A Day Out With Elspeth in Swindon

Your joy is complete

That’s what I want to official town tagline to be. If you read the Thursday Next stories by Jasper Fforde, you’ll be forced to go to Swindon against your will. I wasn’t the only one who felt that. You’ll want to see the croquet stadium and the magic roundabout. 1960s town planning will never have looked so good!

Swindon5

There is an old part to Swindon, not old by most place’s standard, but it’s an escape if the concrete centre gets too much. In the Old Town, I liked the dead Italianate Town Hall, and there’s a little museum and a few shops/restaurants approaching interesting… and there’s the arts centre with a festival. It’s quite a slog back into the glory of the high street and malls, but I think the best part of Swindon is the old railway area further along from today’s glorious pile of a station.

Swindon7 Swindon6 Swindon3 Swindon2

There’s a Victorian chapel and railway cottages and the designer shopping bit in old rail sheds (take note other towns, these are better then the sheds we now build, and combine history and commerce). Steam museum is excellent – even if you don’t think you care about Brunel and old trains, you will (you’d better, there’s nothing else to care about here). I cannot get over how both the National Trust and English Heritage (ie the nation’s keepers of all things OLD) moved their HQ here… from Queen Anne Saville Row in London to a dead shed amidst more dead sheds and access by a tunnel which makes you wonder if you’ve missed something (or will be missing something when you come out, if you do) in a town that’s synonymous with soulless and, er, new. The NT’s eco friendly new building is named after Beatrix P’s married name, the woman who gave us ducks, rabbits and a lot of the Lake District so developers couldn’t get it.

Swindon8

Swindon

Hm, I’m running out of things to tell you about… I spent much of one of my visits in Marlborough, which you can access by bus from here: a sort of Wiltshire Woodbridge of shops and cafes on a long high street, but apart from the Merchant’s House and a college where a certain lady went, there isn’t loads to report here either.

Swindon4

You might also want to find Malmesbury, whose half ruined abbey (home of Naked Gardeners) is a happy sight after the gruelling bus ride, but beware – it’s easy to get stranded as the last bus (only late afternoon) comes in early as one number and leaves as another! And the whole town seems asleep by then! EEk!

Well, I’d often wondered what I’d do with those Swindon pictures and why I took them – now I know, to share them with you. Read The Eyre Affair before visiting. It will be a sweetening pill. It might also be an irresistible magnet.

Elspeth’s Quest for East Anglia’s prettiest village

This is a new strand, a quest which will go round the country – seasides, cities, spa towns….

This first post is about villages.

As I’ve been writing about it most, I start with East Anglia.

As I was denigrating Burnham Market (below), who claims to be Norfolk’s prettiest, I began thinking – where is the prettiest village?

North Norfolk2 - Copy - Copy

I think I was a little harsher on BM in my Norfolk/Pocahontas post than I really meant to be. As with all those gentrifying places, I am ambivalent, and sometimes intrigued. But I do share the resentment of locals who see their communities being taken over by those with Jezebel type eyes…

Politics aside, I find that Burnham Market is not overly pretty in its own right; it appears appealing because there’s an unusual amount of shops and a trend to visit. I’m still intrigued to know why the London influx was on this village, and not others. The coloured rendering and the red brick – common in Norwich but not this part of Norfolk – helps its perception of prettiness; but I still think: there is nothing to visit other than those puffed up shops and a certain inn. Even on its own website, the things to do in Burnham involve facials, or links to further afield.

And Burnham’s hardly fodder for the National Trust, is it?

Unlike Suffolk’s Lavenham, which is where I’ll champion, though there’s some wonderful Essex villages I don’t know well. I’m not alone in thinking, I don’t know much of note in Cambridgeshire other than its cities, and even the brochures and glossies don’t offer any dissent from that. I would defy anywhere in the country to do better than Lavenham, though I am aware of several very lovely villages in those famous counties such as Gloucestershire, but whom get more attention – but not necessarily deservingly – than the rest of the country.

Lavenham1

The whole of Lavenham really does look like this

Lavenham is part of a swathe of lovely Wool Towns who I’m sure I’ll write about as a Day Out, and who ignore the county border and run from south Suffolk into north Essex. Coggeshall might well compete – alas I’ve not visited yet – and Thaxted is a serious contender and contester for prettiest village, though like many others listed here, it was once a town because of having a mayor and market. It has a guildhall, large church, important timbered and brick buildings, a windmill and the homes of a famous composer and infamous highwayman. But I think Thaxted isn’t the best because you can see all these in one well framed view.

