The Adventures of a 21st-Century Neurotic in Medieval Norfolk
Neurotic - A definition
There are many definitions of 'neurotic', some of which are harsher than others! I'll go with these two mild definitions:
- 'often fearful or worried about something' - Merriam-Webster
- 'poor ability to change one's life patterns. Possessing inhibitions that are detrimental to one's quality of life' - Urban Dictionary
In May 2016 I embarked on a major expedition to a previously unexplored region of the world, without really knowing quite what to expect or how I would fare on my travels ...
Actually it was just a two day journey to visit several ancient buildings managed by 'English Heritage' in a very civilised county next door but one to where I live here in England. But my own ever so slight neurotic tendencies - indecisiveness and a fear of the unknown, a concern about driving in places I'm unfamiliar with, a small degree of technophobia, and of course too much introspection - all mean't that this trip had to be very meticulously planned. Trouble is, despite having regularly travelled elsewhere in the world, I am not actually that good at planning a trip!
This is the not to be taken entirely seriously story of that trip.
All photos were taken by the author.
(A companion article to this - 'English Heritage in West Norfolk - A History Tour of Ancient Buildings' - gives a more serious appraisal of the work of English Heritage and the historic properties mentioned in this page)
N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
At the end of March 2016 I finally decided it was time to leave my place of work - the Radiotherapy Department at Southend Hospital in Essex, England. After 19½ years of competent service but not outstanding achievement, I wanted to cut loose, enjoy life and have some new experiences. And one way to have new experiences, was to travel. Although I have been many other places in the world, in Europe, in Asia, in Africa and in America, I have actually seen very little of my own country. Knowing this, my work colleagues clubbed together to buy me a leaving present - a year's membership of English Heritage, permitting free entry into all of their properties around England.
I began to think of the places I might like to go. But there was a problem - I didn't have anyone to hold my hand. Even though I've visited many other parts of the world, usually those trips are of one of three sorts:
- Escorted tours on which I don't have to think about anything whatsoever.
- Journeys to cites I know well, or to see people who I know well.
- Visits to places with quiet, easy-to-navigate roads and resorts full of tourists and hotel staff who cater for your every need.
Heading out on my own in a part of my own country I didn't know, along unfamiliar country roads, was a daunting prospect, which I faced with similar trepidation to that which Mission Control experienced during the Apollo Moon landings. Heck, I'd never even stayed in a hotel in England before! Nonetheless, in order not to completely waste my year's membership, the bullet had to be bitten, and I resolved to quickly make the decision to boldly go where lots of people had been before.
And two months later I quickly boldly made the decision. I decided to go to Norfolk. After a brief outline of English Heritage and a dedication to those who put me in this situation, that travelogue will begin ...
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.
Leaving Home, Heading North
I have a mild obsessive compulsive disorder. I should say, milder than it used to be, and only affecting one aspect of my life - leaving home for more than a day. It takes me ages! Bags for a two day trip will have to be packed with enough provisions to cater for all eventualities, and then have to be checked more than once, because once is never enough. And needless to say lights and electrical appliances, fridge doors and locked doors - they all have to be double-checked too. My intention to leave home by about 8.30 am on Tuesday 24th May soon became a plan to leave home before 10.00 am. I just managed it.
Coming from my home in southeast Essex, I headed north through the town of Chelmsford and continued along the A134 through Subury and Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, until I arrived in the village of Thetford which lies on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk. (N.B: don't click on 'show route' on the map - I have no control over the route it shows!) The day was sunny, the drive up was easy, and nothing went wrong (so, a good start despite already being behind on my schedule for the day). I arrived in Thetford at around noon and I stopped to consult my sophisticated navigation system - a 33 year old paper atlas. More about that in a later section, but I think it's time to mention the first two sites I visited - Thetford Priory and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Thetford Priory and Thetford Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Thetford Priory is an easy-to-find 900 year old medieval site. The ruins are extensive, and although it may be hard for the layman to make out what the walls of rubble represent, there are well-presented information plaques dotted around the site and these give all the necessary details. Particularly well preserved buildings are the gatehouse and the facade of the prior's lodging, shown here.
Literally just 300m from the priory, but still far enough for me to drive, is the 14th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Roadside parking is possible here, and there isn't too much to see, so 15 minutes will be enough for most visitors. The ruins are nonetheless an important site - the only surviving ruins in England of an order known as the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre.
