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Aug 18 2015

Thetford: A Town Full of Surprises

While I was working in Bishop’s Stortford for five weeks, I wanted to continue on with what I had started while I was living in Poland – exploring my surroundings on the one day off I had.  So, I did, and my first trip was to Thetford.  I had heard of Thetford, but I knew nothing about it, so that seemed a  good enough reason as any to explore it.

When I arrived at the train station, I honestly had no idea what to expect.  As I found out, Thetford is exactly as it is described in the town’s tourist information leaflet “…full of surprises.”

This relatively small town is bursting with history that dates back to the Neolithic period when flint miners extracted black flint about 5,000 years ago.  Since then, it has been the royal residence of Boudica, the principal settlement in East Anglia for the Vikings, the largest town in the country during the Norman Conquest, and was the first town in the Britain to elect a black mayor, Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns, way back in 1904.  Intrigued?  I was.

Here are just some of the things you can see on a day out in Thetford.

Ancient House

The Ancient House, ThetfordI can only assume that this building is called ‘Ancient House’ because it is the oldest house in Thetford.  Am I right?  I have no idea.  It was built in the 15th century by a merchant.  Apparently, the large amount of woodwork signified wealth and status.  The house is now a museum that tells the story of Thetford and the Brecks.  I didn’t have the time to go inside, but I imagine it would be interesting and worthwhile.  

Castle Hill

Castle Hill Mound, Thetford

By all accounts, there were two castles in Thetford.  This huge mound, which is the second largest man-made mound in England and the tallest medieval earthwork in Britain, belongs to the Norman Castle that was once located there.  Apparently, it was built inside the Iron Age fort, which was originally built by the ancestors of Boudica, the kick-ass Iceni warrior queen who rebelled against the Roman Empire.  It’s difficult to know when the castle was destroyed.  Records show that a castle was destroyed in the 12th century.  As there were two castles in the town by this time, it’s impossible to know which castle the records are referring to.

Flint Cottages 

Flint CottagesNeolithic miners were the first to dig out flint in the area.  In the 14th century, flint was used with stone to build houses.  You will see a number of flint cottages as you walk around the town.  

Thetford Priory

Thetford Priory

Thetford contains the ruins of a 12th-century Cluniac priory, which was a place of pilgrimage until it was closed during the English Reformation.  This was when the Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church.

Almshouses 

Almshouses in ThetfordThe Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century had a negative impact on Thetford because, as there were a high proportion of religious houses, the town had become fairly dependent on the number of pilgrims passing through.  In times of hardship, some people struggle to survive while others prosper.  Sir Richard Fulmerston was one of the people who became very successful because he was given a number of properties in the town.  When he died, he left money to establish a school, as well as these almshouses for elderly people.  

Old Goal House

The Old Gaol House, Thetford
The Old Goal House, built in the 18th century, is now a holiday cottage.  It is located in the oldest part of Thetford and, at the time of writing, it is currently on the market, should you wish to invest in this interesting, historic building.  Are you tempted?

Icknield Way, Nunnery Lakes, and Nature Reserve

Nunnery Lakes and Nature Reserve, Thetford

Icknield Way, ‘the Prehistoric Motorway’, is one of the oldest roads in Britain.  It’s incredible when you think that the Iceni chariots heading to battle passed along it as well as Roman soldiers, Viking armies, the Normans, and tanks during World War II.

The Icknield Way runs across the two rivers in Thetford: The River Thet and Little Ouse River.  Before the bridges were built, people used fords, which are shallow places to cross.  This, in fact, is where the town got its name.  

Apparently, there was a ducking stool here in medieval times.  Now, it’s a wonderful place to relax.  I’m a nature-lover, so this was my favourite part of the day.  I spent ages here, taking photos and watching the fauna and flora.  The cygnets stole the show for me.

Famous people

Thomas Paine & Maharajah Duleep Singh

Thetford was the birthplace of Thomas Paine, a true political activist, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  After emigrating to the American colonies, he inspired rebels to declare independence from Britain.  Later, he moved to France and became involved in the French Revolution.  As you enter the centre of town, you will see his statue on King Street.

Although Maharajah Duleep Singh never actually lived in Thetford, there is a life-size bronze statue of him on Butten Island in the town.  The statue is there because he lived close by, and the town benefited from his and his sons’ generosity over a number of years.  Duleep Singh was the last Maharajah of the Sikh Kingdom of Punjab.  He was only a child during the Anglo-Sikh Wars and, because his family had either been assassinated or imprisoned, Dr John Login, a former naval surgeon, was appointed his guardian.  When he was 15 years old, he was brought to Britain, and became a prominent figure.

Dad’s Army

Statue of Captain Mainwaring, Thetford

The external scenes for the TV series Dad’s Army were filmed in and around the town.  In memory of that popular series, there is a a statue of Arthur Lowe who played Captain Mainwaring.  There is also a Dad’s Army Museum located in the town.

My thoughts and advice

Thetford really surprised me.  I had no idea that this small town had so much to offer.  As soon as I arrived, I followed signs to the priory before heading into the town centre.  I would suggest doing the same.  When you get to the town centre, pop into the tourist information office for Thetford’s Heritage Trail leaflet.  It’s a fantastic resource, and it’s free!  This has all the information you need, plus a map, so you won’t miss a thing.  Then, you can wander round the town at your leisure.

Location

Thetford is in Norfolk in East Anglia.  You can either get a mainline train or drive.

Have your say

Have you been to Thetford?  Did it surprise you in the way it surprised me?  What was your favourite bit?

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

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