Thursday, 10 December 2009

Surprising Thetford


There are probably thousands of East Anglians who wouldn’t dream of visiting Thetford. Straddling the border between Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t had the best of press in recent years. But, as MIKE SOUTER reports, it’s actually a town that offers a wealth of surprises:

For most of us, Thetford is just one of London’s overspill towns, with a bit of a reputation for social deprivation, large council estates and, despite a bypass, a place where we get stuck in traffic jams on the A11. There’s not much in that little list to persuade us that, in fact, it’s one of the region’s most historic towns and well worth a visit.

I first ventured there more than 25 years ago. In the run up to Radio Norfolk being launched in 1980, the town council put on a bit of a do to welcome the new broadcast team to the area. Subsequently, a chum from my broadcasting days became the catholic priest in the town. Stopping off for a meal or a cup of tea as I drove up and down to London was my first real introduction to the town.

I was somewhat startled then, when my old chum from my five-a-side footballing days, Stuart Wright, achieved nationwide publicity when he announced the commissioning of a £20,000 Captain Mainwaring statue to mark the town’s long association with the BBC TV series, Dad’s Army.

Apart from knowing that Stuart had given up a well-paid accountancy job to become a house-husband, that he would choose to cycle rather than use his car and that his trainers were invariably held together with Araldite, I didn’t have any real perception how the name Thetford runs through him rather like the writing in a stick of rock.

Born and brought up in the town, as were his father and his grandfather, who was a lighterman on the Little Ouse. Stuart is 44, a Town Councillor, chairman of the Dad’s Army Museum, a board member of the Keystone Development Trust, a governor of the Norwich Road school and on the Thetford Grammar School old boys’ committee. No wonder he hasn’t any time to go to work!

With all those hats to wear, it’s not at all surprising that he is passionate about his birthplace and firmly believes that it has as much tourism potential as any other towns and cities in the region.

We start our tour at the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nunnery Lakes Reserve. This 200-acre reserve, with its’ proximity to the town centre is my first big surprise. We start the tour at the picturesque Nuns’ Bridges, adjacent to the former St. George’s Nunnery and where the town’s ducking stool used to be sited. Irrespective of the 60 species of bird that breed on the reserve, the whole area is an absolute delight. I’m also surprised at just how much totally unspoiled riverbank is so close to the centre of town; the Rivers Thet and Little Ouse both meandering through. Actually inside the BTO’s headquarters, we stop briefly to look at part of the ruins of the 15th century conventional church of St. George.

We pause at one of the many splendid information signs, where Stuart explains just how historic a part of the world we are exploring. Historians know that there was an Iron Age Fort in the town 500 years BC. In AD48, the Romans invaded; we are actually standing on the likely location for the historic crossing of the Icknield Way. Thirteen years later, Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, led a revolt against them. At the time of the Domesday book, Thetford had a population of 4,000, making it the 6th biggest town in the country.

There are now some 28,000 folk living within five miles of where we are standing and, despite it being a glorious day, we’ve hardly seen or heard a soul.

As we make the short walk towards the town centre, I am told about Thomas Paine, perhaps Thetford’s best-known son. Born in 1737, Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ and ‘Age of Reason’ gave him worldwide renown, especially in the United States, where he played an active part in the Revolution. Reflecting that fact, it was American money that financed his statue. There’s also a statue to the Maharajah Duleep Singh, who took up residence at Elveden Hall in 1863 after the British annexed his Kingdom of the Punjab. Another name from the town’s past is Captain W.E. Johns, author of the Biggles series of books, who flew with the Royal Flying Corps from the First World War airfield at Snarehill.

The Burrell Museum is housed in the factory’s former paint shop, where you can still see the markings of the Belfast firm who fabricated the building. During the First World War, Burrells employed 400 workers, some tenth of the town’s population. The company closed in 1928; there’s now a fascinating collection of steam traction engines and associated memorabilia.

Hardly pausing for breath, we pass Thetford Grammar School, founded around AD670 and said to be one of the oldest education establishments in Great Britain.

There’s a bonus when we find somebody’s at home at the Old Gaol, which dates from 1796. Sue Ward and Simon Hopkins are busy restoring the building into self-catering holiday accommodation, which should be open for business early next year. Sue shows us how they have cleverly incorporated many of the original features into what will undoubtedly become a hugely popular, but very quirky, place to stay. I know of nowhere else where it will be possible to take a shower in a former prison cell!

I’m glad of a break for lunch, because we have already covered a lot of ground. But I am given no time to dally, there’s a lot more to see!

For 30 years, the kitchen garden beside the Fison family home at Ford Place lay overgrown until a local community group took it over and restored it to something like its former glory. Now it’s a delightful spot to linger and reflect. Another is the King’s House Gardens, behind the building used as the Town Council offices and where Henry 1, Elizabeth 1 and James 1 are all said to have visited.

Onwards and upwards, literally, where, at Castle Hill, Stuart scampers to the top, leaving me trailing in his wake. At 81 feet high, this was the tallest medieval earthwork in Great Britain. There have been earthwork defences here since around 500 BC. It is yet another surprise in a day full of them.

It’s at the Dad’s Army museum that I get a real sense of the buzz that is clearly being generated in the town. This hugely successful, and oft-repeated, BBC TV series, was filmed in and around Thetford between 1968 and 1977.

In December of 2007, after a lot of hard work, a small museum at the town hall was opened. Now expanded and attracting visitor levels approaching ten thousand a year, there are hopes to develop even further, with a tearoom high on the shopping list. On June 19 next year, the much-publicised Captain Mainwaring statue will be unveiled on a site in the town. Friendly and enthusiastic volunteers give me such a sense of joy that I purchase the complete Dad’s Army series on DVD for Michael Timewell, the boss of Kelling Heath Holiday Park, who I know is a great fan.

We have a flying visit to the lovely 15th century timber framed house that houses the Ancient House, Museum of Thetford Life. But you’ll have to travel to the British Museum to see the original pieces of the famous Thetford Treasure, the priceless hoard buried locally in Roman times but found only thirty years ago.

Our final port of call is the Cluniac Priory, founded some 900 years ago. Of all the places we have been to on this trip, this is the only one I have been to before. With its’ extensive ruins, it’s certainly well worth a second trip.

It’s been quite a tour and I am exceptionally grateful that Stuart has fixed up for us to have a cup of tea with some of his friends who literally live on the doorstep of the Priory’s 14th century gatehouse.

Even now, as I write this, I am still astonished by the sheer scale and quality of what Thetford has to offer. Spend a day or two discovering for yourself; I can’t believe you’ll not be just as surprised.

ENDS 1367 words


The best website for Thetford is

The tourist information office is housed within 2New Horizons Travel Agency in the Market Place, has brochures and will give you local information. 01842 751975


All photos: Mike Souter. SouterMedia.Com

A lovely road roller at the Burrell Museum in Thetford

A tranquil river scene within half a mile of Thetford Town Centre

A typical example of how old worked stone has been re-used alongside flint

Stuart Wright, wearing his hat as chairman of Thetford's Dad's Army Museum

The roof of the Thetford Guildhall, made famous in the German Paratrooper episode of the Dad's Army TV series

The ruins of Thetford's 900-year-old Cluniac Priory, one of the largest monasteries in East Anglia

Thetford Grammar School, believed to date from the late 7th C, is one of the oldest seats of learning in Great Britain

The Iceni Tribe probably built the earthworks surrounding Thetford’s Castle Hill, the largest medieval earthwork in the country

Thetford's history is well represented on information signs such as this

You can see all the photographs from this feature and much more of Mike Souter’s travel photography at:

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