I think that it would be fair to say that Julia and I were looking forward to embarking upon another long-distance walk. It was now over fifteen months since we had completed the Coast-to-Coast, and there was a frisson of excitement as our taxi dropped us off at the railway station in Stoke-on-Trent on a bright autumnal morning.
The fare for our journey had been halved by a bit of imaginative planning, with the aid of one of the station ticket-office staff. On-line, the price quoted for the journey to Thetford, reduced for the holders of a Senior Railcard, was £41.65. However, if we bought tickets for the three separate stages of our itinerary (Stoke to Derby; Derby to Nottingham; Nottingham to Thetford) the fare was £22.40 per person. The fact that ticket-pricing on our rail system harbours such anomalies is nothing short of a disgrace.
We enjoyed good value for money for our £22.40. The journey proceeded without a glitch. We had time at Nottingham to find lunch. We arrived at Thetford’s quaint station by mid-afternoon, and a brief walk down Station Road brought us to The Thomas Paine Hotel. Apparently the celebrated radical political theorist was born within the walls of the hotel.
We spent a happy couple of hours exploring this fascinating little town. Just below our hotel, on White Hart Street, we found the Ancient House Museum. As it was just after four o’clock when we entered the premises, we were allowed to “Pop in for a pound”. The Ancient House looked endearingly warped, but, in fairness, it was over 500 years old. The museum not only filled out the details about Thomas Paine’s life, but enlightened us about the local paper mill and pulp manufacture; a Maharajah who came to live locally during the 19th century having been deprived by the British of his ancestral lands in the Punjab; the expansion that occurred from the 1950s onwards when the town became an overspill development for families moving from London.
Having more than made the most of our popinforapound, we penny-pinching Woodcock’s moved east to the site of the castle remains – you’ve guessed – admission free. Not much remains of the castle but for the magnificent motte – 81 feet high, the highest such earthworks in England. It’s a breathless haul up the 89 steps to the top, but we were passed by a determined young man who was repeatedly going up and down this very steep landmark. He seemed happy to engage in conversation; between gasps he explained that he had committed himself to a fell-running challenge in Snowdonia during an evening of excessive bonhomie. The problem was that East Anglia is by and large bereft of lumpy bits upon which to train. So he had come to Castle Hill; this evening’s task was to ascend/descend six times.
The other site that we wanted to see before the sun went down was Thetford’s Cluniac Priory. The castle is to the east of the town; the priory to the west. But Thetford is a compact little place, and we found a leafy riverside walk to reach the priory, passing statues of the previously mentioned Maharajah Duleep Singh and, incongruously, of Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring! It transpires that location work for Dad’s Army was filmed in Thetford – weird as the comedy was supposedly set in a small Sussex seaside town!
There isn’t a great deal left of the priory, having been dismantled by Henry VIII’s henchmen. But it still holds an eerie beauty, particularly on this evening as the sun was hazily setting. The remains suggest that the priory must have been enormous and imposing. I spotted a sign to the gatehouse, which lies within the grounds of an adjacent private house. I passed through a gate on which was a sign warning me that my only egress was to return through this very gate to the priory site. The gatehouse, unlike the priory, was in good nick, and I spent some time rooting around. I had lost track of time, and on returning to the gate to the priory, I found it locked. The site was supposed to close at 6p.m! I was rescued by Julia; a mobile ‘phone call located me. As wife and janitor approached me, I felt like a schoolboy in lumber. I resisted the temptation to run away; I apologised profusely; the janitor was not one for dishing out admonishment and cheerily saw me off the premises.
We ate at a European restaurant down White Hart Street. “Cheers” was in fact more specifically Portuguese – a lively place with a young vibe amongst staff and customers. The portions were huge! We were hungry and made the mistake of ordering starters – mozzarella with tomatoes, and spicy prawns. The main dishes of salt-preserved cod, and sea bass fillets were very good, but we could not do them justice. The white wine, Stella Blanca, a muscat from the Setúbal peninsula, also warrants a mention in dispatches. So today, we really enjoyed what Thetford had to offer. On the morrow, we knew that we had to walk.