So, two sites down and still early afternoon, and feeling good!
Thetford Warren Lodge
My next stop was a little building in the countryside. Little, but really solidly constructed, Thetford Warren Lodge is a late 13th century fortified structure built as a home for Thetford Priory's gamekeeper and a bulwark against poachers.
Three sites down, but you may wonder why anyway did I choose Thetford as my first port of call? The choice was made because there are five English Heritage attractions within an area of just six miles in a quietish village location. Therefore it would be a fruitful place to start, and there would be no difficulties in getting from one site to the next, and no dangers of getting lost.
Getting Lost in Norfolk. Or am I Still in Suffolk?
I got lost. Well not really - just a few wrong turns and an inability to find one site. If you come to a T-junction, and you have a choice of turning left or right, then the Law of Probabilities or some other such statistical concept states that there's a 50:50 chance of choosing the right route, right? Wrong. Seemingly the logical rationale of 50:50 is countermanded by the illogical fact that 80% of the time I head off down the wrong road. What's more I have no sense of direction, and wasn't helped by the truism that English country roads tend to wind and bend round fields and hills and rarely go in a straight line for very long. On more than one occasion I thought I was heading west (towards America), only to later find out that if I'd kept on in the same direction I'd have hit Siberia first.
But England is a nation of roundabouts and usually you don't have to travel too far, before you have a chance to drive round in a circle and head back in the opposite direction. Failing that, you're in the countryside, so it's not usually too much of a problem finding a quiet backroad you can reverse into, before turning back. Maybe I should have taken some photos of myself getting lost, in order to make this article funnier, but I don't do 'selfies', and in any case, I didn't really have time. After all, getting lost means you have to make up time - not waste more time taking pics of yourself.
One final point about getting lost - given that Thetford is within two miles of the Suffolk / Norfolk border it was only later in the day when I looked closely at the map that I realised all these sites are actually in Norfolk - I'd thought I was still in Suffolk.
No Weeting Castle - Just Grime's Graves
Anyway all of that digression in the previous section was a preamble to saying that the next location on my list of English Heritage sites, Weeting Castle, proved elusive. I couldn't find it. A 900 year old castle seemingly had disappeared overnight.
I gave up and instead I visited the fifth Heritage site in Thetford. And it is a very different kind of site.
It is a field.
Norfolk is full of fields. What makes this one so special? Well, apart from an attractive line of hawthorn bushes round the edge and a skylark singing far up in the sky above on the day of my visit, the answer lies in those strange pit-like depressions you can see in the picture. Grime's Graves is actually the remains of a series of Neolithic flint mines, dating back 5000 years - a similar age to Stonehenge - to a time when our ancestors dug down deep into the rock to reach the flint, using pick axes made of deer antlers. You can descend down a shaft to see one of the excavated mines. A hard hat is provided; and you REALLY WILL need it! Grime's Graves may not be as obviously impressive as Stonehenge but it is unique. And it's the first site on this page which actually wouldn't have been free to enter without my English Heritage membership.
Me and Technology
Tiime was moving on and I still had loads to see. Tuesday was a sunny day, but the forecast for Wednesday was not so hot, so I had to make the best possible use of Day One. I decided to head off to the furthest destination on my schedule - Castle Rising in north Norfolk - allowing plenty of time to get lost and yet still arrive in broad daylight.
Speaking of getting lost, you may well be wondering - 'why didn't he use a sat nav?',Well, I don't have a sat nav. Why should I? I've never travelled to regions unknown in my own country. If I'm visiting a city, I'd rather use a taxi or a train, reckoning that a taxi driver knows better than I do where he's going, and a train driver - well - he can't do anything but go in the right direction can he? And if I'm visiting the countryside, there are such things as paper maps you know, and England is not exactly the middle of the jungle - there are signposts. Or one could apply the old-fashioned technique of asking a local passer-by for directions.
Of course I could have downloaded (or is it uploaded?) a sat nav app on to my smart phone. But there's two problems with that. First, I don't really know what an app is, or how it works. Second, I don't have a smart phone either. It's that neurotic technophobic tendency of mine. I cannot foresee all the advantages - only the complications - of modern technology, until I'm actually using it. But to actually use it, I have to buy it, and I don't like buying something which I think I may not ever understand or use. You see the conundrum?
