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9 things you didn’t know about East Dereham

PUBLISHED: 11:23 11 June 2018

Dereham Carnival 2017 (photo: Antony Kelly)

Dereham Carnival 2017 (photo: Antony Kelly)

From a forgotten scientist to a reinvigorated carnival, we focus on East Dereham, at the geographical heart of the county

1. It has its own saint and holy well and almost became a spa town

Eighth century princess St Withburga founded a monastery in Dereham. Legends surrounding her are retold on the town sign, and include the deer sent by the Virgin Mary to provide drink for the monastery builders. Withburga was born at Holkham, where the church (the only one in the country dedicated to her) dates back to Saxon times. When she died she was buried in Dereham, but her body was later stolen and taken to Ely. A spring appeared at the site of her empty tomb, which remained a place of pilgrimage.

A thousand years later an attempt was made to turn Dereham into a spa town to rival Bath or Harrogate by building a bath house over St Withburga’s Well. It was described at the time as a hideous building and demolished in 1880. The spring itself still flows.

The town sign in East Dereham centre with St Withburga on the left (photo: Jerry Daws)The town sign in East Dereham centre with St Withburga on the left (photo: Jerry Daws)

2. It is at the heart of Norfolk

Dereham can claim to be at the very centre of Norfolk. The actual spot, identified by people who know these things, is in a Tesco car park.

Despite being in the middle of the county its proper name is East Dereham. The small village of West Dereham lies a full 25 miles away, with a population of around 500, as opposed to approaching 20,000 in its much bigger twin.

The headquarters of the Mid Norfolk Railway is also in (East) Dereham and runs trains to Wymondham, with plans to eventually connect up to Fakenham.

St Withburga Well (photo: Matthew Usher)St Withburga Well (photo: Matthew Usher)

3. Its museum specialises in hobbies, war and more

Beautiful thatched Bishop Bonner’s Cottage is now Dereham’s museum. It is the oldest house in the town, noted for its unusual coloured decoration and is packed with fascinating information about the people of Dereham through the centuries, from room reconstructions to the terrible Le Paradis massacre of the Second World War, when Bill O’Callaghan of Dereham was one of only two men left alive after German soldiers machine-gunned and bayoneted 90 surrendered British soldiers, near Dunkirk, in May 1940. Left for dead, the pair vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice and testified at the subsequent war crimes trial.

This year’s exhibitions are on the history of Hobbies, which was launched in Dereham in 1895 to supply model makers and enthusiasts with kits, tools and guides, and the town’s forgotten scientist, William Wollaston.

The headquarters of the Mid Norfolk Railway is in East Dereham (photo: Ian Burt)The headquarters of the Mid Norfolk Railway is in East Dereham (photo: Ian Burt)

4. Elemental my dear William

William Hyde Wollaston discovered the chemical elements palladium and rhodium (metals in the platinum group and today hugely important in car catalytic converters and also used in electronics, dentistry, medicine, water purification and jewellery-making). Born in Dereham in 1766, one of the rector’s 17 children, he went on to become president of the Royal Society.

Bishop Bonner's Cottage Museum (photo: Matthew Usher)Bishop Bonner's Cottage Museum (photo: Matthew Usher)

5. A Tudor rector was known as Bloody Bonner

Edmund Bonner was twice made Bishop of London, with a spell in prison in between. He went to Rome to argue Henry VIII’s case for divorce from his first wife, but later became notorious as ‘Bloody Bonner’ for prosecuting protestants during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary, and died in prison during the reign of her Protestant sister Queen Elizabeth.

Dereham Carnival 2017 (photo: Antony Kelly)Dereham Carnival 2017 (photo: Antony Kelly)

6. Spooky

The president of the UFO Research Association and presenter of paranormal documentary series Fortean TV was born and brought up in Dereham. The Rev Lionel Fanthorpe worked as a teacher in the town before becoming a priest and is the author of many books about mysteries and the supernatural.

William Cowper, the poet and hymn writer, depicted in the stained glass window at St Nicholas Church, Dereham, where he is buried (photo: Denise Bradley)William Cowper, the poet and hymn writer, depicted in the stained glass window at St Nicholas Church, Dereham, where he is buried (photo: Denise Bradley)

7. First dibs

The 1st Dereham Scout group is one of the oldest in the country, launched 110 years ago in the same year that Robert Baden-Powell founded the world-wide movement.

8. Variety’s the spice of life

A Dereham man coined the phrases: “Variety’s the very spice of life,” “I am monarch of all I survey,” and “God moves in a mysterious way.” William Cowper, who lived in Dereham in the 18th century, was one of the most popular poets of his time and admired by Coleridge and Wordsworth. His hymns and poems gave us phrases we still use today. Cowper also campaigned against slavery and his poems were often quoted by Martin Luther King. He died in 1800 in Dereham, where he is buried in the parish church, and is commemorated with a window in Westminster Abbey.

9. It decorates its Market Place

Dereham Carnival is on Sunday, July 22 this year, with a parade, arena displays, music, food and drink, craft stalls games, a one-mile fun run, and loads of community spirit. The Market Place will be decorated for the day by the knitters, sewers and painters of the town.

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