King’s Lynn – still a town with potential

It’s easy to think of King’s Lynn simply as a port that has lost much of its trade, and may lose more after Brexit – but it has a wealth of medieval and Georgian architecture and some interesting cultural offerings too. Unlike, say, Boston in Lincolnshire, it seems to have been enhanced by migration from Eastern Europe, with Polish and Lithuanian shops that are not just places for the homesick to buy sausages and pickles, but offer new and interesting products – there’s a really good butchers, apparently, and a bar. The splendid Majestic Cinema, built in 1928, was saved from demolition in 2001 by being listed (after a dogged campaign) and continues to offer interesting films, and the King’s Lynn Festival is excellent and well supported. All in all, the town has some rough edges but plenty of heart.

Its name comes from the Celtic word linn, meaning pool (as in Dublin or black pool), and North, South and West Lena were all salt-making settlements where sand was separated from brine and used to reclaim land, creating three islands between the four fleets or streams running west into what is now the Ouse (until around 1220 this flowed into the Wash just to the west near Wisbech).

In 1101 the first (Norman) Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, laid out a town with a church and priory, and a market held on Saturdays beside it. By 1146 this site was already too constrained, and the third Bishop of Norwich, William de Turbe, extended it to the north beyond the Purfleet, with a new church (technically a chapel) and a huge square for markets on Tuesdays. Bishop’s Lynn was granted a charter by King John in 1204, when it was the fourth biggest port in England; in October 1216 John set out from here and famously lost his baggage train in the Wash, struggling onwards to die in Newark. From around 1270 the port had strong links with the Hanseatic League ports and in particular with Hamburg and Bremen, which led to a trade boom; in the fourteenth century this was England’s main port. (There’s still a Hanse Bulk Terminal in the port, and in 2006 Lynn became the first British member of the new Hanse Network, which now includes 190 cities in 16 countries; appropriately the community organisation, founded in 2013, that works to integrate Eastern Europeans here is called the Hanseatic Union.)

The Trinity Guildhall

By the 1280s the market by the original St Margaret’s church was being held every day except Tuesdays, and the town was extended to the south to the River Nar, beyond what is now the park known as The Walks. As well as two marketplaces, the town also had two guildhalls, and all of them have survived to this day. On the Saturday Market Place, the Trinity Guildhall was built in 1421 and is the largest surviving medieval guildhall in England; its chequered stone and flint flushwork front is very striking, and behind are the assembly rooms, added in 1766. It became the town hall, and now houses the Stories of Lynn museum and café, which allows access on Tuesdays and Sundays to the town hall, where you can see the town’s charters and regalia (notably a fourteenth-century cup of enamelled silver and a sword) as well as ceremonial silver that testifies to the town’s seventeenth-century royalist bias, almost unique among East Anglian towns. The other guildhall, to the north, contains a rare example of an Elizabethan theatre (Shakespeare’s company played here, although there’s no proof that Will himself was in town); owned by the National Trust, it’s now the King’s Lynn Arts Centre. The town actually became Lynn Regis in 1537 when Henry VIII changed its name, as part of his undermining of the Church, and this was soon anglicised as King’s Lynn (the apostrophe can go astray).

Vancouver and the Custom House

The town’s most striking building is the Custom House, built by the Purfleet in 1683, and now housing the tourist information centre. Beside it is a statue of Lynn’s most famous son, Captain George Vancouver (1757-98), who sailed on Cook’s second and third voyages and led his own expedition in 1791-5, most notably surveying every inlet of the Pacific North West coast, including the island and the future city that now bear his name (see these posts), and north past the Lynn Canal as far as what is now Anchorage in Alaska. His father was Deputy Collector of Customs, but the family had arrived from Coevorden (then spelled Coeverden – hence Van Coeverden) in the eastern Netherlands in the late 17th century, following Cornelius Vermuyden, the great Dutch engineer who drained the Fens and straightened their rivers.

Georgian houses stand on land reclaimed from the river (Nelson, King and Queen Streets mark the original waterfront), and some grand Victorian buildings were added, notably the neoclassical Corn Exchange (1854) on Tuesday Market Place. The drainage of the fens led to the growth of agriculture in the area, but Lynn was losing its importance as a port as trade shifted to the west coast, for access to the Atlantic. Modern development began with a Campbells Soup factory in the 1950s, followed by designation as a London overflow in 1962 and predictably unfortunate town centre redevelopment. Trade with the EU picked up in the 1970s, but in the 21st century the best hopes for regeneration seem to be pinned largely on developments by Sainsbury and Tesco.

