Your Town: Dereham - There's a lot of spirit to shout about in this community
PUBLISHED: 06:36 08 March 2019 | UPDATED: 08:31 13 March 2019
As part of the Your Town series, we are casting a close eye on life in some of our biggest towns. Reporter Donna-Louise Bishop takes a look at the very heart of Norfolk: Dereham.
In the centre of Nelson’s county, the pre-Saxon town of Dereham is nestled.
With a unique and compelling history, its origins date back to as far as the Neolithic period after a polished greenstone axe head was found near the town in 1986 - followed by other tools during the same decade.
But its foundations are most associated with Saint Withburga, who was believed to be the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia.
She founded a monastery in Dereham during the eighth century, and legend says that the Virgin Mary sent a pair of female deer to provide milk for her workers during its construction, at a time of famine. When a huntsman tried to kill the deer, he was said to have been overtaken by divine retribution, thrown from his horse and killed.
This hunt is today depicted on the town sign, across the junction between High Street and Church Street.
And it is from those early days of the town’s beginnings, that one thing has remained - a strong sense of community spirit.
One group helping to promote the good work and considerable efforts being made to improve the town is the organisation, aboutDereham .
The group runs a website to show people what is happening in Dereham via an events page.
A spokesperson said: “It is a really nice, compact town. Very convenient for the coast and other highly attractive spots, most services are within easy reach, and it has a number of key attractions.
“We are lucky to have nearly a hundred small clubs and societies offering everything from cricket to canoeing, photography to local history.
“It is through the work of the hundreds of volunteers running such groups that everyone can find a meaningful activity or a hobby and everyone can feel that they belong.”
In a recent survey carried out by this paper, readers listed Neatherd Moor at their favourite thing about Dereham, followed by the walks and the town centre. Other favourites included the free parking, the general feeling within the town and its community spirit.
Most of the people who took part in the survey also said they were excited for this year’s Peace Day commemorations , the Blues Festival , and next year’s Dereham Carnival - with at least one third of people who answered the questionnaire saying they would be attending the event.
At the other end of the spectrum, residents shared concerns over traffic (48.8pc said they were “very concerned”), litter, and anti-social behaviour in the town centre during the evenings. Nearly a third (28.7pc) of residents were also “very concerned” about housing facilities in the town but the biggest concern was the lack of diversity of shops and empty units, with 46pc of readers claiming it was a major issue.
Councillor Alison Webb, Breckland Council member for Neatherd Ward, said; “Dereham is a growing, vibrant market town which has a bright future but we need to ensure the necessary infrastructure is put into place to allow sustainable development to occur.”
“Maintaining a thriving high street is key and so local businesses are receiving support through a number of Breckland council initiatives.
“Dereham is a wonderful town and the place I call home. It is a town that always shows its kind heart and community spirit.”
Harry Clarke, who is both a town and district councillor, listed being in the heart of Norfolk as one of the main positives for Dereham.
He also said housing in Dereham was less expensive than Norfolk’s coast, while still being close enough to drive there.
“We also have lots of goodwill and civic involvement, for example the Dereham Carnival Committee and Dereham Theatre Company,” he added.
However, he did flag up issues which he claimed needed to be addressed - including concerns over Dereham’s “prime location”.
“Our strength - our accessibility - has also become a weakness.
“Dereham isn’t really identified as a growth area like Attleborough or Thetford, and is seen by the planners as a dormitory town, but it is a hub for many villages.”
· You can visit the aboutDereham website at aboutdereham.org.
A vision of Dereham’s future
Dereham Town Council is currently drawing up a Vision for Dereham to define how residents would like the town to evolve and thrive in the future, and it will be summarised in the Neighbourhood Plan.
Dereham Town councillor, Philip Morton, said the council expected an improvement in public services, including education, health provision and bus facilities, as well as the dualling of the A47 ahead of changing demographics.
He said: “We need to make Dereham a more attractive place for employers and residents.
“A major problem is the traffic bottlenecks that occur regularly at certain points. These need to be resolved and planning for the future must provide safe cycle and pedestrian routes.
“Dereham is short of open space and play areas. Addressing this shortfall can lead to a more pleasant environment where walking on carefully linked paths becomes a healthy option.
