Castle Acre

June 2016

If you were to drive through Castle Acre, and you would have to go out of your way to do so, you might well think, “What a pretty little place”, and drive on. If you arrive in the company of a very knowledgeable and chatty Professor, in our case Robert Liddiard, from UEA, you will shortly realise that you are in one of the most important settlements in the history of England. This small village is perhaps the best example of what happened to English life during the first few years after the Norman Conquest.

This is what happened. A Norman knight, who may even have been a son-in-law of William the Conqueror, fought alongside him with great merit in the Battle of Hastings. His name was William de Warrene and, after the invasion had settled down, he was rewarded to an astonishing degree. He was made Earl of Surrey and handed bags of gold together with holdings of land all over southern England, but mainly in Norfolk. According to the Domesday Book he had over 160 different holdings of land, none of them small.

One of those was Castle Acre, then known simply as Acre. We heard an interesting bit of historical geography. Acre was in a great position, set on the river Nar, at a point where it was crossed by a Roman Road, now known as Peddars Way. The river flowed to Kings Lynn, already an important port, and boats from there, it appears, could get as far as Acre. Classic place, you may recall if you had paid attention at school, to establish a town.

Having disposed of the previous Anglo-Saxon Lord, William tore down his manor house and built a castle on and around its site. We spent some time climbing up, standing on and walking round what is thought to be one of the best motte and bailey castles in the country. It’s pretty battered now but after excavation, there is enough left to impress you and to be the target of much investigation.

Here is the castle as it is now, and below you see proof that most of us managed to get at least part of the way up. Actually, most got all the way.

William next set about the village, where the ordinary people lived, aiming to create a Norman planned town – again, something of a rarity. Then, after a journey in Europe with his wife, he came back enthused with the idea of building a monastery. So he did. First in the south of England and then in Castle Acre, which he had chosen as his main residence. So, after we had lunched in a local hostelry, we went our own ways around the village and to what is now known as Castle Acre Priory. It is very well organised by English Heritage with a free mobile commentary to take us round what Henry VIII allowed to remain standing of the monastery, which is more than most.

Clouds were building up, so we retired rapidly to our coach, left this historic place, congratulated ourselves on being warm and dry and drove through torrents of rain and hail to a sun-drenched Martham. A notable end to an exhilarating day. You should give Castle Acre a try.

Castle Acre motte
(Above: the motte)
(Below:  Most of us managed to get at least part of the way up...)                       

Most of us...
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