Georgian towns and fertile farmland around The Wash
The great U-shape of The Wash cuts into northern Norfolk and Lincolnshire, and is bounded by marshland in the west and shingle and sand beaches in the east. The flat farmland around The Wash, which now grows potatoes, onions, cabbages and cauliflowers, has been gradually won back from the sea, as successive generations have built dykes and embankments to drain the marsh and keep the sea from flooding back in.
This little hamlet, popular with birdwatchers, is sheltered behind a sea-wal! 2 miles from Freiston village. It is possible to walk northwards along the sea-wall as far as Skegness; in the other direction the walk turns inland towards Boston. It can be dangerous to walk on the marshes beyond the sea-wall when the tide is coming in.
In the middle of Fishtoft village a road sign with the unusual directions ‘SCALP’ and ‘CUT END’ points to the Pilgrim Fathers’ memorial, on the bank of The Haven. The memorial marks the point on what was then Scotia Creek from which 13 Puritans, the earliest Pilgrim Fathers, tried to set sail for America in 1607. They were betrayed by the captain of their ship and brought back to Boston, to face trial and imprisonment for attempting to emigrate illegally.
The combina tion of some of the most productive agricultural land in England with a flourishing seaport gives Boston a unique flavour. Much of the town centre consists of red-brick Georgian buildings, and one of the main shopping streets is closed to traffic. The town’s chief landmark is the mighty ‘Stump’, the tower of the parish church of St Botolph’s with an octagonal lantern tower which once served as a beacon for navigators on The Wash. The Stump is 272 ft high, and the view from the top is spectacular – on a clear day it is possible to see Lincoln Cathedral, nearly 30 miles away.
The town grew up around a monastery founded in AD 654 by St Botolph, and its name is said to be a contraction of ‘Botolph’s Town’, or ‘Botolph’s Stone’ (the stone from which he first preached). During Norman times the town grew rapidly and was granted a charter by King John in 1204. By the end of the 13th century it was the most important port in England, but it declined in the 15th century because of floods and the silting up of the River Witham. Trade revived in the 18th century, with the opening of the Grand Sluice in 1766 and the deepening of the river. In 1882 the docks were constructed, and a straight channel was cut through to The Wash. Boston is now a modern port, trading in timber, fertilisers, fruit, potatoes and steel. It is also a shell-fishing centre, with fishing smacks unloading at quays in the middle of the town.
Boston’s connections with America began in 1607, when the earliest Pilgrim Fathers tried to set sail from Scotia Creek, a short way downstream from the town. Arrested and brought back in open boats, they became a ‘spectacle and a wonder to the multitude’, according to an old account. The cells in which they were imprisoned are on view in the medieval Guildhall, now the Borough Museum, open on weekdays. In 1608 they fled to Holland, and later formed part of the group that sailed from Southampton on board the Mayflower in 1620. Ten years later, in 1630, a further group set sail from Boston, and founded the city of Boston, Massachusetts.
Fydell House, next to the Guildhall, is a superb 18th-century house, and the Maud Foster Windmill is a five-sailed mill named after a wealthy Elizabethan landowner.
There is a market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and an annual fair in May.
A dead-end lane, parallel with the south bank of The Haven, leads to a field path and then to the sea bank, with rich farmland behind and wild marsh stretching to the sea in front. There are good walks along the embankment in both directions, but the actual marshes are best avoided.
GEDNEY DROVE END
North of the A17 between Fosdyke Bridge and Sutton Bridge is a large half-moon of farmland, consisting mainly of reclaimed marsh. Narrow lanes lead through the vegetable fields to the sea embankment, which is well maintained and can be walked along.
The peace of this lonely region is shattered at intervals by RAF aircraft roaring low overhead, as the coast between Fleet Haven and the mouth of the Nene is a bombing range. Red flags are flown when training is in progress.