“The town centre needs to be refreshed and the traffic flow should be reviewed to determine what is best for the future of the Market Place. Housing is also a major issue and any development should form part of the Neighbourhood Plan to provide sustainable development.”
The aboutDereham partnership has also debated Dereham and said some “interesting issues and ideas have emerged”.
A spokesperson said: “We all need to work together to capitalise on this development and ensure that is managed in a way that is good for the town and our residents.
“Dereham certainly has potential to grow, especially with the dualling of the A47 which will make it increasingly attractive for both commuters and visitors.
“Traffic may be better managed, so as to avoid clogging up the town centre and pinch points, and perhaps more people will cycle or use smaller electric vehicles if we can provide the right infrastructure.
“In ten years time, we think that, if we are all working toward the same vision, we will be able to continue to enjoy a thriving, even prosperous, market town, with a good range of both retail and leisure attractions bringing people into town and helping to sustain jobs and livelihoods.”
Does the town need another sixth form?
A desire to bring a second sixth form to a mid-Norfolk town remains a big talking point, as Neatherd High’s new headteacher Chris Smith takes up his latest position at the school.
Although Mr Smith confirmed there are no plans to open a new educational facility, he said it is something he would welcome.
The 41-year-old has worked in Dereham for more than 12 years and said: “We do not have any concrete plans for a sixth form and we have no plans in place to start one.
“It is something we would want for the staff and pupils at our school though.”
Results in our readers’ survey showed that it was an even split when it came to deciding on whether or not the market town needed a second sixth form.
Most voted no (36.5pc) while 32.9pc would not decide either way. The remaining 30.6pc said that the town did need a second sixth form.
Overall our readers also said Dereham’s schools were “good” (46.5pc) or “very good” (5.8pc), while 9.3pc said they were not enough.
The remarkable heroism of a Dereham soldier during an infamous Second World War massacre
William O’Callaghan bravely carried his injured comrade Bert Pooley to safety during the Le Paradis massacre in the Second World War.
The two men were the only survivors of the 1940 massacre when German soldiers machine-gunned and bayonetted 97 captured soldiers from 2nd Battalion The Royal Norfolks and 1st battalion The Royal Scots as well as other units.
The soldiers had all surrendered to SS officers in the French hamlet of Le Paradis, near Dunkirk.
Although wounded himself, Pte O’Callaghan was able to carry Pte Pooley half a mile to the relative safety of a neighbouring farm.
Pte O’Callaghan, who died in 1975, spent five years as a prisoner of war in Poland, but in 1948 he and Pte Pooley testified at the war crimes trial of Fritz Knoechlein, who was subsequently hanged.
In his honour, a housing development off Swaffham Road in Dereham was named William O’Callaghan Place - and it is here that the annual service is held.
· Visit here to see more about the work being done to remember the Le Paradis massacre.
Our reporter Donna-Louise Bishop shares her thoughts on what makes Dereham special
Our readers survey revealed that in the last 10 years, 22.1pc believed the town was no different, 19.8pc believed it was better, but 58.1pc thought it had changed for the worse.
Whatever your view may be, one thing that has been clear from my time spent working in Dereham is the strong sense of community spirit and pride in the town.
A resident and business owner, who has lived and worked in the town for all of his life, recently said to me that if a Dereham person is in need then the whole town comes together.
I’ve been fortunate enough to witness that first hand on many occasions.
The revival of the town’s carnival has seen volunteers giving up hours, days, even weeks of their own time to put on an event which has grown in popularity year-on-year.
And love it or hate it, the Dereham Community Notice Board Facebook group , full of both sass and support, is a thriving place full of conversations about a town which people are clearly enthused by.
But one of the most moving displays of community spirit I have even seen in any town across Norfolk, was the turn out of hundreds of people to witness the celebration of life for young Denver Clinton - the brave four-year-old who died from a rare and aggressive form of cancer last month.
As someone who was part of that walk on Saturday, March 2, I could not have been prouder to see a town like Dereham come together the way it did on that occasion.
Yes the town, like all towns, has its ups and downs but one thing that I know will keep it ticking along is the love its people has for it - myself included.