Visit to Merton Park Thursday 28th August 2008
The hall and church of Merton, about two miles south-west of Watton, were the destination of the Breckland Society’s visit on 28th August. Close to the Peddar’s Way, this site has a long history of human occupation, with Bronze Age barrows and a possible Roman villa site.
The Saxon manor was appropriated by the Norman Ralph Baynard in 1067, but in 1337 the heiress of Fulk Baynard married Thomas de Grey and so established the branch of the de Grey family, who have lived here ever since. In 1780, as a result of holding various judicial offices, Sir William de Grey was given the hereditary title of Baron Walsingham.
The original manor house was on the moated site. However, there was probably an earlier building on the site of the hall that was begun in 1613. Extended in the 19th century, only one wing survived a fire in 1956. The oldest extant building is the red-brick gatehouse, to the east of the hall, which was built in the 1620s. To the west of it are the 19th-century stables, now converted into flats and offices.
The 17th-century hall was set in fine parkland, including standard oaks, and in the late 18th century further woodland and an avenue were planted. The ‘Great Pond’ was formed by linking former fishponds, themselves relics of the mere that gave the settlement its name. An ornamental dairy, an iron bridge, two lodges and a folly (an extraordinary shell house) were added. Many of the farm buildings date from the Agricultural Revolution or from the ‘High Farming’ period of prosperity from 1850s to 1870s. The estate included the villages of Tottington; Thompson; West Tofts; Stanford; Buckenham Tofts; Sturston and Langford; all but Thompson are now within the Battle Area . Accounts and papers relating to the management of the estate from the fourteenth century onwards can be studied in the Norfolk Record Office.
St Peter’s Church contains medieval and later memorials to the de Grey family, but its round tower is even earlier, dating from the late 11th century or even from before the Norman Conquest of 1066. The church contains a complete rood stair, a 14th-century painted rood screen; a 15th-century font with a tall wooden cover and the 17th-century communion rail.
The grandson of the poet George Crabbe was the rector here for 34 years (from 1850–84) and one of his friends was Edward Fitzgerald, the poet and translator of ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’. Fitzgerald was staying at the Rectory in 1883 (actually in Thompson, not Merton) when he became ill and died.