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Salthouse Heath:
its ancient and natural history

by Steve Harris

Thousands of years ago, an advancing ice sheet ground to a halt more or less where Salthouse village now stands. As climate warmed, the ice began to melt, disgorging millions of tons of sands, gravels and larger stones over the landscape to the south. Tens of metres depth of this debris, rounded by the action of ice and water, accumulated at the front of the glacier, sloping gently southwards, and now forms the well-known feature of the Holt-Cromer Ridge. This feature’s highest point, just inland of Sheringham at Pretty Corner, reaches 100m—the highest in Norfolk—and gives impressive views northwards over the sea where once there was nothing but ice.
As the ice retreated and over centuries, the days warmed, vegetation re-clothed the barren high-arctic landscape, tundra was replaced by low woody scrub, and eventually trees appeared. This was a time when there would have been a complete range of animals browsing the vegetation, from rodents to deer, wild cattle and horses. Latest thinking suggests that temperate forest, before intervention by Man, far from being closed canopy woodland, would have been broken up into a patchwork including large, open, grazed areas, particularly on thinner soils. It is now thought likely that heathlands, which develop on thin, acidic and unproductive soils, may have always existed in some form, perhaps resembling parts of the New Forest, and were modified by man rather than created by him as has been thought. When early livestock farmers appeared on the scene, some 5,000 years ago, it is likely that they simply managed their animals on existing clearings, and that the combination of their fuel-gathering and browsing animals merely made the existing patchwork heaths more extensive.That Salthouse Heath was a place of great activity in the Bronze Age is demonstrated by the many burial mounds that are scattered over the site.

There are nine large mounds, including 'ThreeHalfpenny' Hill, 'Three Farthing' Hill, and Gallow Hill (actually in Kelling parish) and many smaller mounds, including a cluster of over thirty, which make Salthouse Heath the largest Bronze Age cemetery in Norfolk. In contrast, Kelling Heath has only one such mound; all are scheduled Ancient Monuments.
In the Middle Ages, grazing animals continued to keep heaths as open country. At this time wool was wealth, and sheep were therefore the economically worthwhile animal. Sheep do well on dry ground, and it is ironic that, in contrast to later history, it was Norfolk’s poorest soils that contributed to the area’s great medieval wealth and made it one of England’s pre-eminent counties. This fact is demonstrated by the huge churches dominating small villages of which Salthouse is a prime example.
In the more recent past, Salthouse Heath was an integral part of the local economy, and would have been worked very hard by virtue of the needs of the villagers in the days of ‘living off the locality’. Gorse provided hot-burning fuelwood. There are some people living in the village today who recall the ovens of the bakery being fired up with faggots (bundles) of gorse, and the bread or collective Sunday roasts being cooked in the residual heat from the walls of the oven. Farmers used gorse bushes as bases for haystacks and, in some parts, even as agricultural implements: dragged behind the horse, a gorse bush produces a fine seedbed. Turf or ‘flag’ cutting was known to have been carried out at Salthouse. Elsewhere such material was used as fuel and was certainly different from the peat cutting done on spagnum moss mires that develop in wet hollows on heaths, but the details of this activity, as carried out on dry heaths, seem to have been lost.

see also Colin Wells on Flags
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Val Fiddian 2005