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An Excursion across-country (Norwich to east Dereham, Swaffham, and Houghton)


Heigham - Bishop Hall's Old Palace - Costessy Hall - " The Jerningham Letters " - Honingham - East Dereham - Cowper's Tomb - Borrow's Birthplace - Borrow and Dereham - The Tomb of Wkhburga - The Bell Tower - Sir Robert Walpole and Dereham - "All Joys to Great Cassar" - Sleepy Swaffham - Castleacre Castle and Priory - Houghton Hall - Sir Robert Walpole - The Houghton Pictures - Walpole at Houghton.
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In the two foregoing chapters I have indicated how, by starting from Yarmouth, you may reach Lynn by a long and interesting tour along the coast. I will now describe an itinerary by which you may, by a more direct route through the heart of the county, arrive at the ancient Fenland town, or, if you chose, deviate from this direct route and, by way of Fakenham, reach Wells, on the North Norfolk seaboard. Norwich is again your starting-point, and you have the choice of setting out for East Dereham by one or the other of two ways. You may take train from Norwich (Thorpe Station), or follow the Dereham turnpike, which runs westward out of the city, through Heigham. Assuming the latter route is selected, you have a sixteen miles journey to Dereham, a distance inconsiderable to the cyclist, and not too far as a day's walking tour for an average pedestrian, especially as apart from the pleasant pastoral scenery, which may occasionally tempt you to loiter, there is not much to delay you between Heigham and Dereham.

At Heigham, however, you should see the old Dolphin Inn, which is a favourite subject with artists. This picturesque old flint-faced inn was, in the middle of the 17th century, the palace of the celebrated Bishop Hall of Exeter, who retired here after being subjected to great persecution by the Puritans. The figures above the doorway seem to indicate the date of its erection, though some authorities say it was built about thirty years later. There is some curious carving in the interior, and one room, a parlour to the right of the entrance, is wainscotted all round with oak.

Continuing along the turnpike you reach, about four miles from Norwich, Costessy or Cossey Park, which extends down to the roadside. The village is some two miles from the high road, and it is not worth your while to go out of your way to see it; but the park is peculiar in that it contains two halls, an old one, for many years the seat of that noted Norfolk family, the Jerninghams; and a new one in which Lord Stafford, the present representative of the family, resides. The old hall was erected in the reign of Elizabeth, and is surrounded by some of the finest trees in the county. Of the inner life of the Jerningham family during the last quarter of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries many delightful and interesting glimpses are given in "The Jerningham Letters," edited by Mr Egerton Castle, and published in 1896. Had I the space to spare, I could give many extracts from these letters, specially referring to Cossey Hall and its former inhabitants: as it is I cannot resist the temptation to quote from one or two of them. Lady Jerningham, who is the writer of a great number of the letters, must have been a terror to her friends, for this is how she describes one of her guests: - " Madame de Tott is at Cossey. She is very Clever, and particularly Religious, going every week to the Sacraments, but she puts on white and red, Lames herself with small Shoes, and wears a Corset that tortures her from its Length and tightness. What an odd Patchwork! She tells me, with the most Dissipated Face and appearance, that she is always thinking of death and preparing for it! " A month later she writes: - " Madame de Tott continues wishing to be inuime with you. She iu a pleasant woman, but laughs too loud for a Saint, she is however a woman of strict Principle, and has lived with Demons."

Attached to Cossey Hall is a large domestic chapel dedicated to St Augustine of England, the Jerninghams, it must be understood, having always been one of the leading Roman Catholic families in the country. Concerning this chapel and his own family, Edward Jerningham, while travelling in the year 1810 in the Bury coach, heard some interesting details from a traveller who was unaware of his companion's identity. At the end of his journey he wrote to his brother, Sir George Jerningham: - "I had some pleasant companions yesterday in the coach, among others an old clergyman of the name of Reeve, the rector of Bungay. He had no guess who I was, and I easily therefore pumped him upon several topics - He is a very liberal, sensible man - we talked of Catholics and he approves entirely of the Bishop of Norwich's sentiments - He advised me strongly to go and see a magnificent Roman Chapel at Cossey, saying that he had not seen it himself but that his son, who lives in the neighbourhood, wrote him that it was the precise model of King's College Chapel - Upon this I expressed some doubts, but He immediately replied that the size was certainly greatly reduced from the model, yet that all the parts were exactly copied, and that he has authentic information that it has cost Sir George Jerningham twenty-five thousand pounds - 6 Wonderful,' added he, (are the numbers that flock to this chapel every Sunday.' The whole coach was in amazement, and I promised faithfully to go and see it the next time I should travel into these parts."

