Aylsham is a historic market town and civil parish on the River Bure in north Norfolk, England, nearly 9 mi (14 km) north of Norwich. The river rises near Melton Constable, 11 miles (18 km) upstream from Aylsham and continues to Great Yarmouth and the North Sea, although it was only made navigable after 1779, allowing grain, coal and timber to be brought up river.
The civil parish has an area of 4,329 acres (17.52 square km) and in the 2001 census had a population of 5,504 in 2448 households, reducing to a population of 3,999 in 1,591 households at the 2011 Census. For the purposes of local government, the parish falls within the district of Broadland.
Archaeological evidence shows that the site of the town has been occupied since prehistoric times. Aylsham is just over two miles (3 km) from a substantial Roman settlement at Brampton, linked to Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund, south of Norwich, by a Roman road which can still be traced in places – that site was a bustling industrial centre with maritime links to the rest of the empire. Excavations in the 1970s provided evidence of several kilns, showing that this was an industrial centre, pottery and metal items being the main items manufactured.
Aylsham is thought to have been founded around 500 AD by an Anglo Saxon thegn called Aegel, Aegel’s Ham, meaning “Aegel’s settlement”. The town is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Elesham and Ailesham, with a population of about 1,000. Until the 15th century, the linen and worsted industry was important here, as well as in North Walsham and Worstead and Aylsham webb or ‘cloth of Aylsham’ was supplied to the royal palaces of Edward II and III.
John of Gaunt was lord of the manor from 1372 and Aylsham became the principal town of the Duchy of Lancaster. Although John of Gaunt probably never came to Aylsham, the townspeople enjoyed many privileges, including exemption from jury service outside the manor and from payment of certain taxes. The village sign depicts John of Gaunt.
In 1519 Henry VIII granted a market on Saturdays and an annual fair to be held on 12 March, which was the eve of the feast of St Gregory the pope. Aylsham markets have always been an important feature of the town, and businesses developed to meet the needs of the town and the farming lands around it. Besides weekly markets there were cattle fairs twice a year and, in October, a hiring fair.
The historic Black Boys Inn in the Market Place is one of Aylsham’s oldest surviving buildings, and has been on the site since the 1650s, although the present frontage dates to between 1710 and 1720. There is a frieze of small black boys on the cornice and a good staircase and assembly room. The Black Boys was a stop for the post coach from Norwich to Cromer, had stabling for 40 horses, and employed three ostlers and four postboys.
As with many of the other market towns in the county, the weaving of local cloth brought prosperity to the town in medieval times. Until the 15th century it was the manufacture of linen which was the more important, and Aylsham linens and Aylsham canvases were nationally known. From the 16th century linen manufacture declined and wool became more important, a situation that continued until the coming of the Industrial Revolution. Thereafter the principal trade of the town for the 19th century was grain and timber, together with the range of trades to be found in a town which supported local agriculture. Records show that Aylsham had markets and fairs, certainly from the 13th century. Such weekly and annual events were important for the trade that they brought. Annual horse fairs would bring many other traders to the town, and the weekly market would be the occasion for more local trade. The rights of the stallholders in the market place today date back to the rights established in medieval times.
In medieval times the parish of Aylsham was established as four manors, the main manor of Lancaster, Vicarage manor, Sexton’s manor and Bolwick manor. The ownership of the Lancaster manor changed hands many times, before James I assigned it to his son, the future Charles I.
In the course of the events which lead up to the English Civil War Charles I had to raise as much money as possible, and mortgaged Lancaster manor to the Corporation of the City of London. The Corporation eventually sold it to Sir John Hobart, and through him it passed to the ownership of the Blickling Estate. The current lords of the manor are the National Trust.
Formerly part of the South Erpingham Hundred, Aylsham was, for administrative purposes, absorbed into St. Faith’s and Aylsham Rural District Council in 1894 and became part of Broadland District Council in 1974. Local issues come under the jurisdiction of Aylsham Parish Council.
Today Aylsham remains well known for its twice-weekly market and its Monday auctions. It is a popular town for people working in Norwich, but remains an active local business centre in its own right, particularly in the support of agriculture. Today the town has a population of about 5,500, several local industries and still serves the needs of a wide area with twice weekly markets and a farmers’ market on the morning of the first and third Saturday of each month. The Aylsham Partnership was formed in 2001 to implement the Market Towns Initiative in Aylsham. The partnership included elected members of County, District and Parish/Town Councils in the Aylsham County Council Division and representatives of other statutory bodies and community organisations.
Aylsham came fourth in the world in an international competition celebrating liveable communities, winning a Silver Award in category A (towns with a population up to 20,000) of the International Awards for Liveable Communities, held in La Coruña, Spain in November 2005.
The Market Towns Initiative finished in 2004 but the partnership successfully bid for funding to take part in the Cittaslow pilot project and to sustain work on traffic management and heritage. As a result, Aylsham became one of the founding towns, and the first in Norfolk, of the Cittaslow movement, an international organisation promoting the concept of ‘Slow Towns’ (“a Network of towns where Quality of Life is important”). It is claimed that Aylsham did not have to change to become a member, as it was already a clear example of the type of community advocated by the Cittaslow movement.