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Byways and an old Turnpike (Norwich to Caistor camp, Wymondham, and Thetford.)


Caistor Camp - Venta Icenorum - Keswick - The Wymondham Turnpike - Wymondham - Its Church and Abbey - The Tragedy of Stanfield Hall - Kimberley Hail and the Wodehouses - Attleborough and Thetford.
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Someone has compared Norwich to the centre of a spider's web, and if you examine a Norfolk road map you will be struck at once with the resemblance. From Norwich the main roads of the county radiate in every direction, and the city is therefore a convenient starting-point for several interesting tours. So excellent are these main roads, that you need some special attraction to tempt you to leave them, their smooth level surface making driving a delight, cycling an untiring exercise, and even walking scarcely accompanied by fatigue. Yet it is often a mistake to keep to the old turnpikes and highways, although they lead to important centres and chief towns. In some districts " main road " is only another spelling of monotony: it too often means a straight level highway bordered by a wearisome succession of telegraph poles, and with an inn at fairly regular intervals. Along such routes the seeker of the interesting and picturesque often journeys in vain, when all the while, not far away, down the winding byroads and leafy lanes, there are charming scenes, peaceful waters mirroring waving willows, old thatched homesteads, shade instead of sun-glare, dew instead of dust, and birds' songs instead of bicycle bells.

I would suggest, therefore, that when you set out to travel any given stretch of highway, you do not time your journeying by the number of miles between its beginning and end. You will do well to allow for pardonable lapses from the strict straight course; remembering that pleasure is to be obtained otherwise than by speedy progression, and that at the end of a holiday more delight is got from the memory of some out-of-the-way streamlet, with banks bright and fragrant with wild flowers, than from the contemplation of a cyclometer. Bearing this in mind, you must not be surprised that, at the commencement of the first of our tours out of Norwich, you are taken into a little-known neighbourhood, where, although the highroads are good, the by-roads are pot always all that could be desired. The proposed journey is from Norwich to the Roman Camp an Caistor St Edmundn, and on to Wymondham, Attleborough, and Thetford; and if before he comes out upon the Thetford turnpike the cyclist has to complain of a " rough stretch " here and there, he must console himself with the thought that in all probability it is a piece of a Roman road.

To reach Caistor (not to be confused with Caister, near Yarmouth, which you will see later) the best route is that which leaves Norwich by way of King Street, and branches out from Prince of Wales's Road near the Post Office. It is a queer old street, with quaint waterside inns on the left hand and traces of the old city walls on the right, and it takes you past the enormous factories of a firm of world-wide reputation - Messrs J. 8c J. Colman, the mustard makers. It emerges into Bracondale, where you turn into Martineau's Lane, a narrow leafy byway named after the noted family which formerly occupied Bracondale Lodge. The lane skirts the pleasant grounds of Bracondale Woods - the home of Mr Russell Colman, whose father represented Norwich in Parliament for many years, and was one of the city's chief benefactors - and terminates at the old thatched Cock Inn at Lakenham. Crossing the little Tas, Taas, Tase, Taes, or Tesse (it is so variously spelt), you are in open country. Like all the roads leading into Norwich, that from Caistor is, towards the end of the week, traversed by droves of cattle and sheep on their way to the Castle Hill; and it is no uncommon thing to encounter here a flock of sheep following, instead of being driven by, a shepherd or drover.

The Camp at Caistor, which is about three miles from Norwich, is a fine relic of the Roman occupation. Although not so impressive at first sight as Burgh Castle (the Roman fortress near Yarmouth), it is in good state of preservation, the four sides of a parallelogram being distinctly traceable. The camp measures 438 yards from east to west, and 362 from north to south, and is reckoned to have been capable of containing a force of 6000 men. In several places the masonry, which closely resembles that at Burgh Castle, being composed of flints and regular courses of bricks, is in good condition. At the western end, which overhangs the ancient bed of the Tas, are the remains of a round tower and water gate, where vessels were unloaded which brought supplies for the garrison. On the east side is a deep fossa, heaped with masses of detached masonry. The church of St Edmund stands in the southeast corner of the camp, and is largely built of flints and bricks from the ruins. The general opinion among antiquaries now is that Norwich occupies the site of the Venta Icenorum of the Romans; but some authorities have suggested that that important Icenic settlement was at Caistor. The late Mr Hudson Gurney, in a letter to the late Mr Dawson Turner, remarks that he is strongly in favour of the former theory, and states: - "In 1834 I went over the camp at Caistor, and the country adjacent, with Colonel Leake, who may be considered the greatest living authority for the sites of ancient cities and fortified camps, and he at once said that he was convinced that Norwich was the Venta Icenorum, and the capital of the lceni, and Caistor the fortified camp planted by the Romans over against it, on the other side of the estuary, to bridle, as was their custom, a hostile population." Several valuable antiquities unearthed here are in the Norwich Castle Museum.