The embankment along which the main road runs was made in the first half of the 19th century, and the land behind it was drained. Robert Stephenson built the first bridge over the River Nene in 1850; the present swing bridge dates from the late 19th century. Sutton Bridge was a port that never grew, as docks built there in 1881 collapsed only a month after opening, and the scheme was never revived.
Sutton Bridge’s 9-hole golf course is said to be on the site where King John lost his baggage train when this part of the land was still marshland. The king was on his way north after putting his seal to Magna Carta, and took refuge in Swineshead Abbey, 5 miles west of Boston.
TERRINGTON ST CLEMENT
The magnificent church of St Clement’s, sometimes called the ‘Cathedral of the Fens’, dominates the village. It is kept locked, but the key is obtainable at the shop next door and at the vicarage. It was originally planned with a central tower, but because of the Black Death in the 14th century this was never built. The present Perpendicular 15th-century tower is completely detached from the body of the church.
The Georgian age lives on in much of King’s Lynn, in a sequence of elegant facades throughout the old centre of the town. But King’s Lynn, or ‘Lynn’ as it is often called, is far more ancient than the 18th century. Built on the eastern bank of the Great Ouse, it was already a harbour at the time of the Domesday book, when it was known as Lena or Lun. In 1204 King John granted it a charter, and by 1347 it was prosperous enough to contribute 19 ships to the English fleet, at a time when London sent 24. In the Middle Ages it was known as Bishop’s Lynn (Lynn Episcopi); in 1537 the name was changed to King’s Lynn (Lynn Regis) by a charter of Henry VIII.
The parish church of St Margaret’s was originally built about 1100, and is a mixture of building styles, including a Georgian ‘Gothic’ nave built in the 1740s, after a storm brought the old spire crashing down across the medieval nave. The Town Hall, opposite St Margaret’s, was originally the Guildhall of the Holy Trinity, built in 1421. The town’s treasures are displayed in the Regalia Rooms in the medieval undercroft.
St George’s Guildhall, in King Street, was begun in 1406 and is the largest ancient guildhall in England to have survived intact. It belongs to the National Trust and serves as the headquarters of Lynn’s annual summer festival. The theatre in the upper part of the Guildhall carries on an old theatrical tradition, and Shakespeare himself is said to have performed there. Both the Town Hall and Guildhall are built of flint in a striking black-and-white chequer design.
The town has a covered swimming pool, and a yacht club.
Now just a hamlet dominated by the ruins of a Norman fortress, Castle Rising was once a rival to King’s Lynn. It lost its trade, however, when the Babingley River silted up and boats became too large to use the narrow channel that remained.
The castle was built about 1150 by William de Albini, and the lower two stages of his keep survive, decorated with fine and precise carving on the outer walls. It is said to be haunted by the ghost of Queen Isabella, nicknamed the’she-wolf of France’, who was banished to Castle Rising by Edward III for her part in the murder of her husband, Edward II.
The house and grounds of the Queen’s Norfolk home are open on most days from Easter until the end of September, except for the last week in July and the first in August. The grounds provide a glorious setting for the house, built in mock-Jacobean style by Edward VII in 1870 when he was Prince of Wales.
West of the A149 is Sandringham Warren, where great clumps of rhododendrons brush the road, and there are paths and open spaces for walks and picnics. At Wolferton, across the Warren, the Edwardian station where the royal family left the train and climbed into their carriages was purchased by a private owner when the line closed in 1969, and has been turned into a railway museum.
The beach, 2 miles west of Snettisham village, consists largely of chalets and trailer parks, around a series of disused shingle pits. The road ends at a large car park behind the embankment, below which a bank of shingle and sand leads down to a wide expanse of sand at low tide.
The RSPB has a bird sanctuary with four hides on either side of the southernmost shingle pit. Among the many species to be seen there are common terns in summer, and waders and wildfowl in winter.
This large seaside village has two beaches, and good walks in both directions along the sea-wall. It is the centre of Norfolk’s lavender-growing industry, and in midsummer the fields glow with every shade of mauve and purple. Caley Mill, a watermill until 1923, has a lavender distillery which can be visited.