English Heritage in West Norfolk - A History Tour of Ancient Buildings
This is the record of a two day visit to the County of Norfolk, in the region of England known as East Anglia. The intention was to discover some of this region's rich history through a short exploration of some of the buildings which have survived from ancient times until the present day. Some today are well preserved, but others are the mere husk of what was once glorious. All however are important to our heritage, and indeed all are managed by the organisation 'English Heritage', a charity which cares for such monuments to the way people used to live. Eight properties in Norfolk were visited and these will all be briefly described in this travelogue. Two other buildings - a church and a hotel - will also be mentioned. They are not managed by English Heritage, but nonetheless they are a part of the history of this region, and a part of this two day exploration.
N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
The Background to this Tour of Western Norfolk
At the end of March 2016 the author of this article was given a gift. That gift was a year's membership of English Heritage and receiving it became the trigger for this tour of buildings in the County of Norfolk. Norfolk is not so far from where I live in Essex, and I decided to make the trip an intensive two day experience - a 'dipping of the toe in the water' - before later, more extensive travels around England. The aim by the end of this year is to build up a knowledge of history, an impression of life in the past, and a greater understanding of the events which have shaped this most historic of nations. And to develop a series of articles featuring some the historic sites owned or managed by English Heritage.
(IAlthough I've described this as a travelogue, in this article sites are described not in the chronological order in which they were visited, but rather by geographical location, which may be more beneficial to would-be tourists visiting Norfolk.There is a companion article to this, entitled 'The Adventures of a 21st Century Neurotic in Medieval Norfolk' in which sites are listed in the chronological order of the visit. It is - as you may guess from the title - a much more light-hearted account of the two day trip I took to explore these ruins!)
All photos on this page were taken by the author during two days in May 2016
Dedicated to former colleagues who work in the Radiotherapy Department at Southend National Health Service Hospital. They were responsible for the gift of English Heritage membership - a leaving present when I stopped work in 2016. Receiving annual membership of English Heritage gave the necessary motivation to make use of it, and to go out and explore my own country.
About English Heritage
English Heritage is a registered charity which manages and cares for more than 400 historic buildings and sites. These sites include everything from the world famous prehistoric monument of Stonehenge to a Cold War nuclear fall-out bunker. Also included are Roman forts, medieval castles and Victorian mansions, and very much more besides, as well as organised special events and historic re-enactments.
The Drive North
Setting off on a sunny Tuesday morning in May, the journey north out of Essex and then through the Suffolk countryside was pleasant for the contrasts between the villages of this county and the towns I am more used to. My destination was just a few miles across the border in Norfolk. Here lies the village of Thetford and its neighbourhood, which is home to no fewer than five English Heritage sites. This wonderful collection of interesting places, all within six miles of each other, made Thetford a natural place to start my exploration and a great place to spend most of Tuesday afternoon. First up was Thetford Priory.
A good first place to visit, because Thetford Priory is a quite extensive ruin of a monastic community which dates back to the very early medieval period. The site is easy to access and wander around and one can see the remains of all areas where monks once lived, dined and worshipped.
Founded in 1107 by Roger Bigod, an associate of William the Conqueror, the priory was occupied from 1114, and much of the site was complete by the end of that century, However new developments continued over the next 300 years, and renovations of existing buildings also took place, supported in part from donations received when rumours spread that a statue of the Virgin Mary in the priory church was capable of performing miracles!
The priory fell into ruination following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540, when Henry VIII shut down all such institutions. However one of the buildings - the prior's lodge - stayed in use as a private house for at least another 200 years. The facade of this two storey lodge still survives reasonably intact and is arguably the most interesting structure that one can see.
But undoubtedly the best preserved building of all is a 14th century gatehouse which is shown here, and this is still in very fine condition, although the roof and upper floors are now long gone.
Thetford Priory is to be found in a large tree-lined park area close to the A1075 Norwich Road, and free parking in side roads near the Priory is possible.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Barely 300 m from Thetford Priory is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the A134 Brandon Road. It's next to a car service centre, and it's easy to park on the roadside nearby.
The church was actually once part of a second priory in Thetford, founded in 1148, but today the ruins of the church are all that surviives. After the dissolution of the priory, the nave was for a while converted into a barn, and a large arched barn door - now bricked up - is evidence of this.
To be honest, keen archaeologists and history enthusiasts may identify much in the ruins, but there's not so much for the untutored eye to see. However these are the only surviving ruins in England of a church of the Augustine order of monks known as the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre - an independent order set up originally in Jerusalem to aid pilgrims to the Holy Land. As such, they are an important part of history.
N.B, the location currently indicated on Google maps is incorrect, showing the church some 200 m away on the Norwich Road.
