Things to do
Villages of Breckland
Norfolk is quite a large county, as English counties go. In the past, it was a very prosperous one, with very good farmland. Because of that, it was a magnet for those who wanted to amass large estates. Because these estates and their farms required large numbers of labourers, this area was quite densely populated too, resulting in hundreds of villages, one, often less than a mile from the next.
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 people living in them.
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 number of medieval churches means that you will rarely need to go more than three miles before you come across yet another amazing old building.
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
The fact that Norfolk and Suffolk were very prosperous areas of England, means that we also have many large houses and stately homes, such as Merton Hall, Lexham Hall or Letton Hall. Some of our houses date back to the 12th century, but many were built during the heyday of house building between the C17th and C19th. Many are open to the public, some regularly and some on special occasions such as the Heritage open days. We have just one National Trust house in the area, at Oxburgh, but there are several within easy driving distance, such as Ickworth, Anglesey Abbey, Long Melford, Blickling and Felbrigg.
Most villages had at least one large house, either the Rectory, The Manor House or The Hall and 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. Merton Hall administered the estate which included Merton, Thompson, Griston, some of Watton, Tottington, Sturston and Stanford. Holkham Hall administered the estate from the headquarters out on the North Norfolk coast, but, with villages in this area which included Weasenham All Saints, Weasenham St Peter’s, Wellingham, Tittleshall, part of Great Massingham, West Lexham, Longham and Castle Acre.
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.
This tiny museum was actually three cottages and, it is interesting to think, when we see a cottage which today houses a couple in centrally heated and en-suite comfort, in the 19th century, there was probably a family of fifteen or more, with one fire and the only facility being in a little shed at the bottom of the garden.
We do have several museums in the area, where information about life in the past can be found, such as at Gressenhall, Thetford Ancient House, Swaffham Museum, Watton Museum, Bishop Bonner’s Cottages and elsewhere too, so we can see what conditions were like. But, although museums can give an accurate picture of living conditions, they can’t give experiences 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 on a winter’s morning; laying out towels to soak up the water, to stop it from forming puddles on the window-sill when the ice melted in the sun; taking a bath in a tin bath-tub in front of the fire, all of these things were still common for villagers, right up to the 1970s.
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!