One of the pleasures of a visit to East Anglia is the many historic towns and villages. I discovered the market town of Thetford in Norfolk by chance, while driving from Norwich to Bury St Edmunds. I was surprised to find so many things to see and do in Thetford, including an ancient priory and the tallest earthwork in England.
An Ancient Market Town
Thetford was once the capital of East Anglia, and home to the Iceni tribe. It was Boudica, queen of the Iceni, who fought the Romans around 60 CE, destroying their settlement of Camulodunum (Colchester).
The town was still an important centre in the Middle Ages. In the Saxon period it had a mint and its own bishop. It continued in significance after the Norman Conquest: the Castle and the Priory date from this time.
Although Thetford eventually gave way to Bury St Edmunds as the regional capital, it remained an important market town.
The earthworks of Thetford Castle go back to the Iron Age. A hillfort was built here around 500 CE: according to legend, this was the work of the Devil. However, it is more likely to have been a defence along the Icknield Way, an ancient track from the coast to the Kingdom of Wessex.
In the 11th century the mound and ditches were extended and a Norman castle was built on the site. Nothing now remains of the castle building but the mound is still there. This is now the highest earthwork in the country. (It is also the second biggest manmade mound – the largest is Silbury Hill at Avebury.)
Despite the lack of buildings, the castle is worth a visit for the park and impressive earthworks. You can climb to the top of the mound for the views – but be warned that it can be very windy up there!
The Benedictine Priory of Our Lady of Thetford was established in 1103. It became one of the largest and wealthiest monasteries in East Anglia. The Virgin Mary was said to have appeared in a vision in the 13th century, and for a while the Priory was a place of pilgrimage.
In common with other religious foundations, the Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540. It became a private residence but was later abandoned.
Today’s visitors can walk around the extensive remains. These include parts of the church and the cloisters, as well at the gatehouse. Entrance to the Priory is free.
A Heritage Trail
The town itself was older than I had expected. Several of the houses are covered in the local Norfolk flint, including a particularly well-preserved row of flint cottages on Castle Street.
I followed a Heritage Trail around the town. This took in the main sights and many of the older buildings. And there were a few historic pubs along the way…
Exploring Close To Thetford
It is easy to drive to Thetford. The town is also well served by rail, with direct services to London, Norwich and other locations.
Close to Thetford you will find Thetford Forest, a massive woodland area with walks and an abundance of plant and bird life. Within the forest is Grimes Graves, a prehistoric flint mine. This is the only such mine that is open to the public. (There is an entrance charge, but it is free to English Heritage members.)
Knettishall Heath, 10 km from Thetford, is the starting place for two long distance footpaths, the Peddar’s Way and the Icknield Way. And a little further afield are Troston, home to one of the Painted Churches of East Anglia, and the historic city of Bury St Edmunds.
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