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History of the Harlings

A Short Journey Through Five Millennia

History of The Harlings (East, West, Middle and Thorpe).

This group of ancient villages are situated in the north east corner of a vast area of light sandy soil known as Breckland, created from the sand-outwash of melting glaciers. Early prehistoric people were first attracted to this area as it had all the ingredients necessary to support their nomadic way of life, water from the gently flowing river THET, light forest cover, an abundance of wildlife and, probably most important of all, a ready supply of surface flint nodules from which to fashion tools. Many flint knapping sites have been identified in the vicinity, the largest on East Harling Heath.

The advent of agricultural knowledge, about five thousand years ago, meant that these wandering communities needed to search for suitable places to settle and farm. The fertile land along the ancient route of the river THET was ideal and the main source of this river, a shallow valley protected by low gentle hills was PERFECT! —–the “Harlings” were born.

For a long time the only link these isolated farming communities had with the outside world was via the river Thet. As more land became cleared, trackways developed towards the higher land and neighbouring communities. The Harlings and farming now prospered!


Numerous prehistoric sites have been identified around the Harlings. Worked flint implements abound, especially along the river valley between Harling and Thetford. Burial mounds from later prehistory can also be located, one at Middle Harling and at least four between Harling and Garboldisham Heaths in association with a later linear earthwork (the Devil’s ditch). In the bend of the river due west of Middle Harling is Micklemoor hill—the site of two early iron-age round houses with well-defined ditch and bank enclosures.

The Roman invasion of Norfolk was a few years later than the rest of the country due to a fragile peace pact with the ruling Iceni tribe. Following the unsuccessful Iceni uprising of 61 A.D. the Romans took Norfolk with a vengeance! The main Iceni capital near Norwich (Caistor St Edmund) along with several other tribal centres, one of which was probably Thetford, were soon in Roman hands. The Harling’s were surrounded by Roman roads during this time. To the west, Peddars Way. To the north, the north east section of the Icknield way. To the east “Haverscroft” street, which can still be traced from Attleborough, as straight as a die for 13 miles to Coney-Weston in Suffolk via. Hargham rd, Eccles, Snetterton Heath (where it joins the Snetterton road at the junction near Aldridge’s woodyard) to cross the Quidenham road at the “T” junction. Across the fields, east of the village, it crosses the Kenninghall and Garboldisham roads to the fiveways then on to Riddlesworth, Knettishall and Coney Weston.This route may have been the main road linking a Roman settlement near Norwich to Colchester, the early Roman capital of England.

Despite being so close to main Roman roads there is a surprising lack of Roman finds from East Harling. The evidence of Roman influence to date suggests occupation in riverside settlements at Harling Thorpe and a small settlement in West Harling extending towards Middle Harling. Seemingly East Harling did not develop substantially during the Roman period.

Now perfectly situated between the busy river Thet and the developing system of Roman roads, the Harling’s fared very well. During the centuries following the collapse of Roman influence c 400A.D.—the period known to history as “the dark ages”, the Harlings were far from being dark!! Archaeological evidence from the 1981 excavations at Middle Harling, (found as a result of earlier work by Tony and Henry Frost) showed evidence of a thriving, expanding community during the seventh century and for a further thousand years! These riverside communities were not finished yet!! The prosperity they enjoyed was as a result of being only a few miles upstream of Thetford——- the Capital of Saxon East Anglia.

Only a few hundred years before this date the Harlings were small isolated riverside communities, now they could trade and communicate with the rest of Europe!

It was about this time that the first written reference to these villages occurs in the pages of history. The DOMESDAY BOOK refers to them as “The Herlyngas”. What these communities were called before the eleventh century may never be known. They were by now officially known as East Harling, Middle Harling, West Harling and Harling-Thorpe.

It was soon after the eleventh century that EAST Harling began to expand as inland trading routes developed and its inhabitants became confident enough to move away from the security of the river. This also coincided with the advent of more efficient farming techniques and growth of the Breckland wool trade.

East Harling was now destined to become the largest of the Harlings.

Opposite the Church is a ford which crosses the river Thet. This important river-crossing could easily have existed from the very beginning of Harling’s history.—a short cut, as it were, to the pre-historic “ Icknield way” only a short distance northwards and perhaps an early access route to link with the more established river- system of communication. If so, this could have been Harling’s very first “road”. Whatever is origins, this ancient route into the village from the north-west and the rich grazing lands of Breckland, developed very quickly into the main route which brought cattle, sheep, people and wealth to our Village from miles around.


The famous Harling-sheep-fair continued for many centuries until just before the Second World War. Many villagers can still recall the days when thousands upon thousands of sheep and lambs were herded through the village streets to the fields behind the fire station to be sold—and some of the proceeds spent in the shops and pubs the same evening! It was thirsty work in the sheep-trade!—during the 19th and well into the 20th century no less than thirteen ale-houses and pubs are recorded in East Harling– including two coaching Inns. Only two of these pull pints today!

East Harling market probably generated wealth for our village for a long time before Edward IV granted its charter in 1474. After this date the Tuesday-market and the twice-yearly fairs became even more popular with folk from villages all around. East Harling thus continued to prosper. This wealth is reflected in the fabric of our magnificent Church, enlarged several times during the 15th century. The beautiful Church we see today probably replaces an earlier timber one on the same site.

The famous de Herling family, rich merchants in the 13th century and Lords of Harling manor from the mid 14th, took the name of our village to the French battlefields of Meaux, Paris and Agincourt! The wealth of this famous family was generated from the local wool trade, much of which was used to fund the 15th century enlargements of the Church.

It was during the 17th century that the success of East Harling was partly responsible for the gradual decline in importance of the other “Harlings” - compounded by the coming of the railway in the mid 19th century.

The railway heralded a new era of prosperity. For over a century it transported more sheep - more wealth - more people - until the motor car appeared upon the stage of history.

Within living memory the village witnessed the ravages of two world wars

- a first world war airfield at Harling Road

- a second world war airfield at Snetterton Heath with 4,000 Americans neighbours

- numerous aircraft and bomber crashes

- tears at Harling Station as the villages’ sons and husbands went to war.

- and so, history, life and Harling move on.

David Bailey

School Lane, East Harling

Some quick facts about Harling:

* The United Parishes of Harling consist of around 5625 acres of land with 15 acres of water

* In 1939 the population of East Harling was 990

* There were 22 shops in East Harling in 1942

* In 1942 there were 328 houses in East and West Harling

* The Crescent was built in 1920

* Jubilee Avenue was built in 1935

* Electricity was bought to E Harling in 1935

* In 1940 E Harling went onto the mains water supply

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