Lavenham et al would be impressive even if they were purely residential. Lavenham really does look like…. no I don’t want to say museum piece, time travel, or film set. I expected a single old street, cunningly photographed to appear as many, but it is as well preserved as it appears – and better. It does have several shops and one could meet many needs without ever leaving the village – alpaca products, theatre set curios for three thousand pounds, artwork, chemists, and places to eat and drink. It’s also got a publisher, two museums (none in Burnham Market) and several societies – is this something that Burnham has? – they aren’t on the BM website, which was more welcoming and inclusive sounding than I’d expected (still not sure about those second homers taking over a village). There are individual buildings worth seeing at Lavenham, and not just that church and Guildhall. You need to walk around, not just pass through a single spot. Lavenham’s not revealed all in one postcard, unlike popularly photographed nearby villages such as Kersey or Cavendish.

I also think its undulations help Lavenham’s picturesque quality. Fun to descend on a bike too.

Long Melford2

Long Melford (above) has something Lavenham doesn’t – the green and the two mansions – but I think I still prefer Lavenham for a more compact feel (ie herring shaped town grid round a market rather than one long street). Perhaps I need to do a post on not well known but pleasant villages of the region, for I can think of many who again would be famous by other counties’ standards. Why is Burnham prettier than Hingham, or Woolpit, or Bildeston? Why does Finchingfield get on postcards, but Haughley doesn’t? (Why does my spell checker not know their names but it does Burnham’s?) Clare is very special but I do not know it well enough to argue its case here.

Finchingfield ThaxstedFinchingfield and Thaxted, both in Essex

I still rate Little Walsingham (see previous article) because it’s unusual to have an abbey in the heart of a village built for pilgrims. I like that today (though not medievally), Walsingham’s focus is not on commerce, but on genuine spiritual seeking; and that it’s still a real village. I love its antiquity – rare for North Norfolk, in that it has timbering and flint facades which are contemporary with its parish church.

For me, I want history – that’s pre 1700, timbered buildings, maybe some warm stone and brick; authentic (not manufactured) charm; local but not yokel; something to visit other than just shops, although I like several of those; an outstanding medieval church, something else heritage to visit, and something to do by night. A monthly film club/dramatics club/some quality concerts would be suffice for a village (but not for me, I do need my city). Colour is also important, and a little variety. Lavenham, you’re still winning.

Suggestions for contesters welcome. Or people who want to stick up for Burnham Market – I would gladly be proved wrong.

(More on Burnham in ‘A Day Out With Elspeth on a Bus named Lady Fermoy’)

A Day Out With Elspeth on A Bus Named Pochahontas

-Which is a Coasthopper Bus, which are all named after Norfolk locals (the Native American visited). And therefore, this post is about North Norfolk, and Norfolk in general.

Coasthopper named Pocahontas

Norfolk in particular – Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Norwich and Thetford – all have or will have their own entries.

Norfolk is wetlands and desolation, and that’s not necessarily a derogatory remark. Many places’ character and pleasure is the isolation and quiet they offer. Despite being one of Britain’s most populous counties in medieval times, Norfolk has the impression of spacious, uncluttered, unpeopledness. It’s also quite wild, even eerie.

Windmill Without Sails

Windmill Without Sails by me

Apart from the above listed towns, there’s not many places to especially pick out about Norfolk; what’s considered special here would be mediocre by other counties’ standards. The postcode changes from NR for Norwich to PEterborough in the west and IPswich in the south reflect a character change too – PE is like the Wash: fenland flat with a sort of dirty dark honey stone, a little more Midlands; and IP has prettier, older towns and exposed timbers, and is more like Suffolk.

I like a capital to resemble its provinces, but it seems one has to choose between charming county or city. Suffolk and Essex are prettier than Norfolk, but have no outstanding city (the same is true of Gloucestershire and Somerset); Norwich is one of Britain and Ireland’s most special historic cities (certain locals say it features on a European level), but, sorry Nelson County, this top slice of the Pig’s Bum of England (I think a map of Britain looks like a chicken riding a pig) is not one of our nation’s strongest.

