From treasure-finders to turbines: the story of Swaffham

Swaffham town centre and market place, as seen from the town's museum.

Swaffham town centre and market place, as seen from the town's museum. - Credit: IAN BURT

In our latest profile of local towns, their history and attractions, TREVOR HEATON takes a look at Swaffham.

If you're a proper Norfolk boy or gal, then you'll know Swaffham before you ever go there. The reason why begins with the words in which true Norfolkers have greeted each other, following that traditional verbal exchange which begins 'Ha' yar fa'r got a dickey, bor?'

I'll let Jonathan Mardle (Eric Fowler) take up the story of what happens next. As he says in his classic 1973 book Broad Norfolk: 'After that little ceremony is over, it is likely that the compatriots will recite, with an exaggerated Norfolk 'drant' or drawl, the incantation: 'A-a-all the wa-a-y ter Swa-a-ffham, t'ree days troshin', and all for na-athin'.'

I doubt if anyone has ever been to the Norfolk town and had such a bad deal for helping out with the threshing, but that's not the point. As Fowler says, the idea of the sentence is that it's a way of Norfolkers sending up their own dialect.

But it wouldn't work if Swaffham wasn't such a typical Norfolk town. And it is, and in a good way: with a handsome market place, some fine buildings, and a rich history. So for the latest in our occasional series looking at local towns, we look at some of the things which make it special.

Swaffham Market

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Saturday morning is when the town really comes alive. And why? Its wonderful market - a proper local one with fruit and veg, fishmongers, tasty bread, a great cheese van, plants, clothes, and the sort of stalls selling the thingumajigs for the house and shed that you'd forgotten you needed.

Right at its heart is the handsome market cross, completed in 1784 and watching over the town ever since.

And if you want to get a real taste of what proper Norfolk is - accents and people - that has to be the old-fashioned market-place auction. The hundreds of lots could include everything from a tray of plants to an old plough. That wonderful good old Norfolk 'atmosphere' comes free...

Run by Tyrone Roberts until 2007, it was revived by David Gilham in 2010 with his partner Rita Barnett, but they had sadly to give it up recently because of ill-health.

The auction used to include a poultry section, but that has now moved to the Racetrack on the edge of town. It's been run by Fabian Eagle for many years.

Swaffham Museum

The most famous person associated with the town (apart from its famous Pedlar, John Chapman, see below) has to be the Egyptologist Howard Carter, the man who made the most famous archaeological discovery of all time - the fabulous tomb of Tutankhamun. That connection is celebrated in an exhibition at the town's delightful museum, which is set in a handsome, grade II-listed townhouse on the west side of the Market Place. Children will love the Symonds Doll Collection, which features interpretations of characters from famous writers such as Shakespeare.

The Green Britain Centre

Swaffham doesn't just has a fascinating past, it also has its eye very much on the future. You can't fail to miss the two giant wind turbines which dominate the town. The Green Britain Centre (which began life as EcoTech back in the 1990s) alongside the western one of these giants is a must-see for anyone interested in the three big 21st-century issues of energy, transport and food.

The wind turbine at the centre (you'll find it behind Waitrose) was one of the very earliest land-based turbines in the UK and is still the only one in the world which you can climb. There's 300 steps to the viewing platform designed by world-famous architect Lord Foster. It's worth the effort - the views are spectacular.

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Ss Peter and Paul's Church

The town church is tucked away behind the market place. The present church was built from 1454, and the contributors were recorded in the 32-page 'Black Book', which still survives. The book lists the donors to the rebuilding work, including Walter Taylor and his wife Isabel - who contributed to the cost of the magnificent double-hammerbeam roof (one of the best in Norfolk) - and a certain John Chapman and his wife Catherine who helped fund the north aisle and steeple.

The Pedlar of Swaffham

And talking of Mr Chapman, he is better known to history as the famous Pedlar of Swaffham. The story tells of a Swaffham man who had a dream that if we went to London Bridge he would hear some good news. He walked all the way there, accompanied by his dog. While waiting on the bridge he met a shopkeeper who wondered why he was there. When the Norfolk man mentioned his dream, the shopkeeper told him: 'Alas, good friend, had I heeded dreams I might have proved myself as great a fool as thou for not long since I dreamt that at a place called Swaffham Market dwelleth one named Chapman, a pedlar, who had a tree in his garden under which is buried a pot of money.' Chapman, of course, hurried home, found the treasure (and an even greater one buried underneath the first).

...or so the story goes. He is commemorated on the town sign.

The Assembly Rooms

On the north of the market place, the Assembly Rooms has been hosting town events since the late 18th century. It hosts an indoor market which is open every Friday and most Saturdays.