Shipps Close

In Hallowed Halls

We have heard of the Saxon Kings listening to epic tales like Beowulf, or the Vikings drinking and thinking of Valhalla in their great halls, surrounded by their followers, but the use of halls did not end there, they continued right into the late Middle Ages – and they survive in Harleston!

The oldest building in Harleston now looks like one of the less significant, but in its day would have been the home of a proud member of the ruling class.  The front is a lovely, modest, Victorian brick-built place that houses the physiotherapist in The Old Market Place, next to the Pet Shop.  Yet behind the facade is a much older front, from centuries before, and behind that a ‘raised aisle hall’ from the 1340’s, running at a right-angle to the road and what is now called the Old Market Place.  Not all the hall remains, but what does tells the story of life in those times, when the fire would have been in the middle of the floor, without a chimney.  The smoke would have just curled up to the rafters high above and left through vents at either end of the roof.  In relatively recent times a floor has been inserted and the splendid ‘crown post roof’ could be seen from close up.

But careful scrutiny also reveals traces of charring – from the central fire in Mediaeval times.  In those days the ruling class sat at the high table at the end of the hall, then, according to their rank, the rest of their society, in diminishing order the further they were from the top table.  At the end of the hall furthest from the top table were the two ‘service doors’ through which the food would be brought, and behind which all the work for the catering was carried out.  Most people sat on benches, but after eating or meeting, when the day’s work was done, everyone slept on rush mats and rushes, perhaps from the nearby Waveney.  If they could, wool and feathers would no doubt be used to add to their comfort, but it was real communal living far from the way we live now.

If one walks beneath the arch into Shipp’s Close, look up and notice the rafters, then, once in the yard, look back at the arch and the timbers in the rear wall. Look also at the side of the hall, with its timbers and mullioned window. This how much of Harleston would have looked, although probably painted white with lime wash, like inside the Physio’s, as a common local protection against the elements. (Painting timbers black was actually a feature from the west, like Chester, and not typical of East Anglia, but made popular by the Victorians.) Yet you will be standing in one of Harleston’s famous ‘yards’, one of the cells of industry surrounding the centre of our town. (More about this later!).

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