Again crossing the Tas (which must have shrunk considerably since the Roman galleys sailed its waters), and also the railroad and the Norwich and Ipswich turnpike, you are in Keswick, and catch a glimpse of its church tower rising from a grove of trees. Upon closer view the tower proves to be all that is left of the church, and upon inquiry you may learn that nearly three hundred years have elapsed since a service was held within the now vanished walls. Hereabouts it may be necessary to inquire your way to the Wymondham turnpike, for " four cross ways" are numerous, and not all possessed of signposts. In Norfolk, however, you need never hesitate to interrogate the country folk; even the old women on their way to market are glad of an excuse to stop and chat, and, in addition to giving the information you require, will tell you all about themselves, their family history, and the rector and squire and their family histories. It was from such a talkative old dame that I learnt that within the last few years Keswick churchyard had been re-opened for interments. " You see," she said, "the first lot have had time to get crumbly;" and on my apologising for stopping her, she said hastily: " Bless your heart, my old hoss is glad of a rest! "

Keswick is a pretty little village of very few houses. Those it consists of, however, are of the better order of rustic dwellings, and most of them are surrounded by very charming gardens. Close beside them, too, are groves of trees, each with its tangle of underwood, amid which the burdocks and willow-herbs grow ten feet high. By the roadside you continually come across the great mullein, the " hig-taper" of country folklore, with its soft woolly leaves and dense spike of large yellow blossoms. The sylvan surroundings of the village are very favourable to its bird life, and therefore calculated to afford considerable pleasure to Mr J. H. Gurney, the ornithologist, and president of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society, who lives here. The people of Keswick, when they wish to go to church - and I have no reason for assuming that this is not the case every Sunday - have to journey to the neighbouring parish of Intwood, which is still blessed with a serviceable sanctuary. It formerly had also a fine old mansion, built by Sir Thomas Gresham, the founder of the London Royal Exchange. In it Sir Thomas entertained the Earl of Warwick when he came into Norfolk to suppress the Kett Rebellion.

At length, after a pleasant ramble along by-roads, you come out on to the Norwich and Wymondham turnpike, and can " follow the wires " all the way to the latter town. You are still only three miles from Norwich; but now, as you set out for Hethersett, every step increases the distance, and by the time you reach Hethersett church, which stands a little back from the road, you are five and a half miles from your starting-point. In June and July the roadside banks about here are decked with the beautiful white blossoms of one of our rarer Rosaceae, the burnet rose, which is usually most plentiful near the sea. Another three and a half miles brings you to Wymondham, a little town where at least an afternoon may be profitably spent, for it possesses some quaint old buildings, a fine church, and some interesting ruins. The adjoining hamlets, too, are remarkable for their ancient manor and farm-houses. In spite of its railway station and several good modern houses, Wymondham does not yet seem to fully realise that this is the nineteenth century, so seldom* is there anything like stir or liveliness in its narrow streets, brooded over here and there by projecting, high-peaked gables.

At first sight Wymondham church seems almost of cathedral proportions, owing to its two towers. The east end tower is the older of the two, being a portion of a Benedictine abbey founded in 1107 by William d'Albini, an ancestor of the Earls of Arundel. There are extensive ruins of the conventual church of this abbey in the churchyard, and other traces of the abbey in the Old Green Dragon Inn in Church Street. The monks of Wymondham appear to have been a most exemplary set, for at the dissolution of the monasteries very little could be urged against them, and the abbot was granted an annual allowance of 66, 13s. 4d. Previous to this, in the reign of Henry I., a special grant was made to the abbey of " all wrecks on that part of the coast lying between Eccles, Happisburgh, and Tunstead, and a rent in kind of 2000 eels annually from the village of Helgay." Pilgrims used to resort to the town to drink of a sacred well, the waters of which still bubble up near the church. The Grammar School was formerly a chapel dedicated to St Thomas a-Becket.

As I have said, there are some fine old country seats around Wymondham. There are also some interesting moated houses. Among the latter are Stanfield, Gunvil, and Burfield Halls, all of which are within easy distance of the town, and really form part of it. The two places which naturally attract most attention are Kimberley Hall, the seat of the Earl of Kimberley, and Stanfield Hall, the scene of one of the most atrocious and sensational murders recorded in the annals of crime. But Kimberley is three and a half miles from Wymondham town, so before visiting it you will perhaps glance at Stanfield Hall, while I make some reference to the gruesome event which made it famous.

