The Norfolk Heritage Explorer web site will respond to a search for Harleston with a great deal of information on its map. Its history in earliest recorded times through writing and its association with Redenhall, Mendham and with Wortwell is quite complex, Redenhall being more prominent in Domesday book but Harleston emerging as the premier name for the settlement in the thirteenth century. Mendham Priory, a daughter to Castle Acre Priory, is certainly important in Domesday but Harleston emerges in its own right in the 1270, with its market, its fairs and more information on its manors.
The information from pre-written times is strong through the work of various archaeological teams; early in the 20th century Mesolithic flints and Bronze Age pottery were found at digs in the Needham area. Christopher Barringer provides a summary in his Exploring the Norfolk Market Town and gives the references for the main reports in Norfolk Archaeology. He refers to the Roman settlement at Needham as the forebear of today's Harleston.
More recent historical work on the town and its current structure owes a debt of gratitude to the Harleston Historical Society. A detailed survey has been undertaken of every building in the town centre and a map resulting from a Norfolk Heritage Explorer search will provide a potted description of each of the buildings.
Going back to the Medieval period, it is to the church of Redenhall that we must look for the key building of that time; today's Harleston church is a relatively modern building. A chapel was provided for the market as it grew but it was to be the Victorian period before Harleston has a church of its own. Redenhall, and in particular its tower, was clearly built to impress in those earlier centuries.
William White's directory of 1845 tells us that the fairs continued on July 5th, September 9th and the cattle fair was held in December on four market days. The importance for this latter occasion was that it was when hundreds of cattle from the furthest reaches of Scotland were sold. The cattle were walked from the north by drovers and brought initially to Halvergate marshes for the summer feeding and in yards for the winter. They were then sold for the London market. Harleston was not the only Norfolk market where these Scots cattle were sold but it was certainly a very significant occasion for the town. This practice was commonplace from the medieval period until the coming of the railways.
Following from this last comment, Christopher Barringer's research as written up in Exploring the Norfolk Market Town points to two significant developments for the town in the 19th century, both of which were shared with a number of other East Anglian market towns. One was the development of a brewery with a substantial distribution system in the area and the other was the coming of the railway, initially the arrival of the Waveney Valley Railway in 1855. The droving of cattle was replaced by the shipment of cattle by train, most East Anglian stations being built with cattle loading bays. However, the railway did not perhaps have such a big influence on the town as it did on a number of other market towns in the area and it closed to passengers in 1953 and to goods traffic in 1966.
Today the civil parish remains as Redenhall with Harleston though it is Harleston which is regarded as the 'town'. It actively promotes itself as a community with a range of independent traders operating to serve the area as well as some of the normal national retailers. It can boast a good collection of pleasant Georgian buildings.
The central area of the town retains a good variety of the independent shops though as with many rural towns today there seems an incongruity in the 'Istanbul' kebab shop and the 'Raj' restaurants being housed in distinctly 19th century style houses. However, as many of us now enjoy the great variety of food on offer, we have learned to accept this situation! The draw-back to the central area of the town coping with the traffic flow by the use of a one way system unfortunately creates a rather faster speed of traffic than one might wish for in an area which provides primarily pedestrian based shopping.
Click for books from Poppyland Publishing on Harleston:
'Exploring the Norfolk Market Town', contains a chapter specific to the history of Harleston.
Harleston church on the left is a relatively late (1872) addition to the town centre, Redenhall being the medieval church for the parish. It stands beside Bank house, with dormer windows indicating that three stories are available.
The elegant flushwork on the tower of Redenhall church speaks of de la Pole's wish to impress through his provision of the building in the Medieval period.
With no tower on the Victorian church, the functional building which houses the HSBC (formerly Midland) bank provides the time for central Harleston - and a regualr hanging place for a promotional banner.
The sign and ironwork on the side of the Swan make a very attractive feature - but were in need of attention at the time of our photograph.
The Old Market place has its own row of functional and attractive dwellings, with the addition over the years of ground floor frontages to suit their use as shops.