Some old buildings

St Margaret’s church (which became King’s Lynn Minster in 2011) is superb, but it’s not the town’s oldest building – this title goes to All Saints church, which may have some pre-Norman components, although it was rebuilt in the fifteenth century. The oldest secular buildings are 28-32 King St, where a timber-framed house was built c1300 over the remains of a stone house dating from c1200; the next oldest are the remains of St Margaret’s Priory, built in the fourteenth century and now private houses on the south side of the church. But for me, the town’s most striking building is the Chapel of St Nicholas, bigger than most churches, which was built in 1146 and rebuilt after 1380 in Perpendicular style with huge windows (their stained glass was destroyed in 1941, so the chapel is now very light). It’s known for the memorial slabs (near the font) to a couple of local men called Robinson Cruso, which may have been seen by Daniel Defoe. It became redundant in 1989, but is beautifully maintained and open five days a week.

28-32 King Street

Opposite the Minster is the vicarage, which was home to the organist and historian of English music Dr Charles Burney – his children included the novelist Fanny (born here in 1752), who wrote in her diaries about Lynn life, and James, who also sailed with Captain Cook (and witnessed his death) and became an admiral. Just south is a fine Georgian mansion known as St Margaret’s House, fashioned in 1755 for the brewer and mayor Edward Everard from the rear of the Hanse House; dating from 1475, this is the only surviving hanseatic warehouse building in England, and now houses the Rathskeller restaurant. Just north on the waterfront is Marriott’s Warehouse, built around 1580, which also houses an attractive restaurant, as well as the Green Quay Wash Interpretation Centre, explaining the geography and biology of the estuary/bay between Norfolk and Lincolnshire.

Hanse House
A couple of museums

Just north of the Chapel of St Nicholas (the patron saint of sailors, of course) is True’s Yard, a lovely little museum created out of a couple of fishermen’s cottages, which maintains the memory of the tight little North End community, where almost everyone was known by a nickname; Ralph Vaughan-Williams came here in 1905 and collected various folk songs, the best-known being The Captain’s Apprentice.
The main Lynn Museum is housed in the old Union Chapel next to the bus station; the main hall is full of good local history, but its main claim to fame is the recreation of one half of the so-called Seahenge (obviously it was on dry land when it was erected). Fifteen to 20 oak trees were felled in 2049 BC, yielding 55 oak posts up to 3m high which were raised in a 6.6m-diameter circle around an inverted stump, on which the body of some important figure may have been placed for what the Tibetans call ‘sky burial’.

And the public transport bit

It was a bit of a surprise that the railway north from Cambridge and Ely not only survived the Beeching cuts but was electrified in 1993 – but this was at the cost of reducing some of the line to single track, and providing a strong enough power supply (and long enough platforms) only for four-carriage trains. In our hypermobile present age people are popping up to London all the time and commuting to Cambridge and beyond, so the aim is to double the train service to Kings Cross to two per hour – but this depends on re-doubling the line through Ely North Junction, and the money isn’t currently there. Being Britain, where all rail projects are far more complex and expensive than on the continent, the government has simply commissioned another study.

And finally, North Norfolk

It’s not far (a couple of hours by bike, an hour and 20 minutes by the twice-hourly Coasthopper bus) to Burnham Market, centre of a group of villages on the North Norfolk coast that are all associated with the childhood of Admiral Lord Nelson, and all have pubs named after him (the Nelson, the Hero) or one of his protegés, such as William Hoste. Burnham Market has become known as Chelsea-on-Sea (though it’s not actually on the coast) and is totally clogged with visiting 4X4s in summer; the other Burnhams (Thorpe, Overy etc) are as lovely but don’t have the Humble Pie deli, the Tuscan Farm Shop, Gun Hill Clothing Co. or Gurney’s fish shop. Fortunately, a new 186-space village car park was opened in 2016, which should help. At the attractive little (largely 14th-century) church of St Mary the Virgin I found that Nelson’s daughter Horatia, who lived here with her widowed uncle, was engaged to one curate but ended up marrying his replacement in this church in 1822 – so Jane Austen wasn’t making this stuff up!

