Dereham: A Norfolk Town

In August 2012, I wrote a post about Beetley Village, the place we moved to that year that gives this blog half of its name. In that post, I hinted that I would write about Dereham, our nearest town. I have now been here long enough to get to know the area a little better. For those of you who might be interested, here is an overview of Dereham, so that you can hopefully picture the place that often crops up on my blog. It is not meant to be all-encompassing, a definitive guide. It is just my view. I must give credit to Wikipedia and the Town Council website for some of the bland facts, and I apologise in advance for any personal opinions about the town, that others may not agree with.

Just over three miles south-east of my home in Beetley, lies the town of East Dereham. It is usually referred to as Dereham, but there is a West Dereham, a small village some thirty miles to the west. Dereham lies almost exactly in the centre of the county of Norfolk, and with a population of less than 20.000, is the fifth largest town in the county. It is an ancient Saxon town, and can trace its history back to around the sixth century. Sadly, most of the earliest buildings were destroyed by fires, so much of the town dates from the nineteenth century, with some notable exceptions. The name of the town comes as you might anticipate, from an association with deer-hunting, and it was historically a place where deer were easily found. This continues today, with a large population of those animals to be found around the area. There has been little industry in Dereham, with the outlying districts being part of Britain’s farming community, something that continues to this day.

With the expansion of the original town, it now incorporates many nearby villages and suburbs within its area of administration, and is part of the much larger district of Breckland. Our own home has a Dereham post-code, showing how the surrounding smaller villages have been amalgamated, and are considered to be a part of the town now. Despite my proximity to Dereham, I rarely go there. My wife travels in every day, as she works in the town’s Market Place. I usually go to the large supermarket on the edge of the town, and my only trips to the centre are normally to visit a restaurant, take Ollie to see the Vet, or to catch a bus to somewhere else.

Approaching the town from the south, you enter the area of Toftwood. This is a very large estate, built either side of the road to Shipdham and beyond. A few shops and food outlets front the road, and further inside the estate is a recreation ground, and some local schools. It began life as an estate of social housing, and was later developed considerably by the addition of more modern houses. There is a Gospel Hall, Methodist Church, and a Social Club, all of which are well-used for various events. I think even the most dedicated resident of the area would forgive me when I say that it is not the most attractive place to visit. Once inside the sprawling estate, you could be anywhere in the UK, and it has little identity. This is something that can be said of many places of course. A few thatched cottages on the main road give some idea of how long people have been living in the area, but there really is no good reason to go there, unless you happen to live there. Continuing into Dereham, you pass the home of the famous Gerlof Herd of beef cattle, and the local Vauxhall car dealer, before the overpass of the A47 trunk road indicates that you have reached the town.

This is the least attractive area in Dereham, as it is the location for such small industry that still exists, as well as new development of two large supermarkets, and two older industrial estates. They offer services such as tyre and exhaust centres, car washing, window and conservatory services, flooring and carpets, and a large dealership in motor caravans. There is also the well-concealed Council Waste Site, and further on, the modern headquarters of Breckland Council. By putting all these outlets in one small area, I believe that they made a good decision, as much of the town is not blighted by this industrial landscape as a result. This is also one of the few places where you might encounter some traffic delays, as it allows access to and from the main trunk road, to Norwich or Kings Lynn. It also shows how near the countryside is. A few minutes of driving will take you to Yaxham Waters Holiday Park, or the peaceful villages of Yaxham and Mattishall. In the blink of an eye, the busy town is but a memory.

