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