Stoke Ferry is an ancient and attractive village in West Norfolk situated between the towns of Swaffham and Downham Market and about 10 miles south of Kings Lynn.
The Bronze Age
The first reference to Stoke Ferry – as ‘Stoches’ – appears in the Domesday Book. However, archaeological evidence has identified this as a Bronze Age settlement, three thousand years old and contemporary with the Whittlesey Fen discoveries further along the Wash. Its strategic position, as the last navigable point of the River Wissey, lent it great importance. The ‘Ferry’ out into the North Sea, from the droving-routes that extended up into ‘High Norfolk’, proved vital in the centuries before the Fens were drained.
Although now classed as a village, this used to be a market town of some stature. A Royal Charter was granted in 1239 by Henry III to hold a weekly market on the square, and on the 6th December, an annual Christmas Fair. The charter, renewed by Henry VI in 1426, and never revoked, gives an indication of the town’s importance to the region. There was also an annual Hiring Fair held on ‘the Hill’ for farm labourers and domestic servants. A centre of trade for centuries, the square was surrounded by inns and hotels. The Old Crown, its northern perimeter, dates from the 1380s. The Duke’s Head, to the south, and the Kings Arms to the west, were all busy with visitors of all trades and descriptions.
The mediaeval church of All Saints dates from the 1400s, and forms the square’s eastern boundary. It was modified by the early Victorians, but its west front, facing the square, remains intact. Here too were tithe cottages, now restored, and the range of cottages which dates from the 1400s which borders the eastern churchyard, and which includes the Lodge, the village doctor’s house.
Prosperity and Development
The town’s prosperity increased with the wool-trade, and merchants built grand houses around the Conservation Area during the eighteenth-century. The Hall, the most distinguished, was built by James Bradfield at the end of this period. In the 1860s, the tower mill was rebuilt on the outskirts of the town, and was said to have the largest ogee-cap in the county. Like Wisbech, this was an inland port, and its wealth was reflected in the quality of its architecture
The market square and the High Street, notable for the fact that no building dates from later than the early nineteenth-century, are recorded by Pevsner of being of great significance. The whole was listed and given Conservation Area protection in the 1970s.
At the far edge of the village, there was trade on the River Wissey, particularly between 1750 and 1880, with landing and loading facilities for coal, grain, ale, timber and so forth. The barges were a cheap form of transport before the advent of the railway in Bridge Road. In 1882 a privately-owned branch railway-line of just over 7 miles in length was opened in conjunction with Great Eastern Railways. It connected to Downham Market, but with the rise in motor transport during the 20th century, fell victim to Dr. Beeching’s cuts of the 1960s. A toll house into the centre of the village was erected by a 1770 Act of Parliament: it is now the village shop.
This haulage and light industrial activity historically all took place therefore at the edges of the town. Meanwhile, the central market square, the village’s historic heart, remained the hub of community celebrations and commemorations. Empire Day, Victory Day, Jubilees, markets and fetes continued. From here, the soldiers of both World Wars departed, and here they are commemorated in the War Memorial.
The Animal Feed Mill
However, the land slump of the late 1920s and the consequent agricultural depression took their tolls, and the depredations of heavy road traffic passing from Thetford to King’s Lynn through the village centre wrought damage to the town’s fine architectural legacy. In the 1950s, Gordon Favor Parker, thwarted in his plan to build a mill outside the village, decided instead to buy up cheap village centre merchant’s houses for their generous acreages, and there to erect his mill, substantially out of concrete and asbestos. The Duke’s Head, the Hall, Cobbles and Bayfields, which formed two sides of the square, came into his ownership. Salmon’s Farm, a seventeenth-century building a little further along on the Lynn Road, was demolished. Because of the associated HGV operations through the village centre, and despite the protests which began at the time and have continued since, the square thereafter became more unattractive and disused, as, more than half a century later, it remains.
At the Millennium, and at the Jubilee, community fetes did afford all-too-brief glimpses of how vital a restored square could once again be. The derelict Duke’s Head was painted with murals suggesting possible future uses, with a café, doctor’s surgery, and other community facilities. Traders set up temporary market stalls, as had happened over the previous centuries. However, it had to be held at the weekend, because by Sunday evening, the mill’s operations, and the dangerous associated traffic, had resumed.
Dereliction and Decay
Deserted, the square is now a magnet for antisocial activity, and the War Memorial suffered abuse until the installation of CCTV security cameras. The village was bypassed in 1985, since when many of the village’s Grade II listed houses of seven centuries have undergone restoration. However, the Duke’s Head, the former social club for the mill, was closed in the 1990s as the mill’s workforce dwindled, and has remained derelict ever since. Other residential Grade II listed buildings in the mill’s possession are used as store-rooms. For some recent images of the mill, click here