Weird Norfolk: The ‘Stonehenge’ of Norwich

Arminghall Woodhenge photo from "The Norwich 'Woodhenge'" by J.G.D. Clark. Picture: EDP Library

Arminghall Woodhenge photo from "The Norwich 'Woodhenge'" by J.G.D. Clark. Picture: EDP Library - Credit: Archant

It's a ripple in a field which hides a stupendous secret – here, between two ugly electricity pylons on the fringes of Norwich there once stood an incredible treasure: Norfolk's answer to Stonehenge.

The field at Arminghall where a wood Henge once stood. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The field at Arminghall where a wood Henge once stood. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

That there is so little to see at what was once a magnificent wooden henge on the fringes of Norwich is a travesty, but once upon a time, Arminghall Henge was a magnificent sight, on a scale not too far removed from Stonehenge. Today, the Henge is a sorry sight, and site.

Marked by two huge electricity pylons and overlooked by a looming substation, itself built over a round barrow, Arminghall Henge receives none of the glory that its Wiltshire cousin enjoys and far less than Seahenge, the Bronze Age timber circle discovered on the coast at Holme in the 1990s.

But look beyond the somewhat bleak site to what once stood in this corner of Norwich and you can discover a magical gateway to a winter wonderland: as the Winter solstice sun sets, if you view it from what was once an incredible henge, it sets down the slope of nearby high ground, like a ball of fire rolling down a hill.

Discovered in 1929 by Wing Commander Gilbert Insall VC, who spotted circular cropmarks on a flood bank of the River Tas below its junction with the Yare while flying at around 2,000 feet, Arminghall was visited a week later by Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford, a British archaeologist who specialised in the study of prehistoric Britain. Insall had already spotted Woodhenge, two miles north east of Stonehenge, two years earlier and Crawford believed that aerial archaeology was to the study of the past what the telescope was to astronomy - two years previously, he and archaeologist Alexander Keiller had helped to raise the finances to buy the land around Stonehenge and present it to the National Trust to prevent it from further damage from agriculture or development.

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It was not, however, until 1935 that the site was first excavated by Sir John Grahame Clark, who established that the two circular rings which Insall had spotted from the sky were ditched, the outer 1.5m deep and the inner 2.3m deep. The soil from the ditches was piled up to form a bank between them and in the middle of the rings stood a wooden henge, eight huge posts that dwarved the people who stood below them. In a U-shaped ring of pillars, the huge wooden posts stood like silent sentries in low-lying fields. Carbon dating marks their underground remains back more than 4,000 years but unlike stone, wood doesn't last thousands of years, so Norfolk's henge was lost to time and now lies lost in a field, forgotten, ignored or unknown to all but a tiny proportion of those who pass it.

The henge is believed to have been aligned with Chapel Hill, now obliterated by a railway line, which was once where Markshall Church stood - the last remnants of the church were covered when the railway line was built in 1847, when skeletons, a stone coffin and church foundations were found.

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Posts could have stood as high as six or seven metres tall, only slightly smaller than the stones at Stonehenge. Clark wrote: "Of all the monuments of remote antiquity in the British Isles none are more impressive, both by reason of their size and of the purposes which they served, than the structures of which Stonehenge, Avebury and Woodhenge are the most famous examples. "…it is my purpose first of all to record the investigation of a new monument of the 'henge' class—to use the convenient term adopted by Mr Kendrick—situated in the parish of Arminghall immediately south of the city of Norwich, and, secondly, to consider its date, purpose, affinities, and origin."

Sadly, little is known about what happened at Arminghall Henge, what ceremonies were carried out there, whether the posts were painted or if a roof topped them and when it fell into disuse - a watercolour painted by Samuel Woodward in 1827 shows a "British fortress" at the site, which suggests the earthworks of the henge were still visible in the early 19th century.

The field at Arminghall where a wood Henge once stood. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The field at Arminghall where a wood Henge once stood. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

You can access the site of the henge by walking from Old Lakenham, across the bridge and to a footpath on your left which leads you to the field where the henge once stood. Follow the line of the hedgerow to the south and the henge is between two pylons. This is where what experts describe as "one of East Anglia's most significant prehistoric field monuments" (Ashwin and Bates, 2000) and "one of the most important prehistoric discoveries in Norfolk" (Norfolk Heritage Explorer), it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument yet nothing leads the visitor to seek out what would have been one of the most important places in our prehistoric past and now lost in a field to all but the most persistent of seekers.

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