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Exploring North Norfolk, England

My interest in architecture and history influences our choice of where to visit while on holiday and day trips.

Shellye's Cafe in Swaffham, North Norfolk where the hospitality was superb

Shellye's Cafe in Swaffham, North Norfolk where the hospitality was superb

Holiday Accommodation

When we go on holiday, we always go self-catering, and we always look for accommodation that is a little out of the ordinary, with good reviews and which is inexpensive.

For this holiday we rented Hadleigh Farm Cottage, a holiday cottage on a working farm over a mile away from the main road, a very quiet and tranquil location in the heart of the countryside.

Hadleigh Farm is in the village of Ashwicken, a small village with an estimated population of 467; just a mile down the road from Ashwicken, on the B1145 is the small village of Gayton, with a population of 1,432, which had a superb ‘fish & chip’ shop from where on an evening we could buy a bag of chips (fries) to take back to our holiday to have a chip butty while watching TV. The name Gayton means ‘goat farm’.

Hadleigh Farm Cottage: Holiday Cottage, Ashwicken, King’s Lynn, Norfolk

Places Visited on Our Holiday in North Norfolk

More Places Visited on Our Holiday in North Norfolk

Medieval Fortified Town Gates

Across England today remnants of medieval town fortification gates, in various states of disrepair, can be found; while on holiday in North Norfolk we came across two: -

1. The Bailey Gate in the village of Castle Acre, and

2. The South Gate in the market town of King’s Lynn

Bailey Gate, Castle Acre

The village of Castle Acre was a fortified town established by the Normans shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and is named after the castle which was built at the same time. The Bailey Gate is the only one of the original gates to the fortified town that still exists to this day.

South Gate, King’s Lynn

King’s Lynn (originally called Bishop’s Lynn) is a market town with a population of 42,800. The origin of the town may date back to the Anglo-Saxons! In the Domesday Book of 1085 King's Lynn was called Lena (Lynn), which in Welsh means ‘body of water’, although in Anglo-Saxon it means ‘tenure in fee’ e.g. farm! The town was renamed to King’s Lynn in 1537.

The South Gate, King’s Lynn’s only surviving gatehouse, was built in 1439, replacing an earlier town defence that dated back to at least 1270. The gatehouse formed part of the town’s defensive fortifications. As well as the gatehouse, King’s Lynn was also defended by wall, banks and ditches and the River Great Ouse; the River Nar (a tributary of the Great Ouse) came right up to the gatehouse.

North Norfolk Medieval Fortified Town Gates

Architecture and History of North Norfolk Churches

Our son is a professional photographer who specialises in church architecture as part of his portfolio. Therefore, whenever we’re on holiday we make a point of stopping-by any churches we see that is of architectural interest so that our son can take his photos.

While in North Norfolk, three such churches that we stopped at to admire and photograph were: -

  • The round tower church of St Andrew’s in the village of Little Snoring.
  • The Parish Church of St Botolph in the village of Grimston, and
  • The Church of St Lawrence in the village of Castle Rising

Round Tower Church in Little Snoring

The Village of Little Snoring (population 619) is 2 miles from the smaller village of Great Snoring (population 143). In the Domesday Book of 1085 the village is named after the settler’s leader, “Snare” from which the name Little Snoring evolved.

The round tower at this church seems to be of Saxon/Norman origin dating back to at least the 11th century. There are only 185 surviving examples of round-tower churches in England, of which 124 are in Norfolk.

Parish Church of St Botolph, Grimston

The village of Grimston (population 1,980) is six miles from King’s Lynn and just a few miles from the Royal family residence at Sandringham House. The village, built on a spring line, has existed since at least Roman times, and in medieval times the village was a centre of pottery production, which was traded across Europe. Parts of the church dates back to the Saxon times, but the bulk of the church was built in the early 13th century.

Norman Church in Castle Rising

The village of Castle Rising (population 216) is 5 miles from King’s Lynn. Prior to the Reform Act of 1832 Castle Rising was a ‘rotten borough’ e.g. a parliamentary seat under the undemocratic control of a powerful family.

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A Rotten Candidate for a Rotten Borough

The village of Castle Rising dates back to at least the Saxon period, and ‘Rising’ derives from a word that may mean “dwellers at the brushwood place”; the name castle was added to the village name because of the castle built in the village by the Normans.

