One day, eight Norfolk landmarks...
HERITAGE and castles; they go together like toast and marmalade, gin and tonic, Morecambe and Wise.
As no edition with history as a theme would be complete without a smattering of motte, bailey and keep I wondered which of Norfolk’s fine monuments I’d include in this issue. And then a lightbulb moment – all of them; and I’d visit them all, in a day, in a 21st century quest.
I had no mighty warhorse, but I did have a bright yellow motorcycle; I had no suit of chain mail and burnished steel helm, but I did have trews of kevlar and a helmet of polycarbonate. I checked the labels but they spoke only of resistance to abrasion; no mention of protection against halberd and boiling oil but no matter, the quest was on.
Plotting the route was simple enough. I’d run clockwise from my home just west of Norwich, spin through the fortresses which are mostly on our county borders and end up at the daddy of them all, Norwich Castle.
So on a sunny Saturday morning I pointed my trusty steed in the direction of the first port of call, New Buckenham Castle, surely one of our less well-known historic sites, tucked away on the edge of the village near Attleborough.
It is so tucked away that I couldn’t find it, but a friendly local gave me directions, instructing me to knock on the door of the big house nearby and borrow the key to the gate – the castle is privately owned.
The owners were out, or at least not answering the door to wannabe knights on a quest, but undaunted I walked up the grassy path to the gates and caught a tantalising glimpse of ancient stonework through a leafy tunnel, all looking rather magical in the early sunlight.
On to the next monument, Thetford Castle mound, an impressive heap on the fringe of the town sadly lacking in any actual ruins but still an interesting place to visit. I climbed the 88 steps of what must be the most unsympathetically ugly stairs ever to disgrace a monument, took in the views and some oxygen and moved on to stop three, Castle Acre, near Swaffham.
This is a very handsome piece of history, somewhere that gives you a real sense of scale and power even though only a relatively small amount of stonework remains. The surviving shapes outline an impressive motte and bailey structure and what would have been a very deep moat.
A short gallop brought me to the even more impressive Castle Rising and a Viking who apparently wanted to test out the efficacy of my armoured trousers with a worrying nasty-looking spear. It was all in good fun of course – he was one of scores of historic re-enactors adding a special flavour to the place for the weekend. Castle Rising really is a fine sight, nationally significant for the surviving stone keep and mighty earthworks, but I was only halfway through
my quest, dark clouds were rolling across the sky and so I had to saddle up and move on.
In medieval days a travelling knight would have had to endure poorly-made roads and the risk of falling foul of robber barons; all I had to endure was poorlymade roads and the risk of falling foul of robber barons up from London for the weekend belting about in 4x4s but I rolled unmolested into the sunlit quiet of Baconsthorpe Castle, not far from Holt. It is a beautiful setting, the buildings less of a statement of military might than some of the others, but the extensive ruins are still a grand sight and the story of the rise and fall of the Heydon family a fascinating one.
There was a single car in the car park but I seemed to be the only soul among the ruins as I wandered around, soaking up the calming atmosphere and watching the swans on the lake.
I needed refuelling so paused at Itteringham community shop for a Coke and a Mars Bar – only this being north Norfolk I came away with a can of blood orange San Pellegrino and a slab of astonishingly good home-made tiffin. The shop and café, incidentally, is under threat of closure – I do hope they can work something out because it really is a fantastic little place.
By now the dark clouds at Castle Rising had scudded across the county and caught
up with me and as I puttered towards Caister Castle the lightning flashed and the sky cracked with thunder; it was a sign. It was a sign that I should have done my research properly as Caister Castle is closed on Saturdays.
So with icy water seeping into the chinks in my armour, I turned my mount south and splashed towards Burgh Castle, south of Great Yarmouth.
This was a different experience again; Burgh Castle is way out on the marshes, surrounded by broad meadows, the sky filled with birdsong. It is the oldest castle by a margin, built by the Romans in the 3rd century and remains an impressive sight, with three great walls surviving.
The storm had passed and in watery evening sunshine I headed for the final destination, Norwich Castle. For 900 years it has dominated the city skyscape and needs no introduction to most of us. I parked up, took in the great filigreed sugarcube of a building and turned for home. I had clocked up 208.7 miles on this slightly bonkers tour.
I’m glad I did it, because I will go back to each in turn, spend some proper time there and learn a little more about the heritage of our home county and properly appreciate these great assets.
But I’ll do them one at a time and I’ll check when they’re open.