Burnham Overy Staithe

The coastal wetlands are very popular with birdwatchers and others who like bracing walks to welcoming pubs, but this area always reminds me of one of my favourite films, Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the equally fab original novel, studied creative writing at UEA in Norwich, and it’s to Cromer that they go on a day trip (though it’s Clevedon pier in the film). At the end the doomed lovers go to a stranded boat, which is on Holkham beach, rather more famous for the closing scene of Shakespeare in Love.

The Vale of Clwyd – Denbigh and around

If Wrexham is post-industrial and a bit run-down, the Vale of Clwyd, not far to the west, is redolent of old money and older history. I also find it very beautiful – there’s just something about the line of the Clwydian Hills looking down to the east, even though they’re not particularly high or dramatic. This area was disputed by the Welsh and English in medieval times, but as soon as Wales was properly united with England in 1536 the leading citizens of Ruthin and Denbigh took advantage of new opportunities and became wealthy merchants, MPs and even Mayor of London. They built fine houses and enhanced existing churches by building a second nave alongside the original one, something that is a local speciality (although hardly unique – there are more around Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, and in Cornwall, for instance). Denbighshire now puts out some wonderfully detailed tourist info, full of nuggets that thrill history geeks like me. In particular, the churches of Denbigh tell an interesting story – the town’s first church (and still its official parish church) was St Marcella’s, in the country to the east of town (see below), then in the thirteenth century St Hilary’s was built just outside the castle. In 1578 Queen Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, began building a new Puritan church that was abandoned after his death in 1588 and is still known as Leicester’s Folly. St Hilary’s fell out of use after the large Victorian church of St Mary’s was built in 1874 and was demolished in 1923, apart from the tower which you can still see. There’s also the usual astonishing number of Nonconformist chapels.

The church of St Marcella in Llanfarchell (aka Whitchurch), a mile or so east of Denbigh (open daily 9am-4pm), is a fine example, with a magnificent 15th-century hammerbeam roof over both naves, and houses memorials to many of them, most notably John Salusbury (died 1578) and his wife Dame Joan (née Myddelton – see below), their recumbent effigies lying on an alabaster table-top monument in the south chancel. In the north chancel the memorial to Humphrey Llwyd (1527-68) sits between those to Robert Salusbury (died 1774) and a brass commemorating Richard Myddelton (c.1508-75 – see below). There’s also a sign outside to the tomb of the Welsh poet Twm o’r Nant (Thomas Edwards), who died in 1810.

Humphrey Llwyd was an alderman then MP for Denbigh, in 1563 steering through the House of Commons the bill to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Welsh (which turned out to be crucial to the survival of the Welsh language), and produced a map of Wales which was published by Ortelius in his groundbreaking world atlas of 1573. The Salusbury/Salesbury family was the most powerful in Denbigh, and William Salesbury (c.1520-c.1584) was a humanist scholar who supported Llwyd and Richard Davies (c.1505-81) and William Morgan (1545-1604), both Bishops of St Asaph, in their efforts to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – Morgan did much of the work in 1578-87 when he was vicar of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, southwest of Llangollen. Another supporter was Gabriel Goodman (1528-1601) from Ruthin, who became Dean of Westminster and helped manage the printing of the Bible in London – the buildings he funded in Ruthin are mentioned in the Rough Guide.

Richard Myddelton was MP for Denbigh and governor of Denbigh Castle; his son Sir Thomas made a lot of money in London, becoming Lord Mayor in 1613, while his younger brother Sir Hugh (1560-1631) was a business partner of Sir Walter Raleigh in his explorations of the New World, and promoter-engineer of the New River, which brought water from Hertfordshire to the booming (and unhealthy) city of London. Sir Thomas bought Chirk Castle (well covered in the Rough Guide), and financed Y Beibl Bach (the Little Bible), the first easily affordable Welsh bible (1630), and his son Sir Thomas Myddelton II became a parliamentarian general, besieging Holt Castle among other exploits.

