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A Royal town and a Flint village (Thetford, Brandon, and the Great Warren.)


The Metropolis of the Heptarchy - Antiquities of Thetford - Castle Hill - Abbey Gate - Monastic Houses - Churches - Royal Residences - The Great Warren - Warren Lodge - Brandon - Flint-knapping - Prehistoric Relics - Grimes' Graves - A Flint Village - Gun-flint making - Spurious Flint Implements - Breckland.
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Why it should be so is hard to say; but Thetford does not receive that amount of tourist patronage it deserves. Nor is the neighbourhood of this ancient town so well known as it ought to be. Places far less accessible and with smaller claims to attention have become popular, while Thetford, which was a royal city and the ecclesiastical centre of East Anglia ere Norwich could boast of a bishop, is neglected; and this in spite of the fact that the town is on the main line from London to Norwich and only an hour's railway journey from the Norfolk capital. A possible explanation is that most of the guide-books are made up of itineraries which commence at Norwich and terminate somewhere along the coast. A delightful district is thus ignored, and many tourists leave Norfolk without having explored one of the most interesting parts of the county. This is the more to be regretted because the neighbourhood of Thetford is quite different to the greater portion of Norfolk. Certain parts of it, it is true, are not unlike what is to be seen elsewhere along the borders of Fenland; but only around Sandringham and Swaffham, and even there in a less degree, are there such wild expanses of heathland, such wide and breezy warrens, and such dusky fragrant pine woods as are found around Thetford. One of the most attractive features of the district is, at least to my mind, its remoteness from the regular tourist routes, and the absence of any indication that its inhabitants are desirous of seeing it popularised. Yet, as one journeys through it and gets to know its delights, the conviction comes that it will not much longer remain neglected. Everything is against its retaining its primitiveness. Still, it will be some time before popularity spoils Thetford, and the building of rows of suburban houses drives the lapwings from its heaths and the rabbits from its warrens.

First, turn your attention to the town. Even if you are unaware that the first king of the East Angles made it a royal city, you will, immediately upon entering it, become conscious of its antiquity. A first impression is that old buildings - inns, shops, and private houses - predominate over modern ones; so numerous are they, indeed, that recent buildings and modern improvements seem strangely out of place here. What right, one is inclined to ask, has a plate-glass window to face an ancient house with Elizabethan gables? and might not that fine old carved doorway be content with its grotesque knocker, and do without an electric bell? Such questions, however, even if the mind frames them, usually remain unasked, for the streets of Thetford are a perfect maze, and all one's interrogations are generally directed towards finding one's way about the town. If it were not for the river, strangers would probably spend their time in flitting out of one county into another and back again without knowing it, for Thetford is a borderland town, partly in Norfolk, partly in Suffolk. When it was the " Metropolis of the Heptarchy " it was the centre of a kingdom whose limits reached far beyond the Little Ouse, and there was no town council to condemn its designers' building plans. Those designers probably made streets of the old Icenic trackways which led down to the river; and so because some hunter long dead chose a circuitous path to the place where he kept his coracle moored, you to-day must wander about Thetford by devious ways.

The inhabitants of Thetford are very proud of a big mound on the eastern side of the town, which they call the Castle Hill. What it is they do not know, but they are certain it is something very wonderful. One local historian suggests that it is a memorial mound similar to " the mount of Alyattes on the Tmolus ridge of Asia Minor, and the tumuli of Odin, Thor, and Freya, at Upsala." There is little doubt that, like the Castle Hill at Norwich, it is an artificial mound, and of great age. It is about 100 feet in height, and of considerable circumference. The ditch or moat which surrounds it is now dry, but may at one time have been connected with the Thet or some tributary of that river.

A less puzzling relic of the past is the fine old Abbey Gate which stands a little to the right of the road leading to the town from the station. This massive gate, still in fairly good condition, was once the entrance to an abbey or priory which, like many other monastic buildings in Norfolk and SufFolk, owed its foundation to the warlike family of Bigod. For a long time this abbey was the burial-place of the three families which successively bore the title of Dukes of Norfolk - the Bigods, Mowbrays, and Howards. Its ruins cover a good deal of ground; but the Gate is the only portion which has withstood time and other destructive agencies. The remains of another monastery, founded by Uvius or Urius, an Abbot of Bury in the reign of Canute, now form part of the buildings of the "Place" Farm, the conventual church being used as a barn. The ruins of this monastery are the oldest in the town. On the Suffolk side of the river, and partly contained in a comparatively modern residence called "The Canons," are the ruins of the church and other portions of the monastery of the Holy Sepulchre and Sacred Cross, founded in 1139 by William de Warrenne.

