Halvergate Marshes

Halvergate Village Sign

Halvergate is a large parish, at around 6000 acres one of the largest in Norfolk, but while covering such an extensive area much of the parish is uninhabited marshland, settlement being concentrated in the western part. Here the village of Halvergate itself (with its adjoining hamlet of Tunstall), some eight miles west of Great Yarmouth and with Norwich 16 miles to the east, sits on the edge of marshes that stretch eastwards to the sea and the lights of coastal holiday resorts. Perhaps surprising to us now but for centuries Halvergate was an island amidst bogs and marshes dangerous and difficult to cross. However, from its earliest days as a village it had in fact been an important port on a now long gone giant estuary – rather like the Breydon Water of today.

The parish has a long history and ‘Halvergate’ was certainly well established by the time of the Norman Conquest – its population, land ownership and resources being recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. In this the village is called Halfriate, a name that may come from the Old English for ‘Land for which half a heriot (a feudal payment) is due’. The actual origin of the name remains uncertain however, with a document of 1182 referring to it as Halvergata – possibly signifying ‘half’ and ‘gate’ meaning an island separating the river into two channels. ‘Tunstall’ is much more straightforward meaning simply, ‘farmstead’.

The earliest evidence of human activity in the parish is from prehistoric times but possibly its first structures dated from the Bronze Age in the form of ring ditches associated with round barrows (burial mounds), subsequently flattened by agricultural activity and now visible only as cropmarks on aerial photographs. Similar mapping has identified later Iron Age field systems and evidence of Roman salt production, continuing into medieval times.

Halvergate Parish ChurchThe later medieval period saw the granting of a market charter and the construction of the parish’s oldest surviving buildings, the two churches, both dedicated to St Peter and St Paul. The church at Halvergate looms impressively over the village, with a strikingly tall 15th century battlemented tower and impressive flint walls. The nave and chancel are earlier 14th century but the south porch was not added until an extensive Victorian restoration. Tunstall’s own St Peter and St Paul is also a 14th century building, in this case erected on the site of an earlier church mentioned in the Domesday Book. Other than the chancel and a 19th century vestry extension the building is a ruin, falling into disuse after the collapse of the nave roof in 1660.

Since Roman times the marshy ground forming the majority of Halvergate has required drainage so that the land could be used and this was achieved mainly by drainage channels. The resulting loss of estuary and the growing dominance of Norwich and Great Yarmouth over the 14th and 15th centuries led to Halvergate’s decline as a ‘centre’. However, the post medieval period saw increased use of wind power as a means of drainage pumping and the resulting good grazing land provided the basis for the village’s continued prosperity. In the 18th and 19th centuries some fourteen drainage windmills were constructed in the parish, eight of which survive (not necessarily working!).

Not all employment revolved around the marshes, however. On the higher ground land-owners and farmers were developing the land, for livestock and arable production (largely the latter now) which became the principal economic activity, employing many farm workers and fostering numerous local services. Halvergate and Tunstall typified self-sufficient rural settlements of the time with, as well as the marshmen and cowkeepers, their own school, blacksmiths, butchers, joiners, bricklayer, basket maker, beer seller, three victuallers (The Crown, The Hare and Hounds and The Red Lion) and corn miller. In the southwest of the parish are the remains of Halvergate Mill, a corn mill (as opposed to drainage) dating to 1866. This was burnt out in 1935 and only the brick tower remains.

Development in the second half of the 19th century of new modes of transport and communication such as carriers, postal services and above all the railway brought radical change to the way the village related to the outside world. References in Kelly’s Directory of 1937 to motor engineer/cycle agent and to a post and telegraph office mark the continuation of this trend towards a more outward-looking and out-sourcing way of life. This, of course, has been much increased in the 20th century through to today by car ownership, radio, television and the internet but particularly, on the ground locally, the mechanisation of agriculture and the reduction in the farm workforce. Alongside this we have seen the loss of local craft trades and shops, farm buildings and former workers’ cottages converted to homes for blue- and white-collar workers, and many new houses built for a highly mobile population which, for the large part, work away from home.

The last Census of 2011 showed 607 people living in the parish, significantly more than the 530 of 1937 which in fact was only slightly more than the number of a century earlier. So, there has been latter day population growth despite the parish’s relative isolation and lack of modern day ‘high street’ facilities – or perhaps because of it? Certainly, as the following shows, there are plenty of positives about living in Halvergate and Tunstall with almost universal general approval as ‘a good place to live’ among residents.

(The above History is based largely on two sources: Broadland District Council’s Halvergate & Tunstall Conservation Area Character Appraisal and the Norfolk Heritage Explorer website.)

Tunstall Church