The nature writer Richard Mabey described Norfolk’s watery landscape as a “fleet-footed, opportunist” habitat. Standing in the Norfolk wetlands, you are “not just in a habitat, but part of a living membrane, pulsing with life, its scents and vibrations linked with your own”. In contrast to the static character of woodlands, wetlands are far more fluid and dynamic, with far more potential for movement. And our research has demonstrated that Norfolk’s waterways have been constantly shifting over millennia.
Many of the Norfolk rivers were in a very different position in the past than to where they are today. The River Tas, which runs through several sites of ours such as Venta Icenorum (image above), and Tasburgh, was several miles upstream from its present position. From around 300 BC rising sea levels meant that the Tas, along with the Bure, Yare and Waveney, fed into a vast estuary. This estuary displaced the marshland and fens, creating a vast network of saltmarshes in their place. Due to rising sea levels, the Flegg area, including the towns of Caistor, Winterton and Thurne, became an island.
When the Romans arrived in Norfolk, they were able to reach Venta Icenorum from the sea by boat. When Burgh Castle was built, it would have been to serve as a lookout for the main mouth of the Great Estuary.
Roman settlers, as well as the Iceni that already inhabited this watery landscape, would have been in a landscape full of wildlife. This included some that a twenty-first century visitor would recognise: bitterns were just as familiar and elusive in equal parts. So too were cranes, spoonbills and little egrets – birds which were all extinct by the seventeenth century, but have since re-established themselves in Norfolk. Then there were other birds that would seem less familiar to us: the corncrake, which could still be heard in every field a century ago; thousand-strong flocks of black terns that chose the estuary as their nesting site; and even the Dalmatian pelican, whose three-metre wingspan makes them one of the largest flying birds. All of these would have flown and swam through habitats maintained by beavers.
After the Romans left, the sea levels began falling once again, leading to much of the Norfolk estuary reverting back to marsh and fenland. Even so, many inland parts of Norfolk, such as settlements along the Tas, were still accessible by sea. In the Dark Ages, maritime travel was carried out mainly by Danish Vikings, who left their linguistic mark on many parts of the landscape. The phrase -holm in a place name, for example, comes from the Scandinavian word for ‘island’.
With the return of freshwater to Norfolk’s rivers, a new resource became a major part of the county’s livelihood: peat. In a county that was often too waterlogged for large-scale agriculture, peat-cutting became one of the pillars of Norfolk’s economy. Since peat takes thousands of years to develop, it was also subject to the scarcity principle.
As such, peat became a central question to the nature of ownership in Norfolk. The earliest record of this that we have was from King Sigeberht in the seventh century, whose records also set down the Turbary rights, detailing who had the right to cut peat across the Kingdom of East Anglia. Our site at Benet’s Abbey owned the Turbary rights along large parts of the Bure from the twelfth to fifteenth century. Indeed, many of the names of modern-day wetlands reflect the appearance of the fens at the time. Candlecourt Marsh, on Cantley Parish, likely gets its name from the Old English cort, meaning ‘cut-off ground’, indicating it was separated from the parish by a channel. Stergott Marsh, meanwhile, borrows from both Old English (gota, meaning stream) and Scandinavian (storr, meaning sedge).
By the time of the Norman Conquest, peat extraction was happening on such an enormous scale that the landscape was being changed yet again. Landowners with turbary rights were able to delineate their holdings by digging long ditches and canals, selling the peat in the process. As sea levels rose once again in the fourteenth century, these filled in, creating the Norfolk Broads as we know them. Now, however, with extensive drainage systems across the county, farming was now viable.
Norfolk’s landscape is a restless one. We all have our ideas of what Norfolk naturally looks like. But a look at its history shows that, with or without human management, the appearance of Norfolk has never stayed the same.
This month (16th to 31st July) sees the annual Festival of Archaeology, with the theme of Journeys. With the waterways such an integral part of our sites, NAT social media invites you to join us as we delve more into this fascinating area of their history.
Festival of Archaeology: www.archaeologyuk.org/festival.html