Thetford, A Disappointing Hotel and a Revolutionary

Thomas Paine Hotel

After leaving Oxburgh Hall we headed south towards the town of Thetford where we would be staying overnight.

The road took us across a stretch of land called The Brecks which is quite possibly the most dreary piece of countryside in all of East Anglia with a landscape of gorse and sandy scrubland.  Eventually we came to Thetford Forest which relieved the tedious boredom of the open countryside.  The Forest was planted in the 1920s as part of a UK project of reforestation.  Environmentalists complain that the Forest has destroyed the true nature of the area but I thought it was all rather attractive.  Even the surface of the Moon would be an improvement on The Brecks.

Arriving in Thetford we struggled with the confusing one-way system and drove around in circles for a while until we came eventually to our overnight accommodation at The Bell Inn.

The reason for staying in Thetford was mostly because the TV show Dad’s Army was filmed around these parts. This little nugget will mean nothing to readers from outside the UK but Dad’s Army is one of the most successful sit-com programmes  ever from the BBC in the last fifty years and remains one of my personal favourites.

Bell Hotel Thetford Norfolk Dad's Army

I had chosen the Bell Inn because  the cast of the show used to stay here fifty years ago and I wanted to stay there too.  I hoped I might get lucky and get the very room that Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) used to sleep in.

Sadly the Bell Inn turned out to be a massive disappointment, yes there was some Dad’s Army mementoes but the place was a complete dump and the room we were allocated was tired, uncared for and dirty.  Kim refused to stay there and sent me to reception to get a change of room.  I was told that this was not possible so we decided to leave immediately.  A real shame, I was so looking forward to staying there but I had to agree with Kim that it most likely hadn’t been decorated or cleaned since Arthur Lowe himself stayed there in the 1960s!

Close by we found (after inspection) a suitable alternative and checked in there instead.  This was the Thomas Paine Hotel.  I may not have got to stay in the same room as Captain Mainwaring but at the Thomas Paine we got the Ronald Regan suite!

Ronal Regan Room

I was happy about that because in 2005 in an American TV series poll of viewers Ronald Reagan was voted the Greatest ever American, coming in ahead of Washington, both Roosevelts and even Abraham Lincoln.  You might find that hard to believe and may need to Google it to confirm that I am telling the truth!

The 100 Greatest Americans

Before he turned to politics Reagan was a Hollywood actor; in 1951 he made a movie called “Bedtime for Bonzo” which was a silly film about a clever chimp living with an American family which is somewhat ironic because now all of America has to live with a silly chimp living in the Whitehouse.

Satisfied with our choice of hotel we wandered around the attractive town centre and came eventually to the statue of Thomas Paine, the most famous son of Thetford and arguably of Norfolk and all of East Anglia, perhaps even of all of England.

Paine was a radical revolutionary, a sort of proto-Marxist, a latter day Leveller, a real trouble maker, an all round (excuse the pun) pain in the ass to the establishment of late eighteenth century England and he didn’t come from London or Bristol, not even Ipswich or Norwich but from sleepy little Thetford.

In his writings he explored the origins of property, openly challenged the concept of monarchy, introduced the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, supported the abolition of slavery, questioned the very concept of Christianity and inspired The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen of 1791.

How wonderful it is that history often delivers theses delicious little curve-balls and reminds me that I am privileged to live in the greatest country in the modern World.

In a BBC television viewers poll in 2002 “The Hundred Greatest Britons” Paine was included as one of only two British political philosophers.  He was voted thirty-forth and Thomas More thirty-seventh, no place then for Thomas Hobbes, John Locke or David Hume.  By comparison the list included ten modern pop stars and a radio DJ!

Thomas Paine Memorial

Paine supported both the American Revolution (one of the Founding Fathers no less) and the French Revolution and his most important work was The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by the law.  In 1792 he was elected to the French National Convention.  The Girondists regarded him as an ally, the Jacobins, especially Robespierre, as an enemy and eventually he was arrested.  He only narrowly escaped the guillotine during the reign of terror and was then (not being welcome in England) allowed to travel to the USA.

The Declaration is important, it is included in the beginning of the constitutions of both the Fourth French Republic (1946) and Fifth (1958) and is still current. Inspired by the philosophers of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire and Rousseau, the Declaration became a core statement of the values of the French Revolution and had a major impact on the development of freedom and democracy in Europe and Worldwide.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is so significant that it is considered to be as important as Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the United States Bill of Rights and inspired in large part the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That I suggest is a fairly important legacy and it is rather smug to sit here and think that an Englishmen shaped the American Revolution and the Constitution of the USA except of course we now have Donald Trump and poor Thomas Paine in his grave somewhere in the state of New York is probably on a permanent Hotpoint fast spin-cycle.

