9 facts you didn’t know about Harleston

PUBLISHED: 17:11 18 March 2019 | UPDATED: 17:11 18 March 2019

Harleston town centre (photo: Sonya Duncan)

Harleston town centre (photo: Sonya Duncan)

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2016

From historic plots to present-day festivals, we flag up a flurry of fascinating facts about historic Harleston


Harleston is brilliant at celebrations. Whether you want to celebrate spring, an arts festival, the Queen’s birthday, Christmas or even the return of migratory birds – Harleston gets the flags out. Making use of the flagpole and Christmas tree holders above shops, a succession of flags are flown. There are flags for St Valentine, St David, St Patrick and St George, there are flags for Easter and the Spring Fair, flags to welcome the Pink Ladies Tractor Run in July, flags for Heritage Days in September and Halloween in October, and flags to welcome and wave off the swifts. Next month the unflagging flag team (whose Ian Carstairs even invented a way of getting the flags and poles up and down without needing ladders) will be celebrating Earth Day with flags from all 195 countries of the United Nations flown and paraded around the town.


The people of Harleston have taken swifts to their hearts, providing around 150 special nest boxes to tempt the birds to lay their eggs in the town. Swifts arrive in Britain in May, and only stay until August, wintering more than 7,000 miles away, south of the Sahara. The superb fliers eat, sleep and mate in the air, landing only to nest and lay eggs. Although people confuse them with swallows or house martins their closest genetic relation is actually the hummingbird. They normally raise two or three chicks, which can live up to 20 years, returning to the same site to nest (and perhaps rest after flying continuously from leaving Harleston in August to when they return in May.)

Harleston has many Georgian frontages with older buildings behind (photo: Sabrina Johnson)Harleston has many Georgian frontages with older buildings behind (photo: Sabrina Johnson)


Origami birds created in Harleston have taken a message of peace around the world and to the edge of space. The thousand paper cranes, inspired by a Japanese girl from Hiroshima who died of leukaemia in 1955, carried messages of peace from local people. They were exhibited in Harleston before the wing tips from each crane were placed in a transparent sphere and taken to New York, sharing a message of peace at the United Nations headquarters and Ground Zero memorial. Their next adventure was to hitch a ride on a research balloon and soar 22 miles to the edge of space, becoming the highest peace messages in the world. They parachuted back to earth, and back to Harleston, before joining thousands more peace cranes at the peace memorial in Hiroshima. Eventually the wing tips, each decorated with a picture of a swift, returned to Harleston.


Harleston shares its name with a Harleston in Suffolk, near Stowmarket, and another in South Devon – and is officially part of Redenhall with Harleston. The much smaller village of Redenhall has the main medieval church, while Harleston’s Victorian church was built to replace an ancient chapel. Inside impressive Redenhall Church is a double-headed eagle lectern, made in East Anglia more than 500 years ago. There is another at St Mark’s in Venice, said to be from the same workshop.

Harleston folk singing group Too Many Cooks (photo: Ian Carstairs)Harleston folk singing group Too Many Cooks (photo: Ian Carstairs)


Its high school is named for a disgraced archbishop. However, today’s very successful Archbishop Sancroft High School, Norfolk’s only Church of England high school, is judged outstanding by Ofsted. And to be fair to Archbishop of Canterbury William Sancroft, he was acquitted after being imprisoned in the Tower of London for disagreeing with King James II, who he had crowned. That same year he paid for a clergyman to teach in Harleston - and James was deposed. But Britain’s top clergyman then refused to swear allegiance to the new king and was himself deposed as archbishop.


Don’t be fooled by the Georgian frontages – many of the buildings in the handsome town centre are much older than they seem. Behind the facades, put up by modernisers 250-300 years ago, are medieval, timber-framed buildings. It is said that Harleston would resemble Lavenham if stripped of the later facades. It once had a huge market square, with stalls in the middle gradually becoming permanent shops. A medieval guildhall is thought to be lurking within Merchant’s House, and a 14th century grand hall is hidden by a Victorian brick shop front.

Harleston's Archbishop Sancroft High School (photo: Nick Butcher)Harleston's Archbishop Sancroft High School (photo: Nick Butcher)


There’s a market every Wednesday (continuing a tradition which dates back at least 760 years) plus an antiques street market in June, a food and drink street market in October and a Christmas street market in November. There are open gardens and art trails in May, a festival, and sculpture trail, in August, and the Harleston food and drink festival in October. Volunteers lead guided walks and from folk singing to football, there’s a club for almost everyone. Harleston Magpies hockey club is one of the biggest in the region, with 15 regular Saturday league teams and a total of 28 teams through the season – for women, men and children.


Unloved apples going to waste in gardens launched a new career for Ken and Deb Woolley. Ken began turning them into cider and two years ago his hobby became a business. Although they now buy in most of the apples for their award-winning craft ciders from orchards in Norfolk and Suffolk, more than 10% are still donated from people’s gardens. The couple had previously run an engineering company and were joined by their son, Tim, and his partner Ruth. Harleston Cider Company also specialises in ice cider –freezing the apple juice to make a thick syrup which is then fermented to create a premium drink – and fire cider, or cider vinegar infused with aromatic herbs and spices. The company now also has a production site at Palgrave, near Diss, with regular open days including on the last weekend of every month.

Apple pressing at the Harleston Cider Company, based at Palgrave. Apples are loaded into the hopper to crush them (photo: Denise Bradley)Apple pressing at the Harleston Cider Company, based at Palgrave. Apples are loaded into the hopper to crush them (photo: Denise Bradley)


Historic Harleston has its own museum, run by volunteers and open Wednesday to Saturday from May to September. It also almost had its own place in a plot to kill a Queen. An attempt to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I was supposed to be launched by proclamations and the playing of trumpets and drums at Harleston Fair on Midsummer Day, 1570. Instead, various plotters were executed and Robert Greene included it in his play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, popular in the 1590s and revived at the Globe in 2013.

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