Stanhoe up to the Norman conquest

When does one start the story of a village? It would be nice to do so when the first people wandered over the area, but that is impossible as they will have left no traces behind them.

The earliest we can manage is the late Mesolithic to early Neolithic, some 6,500 years ago. For these people there is evidence in the shape of flint tools, which the late Mr Bob Fenn not only spotted when he was working on the land to the north of the village, but happily collected whenever he could. The adverb “happily” is appropriate in this case as the fields were stone-picked shortly afterwards in readiness for carrot growing, so field walking is unlikely ever to find more.

photo: Gillian Beckett

flint hand axes and scrapers

Flint tools collected by Bob Fenn

The selection includes axes, scrapers and spokeshaves, as well as a great quantity of pot boilers – all evidence of a population, if not fully resident, at least using the site periodically. Mr Fenn took a representative collection to Lynn Museum:

Catalogue of flint tools from Stanhoe compiled by Dr Andrew Rogerson of Norfolk County Council’s Historic Environment Service.

It does seem very likely that these stones scattered across the land may have given rise to the name Stanhoe, which means “stony hill” or “the hill where there are stones”. Certainly the land is naturally stony, but so is that around much of this area.

Roads and barrows

It is also likely that some of the present local road system can be traced back to this period. Recent work by Dr Tom Williamson and others on a Bronze Age settlement at Burnham Sutton found that it was aligned exactly along a road and field boundaries which still exist.

Some earlier work by Dr Mary Hesse on the road system in the Creakes also suggests that the some of the long, parallel boundaries and tracks which run across the area may be Bronze Age land divisions made in an already cleared area. They certainly belong to a time when large areas were in one ownership, before later divisions of the area into different ownerships. None of these boundaries are followed by Roman roads, which all seem to run at a different angle.

Other relics of prehistoric times which must have made a great impact on the local landscape were the tumuli or barrows which were once frequent, especially on the drier ground between Stanhoe, Barwick and North Creake. Their names crop up regularly in the court rolls of the 13th–16th centuries. For as long as much of the land was used for grazing, barrows would have provided no hindrance to farming and many no doubt survived into the early 19th century.

When corn prices went up steeply during the Napoleonic Wars, however, the barrows – as with the Iron Age Fort at South Creake – were deliberately flattened so that the area could be put under cultivation. So far not one of Stanhoe’s barrows has been pinpointed on a map, though a 16th century estate map of North Creake names the road from Creake to Shammer as “High Barrow Way”.

Enter the Romans

Recent metal-detecting and fieldwalking has produced Roman coins and pottery from several parts of Stanhoe, and some Roman artefacts. There is unlikely to have been a nucleated village here in Roman times. More likely is a scatter of Romano-British farms spaced a kilometre or so apart, probably on the same sites that had been farmed from the Bronze Age onwards.

At the northern end of the parish a small Roman site was excavated some years ago, though it turned up little more than some building material, one statuette and a quantity of pig bones. An archaeologist with a sense of humour suggested a Roman pork pie factory!

The Roman period ended in the 5th century when the Roman army was recalled to help defend Rome itself against barbarian attacks. As the Roman soldiers also acted as the country’s police force, and the only coinage in the country was in the form of their wages, the sudden end of Roman rule left this country very open to raiding and internal strife.

Angles and Danes

It is now believed that the Anglo-Saxon invasion (here in East Anglia more properly known as the Anglian invasion, since the Saxons were never in this area) was a far less violent affair than was once thought. Instead, the new arrivals probably took advantage of a period of general disorder which will have inevitably followed the sudden withdrawal of the Roman army.

The name “Stanhoe” (“stony hill”) is of Anglian origin, but we do not have any road or farm names dating from this period. A few artefacts and coins from the mid- and late Saxon periods (AD 650–1066) have been found in the parish.

The Danes, in contrast, left a great legacy of road names. Right through medieval times and beyond, most of the roads of the village ended in the name “gate”, such as Northgate and Petergate. This usage is purely Scandinavian, and even today many of the roads in Denmark have the name Gata.

photo: Charles Butcher

Gorse bush

Gorse is a reminder of Barwick’s
relatively sandy, acid soil

History in the soil

To the south of Stanhoe is Barwick, a smaller parish with land that is mostly much lighter and more acid. In early references the name Barwick is often followed by “in the Brakes”, meaning an outlying farm – perhaps a barley farm – created from land once covered with bracken.

This is in contrast to Stanhoe, where much of the land has the underlying chalk much closer to the surface – close enough for there to have been a number of chalk or marl pits in the parish (marl is the softer chalk found above the main chalk deposits). Ploughing by prehistoric farmers tended to cause increasing acidity as rain leached away the lime, leaving the soils thin, acid and ideal for the growth of heather. The occurrence of another Danish name, ling (“heather”), in many of the field names indicates how far this problem existed throughout the area. Chalk and marl dug from the pits were spread on the land to reduce the acidity.

photo: Charles Butcher

Former marl pit showing as a saucer-shaped depression in a field of young wheat

This marl pit near Church Farm has been almost ploughed out. Other pits around Stanhoe are still up to 10 m deep and 30 m across

By the 10th–11th centuries a pattern of ownership was already well established, and this has survived, with little modification, into the 21st century. The countryside which Domesday Book described so carefully in 1086 was in fact a Saxon one with new owners. In fact Domesday emphasises this by listing the landowners in 1066, followed by those in 1086 when the land-ownership had changed so drastically, though the majority of the country’s population was undoubtedly English.