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.