few inhabitants. Others,such as Mattishall or Swanton Morley have over 2,000 inhabitants.
The History of our villages
Most settlements in the area can trace their origins back to early medieval times, many to Doomsday and some, to pre-history.
The fact that Norfolk was a very prosperous area of England, means that we also have many large houses, such as Lexham Hall or Letton Hall and medieval churches. We also have several large ecclesiastical buildings, ruins or sites such as at Wendling or North Elmham and castles and fortified houses such as those at Mileham and Weeting.
It is no coincidence that so many of our magnificent churches contain massive memorials to family members of the local landed gentry. The amazing memorials in Tittleshall and Oxburgh are reminders that there were some very important people living in Breckland in the past. The cost of some of these memorials, would have been sufficient to pay for new houses for several peasant families in the village!
Houses and estates to visit
Large houses, some dating back to the 12th century, are also found in abundance all over the area. Many are open to the public, some regularly and some on special occasions such as the Heritage open days.
Most villages had at least one large house, either the Rectory, The Manor House or The Hall. Some villages, especially those on the big estates, have many large farmhouses too.
Some of these large estates, such as The Merton and Holkham Estates, which often consisted of several villages, would be controlled from the owner’s mansion in a part of the estate, with Merton Hall administering the estate which included Merton, Thompson, Griston, some of Watton, Tottington, Sturston and Stanford. Holkham Hall administered that estate, with villages in this area which included Weasenham All Saints, Weasenham St Peter’s, Wellingham, Tittleshall, part of Great Massingham, West Lexham and Castle Acre.
Many of our stately houses in Norfolk, are open to the public and are well worth a visit, as they show how the rich lived, together with what it was like below stairs.
There are lots of tiny cottages still surviving too, but most of them have been modernised and extended, leaving little indication of what they were like to live in in the past. One place where you are able to see a good example of a 16th century cottage is in Dereham, where Bishop Bonner’s Cottages are open to the public. Also, the cottage, which today houses a couple in centrally heated and en-suite comfort, in the 19th century, was home to a family of fifteen or more, with the only facility being in a little shed at the bottom of the garden.
We do have several museums where cottages like these are preserved, such as at Gressenhall, so we can see what conditions were like. But museums can’t generally give an accurate picture of living conditions as they really were. Even in the 1960s, the trip down the yard to visit a little shed with a wooden seat was common for country folk.
Scraping the ice off the inside of the bedroom windows was quite normal on a winter’s morning.
Don’t forget the pubs
The other important building in most villages in the past, was the pub. Many of these old pubs are still in operation and visiting a real pub has to be high on the list for any visitor to The Brecks. There is nothing like an English pub. Enjoying a pint while sitting by a roaring open fire on a cold winter evening is something which can’t be described, it has to be experienced!