Norfolk was the heartland of the Agricultural revolution. Pioneers such as Coke of Holkham and Turnip Townshend of raynham were at the forefront of a move to develop new crops and techniques that would take on the challenge of feeding the workers of the world’s first industrialised nation. No wonder then that Swaffham, in the centre of that county, halfway between king’s lynn and Norwich should become a thriving and architecturally distinguished market town.
At its centre is the Butter Cross. With its restrained Doric order and shallow leaded dome crowned with a statue of Ceres, goddess of the harvest, the building must have seemed alarmingly modern when it was erected by the Earl of orford in 1784. Perhaps this would have seemed even more striking if the underside of the dome had been, as now, painted a clear sky blue.
However, this was just one component of gentrified late-18th-century Swaffham that, with a racecourse, National Coursing Society and the well-appointed and attended Assembly rooms, had become a focus of aristocratic amusement in the county.
Swaffham appears principally a Georgian market town in part due to the demolition, in the 1930s, of the medieval shambles in which three rows of butcher’s and fishmonger’s stalls once did business. However, there are still several good 17th-century houses and a fine church, which boasts a late-medieval wooden Angel roof and a soaring tower built in the early 16th century. This is crowned with a most recognisable wooden flèche or lantern.
The wide, open marketplace once contained one of the town ponds, which, in the absence of river or stream, served as the town’s water source until mains water arrived in the late 19th century. Despite the demise of its once-great sheep, cattle and turkey auctions, the town is still home to a thriving weekly sale of fancy poultry. Every Saturday, more than 100 feathered lots are knocked down to the hammer of fabian Eagle, the aptly named and nattily dressed auctioneer, and so the medieval foundation of the town lives on.
‘Swaffham became a thriving and architecturally distinguished market town