Castle Rising Castle built after 1138 was sold to the Howard family by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, who still owns it to this day, and the Howard’s are still prominent in the village as we discovered when we visited the church. My wife’s side of the family has connections with the Howard’s (an elite family with royal connection) but as yet we haven’t found a direct link to this branch of the Howard’s.

The Church of St Lawrence, Castle Rising, is a Norman church built c1140 by the Lord of Castle Rising village and castle. Not only are there recent Howard gravestones in the churchyard but also, the Lychgate, built in 1879, is dedicated to the memory of the Honourable Mary Grenville Howard.

Three North Norfolk Churches

North Norfolk Towns

While on holiday, we passed through many towns and villages in North, and during the week, there was five in particular where we stopped and spent some time there, admiring the architecture and history: -

  • Cromer
  • Downham Market
  • Swaffham
  • Wells-next-the Sea
  • Sheringham


Cromer a coastal town (population 7,683) is not in the Domesday Book and doesn’t appear in written records until 1262.

We spent most of our time in Cromer on our first visit on the pier, and then returned a couple of days later to enjoy an evening watching a ‘variety performance’ in the pavilion theatre at the end of the pier. Ironically the ‘variety performance’ we saw was to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and the performance started at 8pm on the day of the Queen’s passing; just 90 minutes after the official announcement of her death.

There are records of a pier at Cromer as far back as 1391, but the present pier first opened in 1901, and the pavilion theatre was converted from the original open bandstand in 1905.

At the end of the pier is the lifeboat station, and housed there is the ‘Tamer Class’ lifeboat introduced into the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) in 2005.

Downham Market

Downham Market (population 9,994) is a market town 11 miles from King’s Lynn, that during the Middle Ages was famed for its butter market. These days the market is held on Fridays and Saturdays.


Swaffham (population 7,258) is a market town 12 miles from King’s Lynn, of Anglo-Saxon origin. By the 14th century the town had an emerging sheep and wool industry which gave rise to a prosperous market.

While in Swaffham we popped into a café on the High Street where we had egg and chips for lunch, and where the hospitality was excellent; and afterwards, before continuing with our journey, we sat in the car admiring the town ducks attracted to the puddles in the carpark.


Wells-next-the-Sea (population 2,165) is a Port town 20 miles from Cromer. The town appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Guella (Wella), which means ‘spring’, which the town is named after because of its many ‘spring wells’. The town of Wells-next-the-Sea has been a fishing port and seaport from at least 1337.


Sheringham (population 7,367) is a seaside town, which developed from farming and fishing. The town’s motto, granted to it in 1953, is Mare Ditat Pinusque Decorat, Latin for "The sea enriches and the pine adorns".

The place name is first referenced in the Domesday Book of 1086 and means 'the homestead of Scira's people’.

While visiting Sheringham we couldn’t help but notice the prominence of the ‘Oddfellows’ in the town.

The Oddfellows Hall on the Lifeboat Plain, built in 1867, was the original RNLI Lifeboat station and a gathering place for fishermen and boat builders. The Oddfellows (The Manchester Unity Friendly Society) is a fraternal order founded in Manchester in 1810.

The Oddfellows is a non-profit organisation that was set up to protect and care for its members and communities at a time when there was no welfare state or National Health Service.

Over the decades the Oddfellows have made many major contributions to the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) in Sheringham.

5 North Norfolk Towns Visited on Our Holiday

Creake Abbey

On arriving in North Norfolk for our holiday we stopped at Creake Abbey Farmers Market to buy fresh farm produce before making our way to our holiday cottage. The Farmers Market, with over 50 stalls, is open once a month, and happened to be open on the day of our arrival in North Norfolk.

Having made our purchases at the Farmers Market we nipped over to have a quick look at the Abbey itself, before continuing our journey to our holiday cottage.

Creake Abbey has had a chequered history….

The site was originally occupied by an almshouse (charitable housing) for the poor, and was subsequently founded by the Augustinians as a priory in the 12th century.

By 1231 sufficient resources were raised to elevate the hospital and priory to an Abbey. Unfortunately, the Abbey was destroyed by fire in 1483.

In 1491 King Richard III provided funds for rebuilding of the Abbey, which was completed in 1503. However, in 1506 a deadly disease that swept across England wiped out the entire local community, including the abbot himself.