After dinner we walked around the town after dark and came across another interesting feature of Thetford.  It has one of the largest Eastern European communities in all of the UK and if you want to know what it is like to go out in the evening in Poland then Thetford will give you a clue as the town was busy and vibrant as people sat outside and spoke together in foreign tongues which created a very pleasing ambience in complete contrast to many bleak and soulless evening town centres across the UK and it seemed entirely appropriate that this was in the town of Thomas Paine.

Thomas Paine Thetford Norfolk

Later I had great pleasure in giving the Bell Inn a really poor review on the Booking.com website.

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Lincolnshire to Norfolk, The Journey

 

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Never mind, this is where we were heading…

Suffolk For Sunshine

According to the UK Met Office the driest and sunniest place in all of the United Kingdom.  The sun was certainly shining today for our journey.

A UK Holiday – Lincolnshire to Norfolk, Traffic Congestion and The Patron Saint of Escapology

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A couple of years ago a good pal introduced me to the experience of modern caravanning.

I had taken quite a lot of persuading.  I remembered staying in a caravan in about 1970 and I said that I would never ever to do it again.  I have consistently maintained that I just do not understand caravanning at all or why people subject themselves to the misery of a holiday in a tin box with no running water, chemical toilets and fold away beds, I could see no pleasure in it whatsoever.

I am pleased to be able to report however that modern caravans are much improved and imagine my shock then when I tell you that I was so impressed with our holiday caravan accommodation which had all of the facilities of a modern home with central heating, hot and cold running water, a bathroom with a shower, electricity and a fully equipped kitchen.

I instantly became a caravan fan.

Earlier in the year my daughter invited us along on a camping holiday.  Not being a fan of tents and not even willing to try it I turned the opportunity down but offered the alternative of a modern luxury caravan.  She didn’t take a lot of persuading, it turns out that she is not such a big fan of camping either!

Great Yarmouth Post Card 2

So, when the day arrived we packed the car and headed south to the county of Suffolk in East Anglia.  Traditionally in England families took one week holidays from Saturday to Saturday and my Dad used to like to travel on a Friday to avoid the traffic so fifty years later we did the same.  I thought that this was a good idea but it seems however that holiday habits have changed and now everyone travels on a Friday!

It was only a short journey of about one hundred and fifty miles but we had to use the A17 route which is a major English road which takes almost all of the traffic from the North of England into East Anglia and consequently some days it can become horribly congested.  This was one of those days.

Find an easier way I hear you say but sadly there is no way of avoiding the A17 because of the topography of the region.  To get into Norfolk from Lincolnshire it is necessary to pass close by to a stretch of water called The Wash which is a large chunk of water in the coastline of Eastern England that separates the north-east coast of East Anglia from the wetlands and the Fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire.  Building roads over bogs is difficult it seems.

The Wash

Four major rivers flow into The Wash, The Witham, The Welland, The Nene and the Great Ouse and except for the most northerly, The Witham, which is relatively easy to get across, the other three are crossed by the single carriageway A17 and there is simply no sensible alternative route so all of the traffic converges close to Boston in Lincolnshire and then crawls along the A17 for about thirty miles or so until it gets past King’s Lynn in Norfolk.  It makes for a dreadfully frustrating journey.

When you finally get past King’s Lynn the A17 ends and joins the A47 which is another horrible road which brings all of the traffic into Norfolk from the East Midlands and everyone going for an East Coast holiday from the cities of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Peterborough so even though there are no more rivers to cross there isn’t a great deal of improvement in traffic flow.

As a consequence of this our journey into East Anglia took considerably longer than anticipated and we were about two hours behind schedule by the time we finally arrived at our first planned stop, a National Trust property called Oxburgh Hall which is situated into the village of Oxborough.  I’m afraid I have no explanation to offer as to why the spellings do not match.

Oxburgh Hall Norfolk

Oxburgh turned out to be a fabulous place, nice gardens, woodland walks and a moated Medieval House in a good state of preservation. So we walked the grounds and visited the house and looked out for the highlight feature of the property, a Priest Hole, open for visit and inspection.

A Priest Hole was a hiding place in Tudor and Stuart times for Catholic Priests during the religious persecutions of the Reformation.  Several important members of the Nobility and their families remained defiantly but secretly true to the Catholic faith and in large important houses provided these hiding places for resident priests and various items of Catholic paraphernalia.  The penalty for being discovered and captured was severe with the certainty of horrible torture (almost as bad as driving the A17) and the liklihood of painful death so these Priest’s Holes had to very cunningly designed and built.