Norwich’s looks are seen more in north Suffolk; there’s flashes of it in North Walsham, perhaps even certain angles of Holt. But there’s only one village that looks how I’d hoped Norfolk might, having known its county town – and that’s

Me at Walsingham

Little Walsingham. Pilgrims come, but it seems, tourists do not so much, and there’s little to do if you’re not in one of the three Christian shrines or the snowdrop ridden original abbey and holy site – the Catholic one being a LONG walk out of the village. Architecturally, it’s a very interesting village (and former small town), one of the few with a museum. I had expected a kind of Lavenham, plenty of shops and places to eat; though I was really hopeful for an eastern Glastonbury, and wondered if alternative spirituality was also present here (no hippies but occasional Hindus). But there’s only two each of local shop, tearoom, pub, shrine shop. If you’re on the steam train, beware there’s not much of a station of around it (the original’s now an Orthodox shrine). And if you go by bus, you have a long wait till the next one – and risk being stranded, for you’re many miles from alternative transport, so plan carefully if you’re using it, for the service ends late afternoon.

Perhaps I should state here, for anyone unfamiliar – RURAL BRITAIN STOPS EARLY. Shops are shut by 530pm – perhaps even 4, they are closed often on Sundays and Bank Holidays, and transport is reduced. More anon on this re the Coasthopper.

These comments can sum up much of the county: infrequent, early stopping buses and closing shops (sometimes seasonal too); in the North, some perhaps incongruous posh shops and eateries among little to do, espicially by night (a film society if you’re lucky, but little arts outside the larger towns).

Holt is over-egged and is not the Londoner’s bijou that brochures make out; it’s very country Norfolk, but there’s no activity here except the little old fashioned shops – colourful and quaint, but no buildings of individual interest, and nothing to visit or do by night – and the steam train station is A LONG way out of the centre.

I am not sure of the attraction of Burnham Market, whose billing as the land of the second homes squad of a certain kind of affluent is mostly a repellent to me (‘Chelsea on sea’ is overused and I quite like Chelsea). Burnham’s got some much needed colour (amidst the swathes of grey flint round there) and a village green, but the houses which would have been artisan are now expensive… why? And you can get everything Burnham offers in Norwich, plus all the things it hasn’t got. Burnham calls itself Norfolk’s prettiest village, but if it’s true, it says something about Norfolk – I refer you to my para under my painting above.

I shall post separately about best villages.

There’s the slice of Norfolk’s pie that seems to get less attention, in terms of transport and tourism – the Mundesley (Munds-ly)/Happisburgh (Hays- bra) chunk. Lighthouse, woods, beach hut, quiet.

The rest of this is more about North Norfolk, between Cromer and Hunstanton.

Cromer pier

Cromer pier by me

People have a preference over Sheringham or Cromer – both fishing villages turned seaside resort, but Sheringham feels closer to fishing village still. It begins as a Holt-like local high street (from the stations – the Poppyline heritage one is Sheringham’s best bit) and becomes tourist seaside with a bit of tack, but if you turn towards the church, you find books, gallery and two smart restaurants. The concrete sea fighting wall is now adorned with pictures, which takes off some of the grey. It does have a Little Theatre and this includes a behind release but interesting and quite arty film programme.

You could walk to Cromer over the Bump! but the official (acorn signed) path takes you inland further than you might expect and it also takes longer – with erosion and snotty caravan parks, the direct coastal route isn’t possible; if you go along the beach, beware: tides come in quickly and right up the shore.

Beeston Bump

Cromer’s tall church tower is easily seen from Beeston Bump, and it’s evidence that this was a place of importance before railways and daytrippers. Its central streets are still tight and evoke a medievally feel – Jetty Street and Hans Place, looking from the old style cinema to the great church tower, are a couple of my favourites. Neither town is large, but both have sufficient amenities, and Cromer is one of the seasides few to still have an end of pier show. That pier and the only remaining grand hotel give it more presence than Sheringham. Both have easily accessible clifftop walks and other nature, and two museums each.

There’s no other real resorts until the very western edge of the county at Hunstanton. I’d hoped to visit to report here, but couldn’t stand the two hours of Coasthopper bus – one of the few ways to reach Hunstanton without a car. There was a problem and the popular little coach was filled at capacity from its first stop. Many of us got off at the first viable place, which changed my day plan from riding the whole of the coast to exploring a small section. I think I’ve learned that despite a very good value ranger ticket (which also allows you on some of the trains – called a Bittern line ranger), that you can’t be too ambitious. Many of the walks or attractions (eg Blakeney Point, seal trips) take a couple of hours and the early stopping of the buses again makes stranding a real possibility. Coasthopper also say sometimes they can’t guarantee everyone getting on – not funny if you’ve an hour’s wait, let alone if it’s the last bus of the day.