Heading into Dereham on London Road, you will find the large sports centre and swimming pool. There is also a popular bowling alley on the same site, and a well-used gym. Opposite this development is the large town park, with open space, a play area, and a skate park. This is the location for travelling fun-fairs, and events like firework displays. As you continue, the road narrows near the Catholic Church, and you begin to see some of the older buildings in the town,  before entering the re-developed High Street, and passing the modern library. Like many rural towns, many of the well-known shops have deserted the centre. This leaves scope for many charity shops, estate agents, and a few quirkier, independent retailers. To the right, there is the shopping development of Wrights Walk, and some car parks that were once home to the livestock market. More small supermarkets, some food outlets and a couple of tea shops can be found, together with a nod to the countryside, in the presence of a gun shop. The High Street is home to all the major banks, more estate agents, and some much older retailers of home goods and shoes, that have been around since before the town was developed. There is an old cinema, updated to provide a few smaller screens within. This cinema was actually built inside the former Corn Exchange, and retains the impressive facade of the original building.

As the road opens out into Market Place, you will mainly be aware of the congestion caused by buses arriving and departing. The once-bustling market is still held on Tuesdays and Fridays, but is now little more than a curiosity. The few stalls that appear sell fresh seafood and fish, meat from the Gerlof herd, some fruit and vegetables, and cut-price clothing. There are also sellers of flowers and plants, and a mobile coffee bar, operated from a tiny Smart car. Despite the reduced size of the market, it still attracts a large following, and many people travel into the town on market days, reluctant to abandon the social aspects of a ‘day out’. The impressive War Memorial marks the end of the street, and some attractive Georgian houses opposite, now all converted into businesses; accountants, estate agents, and an Indian restaurant. On the corner of Swaffham Road is The George Hotel, a popular pub and restaurant that also provides accommodation. Head west here, and you will soon pass Sandy Lane, the road leading to another large estate development. Crossing a small river, you get to New Scarning. This is another more recent development of attractive modern houses, backing onto the busy main road, sadly lacking identity as an area. Further on, the village of Old Scarning shows something of the attractive rural location that once existed there.

Had you turned north instead of west, you would have been heading out of the town on Quebec Road, towards Beetley, and that was covered in my post on Beetley Village. So, we head east instead, past the main town car park behind the Cherry Tree pub, and Hill House Hotel, which always seems to be for sale. This area is rather shoddy-looking. It has a few run-down shops, a closed-down pub, and the well-used veterinary practice. To the left, the road leads up to the cemetery, the large Northgate High School, and the Water Tower, a local landmark. On the right, there is the old railway station. This is now the home of a railway preservation society. They refurbish old trains, and run services to Wymondham in the south. They also have open days, Christmas events, and attract a lot of visitors. This is a very popular attraction in Dereham, and people come from all over to see the old trains, and to ride on them. It also means that we have our share of old-fashioned level crossings, only used on special event days. Opposite the station is Norwich Street. This is one of the nicest old streets in the town. It is home to the recently renovated Memorial Hall, where plays, shows, and musical events offer a diversion for the local people. There are more restaurants, a quality butchers, and the delightful Palmers, an old fashioned department store. (Since writing this, Palmers has now closed down, and the building has an uncertain future) Entering this shop is like going back in time, with a personal service, and a strange array of goods for sale. It also has a popular small cafe/restaurant, and is all crammed into a remarkably small space.

Back over the road, behind the station, you head east towards Norwich. As this road opens, you pass the Fire Station, and Dereham Neatherd High School. Behind this school is Neatherd Moor. This is a large open space of moorland fringed by woods. It is popular with dog-walkers, and families; it stretches for a considerable distance, and with many signed footpaths, is a delightful place to while away a few hours. Down a nearby side road, you can find the Dereham Windmill. After years of neglect, this has been completely restored, and will soon house a visitor centre. It is an attractive old building, of historical and architectural importance. It looks somewhat incongruous now, in the middle of a housing estate, and it could do with better signs and directions. However, it is a welcome feature of the town. The main road continues, fringing the moor. The houses here are substantial, and show that at least some of those living here are considerably well-off. The last thing you will see before the road connects with the A47 again, is Dereham Town Football Club. The modern ground and clubhouse is home to ‘The Magpies’, the successful and well-supported local team. The ground is named Aldiss Park, after a local businessman, and though they only play in the minor leagues, they are one of the better teams in Norfolk. Part of the land around the ground has been sold off, for the development of a huge housing estate of attractive homes, called Etling View.