In the year 1848 this Elizabethan moated mansion was occupied by Mr Isaac Jermy, the Recorder of Norwich. He had for his bailiff and tenant a well-known farmer named James Blomfield Rush. Ill-feeling appears to have existed between master and bailiff for some time, in consequence of the rescinding of certain leases, and the issuing of distress warrants whereby Rush was ejected from one of his farms. Other legal proceedings ensued, and Rush published a pamphlet in which he described Mr Jermy as a villain, and asserted that he had no right to Stanfield Hall. He also made a young woman, whom he had engaged as governess, draw up certain documents by which Mr Jermy, whose name was forged, entered into certain agreements beneficial to his bailiff-tenant. The murders afterwards committed were for some time premeditated, for Rush, in addition to going out late at night under the pretence of watching for poachers, gave instructions that straw should be laid down on the footpath between his house, Potash Farm, and Stanfield Hall, evidently with the idea of preventing his footprints being traced. Also, before the night of the murders he sent away from his house everyone except Emily Sandford, the governess, and a lad named Savory. On the evening of November 28th, 1848, after having tea, he disguised himself in widow's weeds, armed himself with a double-barrelled gun, and left his home.

Shortly after eight o'clock that night, Mr Jermy was alone in the dining-room, his son and daughter-in-law, who lived with him, having retired to the drawing-room for a game of cards. After dinner it was the Recorder's custom to' look out of the hall door or take a short stroll in front of the house. Rush, who no doubt was aware of this, concealed himself near the door, and when Mr Jermy appeared in the porch fired at him and shot him through the heart. The murderer then ran to a side door, pushed his way past the butler, and arrived in the staircase hall just as Mr Jermy, junior, who had heard the report of the gun, appeared in the hall. At him Rush also fired, and he fell dead at his feet. Mrs Jermy, who had remained in the drawing-room until she heard the second explosion, then entered the hall, where she saw the dead body of her husband. Her screams for help brought Eliza Chastney, one of the servants, on the scene, and together they saw Rush emerge from the dining-room and point a gun at them. He fired twice, wounding Mrs Jermy in the arm and the servant in the leg, and then fled from the house by a side door. Meanwhile a stableman, who believed the house to be attacked by a band of robbers, had swum the moat, obtained a horse at a neighbouring farm, and ridden to spread the alarm at Wymondham. The butler, too, had run to another farm for assistance.

After leaving the hall the murderer returned to Potash Farm, where, on being admitted by Emily Sandford, he went upstairs and took off his disguise. He then came downstairs and told the girl that if inquiry were made about him she was to say he had not been out of the house more than ten minutes. Later in the night, when footsteps were heard outside the house, he came to her bedside and said, " Now, you be firm and remember that I was out only ten minutes." She noticed that as he spoke he was trembling violently. Next day he was arrested and taken before the magistrates, when Emily Sandford persisted in stating that on the previous night he was not out of the house more than a quarter of an hour. At the ensuing inquest, however, she told the truth, and related all that had passed between herself and the murderer. Rush's disguise was found in the house, and the gun he had used was discovered in a rubbish-heap. The forged deeds he had compelled Sandford to draw up were found under the floor of a closet at Potash Farm.

The trial at the assizes, which commenced on March 29th, 1849, in the Shirehall at Norwich, was followed with intense interest by the whole country. The prisoner conducted his own defence. Mr Sergeant Byles, who prosecuted, not only by calling witnesses clearly proved the facts already stated, but by the production of the forged documents showed a powerful motive for the murders. Several of the Stanfield Hall servants believed the prisoner to be the man they had seen in disguise, and Eliza Chastney, the injured girl, who was brought into court on a couch, closely attended by doctors, pointed out Rush as the murderer. Emily Sandford also gave evidence, and her statements went a long way towards confirming those of the witnesses from the Hall. The prisoner commenced his defence on the fifth day of the trial, and spoke for about fourteen hours. He admitted that he knew an attempt was to be made to obtain possession of the Hall on the night of the murders (an attempt had been made some years before), but said he had advised the parties concerned not to do so. Such a weak defence naturally failed to influence the jury, who soon returned a verdict of guilty, and the prisoner was sentenced to death. He was executed on the bridge in front of Norwich Castle on April 21st, thousands of people journeying from all parts of the city and county to see him hanged. Potash Farmhouse, where the murderer lived, is still to be seen in the parish of Hethel, near Wymondham, but its name has been changed to Hethel Wood Farm.

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Pictures for Byways and an old Turnpike (Norwich to Caistor camp, Wymondham, and Thetford.)

Wymandham Church
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