In Thetford to-day there are only three churches used for worship. In the reign of Edward III. there were about twenty; but of more than a dozen of these not a trace is left, while of the rest the remains are only fragmentary. In the Boys' Grammar School is the south transept arch of the old church of Holy Trinity, which was the cathedral church of the diocese as long ago as the eleventh century; but apart from this the ruins are scarcely worth seeking. Of the existing churches the finest is that of St Mary, on the Suffolk side of the river. It contains a Norman font and a portion of the tomb of Sir Richard Fulverstone, the founder of the Grammar School, who was interred here in 1566. St Peter's, at the corner of King Street, used to be called the Black Church, because it is built of black flints. St Cuthbert's, the smallest of the three churches, which stands near the market-place, was almost entirely rebuilt in 1852, and is only of interest on account of its fine oak screen and grotesque gargoyles.

Thetford may well claim to be considered a royal city, for from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries the old King's House in King Street, or the building it replaced in the reign of Elizabeth, was a country residence of the English kings. It was given to Sir Philip Wodehouse by James I., and the arms and motto of the Wodehouse family are carved on a stone in the conservatory. The grounds were formerly far more extensive than they are now. At the south end of Well Street is another house supposed to have been a royal residence. It is called the Manor House, and was the seat of the Earls of Warrenne, from whom it passed into the possession of the Crown. This is one of the oldest houses in the town; but the Bell Hotel, once a famous posting- house, is an Elizabethan inn well worthy of a visit, and there is a house in White Hart Street which dates from the same period. The Guildhall, where the Lent Assizes for the county of Norfolk were held until they were removed to Norwich, was originally the hall of a religious guild of the thirteenth century. The Grammar School is chiefly notable for having had for a scholar Thomas Paine, the author of " Common Sense," "The Rights of Man," and "The Age of Reason," who was born in a house which formerly stood in White Hart Street. Many of the houses strike one as being considerably older than they really are, owing to their being built of the stones of vanished monasteries, halls, and churches. This helps to give the town its look of antiquity.

A day may be profitably spent in exploring the straggling streets of this quaint old Borough; but if you tire of old churches, old ruins, and old houses, there are wide heaths and breezy uplands just outside the town, where the air is as invigorating as a sea breeze and wild nature calls to you in many voices. Such a delightful expanse is the Great Warren which stretches away westward towards Brandon. Leaving the town by the Brandon Road, you enter at once upon this grand tract of moorland, across which the hedge- less road winds like a grey ribbon through bracken, heather, and bugloss. Scarcely has the last house of Thetford been left behind before the rabbits, of which there are thousands here, are seen scurrying across the road and in and out of the fern, while on all sides the peewits rise and wheel overhead, crying plaintively. Gazing around you see scarcely a sign of human habitation; almost the only house in sight is a curious one known as the Warren Lodge, which stands on the highest point of the Warren. Its origin is unknown. At a distance it somewhat resembles a low-towered church, but a closer inspection shows that what is apparently the tower is an ancient square erection something like a castle keep. A cottage adjoins the "keep," and is occupied by the keeper of the Warren. From him you may learn that a good many years ago the " keep " was tenanted by a warrener and his men, who sometimes caught as many as 2,000 rabbits in a night by means of pitfalls; and he will point out the bare old chamber in which these men slept, and the old wooden platters and salt-cellars they used at their meals. You are told, too, that the Warren was once a " great place" for silver-grey rabbits, many thousands of which were annually sent to London; but the race is believed to be quite extinct here now.

