A Hidden Gem
In many old guide books Harleston is described as being a town of Georgian and Victorian houses. Whilst the centre of the town looks like this is the case, in reality the buildings are far older – but hidden! Unlike Beccles, Bungay, Diss, Eye or even London, this town never suffered the terrible fires that burnt many of their ancient buildings. What we see here is just a facade, beneath which the Harleston of the 1300’s to 1600’s remains! It just has to be discovered.
But also, unlike its neighbours, Harleston never had a castle, a church of its own nor a river frontage – so how is it here? Let us see: According to legend Harleston has been a settlement for over a thousand years. It is said that a Viking warrior called Herolf, from King Sweyn Forkbeard’s huge army of occupation, chose to stay here rather than return to Scandinavia in 1014. So a hamlet grew between those of Needham, Starston, Redenhall and Wortwell. Indeed, like Wortwell, it shared Redenhall’s church rather than have its own. Yet, being at the junction of those that did have churches, and near the crossing point of the Waveney, it became a trading post. Perhaps the priests encouraged this, an additional means of raising revenue, yet away from the church. There was also an abundance of fresh water, readily available to those prepared to have a well dug. The settlement was also situated in a hollow not easily spotted by any raiders following the river.
Amongst the cottages of the artisans who would provide for the traders, the better off built halls for themselves and their servants. Drovers would bring their livestock many miles to be sold whilst merchants would process and sell wool here. Inns sprang up to accommodate the increasing numbers of both locals and visitors. As the settlement grew, a chapel-of-ease was built for those who would find the walk to Redenhall church too arduous to fulfill their religious duties. Gradually, behind the halls and the stalls of traders grew a series of yards or courts, each fed by natural water, which became a hive of industry, supplying both locals and the drovers who brought their livestock many miles to be sold here. These yards changed their purpose over the centuries, such as from carriage and coffin building to woollen stocking manufacture. Meanwhile, probably in the 1600’s, the once open centre gradually filled with more houses, used for both trade and living quarters. The amazing thing is: they are still there! Harleston has over 160 listed buildings, hundreds of years old. We intend to help you to identify them.
There are over 160 very old buildings in the town, many with some of the original features still visible. Old coaching inns, like the Swan Hotel, remain as a legacy from the days when the town was on the main coaching route from London to Great Yarmouth and it was an important trading centre. Read more >
The town’s free audio trail provides a guided walk around the town. Local people provide commentary guiding you around the town, giving a potent mix of history, memory and gossip. Click here for more information.