Harleston – a unique town, from Viking settlement to bustling market to thriving independent trading place


  • Harleston is rare in possessing between 150 and 200 very old buildings, dotted along the access routes and amassed in the centre of this ancient market town, almost unscathed from the “great fires” that devastated most of its neighbours.
  • These houses have layers, for even some that look modern have secrets within. Beneath that 20th Century, Victorian or Georgian façade stands a Stuart, Tudor or Medieval building. Often each era has added an additional room at the front or back as well as a brick face and a roof of pantiles or slate in place of thatch. To journey inside is to travel through the ages.
  • Harleston is also unlike its neighbours by not developing around the church or castle or alongside the river. Its reason-to-be? Its market place.
  • Perhaps it was planned this way in Medieval times, but it certainly ringed the old, vast centre with inns and shops which were in turn ringed by yards full of industry, a thriving supply base set in the midst of fertile fields, supplying the needs of both farmers and gentry.
  • Those droving animals here to sell stayed at the ever-open inns and purchased goods with the profits of their sales. Others came for the meat and other products of both Harleston and its surrounding area as well as those brought by other traders.
  • (Indeed, it was not just the animals brought to market, for the visitors and traders were a captive market themselves!)
  • Even Kings, like Stephen, Henry II and Charles II, brought their entourages and armies through the town. This continued into WWII with a legendary meeting between later Commanders-in –Chief, Churchill and Eisenhower held here, whilst the inns and shops rocked with the presence of thousands of USAAF airmen as Harleston was ringed by airfields.
  • It was also a place for acting against treachery, with the Swan built with the proceeds received for giving evidence against Kett for his rebellion in 1549. Later Kett’s cousin was rewarded for informing on those planning to start a rebellion at Harleston Fair in 1570.
  • When roads improved in the 1700’s, Harleston’s well established coaching inns were well placed to benefit from the changes. When the railway arrived in the 1850’s, the town gained a beautiful station with goods and stock yards and industry along the line. In recent times Harleston has become a centre for our large haulage companies.

    Over the 1000 and more years of its existence Harleston has constantly re-configured itself to adapt to changing times. May it long continue to do so.

    Gordon Lascelles