Thetfiord Warren Lodge
On to a very different property now. Thetford Warren Lodge is a small squarish building located some two miles west of Thetford on a short turn-off from the B1107. It is visible from the main road set back against a long line of trees on the far side of a uncultivated field. A small parking area is available.
A warren is a network of rabbit burrows, and Thetford Warren Lodge was built to provide accommodation for parties who had a King's licence to hunt small game in the area. More importantly perhaps, the solid build has defensive features including a parapet which suggest that the lodge also provided living quarters for a resident gamekeeper to guard the area against unlicenced poachers.
Inside what was once a two storey lodge, the upper floor has gone, but one can see the remains of the staircase, as well as two fireplaces.
A little further west and north lie the remains of Weeting Castle. It is perhaps the least well preserved of all the sites featured in this article, and not quite so easy to find as some of the others; you will need a map or sat nav. It's a site where you need to use your imagination as well as your English Heritage guide book or the local information notices to fully appreciate what you are looking at. You have to imagine the moment back in 1180 when Hugh de Plais proudly moved into this, his new home, and what Weeting Castle must have looked like in those days. In truth it was only ever a sumptuous private home, never a fortified castle.
Use your imagination, and all sites including Weeting Castle become places worth seeing. And there are unexpected treats too. The charming Weeting St Mary Church with its round tower stands near the entrance to the castle, and would not have been seen if I hadn't gone looking for the castle.
About 3 miles due east of Weeting lies the site of Grime's Graves. On the face of it, Grime's Graves is a very unprepossessing site. It is a field, and the only building of note is a visitor centre with presentations of information about the history of the site, and gifts and snacks, as well as picnic tables outside on the grass. But it's what lies under the field that makes this place special. Indeed, special enough for it to be the first site on this tour to be subject to a entrance fee. For non members of English Heritage, the adult fee is currently £4.50.
The field features a huge number of curious circular depressions - odd when seen at ground level, but bizarre when seen from the air, like hundreds of grass-filled golf course bunkers. They are the visible remnants of Neolithic excavations to reach valuable flint deposits in the rocks below. The Stone-Age miners dug down as much as 14 m (46 ft) of rock to reach the deposits using picks fashioned from deer antlers. Today members of the public can descend a shaft into one of these mines to see the excavations and the layer of flint which was the target of such laboured endeavour.
The two staff on duty at Grime's Graves during my visit were friendly and helpful.
There are a huge number of historic buildings in this part of the world. The most significant and important are managed by organisations such as English Heritage, but there are many others - just ordinary buildings lived in or functioning as businesses. A case in point is the hotel I stayed in overnight. It's just a hotel inn and restaurant, but 'The Crown', in a village called Mundford, is older than almost any inhabited building in America. It dates to 1652. Mundford is about 10 miles north of Thetford.
Castle Acre Castle
The next village on my tour is Castle Acre, which is home to two English Heritage sites. Castle Acre is one of three small rural villages (the others are West Acre and South Acre) which lie in the countryside west of the A1065 road, 15 miles north of Mundford and 25 miles north of Thetford. Castle Acre is particularly quaint - a village of less than 900 inhabitants and yet it has its own castle and a huge stone gateway.
Soon after the Norman conquest of 1066 the castle was founded, and is thus more than 900 years old. One is free to wander around, and although much of the castle has crumbled over the centuries, there are really excellent information panels around the site which describe everything we can see, and everything which once existed. The castle today is notable for the defensive earthworks which still surround it - said to be among the finest in England. And best preserved of all is the Bailey Gate, built c1200, which once defended the entrance to the surrounding village, and which still provides the landmark structure under which the road into Castle Acre passes.
Castle Acre Priory
As well as its castle and gate, Castle Acre also boasts an ancient priory, and Castle Acre Priory is probably the most interesting of all the sites on this page for all that can be seen. Only a brief description can be given here, but the priory may be the subject of another article in future.
Work on Castle Acre Priory began soon after the building of the castle, and continued throughout the entire medieval period as new structures were added and older sections were renovated or replaced to create a thriving community of monks. In the 16th century, the priory suffered the fate of all monasteries as Henry VIII rebelled against papal authority and established the Church of England. Much of the church and priory was abandoned and demolished at this time or fell into a state of disrepair. It was only in the 18th century and then the Victorian era that interest was rekindled in the ruins, and in the 20th century extensive repairs began. Today Castle Acre Priory is one of the most complete monastic sites in England, including the church, parlour and kitchen, the monks' refectory, dormitary and infirmary and even the remains of the latrine! Notably the early 16th century gatehouse is in fine condition, and the west face of the church and roofed prior's lodgings show good detail.
