Sunday, 6 January 2013

The same old town: Thetford

It turns out my home town of Thetford in Norfolk is a bit more interesting than I gave it credit for.  That is if you like history, long stories, and unexpected tours from random strangers.  Which I do.

The Norman motte - Castle Hill
The day I went round the town it was raining (of course!  This is Britain!) but that's ok because it makes the cloudier photos come out all monochrome and grainy, which always looks a little classy.
Palaeolithic - Anglo Saxon ( 1,000,000BC- 600AD)
Much of East Anglia lies over chalk beds with layers of flint running through it, the remains of dead sea creatures crushed under prehistoric oceans.  At one point Norfolk was buried under glacial ice, but since it cleared people have been living here.  Flint tools have been found here dating back almost a million years.  I visited the Neolithic flint mines at Grimes Graves in the summer, so this is a nice bit of continuity for me, but an even older Paleolithic flint quarry exists just down the road in Lynford.

It's when the Romans invaded Britain in 43AD that we start to have written evidence of the history in Thetford.  It's counted as a small town now, but in the Iron Age and early Roman period it was one of the main settlements in the region.  Traditionally the Iceni queen Boudicca (famous for routing Romans out of the area in 60AD) had her court here, and so did the rulers of East Anglia during Anglo-Saxon times.  There have been some treasure troves found in the area from that time, but the earliest landmarks we have are the earthworks around Castle Hill. 

The old earthworks around the hill
They were built as Iron Age fortifications, with the hill in the middle added during Norman times.  After the Romans left Britain, Angles (from Denmark) and Saxons (from Germany) settled in the area between 400-600AD.

Vikings (800 - 1000AD)
That's right, we had frikkin' Vikings!  Actually we didn't do so well in that fight.  The Vikings (also from Denmark, like the Angles) invaded eastern Britain and used Thetford for their winter quarters in 869AD.  King Edmund of East Anglia drove them back but was later killed, traditionally by being captured and shot full of arrows after refusing to renounce his faith.  The nearby town of Bury St Edmunds is named after him.  After this the Danes continued to rule by appointing locals kings that they controlled and hung onto the area for another 50 years, even after they had been pushed back from everywhere else in England.  There's no landmarks or buildings for this era so here's me at the Ancient House Museum wearing a Viking helmet instead:

There were more raids from the Danes until 1066AD when the Normans invaded and took over, led by William the Conqueror.  At that point Thetford was the sixth biggest town in the country - hard to believe when you look at it now - with a grand total of 4,000 citizens!  It was also made the official base of the East Anglian bishops.  This is when Castle Hill was built, forming the motte (mound) for a motte and bailey castle.  The keep on top was destroyed in 1173AD and wasn't rebuilt but at 64ft high the man-made mound is the still the second biggest in England.  It also makes for some great sledging when it snows.

Medieval (1000 - 1400AD)
There are 3 churches in Thetford left over from the Middle Ages, and the ruins of a large priory.  All of them are largely made out of the local flint and cemented together with lime made from the chalk.

Thetford Priory: The ruined Clunaic Priory of Our Lady of Thetford used to be one of the most important religious sites in East Anglia.  Now only the layout is visible, like a chunky rubble map that makes for a great game of hide and seek, and the arch that used to hold the big stained glass window behind the altar.

Steps leading up to the altar
It was the seat of the regions bishops but fell into disrepair after Henry VIII broke with the church in the 1530s (although his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy was buried here for a while).  Parts of it are now in other flint buildings all over Thetford.

Columns lining the nave.  You can see the stone cladding with flint rubble filling in the middle.

The main arch from below
Priests continued to live in the house below the priory for another 200 years after it closed, so this building has some more details left, including several different arches and windows from different eras.

St Cuthberts Church:  The foundations are Saxon, but the building itself was made in the 1200-1300s.  The tower was rebuilt after it fell down in 1851, and it's the only one of the three medieval churches that's still used for services.

St Peter’s Church:  This one was rebuilt quite a lot in the late 1700s, and is known as 'the black church' because of the chequerboard pattern on the tower.  It's made from - you guessed it - flint.