Creake Abbey, North Norfolk, England

Castle Acre

While on holiday in North Norfolk we spent a day in Castle Acre village, specifically to see Castle Acre Priory and Castle Acre Castle, although we also stopped to admire the Bailey Gate in the village, the remnants of the medieval town’s fortification gates.

Castle Acre Priory

Castle Acre Priory was founded in 1089 by William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, originally built within the castle walls, but the site proved too small for the monks, so within about a year it was relocated to its present location within the castle grounds.

The Priory was dissolved in 1537 by King Henry VIII as part of his actions to sever his ties with the Roman Catholic Pope in Rome, and create the Church of England, making himself the head of the church.

Castle Acre Castle

After visiting the priory when then drove back through the village to visit the castle.

Shortly after the invasion of England by William the Conquer in 1066, in the 1070s William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, originally built a motte-and-bailey castle. Shortly after a civil war in England in 1135, the 3rd Earl of Surry, also called William de Warenne began building works to replace the original motte-and-bailey castle with the current castle, works being completed around the 1170s. The castle was abandoned in the ‘Middle Ages’ and by 1397 it and town fortifications fell into ruins.

Castle Acre Village, Priory and Castle

Castle Rising

The Domesday Book of 1086 describes the original castle on site as belonging to Bishop Odo of Bayeux, brother of William the Conqueror.

The current Castle Rising was built c1138 by William d'Aubigny II, to celebrate his marriage to Adeliza of Louvain, the widow of King Henry I, and his promotion to the earldom of Sussex.

It was inherited by William's descendants before passing into the hands of the de Montalt family in 1243.

The Montalt’s later sold the castle to Queen Isabella, who lived there after her fall from power in 1330. Queen Isabella (aka She-Wolf of France) was Queen of England as wife of King Edward II from 1308 until she deposed him in 1327 and became ‘regent of England on behalf of her son, Edward III.

In 1330 her 18-year-old son (Edward III) forcibly asserted his authority over her, imprisoned her for two years, and took the throne as King Edward III; after which time she resided in Castle Rising Castle, and on occasions entertained her son (King Edward III) in the castle.

After her death Edward, the Black Prince (the eldest son of King Edward III) inherited the castle, which then became part of the Duchy of Cornwall; but he died before becoming King.

During the 15th century the castle fell into disrepair and by the middle of the 16th century it was derelict, when it was subsequently sold by King Henry VIII to Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who was the uncle of two wives of King Henry VIII.

In 1958 the castle passed into the ‘custody of the State’ (Government) e.g. English Heritage, who subsequently carried out restoration and archaeological work. And in 1998 the management of the castle was passed back to the Howard Family.

In the castle grounds, to the right of the castle, is the ruins of an early Norman Church built in the late 11th century, before the current castle was built; this church fell into disuse once the castle was built.

To the left of the castle are the ruins of a 14th century chapel.

Castle Rising Castle

Bircham Windmill

Another place of interest we visited while on holiday in North Norfolk was Bircham Windmill.

First reference to the original windmill was in a will in 1761. The original windmill was demolished in 1846 to make way for the existing mill.

Over the generations the windmill had a string of owners until it was bought by the Howards family in 1890, and it remained in the Howard family until 1916. The windmill was working in 1916 when the Howards sold it, but by 1922 had ceased to work.

The windmill then became part of the Houghton Estate of the Marquess of Cholmondeley until it was sold to Her Majesty the Queen (Elizabeth Angela Marquerite Bowes-Lyon, wife of King George VI) in 1939, and became part of the Sandringham Estate.

The windmill was purchased from Her Majesty the Queen (Queen Elizabeth II) by Roger Wagg in 1976. Then restoration of the windmill began in 1977, which were complete by 1983. The current owners of the mill, who acquired it in 2006, are Steve & Elly Chalmers.

After exploring the windmill itself, we browsed the museum, including cottage and garden laid out to depict the lifestyle of a Victorian miller family, and then, before continuing with our holiday tour of North Norfolk we treat ourselves to a cream-tea while sitting down in the grounds, and admiring the farm animals and the view of the windmill.

Bircham Windmill, North Norfolk, England

Domesday Book of 1086

Many of the places we visited on holiday are reference in the Domesday Book. The Domesday Book was a ‘great survey’ of England, commissioned by William the Conqueror himself, detailing the value of every piece of land, resources, manpower, and livestock from which the value derived could be used to collect taxes for the King.

The Domesday Book Explained

Love of Historic Sites!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Arthur Russ

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