Cost of entry for an adult who is not a member of English Heritage is £7.30. The Visitor's Centre is good, and in addition to information boards around the site, an audio guide gives very clear information as one wanders around. To take in all the information available, one could easily spend half a day here
Castle Acre Church
It was raining when I went to Castle Acre Priory, so I took time out to visit the church next door. This is no ruin, and it is not managed by English Heritage, but I've included it here as an interesting and easily accessible extra attraction for any who visit the Priory. This is a working church and the doors are open. But as you might expect in this part of the world, the Church of St James the Great is as old as many of the more obviously historic sites. Most of the current church was built in the 15th century (though some parts are even older) and includes in its interior, a 15th century font and hexagonal pulpit.
St James is yet another reminder that in rural England, history abounds.
Our final site is much further north. It is another castle, or rather a fortified tower or castle 'keep' which was once part of a greater complex, and it is in much better condition than either of the castle ruins in the villages of Weeting and Castle Acre. Because of this, Castle Rising is the third paid attraction on this page - £4.50 for adults at the time of writing.
Construction on the castle began in the mid 12th century, and it became the home of the Earl of Arundel, William d’Albini, who was married to the widow of Henry I. In the 13th century the castle passed to the deMontalt family and later became home or host to a long succession of nobles and members of the royal family, most notably Queen Isabella, who lived in exile here after the murder of her husband, Edward II, in 1327 - a murder in which she may have been implicated. Isabella's grandson, the 'Black Prince', also occupied of the castle in the 14th century, and he strengthened its defences at a time when fears of a French invasion were rife.
Finally in the 16th century Henry VIII gave the property to the Duke of Norfolk Thomas Howard, and Castle Riosing remains under the ownership of the Howard family to this day, albeit administered by English Heritage.Over time, many of the buildings have been reduced to their foundations, but the lay out of the castle can still be seen amidst the vast earthworks which cover an area of 12 acres. The castle keep itself is in excellent condition. The roof and upper floors of some rooms such as the Great Hall have long since gone, but others remain intact.
Castle Rising, the settlement which gives its name to the castle, is a tiny and pretty village of about 200 inhabitants about 14 miles northwest of Castle Acre on Lynn Road, a turn-off from the A149. The closest town is King's Lynn. Both Castle Rising village and its ancient fortification are worth visiting.
Reflections on English Heritage
This was my first tour of English Heritage sites, and it's too early to give more than generalised impressions, but those impressions so far are certainly favourable. Most were well signposted, though of course a sat nav may help to locate minor sites in remote locations. Every one of the sites visited featured well presented, coherent information boards, sometimes with pictorial representations of what the 'ruin' looked like in its heyday, and all seemed to be well maintained. The three sites with admission fees had well equipped visitor centres with maps of the site and descriptive audio aids, free to borrow. At two of these centres - Grime's Graves and Castle Acre Priory - I engaged in conversation with the staff and they were welcoming and seemed enthusiastic about the places under their care.
In the space of less than two days, ten historic sites administered by English Heritage were visited (two which were not within the boundaries of West Norfolk will be included in a future article). But a host of other medieval churches, old and beautiful cottages and other buildings were seen as well, plus English countryside at its best. Of the sites visited, I had vaguely heard in the past of Castle Rising, and equally vaguely Grime's Graves. Of the rest I had no prior knowledge.
I write this article for two audiences - for the foreign tourist and for the native Brit:
For the foreign tourist who is perhaps only visiting England for a few days, I should not mislead by thoroughly recommending these sites for a special visit. There are more impressively preserved castles and monuments and I'm sure with limited time on your hands the attractions of places like the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and Stonehenge, must take precedence. You probably wouldn't thank me if you spent half a day driving from London just to visit Weeting Castle! The real aim is to emphasise the rich history to be found, even in such a small corner of England. If you do happen to be travelling cross country, plan ahead and take in some of the many historic places such as these that you will undoubtedly pass on your route.
For the British reader, the benefits of getting out and about on the backroads and country lanes of England - not just the motorways - are huge. One can experience sights of the real England, historic England, rather than just cosmopolitan modern cities not so very different from any other city in the world. One can learn about medieval times, the changes in the landscape, and the way people once lived. It's a fulfilling experience for anyone with an enquiring mind, and so easy too - all five sites in Thetford are within six miles of each other. Castle Acre Castle and Priory are within walking distance of each other. Taking one's time on a spring day or a summer's day to explore such places is something I can thoroughly recommend.
- The Adventures of a 21st Century Neurotic in Medieval Norfolk
What happened when a reasonably experienced, but nonetheless not very confident, world traveller decided to visit historic and interesting places in his own country - apart from getting lost?
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