About seven miles from Norwich is the village of Honingham, where, in an ancient church, are some interesting monuments, one to the memory of Sir Thomas Richardson, a seventeenth century Lord Chief Justice. After passing through this hamlet, there is little to delay you until you reach Dereham.

During the latter years of the eighteenth century, Cowper lived at Dereham, and, in all probability, it is to his tomb in St Nicholas Church that you will make your way as soon as you enter the town. You will find on the wall of the north transept a white marble tablet, surmounted by a sculptured Bible, copy of "The Task," and the poet's bays, and bearing this inscription:

In Memory
of William Cowper, Esq.,
Born in Hertfordshire, 1732.
Buried in this church, 1800.
Ye, who in warmth the public triumph feel
Of talents, dignified by sacred zeal,
Here to devotion's bard, devoutly just,
Pay your fond tribute due to Cowper's dust.
England, exulting in his spotless fame,
Ranks with her dearest sons his fav'rite name.
Sense, fancy, wit, suffice not all to raise
So dear a title to affection's praise.
His highest honours to the heart belong;
His virtues formed the magic of his song.

Cowper, whom Borrow calls " England's sweetest and most pious bard," lived and died in the house of his cousin Mr Johnson, which formerly stood in the marketplace. Its site is marked by a Cowper Chapel.

A writer whose memory Norfolk men delight to honour, because he was a native of the county, is George Henry Borrow, who was born in a house which, according to Dr Knapp, his biographer, is still to be seen in the hamlet of Dumpling Green, about a mile-and-a-half from Dereham. Borrow was always enthusiastic about his birthplace, and in " Lavengro," a book which we now know to be largely autobiographical, he writes: - "I love to think on thee, pretty quiet D___, thou pattern of an English country town, with thy clean but narrow streets branching out from thy modest marketplace, with thine old-fashioned houses, with here and there a roof of venerable thatch, with thy one half- aristocratic mansion, where resided thy Lady Bountiful, (Dame Eleanor Fenn, wife of Sir John Fenn, the editor of the " Paston Letters.") - she, the generous and kind, who loved to visit the sick, leaning on her gold-headed cane, whilst the sleek old footman walked at a respectful distance behind... Yes, pretty D____, I could always love thee, were it but for the sake of him who sleeps beneath the marble slab in yonder quiet chancel." Borrow, when a boy, was taken twice every Sunday to Dereham Church, " where, from a corner of the large spacious pew, lined with black leather," he would fix his eyes on " the dignified High-church rector," and admire the way in which he and "the dignified High-church clerk" rolled out the portentous words of the Liturgy. The "dignified High-church clerk" was an old Dereham cordwainer, whose gravestone you may see as you enter the church porch.

The bell tower, as it is called, of St Nicholasis detached from the church, and is notable for having been used as a prison in the days when French prisoners-of-war were conveyed " across country" from Yarmouth to the great prison at Norman Cross, in Huntingdonshire. In 1799, a young Frenchman named Jean de Narde, the son of a notary-public of St Malo, managed to escape from this tower, but was pursued and shot by a sentry. The unfortunate soldier was buried in the churchyard, and a stone to his memory, erected by the rector of that time, and renewed by a later one, records how he came by his end. A more interesting and far more ancient churchyard relic of the past, however, is an archway in an enclosed hollow into which a spring of water flows. Some people assert that this archway is nothing more than a portion of an ancient baptistery; but the following inscription appears above it: -

"The Ruins of a Tomb which contained the Remains of
Whitburga,
youngest daughter of
Annas,
King of the East Angles,
who died a.d. 654.
The Abbot and Monks of Ely
stole this precious relic
and translated it to Ely Cathedral,
where it is interred near her three Royal sisters."

The "precious relic " referred to in this somewhat vague inscription was, of course, the ashes of the princess, who here founded and became prioress of a nunnery. A fine old carved chest in the church is believed to be nearly five hundred years old. It was discovered in the ruins of Buckenham Castle, and probably belonged to the Howards, Dukes of Norfolk. It was presented to the church in 1786. In the long roll of Dereham rectors the most famous is Bishop Bonner, whom old history books usually describe as "the infamous." He was rector from 1534 to 1540.

