Seven fab facts about this old county town
1 WAY BACK AND WAY FORWARD
Watton parish church has several claims to fame. The round tower topped with an octagonal belfry is one. The wooden charity box, made in the shape of a priest, and engraved with the words ‘Remember the Poore 1639’ is another. And it is the only church in Norfolk that is wider than it is long, thanks to two huge 19th century aisles flanking the 13th century nave.
A Museum for Watton was set up last year in Wayland Hall. Free and open Wednesday to Saturday, 10am-4pm, it was inspired by the discovery of a Roman burial site, near Norwich Road, and includes a full-scale replica of the skeleton, a half-million-year-old hand axe, archives of the Manor of Watton dating back to 1640 and runs a history club for children.
2 WATTON’S LOCH
Pretty Loch Neaton was once part of a Victorian pleasure garden with rowing boats for hire, concerts in the bandstand, iceskating in winter and woodland footpaths with views across the waterlily beds. But the lake is not a natural feature of the Norfolk landscape. It was dug by hand in the hamlet of Neaton, just outside Watton, by Scottish railway workers in 1875, as they made an embankment for the new line to Swaffham. When the excavations filled with water from the nearby River Wissey a new lake was born – and named for the Scottish workers who had created it. A group of Victorian businessmen created pleasure gardens around the lake, designing a parkland of trees, shrubs, paths, tennis courts and a bowling green. Fairy lights hung from the trees on special occasions. Swimming pools were added just after the Second World War, but have since been filled in and turned into a picnic area. The loch is still there though, and while swimming, boating and skating are no longer allowed, fishing tickets are sold to help fund the upkeep, Watton Sports Centre is nearby and a weekly Park Run is held. And lovely Loch Neaton, surrounded by trees, bright with waterlilies and cared for by volunteers, is run as a charity by and for the people of Watton.
3 TING TANG
A bell has hung in the clock tower of Watton High Street for 340 years, ready to ring out if fire rages through the town again. In 1674 the Great Fire of Watton destroyed more than 60 homes, and many businesses. Five years later the clock tower was built and the warning bell, affectionately named Ting Tang, installed. The clock tower also displays Watton’s coat of arms – a hare (known as a wat in local dialect) and a barrel (or ton). Its ground floor, with two strong studded doors, was once the town ‘lock-up’ or overnight cell.
4 WATTON BABES
Watton has its own fairytale. The dark story of the Babes in the Wood is set in Wayland Wood, just outside the town.
First published more than 400 years ago, the tragic tale of two orphaned children, abandoned in the woods by their wicked uncle so that he could steal their inheritance, has been retold by Disney and as a pantomime through the centuries. It is said that their plaintive cries, as they lay dying, can still be heard in ‘Wailing’ Wayland Wood. And the woods, now a nature reserve, have even older stories to tell. The name Wayland is said to come from Waneland, or a Viking place of worship.
It is a tradition which dates back centuries, but Watton has one of the world’s most modern town criers – with its first crier appointed only last year. Watton town crier Mike Wabe was already town crier of Thetford and has now added Watton to his high decibel portfolio. Mike writes his own cries for every occasion – in rhyme. Listen out for him at events around the town – he’s loud! Dressed in lavish costume he’s sure to draw a crowd.
6 SAVE THE DATE
The Wayland Show is having a rest this year, ready to spring back in 2020 on its new Spring Bank Holiday date.
After being held in August for decades the countryside show will return, revamped and revitalised, on Monday May 3. Farming, food, crafts and music are already on the programme for the 146th Wayland Show. A regional celebration of heritage, and a focus on the future, with fun for all the family, is promised for the Spring Show.
In the meantime there is a collectables and antiques street market in Watton town centre on Sunday, July 7, 8am-4pm, and the carnival in September.
7 HEROES AND VILLAINS
Both the Royal Air Force and the American Air Force flew bombing raids from Watton during the Second World War. RAF Watton opened exactly 80 years ago and bomber and reconnaissance planes flew from here into occupied Europe, with raids as far as eastern Germany and Austria.
One audacious flight saw an American plane fly across Europe, from Watton to Berlin, in the dark and just above tree-top height to avoid radar detection, to drop two spies into the German city. Many wartime feats of courage, service and sacrifice are told on the website RAFWatton.info
The airbase site now includes monuments to the memory of the people who served here, plus housing, farmland and Wayland Prison. Prison inmates included disgraced politician Jeffrey Archer, who called the second volume of his prison memoirs Wayland: Purgatory.
‘Loch Neaton was once part of a Victorian pleasure garden’
St Mary’s Church at Watton Denise Bradley
ABOVE: From Project Gutenberg’s The Babes in the Wood, illustrated by Randolph Caldecott Project Gutenberg
LEFT: Watton have appointed Mike Wabe as their Town Crier Sonya Duncan