So that was why I'd set off this morning armed with a knowledge of how to use signposts, and a huge number of printed paper Internet descriptions and maps of the sites I was intending to visit. Plus my English Heritage guide book, and a 1983 atlas, not replaced in the 1990s or in the 21st century, because once again - I've not had any reason to.
Anyway, I arrived - eventually - at the medieval Castle Rising, and I soon began to wonder whether I'd actually been transported back in time to the Medieval Age. Or more probably that I had arrived in the middle of a bunch of nutjobs. In the carpark there was a young girl dressed in a great brown cloak looking for all the world like the prettiest monk ever. Then I saw a male or female - I'm not sure which - crouched on the ground in a black hooded cloak. Very sinister! I got out of my car with trepidation, wondering if I was about to be initiated into a weird kind of a druid ritual.
But then I saw a couple of knights in shining armour and a young guy with a camcorder. It transpired they were just making a film. Sadly it wasn't a Hollywood blockbuster - no Russell Crowe or Keira Knightly here - just a group of University students making a short film for a course project. Then one of the noble knights fell off his horse, somewhat spoiling the impression.
Castle Rising - even without knights and fair maidens in costume - is quite an impressive place to visit, and it's understandable that like Grime's Graves, there is an entrance fee for non-members of English Heritage.
The Norman fortress which dates to 1138, has certainly seen a whole lot of history. Originally it was owned by the Earl of Arundel, who was married to the widow of Henry I, Then in the 14th century,, Queen Isabella - the widow and possible murderer of King Edward II - lived here in comfortable exile. And then Edward III's son, the famous 'Black Prince', owned the property. Other notable residents or visitors included Mary I - 'Bloody Mary'. And now me :)
Castle Acre Castle
I decided to try to fit in one or two more sites before dark, so I headed back south to a village called Castle Acre, on the way spotting a muntjac deer by the roadside for the first time in my life. Nice! Castle Acre is not easy to find without a sat nav as it's a tiny village miles from civilisation, but it does unsurprisingly have its own castle which dates to 1085, just 19 years after the Norman conquest. The little village dates even further back, and today all of the village inhabitants could probably fit within the remains of the castle tower.
It was 6.15 pm when I left the castle, and too late to gain entrance to the village's other big attraction - Castle Acre Priory - so I had to call it a day and find my first ever English hotel, and confront my anxieties of a new experience. The whole point of choosing Norfolk for my first foray into the English countryside was so that I could go just far enough from home to justify the experience of spending a night in an English hotel (but not so far that I couldn't return hastily home to safety if necessary!) This morning before leaving home, one of my chores had been to book the Crown Hotel in Mundford.
A Hotel for the Night
The village of Mundford lies 15 miles south of Castle Acre and 10 miles north of Thetford, It was easy to find my hotel, because Mundford - like all the villages I mention here - is not exactly a vast chaotic conurbation. Though more expensive than my usual tourist hotels in foreign locales, the Crown was better than I was expecting from an English public house / hotel. One of the advantages for me of a trip like this, is the health benefit. At home I have a tendency to eat chocolate, cake, biscuits (cookies) or chocolate cake or chocolate biscuits, any time of day before, between or after a meal at lunchtime and a meal in the evening. Comfort food when I'm at home with nothing to do. But when engrossed in explorations of natural sights or historic sites like I was today, I can forget about food. This evening I had lasagne which was my first meal since breakfast, and it was a totally chocolate / cake / biscuit-free day. I watched TV before bed.
Day One was over.
I'm Wet at Castle Acre Priory
Day Two begins, and it's wet. Two days of sunshine in England was always going to be a bit too much to expect, but after breakfast and a few photos of the hotel, I had to return to Castle Acre and to the village's other English Heritage site. Castle Acre Priory is the most impressive ruin seen on this trip. It's in quite a good state of repair, but as always seems to be the case with these places, the roof is the first thing to go. Castle Acre Priory may therefore not be the place to look round on a wet day.
I took 30 minutes out to visit a church next door which itself is really quite ancient. The Church of St James the Great dates to the 15th century, and it has many interesting furnishings of that era. And more pertinently, it has a roof, so the church gave a welcome respite from the rain, though unfortunately it was still drizzling when I came out.