Cley (Cly – below) and Stiffkey (Stoo-ky?) can be summarised by my above comments – with the addition of how shocked I was by the busyness of the coast road, a tiny single lane going through the heart of the villages with NO PAVEMENT. Many drivers in over large vehicles were selfish ones and it didn’t make for pleasant wandering.

Cley windmill from marshes

However, I did something not in the tourist maps – I walked to Binham, which must be about 3 miles as it took an hour along the road. Mostly you can do so safely and get on a verge, but there were a few trickier points nearer Stiffkey. Binham’s as pretty (or not) as any of the other villages that way, it has a pub (not cheap or over friendly) and a wonderful priory.

Binham priory across fields

The priory is across fields, and is under half the length of what it was with no towers, but there are several reconstruction drawings to help you imagine it. Frustratingly, the different ownerships of the ruins and church mean that guides do not refer to the whole. Beware, there’s a sort of maze/dead end among the ruins where you have to take a little jump. I thought Binham’s interior looked poky in photos, but there is a strikingly… I have tried several times to put the atmosphere into words… spiritual, peaceful, a place to linger and pleasant to be… lighter inside than I’d expected for a place with most of its windows sealed up. It had more of an effect than Cley church which I also visited – though I’d like to commend both churches for allowing visitors to enter each day and trusting us to do so without a warden to harass us (take note, Wymondham Abbey!) And Binham has nice new loos.

Binham Priory inside

You probably can’t see, but there are pleasing mouldings on the furthest bottom arches.

I’ve been to all the towns in Norfolk bar 3, but the only other place I’d like to single out today is Holkham. The hall is too plain and Palladian for my liking, but the beach is special. However, I’m not going to join the boast that it’s the country’s best, though it is one of the best in the county – but then, most of Norfolk’s beaches are loved because of that natural, grassy duny untouched feel. You walk to Holkham’s down boardwalks and there’s no facilities after the hall. I personally prefer some cliffs too, but this has the backdrop of pines. I will close with an old picture of me impersonating Ms Paltrow at the end of Shakespeare in Love, filmed here. I like the symbolism of walking to fresh new worlds.

Me on Holkham beach being Gwyneth

A day out with Elspeth in Woodbridge

Woodbridge1

This is a lovely little East Anglian town but not as lovely as its regular feature in regional magazines wants me to believe. Woodbridge is an example of what this part of England does best: that slow, untouched feel, in the nicest way. The low rise streets are of red brick, often Georgian houses, and plastered colourful earlier ones. Although the 18th C weatherboarded white tide mill is what Woodbridge claims is its most famous sight (and I had a charming visit there), I always think of the Shire Hall. This two storeyed redbrick former town hall has been added to significantly since its Elizabethan origins. The overhanging hipped roof, windows and double staircase at either end are of two centuries later; but this makes for a distinctive slightly Dutch looking building, and a justly focal point for the little square in which it stands.

Articles celebrate the town’s independent shops, such as its two small bookshops and independent shoe shops of expensive brand names and old fashioned service (alas the granny chic slippers of Moshulu are no more). Yet sandwiched between these are the usual lower end high street chains that are the bane of every British small town; and the Thoroughfare itself is only of the scale of an interesting street: its buildings are largely quite drab architecturally. The Turban Centre sounded exotic but is a little shopping enclave of even duller quality.

I was disappointed in the food and drink too, although its facilities are good for a town of only c7,000. Woodbridge seems to have several traditional pubs and smart restaurants, such the Galley on Market Hill – an offshoot of the well established Ipswich Turkish restaurant, or at the arsey Tide Mill (not to be confused with the heritage attraction). But it has little inbetween. Its rather ordinary cafes did not entice me, and I saw no wine or café bars for relaxing in the evening. Some may rejoice that the only restaurant chain is Prezzo – in which I had an awful experience. I am sorry that the wonderful Moorish café – inclusive North African dining – is shut. That was worth a visit on its own, and the best service I had in a town that can be quite uppish. I loved the staff’s view of ringing telephones in the Strawberry Café – “It’s an invitation, not a demand”. She served me first. With such an attitude, I went back.

