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9 facts you didn’t know about Thetford

PUBLISHED: 13:00 17 July 2018 | UPDATED: 13:00 17 July 2018

The Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life (photo: Ian Burt)

The Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life (photo: Ian Burt)

Its councillors meet in a former royal palace, even the remains of its long-gone castle are awesome and it has been the fastest growing community in the land

1. Fastest, largest, oldest, biggest, highest – if you are looking for superlatives then Thetford is the town for you

The enormous hill, once topped by a Norman castle is the second highest man-made mound in the country, surrounded by what have been called the largest medieval earthworks in the country.

Centuries later Thetford became the fastest growing town in the country. In 1950 its population was around 5,000, by 1960 that had more than trebled to 17,000 as Thetford became an overspill town for London and today’s population is more than 27,000. Just outside is the largest lowland forest in the country, planted in the 1920s for timber. Today Thetford Forest is important for leisure and wildlife as well as forestry. The long distance footpaths Peddars Way and Angles Way begin (or end) here, there are challenging mountain-bike routes and even husky dog racing – plus a history stretching back to the 5,000 year-old flint mines at Grimes Graves and including the poignant deserted villages surrounded by vast tracts of land requisitioned during the Second World War.

2. Thetford has its own unique papier-mache

Pulpware was made in the town from 1879 to the 1950s. Early adopters of recycling, Thetford pulpware turned waste paper, including secret wartime documents and jute sacking, into trays, bowls, helmets and even baby baths. It was based at Bishop’s Mill, now a home, but with a milling history at the site stretching back more than 1,000 years.

The impressive statue of Duleep Singh situated on Thetford's Button Island (photo: Denise Bradley)The impressive statue of Duleep Singh situated on Thetford's Button Island (photo: Denise Bradley)

3. A Thetford man who was the last ruler of the Sikh empire will be honoured at a festival from July 7-21

The Festival of Thetford and the Punjab will mark the 125th anniversary of the death of Maharajah Duleep Singh, and merge with the annual River Festival on July 21 for activities along the river and a procession including both Bhangra and Morris dancers.

The last maharajah was just five years old when he inherited the throne of the Punjab empire across modern-day Pakistan, India and Tibet. Deposed by the British and separated from his mother, he was exiled to England where he was befriended by Queen Victoria. He eventually bought the Elveden estate, near Thetford, and lived the life of an English aristocrat, but regretted his childhood conversion to Christianity and tried to reclaim his kingdom.

A generous benefactor to Thetford, a life-size bronze statue of the maharajah on horseback stands on Thetford’s Button Island. His eight children included Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, a suffragette, and the extraordinary story of the family is explored at a special event at Thetford’s Ancient House Museum on July 7.

The Queen Mary (photo: Sonya Duncan)The Queen Mary (photo: Sonya Duncan)

4. Three museums

The Charles Burrell Museum, in the former Charles Burrell factory, is dedicated to steam power and transport. The factory once employed hundreds of people making traction engines which were sold around the world.

The Dad’s Army Museum, in the old fire station on Cage Lane, celebrates the legendary TV show which was filmed in and around Thetford while the cast stayed at The Bell. On Saturday, July 28, it will be holding a special event to mark the 50th anniversary of the comedy.

The Ancient House Museum on White Hart Street was once a Tudor home and was given to the town by the last maharajah’s son, Prince Frederick Duleep Singh. Displays include replicas of the Thetford treasure and exhibitions about flint knapping, Thomas Paine and the Maharajah Duleep Singh.

Madness (photo: Summer House Sounds Cuffe & Taylor)Madness (photo: Summer House Sounds Cuffe & Taylor)

5. Stately house of fun

It’s not unusual to have huge outdoor concerts at stately homes – and this month Tom Jones will play at Euston Hall, near Thetford, on Friday July 6. Then Madness will be turning the stage into a house of fun the following night. The three evenings of music begin on July 5 with classical crossover group Il Divo in concert with Michael Ball.

Thetford Warren Lodge in Thetford Forest (photo: Sonya Duncan)Thetford Warren Lodge in Thetford Forest (photo: Sonya Duncan)

6. Rabbits were farmed for food and fur in medieval Thetford

Thetford Warren Lodge was built in the 1400s and is now looked after by English Heritage. Over the centuries it has collected ghost stories – including one about a huge white rabbit with flaming eyes which you really don’t want to encounter as it is not only terrifying, but also an omen of death.

The gold buckle in two parts with a Satyr in relief and horses heads from the Thetford Treasure on loan to the town's Ancient House Museum (photo: Denise Bradley)The gold buckle in two parts with a Satyr in relief and horses heads from the Thetford Treasure on loan to the town's Ancient House Museum (photo: Denise Bradley)

7. It has its own treasure hoard

Ancient treasure, including golden rings, bracelets and necklaces, plus highly decorated silver spoons, was unearthed at Gallows Hill, Thetford, in 1979. It is one of the most important Romano-British hoards ever found and is on display at the British Museum in London.

8. The national charity, The British Trust for Ornithology, is based in Thetford

The charity’s headquarters are in a former medieval nunnery beside its nature reserve along the Little Ouse river. From here it co-ordinates research and citizen science across the country involving more than 40,000 volunteers plus professional scientists investigating bird numbers, migration, conservation, nesting, breeding and more. bto.org

Thomas Paine (photo: Sonya Duncan)Thomas Paine (photo: Sonya Duncan)

9. One of the founding fathers of the United States began his working life making ladies’ underwear in Thetford

Thomas Paine was born in Thetford in 1737 but swapped corsets for causes and emigrated to America where he wrote hugely influential pamphlets advocating revolution. He later travelled to France to become part of the French Revolution (only escaping the guillotine by chance.) A philosopher and writer, he argued for republicanism, democracy, progressive taxation and a minimum wage, and against organised religion, and also found time to design bridges and help develop steam engines.

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