Although Dereham is now a charming little town, fully justifying Borrow's rhapsodies, there was a time when it was looked upon as the worst laid-out and dirtiest town in Norfolk. When Sir Robert Walpole heard that its inhabitants proposed to pave it, he was so pleased that he invited them all to Houghton Hall. An old account of this event says that " Such of them as accepted the invitation were headed by the then chief constable and clerk of the parish... who, after being entertained in the most hospitable manner, received Sir Robert's donation of twenty guineas towards the good work carrying on. But this joyous company being exhilarated by liquor, forgot themselves so far as to be induced, by the proposals of a few, to sing in chorus a famous Jacobite song called * All joys to great Caesar,' etc. Sir Robert, who was well acquainted with mankind, sent them home happy in themselves, and by no means displeased with him." Considering how far Houghton is from Dereham, it would probably be interesting if the historian had recorded how the company got home.

From Dereham there are two railway routes to Lynn: by way of Swaffham, which will enable you to visit the ruins of Castle Acre Castle and Priory; or by way of Fakenham and Little Massingham, the latter of which is the nearest station to Sir Robert Walpole's old home, Houghton Hall.

Swaffham, although an ancient town, and surrounded by breezy heaths and leafy bird-haunted lanes, has little besides its church to tempt you to stay in it. Dwellers in the sleepiest of Sleepy Hollows would find little here to stir them. It is one of those somnolent towns where, if you enter a shop, the shopkeeper, after peering at you through a small window in the wall, emerges from some little back parlour, and, stifling a yawn, requests to know your business with the air of a man who has been awakened from a dream. Its church is fine and interesting, even if you refuse to accept the old story about its steeple and nave having been built by a travelling tinker. It is a cruciform perpendicular church, with an embattled tower; and in addition to the north and south transepts, which were chapels of the Virgin and Holy Trinity, has attached to 126 the south aisle a projection which was once a chapel of Corpus Christi. There is a monument here to Catherine Steward, who died in 1590, and over the vestry is a priest's chamber, in which some old armour and a number of valuable old books are preserved. There is an altar tomb, too, with an effigy of John Botewright, D.D., a rector of the parish in the reign of Henry VI.

Castle Acre is little more than four miles from Swaff ham, in a northerly direction. Both its castle and priory are believed to have been erected by the Conqueror's favourite, William de Warrenne, first Earl of Surrey, though there is abundant evidence that the former occupies the site of a much earlier fortress, probably a Roman station. Apparently the castle was originally a circular structure surrounded by a substantial embattled wall, of which many traces remain. In its prime, this ancient stronghold must have been an imposing place, and it is recorded that Edward I. was entertained here by one of its holders. That there was a very old settlement in the neighbourhood was conclusively proved in 1891, when, under the direction of Dr Jessop, extensive excavations were made on a farm where there were indications of the presence of an ancient burying ground. A large number of more or less perfect sepulchral urns of rude workmanship, containing charred human bones and crudely wrought ornaments, were unearthed, and have been assigned to a period not later than the seventh century of the Christian era. The priory, which stands about half a mile from the castle, is represented by a considerable portion of the west front, still in good state of preservation; a ruined tower, and the remains of a chapter-house and chapel. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Cotman made a couple of good drawings of the priory, it was considered one of the finest ruins in the county. The passage of ninety years has done little to rob it of the distinction. It is fortunate, however, that with the castle, it, a good many years ago, came into the possession of the Earls of Leicester, as since then the depredations of the villagers, who had done much to destroy and deface its splendid workmanship, have been put a stop to. Even now you may come across here and there in the older houses of the locality, indications of raids made upon the stonework of castle and priory, from the latter of which the antique font in the parish church is said to have been removed. In the neighbouring parish of West Acre are the remains of another priory founded by Ralph de Toni in the reign of William I., but these are of very scanty proportions.

If you set out for Lynn by the high road, you will, when about five miles from Swaffham, pass through the village of West Bilney, where Thomas Bilney, who was burnt at Norwich in 1531, lived while a clerk in holy orders. The ashes of the martyr were enclosed in an urn and buried in the churchyard, where the urn was discovered a few years ago while the sexton was digging a grave. A tract of land near West Bilney church is known as " Bloodfields," through having been the scene of an engagement during the Civil Wars. Neither the cottage in which Bilney is supposed to have lived, nor the battlefield, are sufficiently interesting to justify you in going out of your way to visit them; so, having seen Castle Acre, you will do well to journey direct by road or rail to Lynn.

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Pictures for An Excursion across-country (Norwich to east Dereham, Swaffham, and Houghton)

Norwich map
Norwich map >>>>
Bishop Hall Palace
Bishop Hall Palace >>>>
Priory Castle Acre
Priory Castle Acre >>>>
Houghton Hall
Houghton Hall >>>>

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