Michael Rayner explores some of the county’s military heritage
I’m sure we all have our favourite places in the countryside that we love to visit. For someone like myself, interested in the great outdoors and military history, this will often include a battlefield.
Living in Norfolk, the opportunities for doing this are not as widespread as they are for those living in historically more belligerent counties. However, if one is prepared to do a little research it is still possible to experience a wide variety of martial-tinged landscapes in Nelson’s county.
Within England only 47 battlefields are designated on Historic England’s Register of Historic Battlefields. This is due to the necessarily strict level of evidence needed for registration, which then gives these sites a degree of protection within the planning system. It may come as no surprise that there are no registered battlefields in Norfolk, because Norfolk has not been on the route of internal armies’ campaigns, nor has it been the target for any invasion from overseas, barring Viking raids.
As well as needing to be securely located, registered battlefields have to be the sites of sizeable engagements between formed bodies of soldiers, and not as a result of what could be termed ‘civil disturbance’, or related to sieges. This means that Norfolk’s two largest military encounters are not included in the 47, although one of them in particular provides a rewarding site for a visit and a country walk.
These two battlefields are North Walsham (1381) fought during the Peasants’ Revolt, and Dussindale (1549) at the conclusion of Kett’s Rebellion. Unfortunately, the latter is now largely built over by the Broadland Business Park, although an excellent research paper was written by Alexander Hodgkins in 2015 for those wanting to find out more about it.
The battlefield of North Walsham’s general location is known from the unusual nearcontemporary construction of at least three battlefield crosses, the best surviving of which is just to the east of the B1150 Norwich Road a mile south of the town.
It is likely that this cross and the cross stump near the water tower on the edge of town have been moved from their original locations, while the battlefield itself is now partially wooded due to the later addition of Westwick Park, along with arable fields leading up to the edge of North Walsham, instead of being open heathland as it was at the time of the battle. However, much about the battle can be understood if one walks to the site from North Walsham using the good network of public footpaths in the area.
With North Walsham set to grow in the near future, it is pleasing to see that North Norfolk District Council has acknowledged the importance of the battlefield as a heritage asset as it looks to adopt its new Local Plan, with the likely outcome that housing will be kept from the core of the battlefield.
Hopefully this will also provide an opportunity to have some on-site interpretation of Norfolk’s biggest battle, where the Bishop of Norwich Henry Despenser ‘grinding his teeth like a wild boar’, crushed a rebel force.
Many other places with military associations exist across the county and can form the focus for visits. These include numerous Second World War sites relating to airfields and defences, such as Langham Dome.
Some of Norfolk’s castles bore witness to sieges, including Caister Castle, mentioned in the fabulous Paston Letters, while much more remains to come to light as a result of the ‘King’s Lynn under siege’ project, which is investigating archaeology from the English Civil War. All in all there’s plenty to give an interesting walk in the country. www.cprenorfolk.org.uk
ABOVE:Caister Castle was beseiged