Hempton lies about twelve miles north of Dereham and about a mile to the south-west of Fakenham. It consists of a collection of Victorian cottages and post-war housing. Its main feature now is its enormous green, a favourite dog-walking place; it is the home of many rabbits and skylarks, one or two pheasants when the season is over, and a barn-owl beating its way over in the twilight.
It is hard for the passer-by to believe that this large empty space was once the site of one of the most populous and popular sheep fairs in England. In the l3th century King John granted to the canons of Hempton Priory three fairs to be held annually. The sheep fair was on the first Wednesday in September, and it is recorded that in 1848 between 5,000 and 6,000 sheep were penned. The last sheep fair was held in September 1969, when 1,026 sheep were offered for sale. The cattle fairs were held on Whit Tuesday and in November. The cattle were enclosed on what is now known as the Bullock Hills – an emerging oak wood. Here were sold steers walked from Scotland, known on their journey as ‘Hemps’ because of their destination. Local farmers would buy them, feed them up, and send them on with drovers to the London markets. At the November fair, horses were sold.
Behind a row of cottages on the eastern side of the village lies the site of Abbey Farm and before that of Hempton Priory. In the reign of Henry I a hospital was built for travellers which soon developed into an Augustinian priory dedicated to St Stephen. Because it stood at the head of a causeway across marshy ground beside the river Wensum, all goods coming from the south had to pass the priory and could be confiscated from time to time. The prior became a very powerful man and was lord of the manor at the time of the dissolution.
Before the coming of the Normans a church dedicated to St Andrew, thought to be Saxon, stood in what is now known as Church Meadow. It is mentioned in Domesday as having an acre of land, but by 1623 it was in ruins. WI members and their families collected flints from the site, which were then built into the base of the village sign which they presented in 1974.
The Domesday Book records that there were four freemen farming about 60 acres between them. The lord of the manor at that time was William, Earl of Warren, who had married William I’s step-daughter Gundreda. The present lord of the manor is the Marquess of Townshend, whose Victorian forbear gave the land upon which Holy Trinity church and its vicarage were built in 1856. There was a National school in the church room from 1858 to 1874. In living memory Hempton has had a pork butcher, a village shop and post office, a busy blacksmith, a brickyard, a windmill, a watermill, an inn and two pubs. Of these just the Bell remains. There was also the village laundress who dried her linen on the green and bleached it on the whin bushes.
NB The village information above is taken from The Norfolk Village Book, written by members of the Norfolk Federation of Women’s Institutes and published by Countryside Books.