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An Excursion across-country (Norwich to east Dereham, Swaffham, and Houghton) page 2

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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.

Harking back to Dereham, I may briefly refer to the route to Lynn by way of Fakenham. The chief place of interest between Dereham and Fakenham is Elmham Hall, built in 1727, and at one time occupied by Earl Sondes, who fought at Waterloo. Elmham is a very ancient place, and was the episcopal seat of one of the two dioceses into which the kingdom of the East Angles was divided about 673 a.d., but it contains few signs of its early importance. Nor will you find much to detain you in Fakenham, a small town on a slight rise to the north of the river Wensum; but you must leave the train at Massingham Station if you wish to visit Houghton. The hall, which is some three miles from the station, was built by Sir Robert Walpole, the great prime minister, and an inscription over the entrance indicates that its erection took nearly thirteen years. If not the largest country mansion in Norfolk, it is one of the largest, and stands in the midst of a domain of park and woodland of some 1400 acres. Its two grand fronts, which the passage of years has only made more impressive, are connected with the wings by balustraded colonnades. The figures over the doors are the work of Rysbrach, and Girarchon contributed a bronze Laocoon to the interior. The ceiling of the salon is painted with a design representing Phoebus and the Horses of the Sun. Subsequent to the completion of this immense mansion, Sir Robert got together here a magnificent collection of pictures; but his grandson George, Earl of Orford, whose fortunes had become somewhat impaired, disposed of it to the Empress Catherine of Russia for 40,555, and it now adorns the walls of one of the imperial palaces of St Petersburg. England thus lost possession of some of the finest works of Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Guido, Raffaelle, and Murillo. Even now, however, the hall contains rare and valuable art treasures, among them pictures by Vandyck, Titian, Raffaelle, Claude, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Splendid avenues of trees lead up to the hall. Some of the oaks in the park are centuries old, having stood there when an earlier mansion, in which Sir Robert was born and spent his childhood, occupied the site of the present one. The father of the famous minister was a bluff old country squire, whose ancestors had for centuries been lords of the manor of Houghton, and one of whom was the heir of that unfortunate Amy Robsart whose tragic death at Cumnor Hall suggested to Sir Walter Scott the writing of Kenilvuorth.

Robert Walpole was the third son of the Squire of Houghton, but, at the age of twenty-two, owing to the death of his two elder brothers, he became the heir to the estate. He was then at Cambridge, studying with a view to entering the Church. Resigning his scholarship, he returned to Houghton, where his father set him "to superintend the sale of the cattle in the neighbouring towns," and taught him to spend his evenings in the convivial fashion of the time. He learnt to drink deeply, for the old squire was in the habit of filling his son's glass twice for every time he filled his own, at the same time saying, " Come, Robert, you shall drink twice while I drink once, for I cannot permit the son in his sober senses to be witness to the intoxication of his father." He had to help to entertain the neighbouring squires, who looked upon Houghton as " Liberty Hall," and frequently sought the boon companionship of its owner. But when his father died he soon tired of cattle sales and country pleasures and excesses, and set his mind on a public career.

When the new hall arose where the old one had stood, far different gatherings to those of the old days were seen at Houghton. As the home of the great minister, Houghton Hall became famous for its entertainments, and Sir Robert numbered among his guests most of the leading men of the kingdom and the official representatives of other countries. " Bull-baiting was one of the amusements carried on, on a large space of grass south of the house, which still shows remains of the arrangements requisite for the sport." The festivities, too, were often worthy of the days of the old squire. " The large punch glasses, ten or twelve inches high, with diameter in proportion, which are now ranged innocently on the shelves of the china room, bring visions of lavish feasts. There is a strange little room at the back of the servants' hall, opening out of it by a door close to the chimney, called the Sots' Hole, where the drunken footmen were thrown to recover themselves, and to become fitted anew to assist their scarcely more sober masters." (Some Norfolk Worthies, by the late Mrs Herbert Jones.)

But of necessity Sir Robert had to spend the greater part of his time in London; and it was not until he was driven from office that he was able to take his ease at his beautiful country home and enjoy himself among his pictures. Horace Walpole, in one of his letters, says: " My lord (Sir Robert was then the Earl of Orford) is going to furnish and hang the picture gallery. Who could ever suspect any connection between painting and the wilds of Norfolk?... The Domenichino is delightful. My father is as much transported with it as I am. It is hung in the gallery, where are all his most capital pictures, and he himself thinks it beats all but the Guidos. The gallery was illuminated: it is incredible what a magnificent appearance it made. There were sixty-four candles, which showed all the pictures to great advantage." Many old friends came to cheer his declining days, among them a very old clergyman from Walsingham, who had been one of his first schoolmasters. The ex-Prime Minister asked him why he had never come to see him when he was in power; and the old man said: " I knew that you were surrounded with so many petitions asking preferment, and that you had done so much for Norfolk people, that I did not wish to intrude. But I always inquired how Robin went on, and was satisfied with your proceedings." The Earl of Orford did not die at Houghton, but in London, and his body was brought here for burial. It lies in a vault in the village church of St Martin, where other representatives of the family are interred; but strangely enough no inscription indicates the situation of his tomb.

Cyclists who select this route from Dereham to Lynn may make it include Sandringham, which is only a few miles from Houghton; or they may, instead of journeying from Fakenham to Lynn, strike out northward from the former town and, riding through Walsingham, arrive at Wells or Holkham Hall. These are places I have already dealt with. The journey from Fakenham to Wells may also be made by train.

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