A man called Nicholas Owen is famous for carrying out this work in a number of great houses and so crafty were they in their planning that even today it is suggested that they may not all have been found.  At Oxburgh he came up with a sort of sunken pit concealed in the solid interior brick work of the house and with access through a false floor and just a tiny corridor.

The really interesting thing about this one is that visitors are allowed to go down through the floor and narrow entrance and go inside to have a look.

I sent Kim down first to check it out…

Oxburgh Priest Hole

It is quite a tight squeeze but once inside it isn’t so bad although I wouldn’t want to spend a few days down there in the dark with no bathroom facilities.

Nicholas Owen was captured in 1606 and taken to the Tower of London where he was mercilessly tortured for ten days as the authorities sought to discover all of his Priest Hole stories.  He never gave in and eventually died and all of his secrets went with him.  Owen was canonised as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

Today, Catholic stage magicians who practice Gospel Magic consider Saint Nicholas Owen to be the Patron Saint of Illusionists and Escapologists.  His Feast Day is celebrated on 22nd March.

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Grimsby Dock Tower and The Torre del Mangia in Siena

Grimsby Dock Tower

Lincolnshire is a flat county, a great deal of it struggles to rise even above sea level and this means that any tall building can be seen for miles around.

In the south there is the Boston Stump (St Botolph’s Church, the largest Parish Church in England) in the centre there is Lincoln Cathedral (third largest Cathedral in England) and in Grimsby there is the Dock Tower.

This is a water tower built in 1852 to provide hydraulic lifting power to operate the giant lock gates of the dock. It was designed by a man called James William Wild who had visited Siena in Italy and had so admired the place that he based his design for the Grimsby Dock Tower on the Torre del Mangia tower on the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena city centre.

Torre del Mangia

This piece of Italianate architecture on the Humber Estuary may not be Portmeirion in Wales by Sir Clough William-Ellis but is a very fine building.

This is Portmeirion in a photo taken on holiday in 1985…

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At three hundred and thirty feet it is the highest building in Lincolnshire, fifty feet higher than either the Boston Stump or Lincoln Cathedral. If it were in Bristol or Newcastle or Manchester then it would be a major tourist attraction but it is in Grimsby and hardly any one visits Grimsby so not many people have seen it.

002tower2Dock Tower
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Or have they? Let me take you two hundred miles or so south to the County of Berkshire and to Legoland Windsor.

Legoland is a theme park and one of the attractions is a zone called ‘miniland’ which is basically a model of London built out of Lego bricks and here there is Buckingham Palace, The Palace of Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral and a whole host of other famous landmarks.

There isn’t much room for anywhere else but right there alongside the buildings of the capital is a model representing docks – not Portsmouth or Dover or Southampton but Grimsby. Grimsby! To me that is completely astounding and I can find no explanation as to why the designers of ‘miniland’ should select the remote town of Grimsby to be represented in this way, maybe they got lost on their way over from Sweden.

There are about two hundred visitors to Grimsby every year (I imagine), there isn’t even a dedicated Tourist Information Office, but there are over two million visitors to Legoland so a lot more people have visited Grimsby than they ever realise.

If, like me, you find this hard to believe then here it is…

Legoland Grimsby with key.

The Dock Tower (1), Grimsby Port Offices (2), Corporation Bridge (3) and Victoria Flour Mills (4).

In Rimini in Italy there is a theme park called Italia in Miniatura where there is a small scale model of Siena and the Torre del Mangia …

Siena in Miniature

Mini-Europe is a theme park located near Brussels in Belgium and has reproductions of monuments in the European Union on show at a scale of 1:25. Approximately eighty cities and three hundred and fifty buildings are represented and Italy is represented by six mini-models including Siena…

Siena at Mini-Europe

Holiday by The Sea and Boats

 

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“The sea’s curious workmanship: bottle green glass sucked smooth and porous by the waves: wood stripped and cleaned and bark swollen with salt…gnawed and rubbed: amber: bone: the sea”    Lawrence Durrell – Propero’s Cell

Coming Up – A Week in Suffolk, UK

 

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Earlier in the year my daughter invited us along on a camping holiday.  Not being a fan of tents I turned the opportunity down but offered the alternative of a modern luxury caravan.

She didn’t take a lot of persuading, it turns out that she is not such a big fan of camping either!

Suffolk

Northumberland, St Mary’s Lighthouse

 

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Get timings wrong and you will get wet feet coming back.  Local people regularly turn up here at high tide and watch and see if any unsuspecting tourists get cut off and have to either swim for it or spend the night on the island.

Clearly entertainment in Whitley Bay is seriously hard to come by!

St Mary's Lighthouse Whitley Bay