But rain isn't lethal and I had to brave it - I couldn't waste time, and to be honest, once in Castle Acre Priory it was easy to forget the weather. There's plenty to see, and audio commentaries, information boards and maps make it easy to visualise how the monks who once lived here spent their days - until they were 'politely' asked to leave by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537.
This was the third site with an entrance fee for non-members of English Heritage, but in truth I could have stayed longer than the three hours I spent in Castle Acre.
Weeting Castle Found!
It was time to start heading slowly back to south Essex with a few more stops planned along the way. But remember Weeting Castle? I couldn't leave Norfolk without making one more attempt to find that place. I'd hand-copied a map from the Internet and made sure I knew very precisely where it was in the village of Weeting and - lo and behold - after driving in circles round the village a few times, I did eventually find it. There's not too much to see, but I ticked it off my list.
It was now 2.00 pm and Norfolk was done so I re-entered the county of Suffolk. I still theoretically had five sites on my list to see. Not possible! I had intended visiting a few places in central Suffolk, in Bury St Edmunds and elsewhere, but neither time nor weather was on my side. However, there were two final isolated sites which I could take in - a priory and a bridge, both on the Suffolk / Cambridgeshire border. And despite the title of this article, I will include those two non-Norfolk sites here.
Isleham Priory Church
Oh, if only a major motorway ran through every village in England they would be so much easier to find! No, I am joking - I would lay down in front of the bulldozers to prevent that happening! Tree-lined country roads are very much the way to go, but they do make it difficult to find the villages which may only be signposted from a few miles away. So it was with Isleham and Moulton. Local roads, often without room for two cars to pass, are not always labelled in my 33 year old atlas, and it therefore took time - 40 minutes - to travel the 20 miles west to Isleham, less than two miles over the border in the County of Cambridgeshire. But just one of my other neurotic tendencies is a great anxiety when things don't go right, and a greater elation when they do.Thus struggling to find any new building during these two days was frustrating, but when eventually I did triumphantly find it, it was all the more rewarding. So it was with the unusual round-ended Isleham Priory Church.
The church was built about 900 years ago and according to English Heritage it is the 'best example in England of a small Norman Benedictine priory church'. There isn't much to see externally, and the door is locked, but there is a key available at the home of a local resident. Anyway, I had another site ticked off my list.
Moulton Packhorse Bridge
Last of all on the route back to Essex I called in at the village of Moulton in Suffolk. Here there is a 'packhorse bridge' - in other words, a bridge once used for horses heavily laden with panniers or bags to cross a river or stream. What a far cry from our modern modes of transport! Moulton Packhorse Bridge was built in the 15th century. It's easy to park in the local village, and apart from the bridge, there are very photogenic pink and yellow cottages in the village - a nice place to end my two day tour in the English countryside.
Home Sweet Home
It was late afternoon when I got home. The second day hadn't gone entirely to plan. I'd spent a long time at Castle Acre Priory and too much time going down meandering lanes to find the other sites. After this it was too late to visit anywhere else, and a combination of rain and traffic jams meant that by mid-afternoon it was time to call it a day. I got home to Southend in the County of Essex before evening time, buying myself a Chinese take-away en route. To my relief the house was still intact, unburgled, unburnt down, unflooded.
If you would like to know more about the English Heritage sites featured on this page, please read my other article about this tour of Norfolk.
First, let me say I hope you have enjoyed this brief whistle-stop tour of ten English Heritage sites and the experiences I encountered en route. It's been fun writing it.
But was my trip worthwhile? Well, my work friends' gift of one year's free membership of English Heritage has so far saved me £16.30 in entrance fees to three sites. And it has cost me about £120 for about 50 litres of petrol, two guide books, one hotel and one hotel meal. I've got a feeling this will be the gift that keeps on taking. Thanks guys!! Oh and I got wet, which wouldn't have happened if I'd been sat at home watching telly in my armchair.
On the other hand, if I hadn't gone to Norfolk, I wouldn't have discovered and explored ancient buildings and little moments from history I'd never known about before. I would not have passed through or close by villages with names like Cockley Cley, Barton Bendish and Hockwold cum Wilton, and I would not have seen quaint country cottages, and a muntjac on the ground or a skylark in the sky. And above all, I wouldn't have had memories which cannot be gained from watching television for two days. So - on balance - I WILL be doing it again! :)
Notes to Self:
1) Next time plan a less hectic schedule.
2) Next time don't even try to keep to time.
3) Get a sat nav.
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