Mentioned in the Domesday Book of AD 1086, Wolterton (near Calthorpe and Itteringham) was listed as both Ultertuna and Wivetuna, having 4 smallholders on the land with ½ a plough team on 16 acres. Land valued at 16 shillings (80p) was also held by the Abbot of St. Benedict at Holme before 1066 but at the survey it was valued at 20 shillings (£1). The main landholder was the Norman nobelman, William de Warenne. Always a small village, Wolterton’s Lay Subsidy records for 1332 and 1334 indicate it was well below average in size. The parish was subsequently consolidated with Wickmere.
In 1725, the estate was purchased by the first Baron Walpole. The original Hall burnt down and was rebuilt by Horatio Walpole (second Baron), who employed the Yorkshire-born architect Thomas Ripley and work began on the red-brick house in 1727. The interior featured state rooms containing Gobelins tapestries while the surrounding 150-acre parkland within the 500-acre private estate was landscaped to include a lake and avenue of oak and beech trees.
During the 1700’s, it became ‘fashionable’ for Lords of the Manor to remove any property on their estates, which they either considered an eyesore or which spoilt their view. Known as Emparkment, this ‘option’ was exercised on estates nationwide including Felbrigg, Holkham and Houghton amongst others in Norfolk. A similar fate also affected Wolterton which also gradually became abandoned, leaving only the church tower, north of the Hall. A local map of 1733 shows the deserted settlement lying slightly north of the church. This had previously contained several houses clustered around a village green. The remaining Wolterton inhabitants – located near St Margaret’s church – were removed as part of the redesigning programme. Their settlement was located around a rectangular green where today, a visible hollow way still remains. Field walkers and metal detectorists have discovered medieval and post-medieval pottery, coins and metalwork on the site.
Wolterton’s “demise” seems to have begun in 1722, when Horatio Walpole started buying land in the parish and began planning a new mansion, surrounded by an ornamental park. Neither church, village nor Tudor Manor-House (which burnt down in 1724 and remains demolished), were included in the new scheme. It then seems rapid progress followed within a decade for in 1737, the Rev. George England arrived in Wolterton, to become its last ever priest. Consolidation of the parish with nearby Wickmere soon followed the same year, before Wolterton’s last church marriage was held in 1740. Between 1742-46, cottages were demolished (except for the parsonage) and dispersed away from the church. The last recorded burial was in 1747 and the final baptism, in 1765. Records also indicate that by the mid 1700’s, the church aisle, porch and vestry had already been demolished and in 1797, a local contractor (William Ward) was paid to demolish both the nave and chancel, leaving almost nothing.
By 1741, Wolterton Hall was being rebuilt by Horatio Walpole whose brother Sir Robert Walpole – then Britain’s first Prime Minister – was simultaneously building Houghton Hall. It’s also likely that Horatio removed much of the church stonework after St.Margaret’s had faithfully served local men and women of centuries past. But the last churchyard burials coincided with construction of the new estate, although records suggest some services were still held at Wolterton for a short time after Consolidation. The churches and buildings historian Nikolaus Pevsner claimed the living was consolidated with Wickmere in 1737, hence construction of the Hall involved moving a village that was in the way. More houses were demolished with only the tower left as a ‘view’ from the house.
Since St Margaret’s demise, Walpole family members have been interred in a vault at St Andrew’s Church, in nearby Wickmere. So today, Wolterton’s medieval church of St Margaret’s is just a ruin with only its late Saxon round tower – refaced in brick during the 14th century – remaining. Made of knapped flint with brick and stone dressings, it became a Grade II listed building on 4th October 1960 and interestingly, the official Listing Schedule places the building in Wickmere, Norwich, NR11. William Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk marked it as a ruin. It’s tempting to think rubble from the church plus its foundations might still lie under remaining mounds. Archaeologically, they remain unexcavated but are protected, as an Ancient Monument.
In the 1830’s, the lake was enhanced by adding an island planted with cedar trees. The present Hall and estate had once been occupied by an earlier Manor House, owned by Sir Henry Spelman (1562 – 1641), born in Congham near Kings Lynn. He was an Englsh antiquarian, noted for detailed collections of medieval records, particularly of church councils. Whites Directory of Norfolk (1845) records Wolterton only had 43 souls.
It seems likely that some church contents still live on, after being moved to Wickmere which today, has a huge ‘Armada’ Chest and painted panel, attached to its pulpit. The font seems to have moved to Mannington Church. Two bells were still in Wolterton’s Tower in 1807 (says the Church Terrier). The Latin inscription on one bell – (‘Robert Plummer made me in honour of St Margaret’) – suggests it was of pre-Reformation date.
Former public lanes in the original parish were moved beyond its boundaries leaving the tower in isolation. Wolterton Park and gardens were laid out in grand manner around 1730, from plans made by the King’s Garden Designer and Royal Gardener, Charles Bridgeman (1690–1738). After Horatio Walpole became a Baron in 1756 the grounds were extended to form a North Park, where the tower still remains, its ruin retained as a romantic ‘eye-catcher’ in the landscape as was then fashionable. This may have preserved it from random demolition for its materials.
Remains of the churchyard were cleared in the early 1800s and the tombstones sold off in Norwich by Lord Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford (1752-1822) including the Scamler memorials. Local folklore however, tells us that the coffins of later Earls were firstly driven several times around the churchyard before being conveyed for burial in the family vault in Wickmere Church. This was to placate the disturbed spirits of the departed!!
By Christoper Weston