There’s several streets to wander, some just residential – but this must be a great attraction to those living in Woodbridge – to live in a street which is central and characterful but not full of other people’s evenings or early morning deliveries.

There’s the Tide Mill, Burkitt’s Windmill, Town Museum, and the Shire Horse museum to visit – all quite modest and often seasonally open, but the real tourist pull is Sutton Hoo Anglo Saxon treasure. According to the ubiquitous 3D hand drawn map, this appears just over the river from the railway station. I should pause to say how much the river is part of Woodbridge and what a pleasant walk this makes. I wished for a ferry crossing from the town station to the other bank where the National Trust Visitor Centre and burial mounds lie. Alas, one has to walk 3 miles through the adjoining village of Melton (train users are advised to stay on one more stop to this station) and still need to walk over a mile. It’s further though than the 3D map suggests from the Tide Mill. Sutton Hoo is featured on the seasonal Tour Buses which also stops by all the above. With irregular trains, I wasn’t able to arrive in time to factor in a 2 hour round trip walk to this quite pricey  attraction, which sounds very exciting – but the Tourist Information Centre couldn’t even give me a proper leaflet on this vast ship burial of kings of the Wuffinga dynasty.

(Update, I’ve now been – click on my tag cloud and read about it).

The Riverside (review coming on sister blog) was a nice way to round off the day. This is an old fashioned popular community cinema which also offers live shows. It’s one of several independents in the area, always charming service, reasonable prices, and a mix of blockbuster a bit more thoughtful films. The auditorium looks Edwardian, with an apparently unused balcony, and two seaters on the back row. An adjoining restaurant has a small bar area serving coffees and during the day, outdoor coffees and ice creams, and tapas by night. Its proximity to the station is useful if like me you have to make a dash for one of the infrequent trains – but beware: the bridge is in two parts. In your hurry, don’t do what I nearly did and ascend the steps outside of the station, as this only leads across the river and there is no access onto the opposite platform. If you’re heading towards Ipswich and London, go into the station and take the stairs from there.

I find Woodbridge charming, but note I’ve only ever spent more than 2 hours here if I’m in a film. The glossy magazine push and hearsay about its bijou qualities only raise expectations and put me off. Someone commented that Woodbridge is my kind of town – in miniature, but I’d like my kind of town, full seized to really dwell there.

A Day out With Elspeth in Bury St Edmunds

Bury Angel Hill

I could make this a tour, commenting that it’s the silos of the Sugar factory that herald you today, not the abbey towers, and making a sarky comment about the grand station with no trains and no facilities; how both routes into town from it involve dicing with death when you cross the ring road, and how this gives way to a Saxon grid of interesting streets, some residential, some with independent shops, focussing on an open market place and then the wonderful Angel Hill and Abbey area –

…but I don’t feel like giving that sort of tour today. And I try to write something that you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

Today, I want to tell you that Bury is posh. It became so quite stealthily and quickly. I still smell the cabbages on the market and hear the Londony or Suffolk tones of their sellers. I’m not oblivious to the ugliness of the back of the 1960s shopping development where the bus stops, and which would make you wonder what was supposed to be appealing about this town. I don’t plan on liking the silvery arc shopping area, that might have been OK in Birmingham, but not here, thanks. So it’s not all posh.

But it is getting smarter. The couple of little indie bookshops disappeared after Canadian chain Ottakar’s took over half of the former Suffolk Hotel, and then Waterstone’s took over them and opened another branch at Arc. Now that vacancy is taken by  a local chain of smart women’s clothes whose other homes – Holt, Woodbridge, Burnham Market – hint at what Bury is supposed to have in common and what the arrival means.

The cinema in the same street is also the best way to epitome the alterations of Bury as I’ve known it. The two screener, carved out of the 1920s cinema it shared with the bingo hall, had long been a mainstream chain that felt very 1980/90s. Its faded slightly passé feel gave the mid 2000s attempt at an arts cinema some charm. Then Picturehouses bought it in 2010. And now it’s London priced with sofas but has done nothing to regain the original features, as they’d said they would. The bar’s an expensive snack menu. And despite having a multiplex in walking distance, it’s not that arty in its programming.

