The Church of St Mary, Houghton-on-the-Hill, North Pickenham, Swaffham, Norfolk, PE37 8FB

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There has been settlement in the area of Houghton-on-the-Hill since at least the Roman period, although some flints have been discovered which might suggest neolithic occupation but harder evidence supports an occupation during the Bronze age. The now deserted village sits just to one side of the Peddars Way, an early trackway later used as a roman road, and a villa complex has been identified nearby. Although the first mention of a church on the site is to be found in the Domesday book of 1086 it is believed that the origins of the church date back to the Saxon period. At the time of Domesday the manor of Houghton was one of many held by Reynold, son of Ivo, who had in turn leased the land to a man called Herlwin.

Of the church that you can see today the earliest section to survive is the nave, which probably dates back to the decades immediately after the Norman Conquest, or possibly earlier, and it is quite possible that this early church was actually constructed on the orders of either the Reynold or Herlwin mentioned in Domesday. The double splayed windows, typical of the early Norman period, are rare survivals, and it is clear that much re-used roman brick and tile has been incorporated into the early church. When the early chancel was excavated more roman material was uncovered, leading to speculation that the church was built on an early roman site. However, closer examination revealed that the roman tiles had just been used as a ready supply of local building material to level the medieval foundations. Excavations within the tower base have revealed that the original tower was circular, a distinctive East Anglian feature still seen in over two hundred other churches in the region.

In the mid 12th century a south aisle was added to the church, and the arches that were punched through the south wall of the nave can still be seen on the outer wall to this day. Local legend states that this was once housed the tomb of Sir Robert de Neville. Neville  became lord of the manor at Houghton in 1270, before being ‘inhumanly put to death in Yorkshire a decade later ‘for his criminal conversation with a lady’; in modern terms he is thought to have had an affair with a married (possibly high born) woman - a crime then punishable, in certain circumstances, by death! The south aisle did not exist for very long, and it is believed to have been removed, and the arches blocked up again, by the 14th or 15th century.

The original round tower was demolished following a collapse in the 15th century, to be replaced by the imposing square tower still seen today. In addition, the early chancel, which appears to have been far larger than that which we see today, was demolished in the 18th century and replaced with a far more modest structure.

To learn more about the church’s fascinating history, and the lost village of Houghton-on-the-Hill, please download our parish history booklet.

Left: the foundations of the south aisle marked out in the turf of the churchyard - traditionally home to the tomb of Sir Robert de Neville.


Above: early Norman double splayed window in the south wall.

How St Mary’s may have evolved