I should mention some other notable buildings. Bishop Bonner’s Cottage, built in 1502, still stands. This unusual small building is used as the town museum, though it opens only occasionally. Nearby is the Norman church of St Nicholas. In the grounds of this church is an ancient spring, and the church was said to once contain the body of St Withburga in Saxon times. The story is that the remains were stolen by monks from Ely. However, this is almost certainly a legend, devised to promote tourism and interest in the town.

There you have it. A market town in Norfolk. No doubt I will have missed something that others consider important. I might perhaps have given offence to some residents, though this was never my intention. It is just a snapshot of life in a semi-rural community, in modern Britain. I hope that it has generated some interest, and given you more information about the area where I live.

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11 thoughts on “Dereham: A Norfolk Town

  1. Hello. Just found this site – very interesting. We are thinking of moving to North Norfolk and are currently looking at Dereham and surrounding area. There appear to be lots of little places dotted around Dereham and we were wondering what your views are on these? We notice that you mention Holt but it’s too expensive, where else would you look? Any advice would be welcome! We are from Manchester and want a more rural / seaside / coastal lifestyle. We both do not work. Thanks.

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    1. Hi Gary. The North Norfolk coast is very expensive. Holt, Burnham Market, Weybourne, and many other towns and villages in that area, are known as ‘London on Sea’, and full of well-off second home owners. If you give me a few ideas, I will be very happy to help your considerations.
      1) Rough budget?
      2) Car ownership? (Important, as public transport is erratic)
      3) Do you have to be walking distance to a shop, or pub? (We are not…)
      4) How far do you consider it to be worth a drive to the coast? (We are 25-35 minutes to the nearest seaside.)
      Email me at petejohnson50@yahoo.com, and I will be more than pleased to help you.
      We moved here from London in 2012, and we have had a few wake-up calls about public transport, shops, restaurants, and pubs. You need to be able (and willing) to drive, in most areas outside of towns. Train stations are also few and far between, a consideration if you expect visitors. I will have lots of suggestions, so feel free to contact me.
      Regards, Pete.

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  2. Coming from New Zealand, the history behind the cities and towns in in the United Kingdom is so amazing. And a pub called Cherry Tree Pub? If I walked past a pub with a name like that I’d have to go in for a drink, of the pink variety. Thank you for liking my blog and your feedback, much appreciated. : )

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    1. Thanks for the comment. The Cherry Tree pub is not quite so attractive as it sounds. But you might enjoy a drink there, if you don’t mind it being in the town car park! Other parts of the town have a lot of history, but once out into the countryside, you are soon transported back to Anglo-Saxon times.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  3. This was a very well written description of Dereham. Check out Wikipedia for a nice photo of High Street. (I happened to notice that High Street looks nothing like Las Vegas Boulevard! That might be a good thing. High Street is authentic, and it looks welcoming.)

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  4. So far I’ve only been passing by Dereham, but you have described your next town so vividly I have the feeling I have been out there with you. Great reading, again Pete.
    Happy Easter holidays to the three of you!
    Love from the four of us, Dina xo

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    1. Probably best to keep passing by Dina… You have Holt nearby, a better prospect I think. I am pleased to have described it for you though, and wish you all a Happy Easter, from us in Beetley. X

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  5. A very comprehensive account of Dereham, Pete. Don’t think I’ll be rushing there, although the old trains sound interesting – are they steam? Is there anywhere in Norfolk that does have a good market?

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    1. They do have steam trains occasionally but most are just old diesels. Not really my thing anyway.
      There is a large permanent market in the centre of Norwich, but not much fresh stuff in it. I have yet to discover the ‘good’ markets, though Bury St Edmunds is always lauded. That’s in Suffolk though!
      You can see why I don’t spend a great deal of time in Dereham, but it is OK really, and very popular with local people.
      Regards as always, Pete. x

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