Seven wonders of Watton
- Credit: Matthew Usher
Watton hit the headlines with one of the highest coronavirus rates in the country – but there’s plenty to love about the historic town
The only loch in England
Pretty Loch Neaton was once part of a Victorian pleasure garden with rowing boats for hire, concerts in the bandstand, footpaths with views across the waterlily beds and ice-skating in winter. But the lake is not a natural feature of the Norfolk landscape. It was dug by hand in 1875 by Scottish railway workers making an embankment through the hamlet of Neaton for the new line to Swaffham. When the excavations filled with water from the nearby River Wissey, a new lake was born – and named for the Scottish men who had created it. It is thought to be the only loch in England. A group of Victorian businessmen created pleasure gardens here, planting trees and shrubs and setting out footpaths. Tennis courts and a bowling green were added, with races held every Whit Monday and lights hung from the trees on special occasions. Just after the Second World War swimming pools were added. These have since been filled in but the lovely loch, surrounded by trees and with paths and a picnic area, is still a local beauty spot looked after by volunteers.
A bell has hung in the clock tower of Watton High Street for more than 300 years, ready to ring out if fire rages through the town. In 1674 the Great Fire of Watton destroyed more than 60 homes, plus businesses. Five years later the clock tower was built and the warning bell, affectionately named Ting-Tang, was installed. The tower also displays Watton’s coat of arms – a hare (known as a wat in local dialect) and a barrel (or ton.) The ground floor, with its two strong studded doors, was once the town “lock up” or overnight cell.
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Both the RAF and the American Air Force flew bombing raids from Watton during the Second World War. American bombers and reconnaissance planes flew from here into occupied Europe, with raids as far as eastern Germany and Austria. One flight from Watton dropped two spies into Berlin, flying a zig-zag route across Europe in the dark, just above tree-top height, to avoid radar detection. It is one of hundreds of stories of service and sacrifice told on the website rafwatton.info
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The area is now housing and farmland, plus Wayland Prison. Inmates included Jeffrey Archer, who called the second volume of his prison memoirs Wayland: Purgatory.
The dark story of the Babes in the Wood is set in Wayland Wood, just outside the town. First published more than 400 years ago, the ballad of Babes in the Wood tells the tragic tale of two children abandoned in the woods by their wicked uncle, so that he could steal their inheritance. It is said that their plaintive cries, as they lay dying, can still be heard in “Wailing” Wayland Wood.
The woods, now a nature reserve, have even older stories to tell. The name Wayland is also said to come from Waneland, or a Viking place of worship.
A Roman skeleton, discovered buried near Norwich Road, inspired the launch of Museum 4 Watton which includes a full-scale replica of the curled-up skeleton who was nicknamed Hero.
Remember the poor
The ancient parish church has a round tower topped with an octagonal belfry and is the only church in Norfolk that is wider than it is long, thanks to two huge 19th century aisles flanking the 13th century nave. Inside a wooden charity box, carved in the shape of a smiling priest holding a bag of money, is engraved with the words “Remember the Poore 1639” across his chest. It is believed to be a carving of the vicar of the time.