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History of Harpley

Harpley Village Sign

The Marquess of Cholmondeley has always been an important landowner in the village and was responsible for building the first National School in 1845 on the corner of Nethergate Street and School Lane (then called Wall Lane). Some seventy years later the current building was constructed, and the school continues to thrive. Lord Cholondeley also owns the land on which the allotments and play park stand . The former are still available to village residents, and the latter was transformed in 2009.

Harpley is a small village between King's Lynn and Fakenham.

The name 'Harpley' possibly means 'harp-shaped clearing' from the Old English 'hearpe' meaning harp and 'leah' meaning clearing or grove. The suffix 'ley' or 'ly' is a particularly common one in English place names.

The earliest evidence of human occupation is the three neolithic barrows or burial mounds on the road to Anmer. These could well be as old as the pyramids - about 4000 years. Others exist in the parish, but these are nowhere near as visible and are on private land.

The other prehistoric feature of the village is the ancient trade route known as Peddars Way, which forms the western edge of the parish. It was much improved by the Romans to help with the movement of troops in their battles with Boudicca's Iceni. It eventually led to Holme next the Sea and a ferry across the Wash to Lincolnshire.

There is no reason to believe that there was any break in the continuity of living and working in Harpley since man first gave up a nomadic hunter/gatherer existence and started cultivating the land. With no mineral resources, the village remained untouched by the Industrial Revolution. The nearest railway was at Little Massingham and this was lost in 1959. The main Fakenham - Hillington - King's Lynn road was turnpiked in the mid 19th century, and a new A148 by-pass has subsequently been built to the north. The rest of the road layout remains much as it has done for centuries, with Nethergate Street and Back (formerly Upgate) Street linked by Cross Street/Ravens Lane and Short Lane/Mill Lane.

By far the oldest building in the parish is the church dedicated to St Lawrence, who was martyred in 258 AD by being roasted on a gridiron. It was built in stages, as were most ancient churches. The south aisle, quite possibly the original church, is probably 13C, as evidenced by the Y traceried windows east of the porch. It was enlarged by the addition of the current tower, nave and chancel during the years 1294 - 1332 during the incumbancy of the rector John de Gurney. The north aisle is 15C, as is the porch.

Interesting exterior features include the main south door which is probably the finest carved door in the county, and one of the best in the country. There is also a particularly fine south priest's doorway, just to the west of which is a worn memorial panel to a fourteen year old child called "Protestant", who died in 1623. Several styles and periods of windows exist.

In the churchyard there are several interesting gravestones, and the village's memorial to those who served in two world wars.

Inside the church there is a 14C rood screen which was unfortunately repainted in 1866, and in the south aisle there is some 14C glass and a group of double piscina (basins) and triple sedilia (seats) which can be dated to the reign of

Edward I (1272-1307) when it was deemed unseemly to wash the Mass vessels in the same bowl as the priest's hands. A similar group exists in the chancel, although  sadly damaged by the actions of Cromwell's men.

Features from the 15C include glass in the west window, angels in the roof and pews with open traceried backs and beautifully carved bench ends (the front north pew has the name John Martin 1638 carved on it.

Numerous personal memorials exist including Sir Robert Knollys (Knowles) who was a Knight of the Garter in the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) and paid for the enlargement of the church during John de Gurney's incumbancy. His arms - "Red with silver chevron with three roses" - appear on the rood screen and the battlements over the south aisle.

John de Gurney is buried beneath a marble slab in the centre of the chancel floor, which used to have a memorial brass. Cherubs in the roof also hold shields bearing his arms - "Silver, with red wavey-edged cross". His family had the right to appoint the rector from 1184, and later members of the family were also priests here, including Christopher (1485-1511) and Edmund (1620-1648).

In more recent times the Beck family had an important presence in the village and sometimes provided the rectors, as is evidenced by Becks Row and Becks Wood in the village. There are memorials in the nave floor to Henry and John Redin Beck, and on the chancel wall to Edward Anthony, John Henry, Horace and Anthony Horace.

There are numerous other ledger slabs to notable families like the Ravens (Ravens Lane and Yard) and Herrings. This latter family endowed the almshouses in the village in 1850, which were built by another Beck, and are still administered by the William Herrings Almshouse Trust.

Individual war memorials remember William Herbert Fake, Stanley Steel, Ralph Walter Porter MM, Alfred Thomas Norman and Herbert Arter.

The church which is usually open during daylight hours is well worth exploring and a helpful leaflet is usually available.

Two Methodist chapels, built in 1871 and 1873, have both become private residences.

In the 19th century Harpley contained many small local tradesmen necessary to satisfy the needs of the community, which was almost self-supporting with -

  • two bakers

  • two blacksmiths

  • three shoemakers

  • three shopkeepers

  • two grocers and drapers

  • two carriers, wheelwrights

  • two inns

  • three independant farmers

The windmill was built about 1832, and in 1858 was adapted to incorporate a steam engine. It is now a private residence.

The brickyard extracted large amounts of clay from the pits in Brickyard Lane to make their distinctive local bricks. The pits are now a haven for wildlife.

Today, whilst the White Lion Inn has long gone, the Rose and Crown continues to serve the needs of the community. There is also a coffee/gift shop, but two former general stores have also disappeared - Smith's opposite the almshouses and Lawrence's on the corner of Becks Row. The Post Office has also gone (opposite the Rose and Crown), but these facilities still exist at Great Massingham some two miles away.

C.T. Mountain Engineering works are the sole industrial works in the village, whilst farming is still of primary importance, notably C. F. Case and Cholmondeley Estate.

Alpha Chase have a light industrial unit in Ravens Yard.

Ponds have always formed an important feature of the village, and before the advent of piped water a series of wells existed in Nethergate Street, the site of one of which is still evidenced by the 'kink' in the wall near the junction with Short Lane.

Harpley Village Hall provides a convenient meeting place for a number of groups including a pre-school who assemble on a regular basis, and it is frequently hired for private parties. Built to a standard design in 1930, a new wing was added in 1996 which almost doubled the floor area, and it is maintained to a good standard. At the rear is the old bowling green, although due to insufficient numbers to form a team, Harpley bowlers now play at Houghton.

Local authority housing was built in the St. Lawrence Close and Harpley Court area in the south of the village.

Many of these houses are now privately owned and the future of the block of flats remains uncertain.

A network of well maintained footpaths provide a valued facility for residents and visitors alike to explore the features described here.

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