Norfolk to celebrate special relationship with North America

Millions of American families will sit down to Thanksgiving feasts today as they remember and celebrate their forefathers.

But thousands of miles away in Norfolk, people will continue with their working day with barely a thought for their cousins across the Atlantic.

However, a new project hopes to change all that by bringing to life the numerous links between our fine county and the new world.

The Norfolk American Trail aims to be a celebration of Norfolk's rich American and Canadian connections which span 400 years – from religious migrations of the 17th century, the age of revolution and exploration in the 18th century, the industrialisation and trade of the 19th century to the alliances of the 20th century world wars.

Between July 6 and Thanksgiving 2012, a period which will also coincide with the Olympic Games in London, Norfolk County Council, in collaboration with community groups and individuals, will lead a plethora of events and exhibitions, plus a film festival and schools twinning project, as well as produce a website, leaflets and maps.

Towns and villages up and down the county with American connections – from the birthplaces of many early settlers to second world war USAAF bases – will be celebrated while a long list of notable people linking North America and Norfolk such as Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Stewart, Captain George Vancouver, Glenn Miller, Pocahontas, Thomas Paine and Walter Matthau will be explored.

Assistant head of services for the library service Jan Holden said the project, funded with �50,000 of Heritage Lottery money, was primarily a chance to bring communities together through history, while particularly engaging young people.

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'What I want is for more people to know about the long-standing cultural and historical links between Norfolk and North America and how they've shaped communities in Norfolk,' she said.

'I want people to experience what we're putting together in this project. It's about a celebration and letting local people know about the rich links over hundreds of years.

'The first people who went to America were from Norfolk places like Hingham and Norwich, for example. In the 16th century they were being persecuted for their religion and wanted a new life in America, so from then and into the 17th century we have these strong links with religious migration.

'In the 18th century there is lots about the slave trade and in the 20th century all these military bases were established. It's about responding to Norfolk's links.'

The project has been designed to run alongside the Olympic Games and the 70th anniversary of the 'friendly invasion' when the United States 8th Air Force arrived in Norfolk, and the impact this had on the local community and landscape.

Ms Holden said: 'I wouldn't say we're uniquely affected by North America but what we have is this relationship with them and I suppose the embodiment of that is what happened in 1942 when thousands of American service personnel came over and were based in Norfolk.

'More than 7,000 airmen died in missions to Germany from Norfolk and Suffolk during the second world war.

'It changed the face of Norfolk in the second world war and all those air bases are now used for things like turkey farms, and Lotus, for example, is based on an old airfield.

'Building air bases in the second world war has affected our economy, even today.

'With the Olympic Games the ethos is about friendship and respect and those kind of things, and I think that ethos can be seen in our American links.'

These links stem from the 16th and 17th centuries, when religious persecution forced many to America, and towns from King's Lynn to Great Yarmouth, and an abundance in between, can claim a kinship to parts of North America.

Pocahontas, for example, is associated with Heacham following her marriage to John Rolfe of Heacham Hall, while 19th-century heavyweight champion of the world Jem Mace has links with Beeston-next-Mileham, near Dereham.

Author and revolutionary Thomas Paine was born in Thetford and Captain George Vancouver, after whom the Canadian city was named, originated from King's Lynn.

In 1967 the Jimi Hendrix Experience even played in the Wellington Club in Dereham, and there are scores of other links too numerous to mention.

Ms Holden added: 'People from Norfolk, who we don't think go anywhere, have been going across the sea for so long.

'It's about letting people know the history and the geography and the links between families here and in America. Unless we know where we've been, we don't know where we're going.

'We're all made up from all kinds of things that have happened in the past, from where we live and our architecture to links with other countries, so it's really important to know where you come from and that's why so many people are interested in their history and local history. It influences our future.'

James Carswell, cabinet member for cultural services for Norfolk County Council, said he believed the project would appeal to people of all ages and added: 'The events and activities that the team behind the project have come up with are really exciting, but I hope communities and groups will want to get involved and organise more, whatever the size or scale.

'I think Norfolk could have a lot of fun with the American Trail and learn about a part of our local history that many people won't be aware of.'

To get involved in the project or to find out more contact Libby Morgan at the Second Air Division Memorial Library on 01603 774747 or email libby.morgan@norfolk.gov.uk.

rebecca.gough@archant.co.uk

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