The pubs – mostly curiously having animal names – are done up to look gastro, but are not so within always. I’d loved the Dog and Partridge, but friendly as staff always are, it’s now got a football screen and a typically pubby not very enticing menu. I’m not sure about a pub that calls its food “Cannon Fodder” – even if it is the Cannon – and who brew onsite, but don’t offer afternoon tea. And the food I had wasn’t as filling or nice as the price.

What’s telling about the real Bury is when I’m I fancy a coffee out or a meal, and I struggle with both and end up at chains by default. I don’t have favourites here, perhaps just habits.

Also, when I wish to shop for something and find the range here is poor.

The best part of Bury is the Abbey and I’m sure it will feature in the naughty guides separately as one of my favourite ecclesiastical buildings ever. The gardens are safe, pretty, quiet place for all to be, with sensory garden for the blind, bowls and children’s things, gardens and ruins leading to a river walk. The wide space outside – Angel Hill – is a special one.

The Theatre Royal is interesting programming in a Regency theatre – which can be a little snug if you’re in a box. The Apex’s leaflets didn’t come home with me and I didn’t find the pleasure in roaming the building that I do at most arts centres.

Bury’s somewhere that I’m tempted to live, until I’ve been there a few hours. And I recall what I’m used to, and think of what is actually here. Charming, historic, attractive, pleasant – yes. But my main town or home? I don’t think so.

If you’d like to read some earlier thoughts on BSE (yes it is the same as the cow’s disease), go to
http://voices.yahoo.com/a-day-out-elspeth-bury-st-edmunds-2070535.html

 

A Day out with Elspeth in Thetford

Standing up for armpits…

Thetford

I daren’t take my camera so here’s a sketch of both my visits

This was one of the first places I wrote a travel guide on. I note that I’ve only really had a day out there twice, despite often being in the East of England. My Thetford visits seem about completing the set, having been everywhere else; though this time it’s because I wanted to go to a forest. And see an adder, who did not do me the honour of appearing.

In 2002, I began by quoting the sobriquet that Thetford’s the armpit of Norfolk. This feels cruel and rude, and I recall from whom I heard the moniker, and a little irony. However, I went on to explain why it wasn’t undeserved – and my experiences that day understandably led to that conclusion.

Here’s what I wrote on my first visit:

I went straight from the station to what was advertised as a peaceful riverside ruined priory. I found it off a ring road, next to an electricity generator, in glorious isolation, optimal for abduction. I couldn’t read the information panels due to graffiti – the artist’s reconstruction of the abbey was obscured by a willy. I had to renegotiate the generator to find the river and a public green, which I expected to be populated by pram pushing, ice cream licking, book reading citizens, pleasantly enjoying the day. Instead, two pubescent girls whizzed past on bikes, and quite unprovoked, sprayed at me from a pressurized can. And then I recognised the street names – infamous to those who have worked in certain professions. Further alarm bells were raised when the chapel in the unmanned Tourist Information Centre (housed in a church) was marked “For private prayer – NOT other uses.” It made me wonder what else had been tried in there, and if it was too unsafe to leave staff in.

This time, the TIC has moved and is most certainly staffed. I revisited the abbey and people were enjoying it – older ones who seemed to be visitors, and locals sitting among the ruins, much as at Bury St Edmunds. The new information panels feature CGI images of the abbey as it was (but too white inside), and there’s not a willy in sight. Extra points if you can get to the gatehouse – supposedly on a permissive path on private land, the mixed message sign was on a locked gate. I took the river path for a few miles, and found it full of locals just enjoying their heritage and greenery, and there was nothing threatening, though I was on my guard. The only bit that worried me was the pine trees off the Abbey estate. After being misled by a leaflet that it’s possible to walk to the forest from central Thetford along the river, I clutched at the sight of a few scots pines to compensate for my wasted and somewhat lonely journey (more anon). The debris immediately sent a message that this was not the place to linger for a forest experience – or not the sort in the leaflet.

The Little Ouse leaflet about a river walk from Brandon to Thetford stations is most misleading. It claims it’s 9 miles, but it took a long time to reach what seems only a third of the way. After you cross the A11, you’ll feel like you’re in the forest, it says. Well, it was tree-ier, but nothing like the scenes you pass on the train, or the image in my mind. I did see a heath, opposite a weir, but by now, it felt eerie. The leaflet vaguely says I could take a detour into the woods to find a solitary ruined Warren Lodge, but there were no signs. I could see myself on this tiny, unlaid path (less than a foot wide) for hours, then having to pop out of the foliage and cross a busy road… and decided I’d be happier returning.

