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Blakeney's Guildhall - a home for fish, mushrooms and bodies

The vaulted undercroft of Blakeney's Guildhall in North Norfolk
The Guildhall's undercroft used for storing everything from grain to bodies (image courtesy English Heritage)

Few buildings still remain in Blakeney which remind us of the time when the town was one of the most important ports in Britain. The flint and stone construction of Blakeney’s 15th century Guildhall reflects that importance.

The Guildhall, a scheduled monument overlooking the harbour, may originally have been the home of a prosperous fish merchant. But it has been put to many different uses since - including a period when it was used as a mortuary for the bodies of dead sailors killed in the First World War.

Records tell us that by 1516 the Guildhall had become home to Blakeney’s Guild of Fish Merchants when the merchants were granted a charter by Henry VIII. And it was this use that gave the Guildhall its present name.

The building is just below Mariners Hill, a man-made vantage point built as a lookout for Blakeney’s harbour.

The Guildhall was originally a two storey building, accessed from the higher ground behind it. What remains is an attractive undercroft with ribbed brick vaulting supported by a central row of octagonal stone columns. It is impressive.

It has rendered walls and a cobbled floor and while it is pretty dark inside, it was lit by three windows in the east wall. The doorway and the windows are all original. The bricks, which were made locally, are typical of the period and vary in shape quality and appearance, which is why brickwork of this period was often plastered over.

At the south-eastern corner of the ruined upper storey are the remains of a brick-lined privy chute from the upper level, and a spiral stairway to the undercroft.

The building has had a number of uses over the years and a map of 1682 shows it with a castellated upper storey. This part of the building, which may have been used as an inn, later fell into disrepair. Other uses over the years have seen this beautiful undercroft used for storing cargo, grain, and for growing mushrooms. It was also a worm and bait store for local fishermen.

In the mid-19th century the undercroft, the only part of the Guildhall which still survives, was used for storing coal. The coal was traded along the coast between Newcastle and London, but by the end of the 19th century the Blakeney harbour began to silt up and Blakeney’s fortunes were lost as the port fell into decline.

One gruesome fact is that the Guildhall was used as a temporary mortuary for the bodies of shipwrecked sailors during the First World War.

The Guildhall is not a building which will take long to explore, but it is an interesting example of a late medieval house with extremely good ground-floor vaulting.

The building stands across the road from the National Trust car park and along an alleyway to the right of the public lavatories near the quay.

The Guildhall is cared for by English Heritage and managed by Blakeney parish council. Entry is free of charge and it is open daily during daylight hours from April 1 to October 31. It is open at weekends during the winter.

The flint-wall remains of Blakeney's Guildhall dating back to the 1400s
The flint-wall remains of what was Blakeney's two-storey Guidlhall

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