The last church is St Mary the Less.  It's falling down, which is a shame as it's the oldest standing church in Thetford and even starred in the TV series Dad's Army.  It's a few minutes away from the town centre and I didn't get a chance to go check it out this time round.

Tudor (late 1400s - early1600s AD)
There's more Tudor buildings here than I remember, still sporting their trademark white walls and black beams.  Some are still houses, one is a pub/hotel, and one is a museum.

The Bell Hotel - formerly an inn for coaches travelling to London
Tudor house on Castle Street 
This wonky, curving building facing the market square is now used as a job centre
Ancient House Museum:  Every Thetfordian school kid comes here and some point.  This crooked old Tudor building was built around 1490 by a merchant, and is now the town museum.  They've kept the beautiful beamed interior the same, including the large dining hall and wonky upper floors.  

The Ancient House Museum
The downstairs hallway leading to the reception
Victorian kitchen exhibit, also used for hands-on demonstrations!

The 1600-1700s
Not much happened in this period.  The five religious houses, which had provided a key source of income for Thetford, were now in ruin.  The economy was doing badly, the bishops were no longer based here, and to top it off the town was known for it's dodgy voting practices when it came to electing officials.  But things perked up after 1737 after a guy called Thomas Paine was born.  He's not too well known in English schools but the Americans love him because of his political writing.  He emigrated to America just in time for the American Revolution and his works Common Sense and The American Crisis supported the move for independence.  

Thom's statue in the town centre.  The book is upside down!
By 1750 Thetford was picking itself up again and new industries were moving into town.  One business that did very well was the Charles Burrell & Sons company, which started in 1770 and made steam-powered traction engines that were shipped all over the world.  Prosperity continued to grow through the 1800s, helped by the railway line to London that opened in 1845 (although of course that ended the stage coach business).  However the shortage of resources and extra competition of the First World War eventually scuppered Charles Burrell & Sons and they closed in 1928.  The museum was shut when I went past, but it still contains some of the old machinery and steam engines.

Flint cottages on Nether Row, built in 1831.  Appeared in 'Dad's Army' episodes from 1969 onwards

1900s to Present
Thetford Guildhall:  There's been a communal building on the site of the Guildhall since the 1300s, used for events, councils, and a court room (the old gibbet used to stand out the back of the building), but the current Guildhall was built in 1902.  

My sister Emma and I only went in to get out of the rain, but ended up getting a mini-tour from the nice gentleman manning the refreshments stand in the gallery upstairs.  He showed us the main meeting hall, and also the smaller court room, with it's raised dais.  We even got to sit in the judges chair!

Main hall
Extremely comfy!

 Around this time I begin to lose interest - modern history just doesn't appeal to me like the older stuff does, but there's a few things still to mention.  In the last 100 years there's been a lot of change:
  • There's a few military bases in the surrounding Brecks (a scrubby heath that grows on the sandy, alkaline soil here and isn't great for crops).  They started turning up when the area was used as an assembly point for troops going off the fight in the First World War, and as their demobilisation centre after the armistice.  The area was used again in World War Two as a training area, and the base stuck around this time.
  • In the 1920s, again driven by the lack of native trees after the war, a massive manmade forest was planted here.  Thetford Forest is still the largest manmade lowland forest in the country, is sustainable harvested, and is now a public attraction with a small activity centre, paths and tracks through the forest, and space for live events.
  • In the 1950s Thetford was named an 'overspill town', part of a scheme to move 10,000 people here out of London.  This nearly tripled the size of the town and many of the housing estates we have now were built to support this.
  • And that's it.  We settled down for about 50 years without much change but apparently we're about to grow again.  It's a bid to trigger some regeneration and investment into the town, and a response to a perceived housing need in the area.  Trouble is, I have no idea what we'll grow into.  A few thousand houses will be built on the other side of the lane at the bottom of my road, where for my whole life there have only been fields and trees, increasing the town's area by a third again.  I can understand the thinking behind it, but still...  Everyone always wishes they were more grown-up than they were, and when they're older they only want to go back to how it was before.  Don't go getting too big too fast, Thetford. 
A map of Thetford.  My house is under the blue dot, on what is currently the very edge of town.
The red area is the planned expansion.

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