Of late years large tracts of the Great Warren have been planted with trees, and these have, to a certain extent, robbed it of wide vistas. Still it is an ideal place for a summer day, when the sun shines warmly on the heather, the breeze is laden with the fragrance of the pines, the rabbits are gambolling on every side, and the pretty little sand lizards are basking on the footpaths or wriggling out of sight among the heath and ling. And at nightfall there is a gloomy grandeur about this tawny heathland with its fretted ridges of pines. The sun sets upon it as upon a landscape of some dead planet. You realise then how little it has changed since the Stone Age; and it is not difficult to arrive at such a mood that even the appearance of a " troglodytic Eskurian," armed with stone axe and clad in cloak of skins, would scarcely cause surprise. Iceni, Roman, Saxon, and Dane, all have been here, have lived, fought, and died here; but they have left few traces of their presence. A flint arrow-head, a shattered urn, a few defaced copper coins, these are all that is left of them, and the ragged gorse, which grows so freely in Nature's wild places, blooms above their dust. Under the stars the Great Warren is as lonely as a mountain top, for the calling of the plovers and the loud whistling of the stone curlews are scarcely companionable sounds.

If you venture so far as the middle of the Great Warren, it will be worth your while to follow the road to Brandon, a journey of about six miles from Thetford. You may do this because Brandon possesses an interest which attaches to no other town or village in the world. It is the only place where flint-knapping, or the manufacture of gun-flints, is still carried on. There is reason for believing that even in the days of prehistoric man this district was resorted to by hunters and warriors who required good flints for axes and arrow-heads, for the flints of this neighbourhood are noted for their quality, and at Weeting, in a desolate locality adjoining Brandon, there is a great number of circular excavations now recognised as the pits from which the men of the Neolithic Age obtained their flints. Here, too, they must have fashioned them, for when, in 1870, the Rev. Canon Greenwell made a scientific examination of what are locally known as Grimes' Graves, he discovered not only flakes and cores of flints, but a number of flint implements which must have been used in the making of axes and arrow and spear heads. After paying a visit to these ancient pits, which are thousands of years old, it is a strange experience to enter Brandon and find men still engaged in fashioning flints in much the same manner as the hunters of the Stone Age.

Brandon, indeed, may be described as a flint village; for its church and chapels are built of flints, and so are its cottages and their garden walls. The present-day knappers devote most of their time to the fashioning of ornamental flint-work for decorative building, but some of them, as I have said, still make gun-flints. That there should still be a demand for gun-flints is surprising; but one of the knappers, named Field, says that of late years he has been able to sell large quantities of them, and he believes they are traded away to the native tribes of Africa. There are three stages in the making of a gun-flint. First, the flints are "quartered," that is, the great stones are broken with a large hammer. They are then "flaked" or split into angular strips by taps of a small hammer. Lastly, the flakes are " knapped" or shaped with a small hammer and a kind of hard chisel fixed upright in a low wooden bench. Gun- flints are made in four sizes, for muskets, carbines, horse pistols, and small or single-barrelled pistols, and a set of these can easily be obtained from a Brandon knapper.

A great many of the spurious flint implements, which have been accepted by antiquaries as genuine and have found their way into museums and private collections, were manufactured at Brandon, and some of the knappers are still skilled hands at making them. Most of the workers, however, possess not only flint weapons of their own manufacture, but some fine genuine ones which they have come upon while excavating flints. The uninstructed observer is quite unable to detect the false from the true, but a knapper has no difficulty in doing so. But it does not follow that he is always ready to enlighten a stranger on the subject of spurious flint implements. I can only assure you that if, while in Brandon, you wish to become possessed of an ancient British arrow-head you need not wait long for it!

The trip to Brandon is only one of several pleasant excursions which may be made into Breckland if you make Thetford your headquarters for a time. As is stated at the beginning of this chapter, the neighbourhood is at present practically an unknown country, so far as tourists are concerned. This I can promise you, that if you decide to devote a day or two to the isolated Breckland hamlets, the wide heaths and warrens, the meres and the churches, you will not regret it. There are over a hundred churches within a twelve-mile radius of Thetford, and some of these not only contain good examples of Norman workmanship, but are possessed of old Danish or Saxon round towers. Norfolk, where it is not made up of marshlands, is chiefly given up to cultivation; so it is as well that you should pause a while in a district which presents a totally different aspect to what you will find general elsewhere within the county.


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Pictures for A Royal town and a Flint village (Thetford, Brandon, and the Great Warren.)

The Bell, Thetford
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The Great Warren
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Norwich to Yarmouth
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