The town centre of Thetford has sadly not improved since my first visit. As capital of the Brecks and an isolated reasonable sized town, one would expect better facilities. It’s a town that’s looked to, but its paucity forces it to look to others: Bury St Edmunds being the nearest, but cities are 3o miles away. The first street you see from approaching from the station – White Hart – looks quite promising, especially with timbered Ancient House. The staff were lovely and the updated museum was interesting, though a bit too child friendly, as ever. The main hall is impressive, as is the contemporary Bell inn, who takes up a whole corner. At that corner, things worsen. The usual post war story is true of the main shopping area, King Street, but improvements are being planned. I was shocked at how little shops there are – I’ve been to town a third of the size and had way more to look at. I wondered how locals survive. And I counted only about 6 pubs, 3 coffee shops (none being appealing) and takeaways, but only one thing that vaguely approached a restaurant. After being ignored for 10 minutes in a café on the site of a church, I decided to forgo eating and drinking. I couldn’t even see a convenience shop or supermarket. It’s all discount shops and a tiny dark WHSmith; a couple of banks and the ubiquitous eyewear and mobile phone chains.

The Guildhall‘s art gallery shows watercolours of landscapes for sale for c£45 amidst the opportunity to buy very cheap refreshments. The Edwardian, classical guildhall also houses an occasional Dad’s Army museum, about the TV show filmed here. I was given directions that featured Captain Mainwaring’s statue.

That statue’s area – the colourful Victorian Town Bridge – is wonderful view of the back of the blocky little shopping centre and some scaffolding. I tried to find the bus station, needing the loo, and was puzzled, but then I saw a tiny bus emerging from the wasteland carpark and noted a few people huddled round a seat and a bus timetable poster. (Ironically, the ancient grammar school is opposite, with a leafy impressively chimneyed neighbour). This is the site of the 1000s cathedral. Note how ecclesiastical sites are now used.

Minstergate sounds delightful and recalls York, seeming to promise essential English quaintness as a prelude to a major church. Perhaps it once did; today, it’s a back passage that passes the peeling paint of the Charles Burrell museum, volunteers within keen to share their knowledge of steam engine making (no loo); and then there’s the ring road and that generator before you encounter the abbey precinct’s new entrance gates.

The King’s House is a well known Thetford sight, as is the statue of Thomas Paine outside, but there’s a garden round the back (with toilets) and from there, it’s obvious this is a house named for a Charles, not a George, as the front view suggests. Brick and sashes give way to flint and freestone gables.

The castle area is quite different to everything else. The local flint dominates, giving it character, and it’s quiet, and one imagines that perhaps different denizens reside within the cottages and couple of industrial buildings, and the old gaol. The huge castle mound resembles a summer fruits pudding, and the iron age earthworks are allowed to be covered in unfettered natural plants (ie not shaved to an inch of the grass’s life). It’s a short but dangerous walk to the set of three thin old Nuns’ bridges, driven over by selfish maniacs, and further meadows, commons and the British Ornithology Headquarters in the former Nunnery.

You can come back via the Guildhall and quite quickly walk to the station. This would be handsome, but the original flint bit is boarded up, and despite several trains passing, it is dark and isolated at night. There are more flinty older quiet houses around here, but I still did not manage to glimpse the Priory’s gatehouse.

 

A history of Thetford (easily mistyped to suggest theft) points out that its attempts at prosperity were constantly defeated: as Saxon regional capital and cathedral city, the see was moved to Norwich in under 25 years, and the founder didn’t even make an offshoot monastery here, as he did at Lynn and Yarmouth. Thetford set up its own, and had 22 churches and several religious houses, but the Dissolution took those. It tried to be a spa town, but the Georgian gentry were unable to navigate fen and forests; it was industrial, but that declined too, and then the 1960s invasion – not this time of Danes or Normans – but London overspill, an arrangement that can’t have been wanted for both locals and newcomers, combining two disparate strong communities in a remote setting. Thetford swelled but it caters for the small place it was before. There’s no arts, no cinema (why not a local chain like Hollywood here?), few shops, and not even the wretched likes of Starbucks and fast food have entered those forests. The forest ought be called Brandon, for the trade description act, as it’s where the visitor centre is.