The church of Llanrhaeadr (strictly speaking Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch), midway between Ruthin and Denbigh, is in the Rough Guide because of its wonderful 16th-century Jesse Window, perhaps the finest stained glass in Wales. However there are many other fascinating little churches in the Ruthin area, such as Llanrhydd, a mile east of Ruthin, which houses an early sixteenth-century rood screen, a seventeenth-century altar table and a Georgian choir gallery; Efenechtyd, two miles southwest of Ruthin, a tiny church with an unusual carved-oak font and a fourteenth-century East window; Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, two miles south of Ruthin, with fine medieval glass and part of a rood screen; Llanelidan, five miles south of Ruthin, with a Jacobean pulpit and box pews, and fine memorials; and Llanynys, three miles north of Ruthin, with a Tudor porch and Tudor panels from the house of Colonel William Salesbury, an altar dating from 1637, and a great fifteenth-century wall painting of St Christopher facing the door.

They seem to like grand monuments in Denbigh – the most obvious is the Dr Evan Pierce Memorial Garden, really just a setting for the 72-ft-high column that Pierce (1808-95) set up on Vale St in 1872 so he could see a statue of himself from his front door. In 1832, the year he qualified as a doctor, he helped bring a cholera outbreak in Denbigh under control, then went on to become a JP, alderman and mayor (1866-70).  Not satisfied with the column, in 1890 he built a memorial hall on Station Rd, now the town’s theatre. Fantastic as he was, there’s no space for him in the Rough Guide, alas.

I’d also like to explore the whole western part of Denbighshire and say at least something about it in the Rough Guide – it’s a remote and empty area, the precursor to the mountains of Snowdonia, and there are some interesting trails around the artificial lake of Llyn Brenig. This area was a sacred space to the people of the Bronze Age and there are cairn fields and burial mounds dotted (but not randomly) around the landscape. There’s a visitor centre and café (open daily) by the dam on the B4501 road.

Denbigh also has a small museum, open only on Mondays and Thursdays from 1.30 to 4pm (or by appointment on 01745 814323 or gwynethk@hotmail.com), but it has plenty of keen volunteers and if it gets its Lottery Heritage Foundation grant it will be able to create modern displays and open normal hours – the best of luck to them!

Corwen, to the west of Llangollen, has recently opened a museum (daily except Tues and Thurs 10.30am-3.30pm; donations welcomed) and it’s quite impressive (I will try to squeeze it in to the new Rough Guide). There’s good coverage of Owain Glyndwr’s revolt (which started here), farming and droving (moving herds of livestock to the English markets) and transport – the town more or less came into being when Thomas Telford built what is now the A5, a new highway to carry the Irish mails to Holyhead. Soon afterwards, the railways arrived and Corwen became the busiest junction in North Wales. The railway closed a century later in 1965 (although it was effectively abandoned after flooding at the end of 1964) and Corwen fell asleep; now it is being revitalised by the recent extension of the Llangollen Railway (a mostly steam-hauled heritage railway), along the Dee from Llangollen, to the east.

Northeast Wales – Wrexham and around

Hull. Wrexham. I go to the most glamorous and exotic parts of Britain. On the surface, Wrexham is a  rather run-down post-industrial town where far too many people smoke, women have the longest false eyelashes I’ve ever seen, boy racers cruise in souped-up Ford Escorts, and there’s no visible recycling. No surprise then that Britain’s newest super-prison opened there (on the Industrial Estate!) in March 2017.

But, just like Hull (Britain’s City of Culture 2017), it turns out to have hidden depths. Wrexham County Borough (which covers a surprisingly wide area) also has a remarkably frequent and affordable bus system and a reasonably useful cycle network, including some routes on former railway lines out into the surrounding villages. In fact many of these so-called villages seem more like self-contained towns, built around coal mines or steelworks that have now vanished – there’s a lot of industrial heritage here, and strong local pride in it. Some is described in the Rough Guide to Wales (which I’m updating part of) but not all, for instance King’s Mill, at the eastern end of the Clywedog Valley Trail.

It’s virtually impossible to add anything new to the Rough Guide due to space constraints, but I had to take a look at Wrexham Cemetery (on the Ruabon Road), because a friend helped arrange a Lottery Heritage Fund grant to start restoring it – it’s a fine example of a Victorian garden cemetery, with lawns and trees rather than serried ranks of tombstones. The chapel, designed by a former mayor of Wrexham, William Turner, and the cemetery gates are listed as Grade II.

My friends actually live in England, in Farndon, just across the Dee from the village of Holt which, partly because it’s right on the edge of Wales, tends not to feature in guidebooks. However its castle, built between 1283 and 1311 on an unusual pentagonal plan, was once very important. Guarding a bridge built c.1340 and still in use, the castle was captured by the Parliamentarians in 1647, after an eleven-month siege, and largely demolished. Much of its stone was in fact taken in the 1670s to build Eaton Hall, the seat of the Dukes of Westminster, just to the north. Just recently excavations have taken place and new information signs have been erected – it’s a lovely riverside site, but there’s not a great deal to see beyond a few grassy mounds. There’s even less to see of the Roman tile works of Bovium, just north of Holt, which was busiest between AD 87 and 135 when it supplied roofing tiles by barge to the legionary fort under construction at Deva (now Chester).

Between the castle and the bridge, St Chad’s church is very fine and usually open to visitors. Rebuilt after 1287 and again around 1500, its nave arcades are in Decorated style with the rest in Perpendicular style. It’s pockmarked both inside and outside the main door by holes left by the musket-balls of the Royalist forces cornered in the church and the Roundheads who were besieging them. There’s a fine late 15th-century font bearing the arms of Richard III, donated by Sir William Stanley, who betrayed Richard by switching sides at the battle of Bosworth, and was then executed after backing a plot against Henry VII in 1495. (The castle then reverted to the crown, and the detailed inventory of its content provides invaluable historical information.)

There’s also a deli in the centre of Holt that was once a florist’s shop run by Paul Burrell, formerly butler to Diana, Princess of Wales – he’s now across the bridge in Farndon, and apparently it’s a pretty good flower shop if you like that kind of thing. HG Wells taught at Holt Academy until he had an accident playing football that persuaded him that writing novels was a safer option.

In Wrexham, the main conventional sight is St Giles’ church, with cast iron gates and screen (1719) in front by the Davies brothers of Bersham (they also created gate-screens for Ruthin church and Chirk Castle). Another friend (from Gresford, four miles north) always reminds me of the little jingle about ‘The Seven Wonders of Wales’, which is really a set of minor sights in northern Wales – ‘Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple, Snowdon’s mountain without its people, Overton yew trees, St Winefride Wells, Llangollen bridge and Gresford bells’. Well ok, Snowdon is not a minor sight, but Wrexham steeple, 135 feet high, is just a local landmark, and it is a tower, not a steeple (ie there’s no pointy bit on top). Begun in 1506, it’s richly decorated with fine medieval carvings. Gresford’s light and airy church, mostly rebuilt in the late 15th century, boasts a peal of eight bells (two added in 1623), as well as a Perpendicular font, stained glass from c1500, and some fine monuments.

Another nine miles north from Gresford (actually just west of Chester), Hawarden is famous mainly as the home of William Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s less-favourite prime minister. However far more dramatic and significant events occurred here on Palm Sunday eve of 1282 when Dafydd ap Gruffudd seized Hawarden’s Norman castle and captured its lord in his bed – Dafydd was an ally of the English against his brother Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales (having betrayed him three times), and had been made Lord of Denbigh, Ruthin and Hope (the ruins of the castle he built at Hope or Caergwrle can be reached by a path from Caergwrle, on the Wrexham-Bidston railway). However his revolt in 1282 provoked Edward I’s decisive campaign to conquer Wales, and Dafydd was captured in 1283 and disembowelled and quartered in Shrewsbury. The castle ruins are in the park of Gladstone’s former home and can be visited on foot via an archway in the centre of the village. Hawarden church was burnt down in 1857 and rebuilt by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott; there’s an Arts & Crafts memorial to Gladstone in a later chapel by Sir William Richmond, and a nativity window by Burne-Jones.

Northeast Wales is one of the rare corners of the country that’s more interested in soccer than in rugby – Michael Owen and Gary Speed both grew up in Hawarden. However for me the most interesting find here (although there’s no space for it in the Rough Guide) was Gladstone’s Library, a small mansion that was bequeathed by Gladstone to the village of Hawarden and is now Britain’s only residential library, and the only British equivalent to the Presidential Libraries found in the United States. There’s perfectly decent accommodation and food here, where you’ll meet scholars of nineteenth-century literature and history, as well as some religious types interested in Gladstone’s brand of Evangelical Anglicanism; they run an interesting range of talks and courses, including Gladfest (‘Britain’s friendliest literary festival’), and it’s also the venue for singer Cerys Matthews’s Good Life Experience in September – not your usual music festival, but an opportunity to connect and to relish the good simple things in life.