The road less travelled: the story of the B1145

The Market Place at Reepham.

The Market Place at Reepham. - Credit: Archant © 2006

TREVOR HEATON tells the story of the B1145, the unsung Norfolk road that has 2,000-year-old roots.

It should have a more romantic name than the B1145, it really should. But that's typical British understatement for you. We never have been very good at this sort of thing, have we? The 'Great North Road' had a bit of an aura to it – the 'A1(M)' most definitely hasn't.

The B1145, which runs between King's Lynn and Mundesley, may have picked up its dull name decades ago as part of a Whitehall tidying-up of road classification, but it is an old, old route which deserves better.

For hundreds of years this was the main east-west route through the county before the more southerly road (now the A47) took over, so if you were in a really high-falutin' mood I suppose you could even call it the 'Cross-Norfolk Highway'.

It's a route where I've enjoyed many summer wanderings in car and on two wheels, heading off down the quiet lanes than run off it, taking pot luck of finding a fete, delightful pub or a lovely church. Or, if you're lucky – and in Norfolk you so often are – all three.

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There are arrow-straight bits of the B1145 (especially where it picks up the Roman road near North Elmham) but this is not a road for quick short-cuts. It's a road for meanderings, as twisty as the sharp turn through Reepham or the route out of the town towards Bawdeswell.

It's high time we began our journey. We'll start, not in Lynn, but at the opposite end: Mundesley. The route's quirkiness starts a few feet from the beach, with one of Britain's smallest attractions, the Mundesley Maritime Museum, based in a former coastal look-out.

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Heading inland, we come to Knapton, and the first of a series of stunning medieval churches, the 14th-century Ss Peter and Paul's. Enjoy its three tiers of angels, but please don't be sated by them: there'll be more presently.

The road skirts round North Walsham before heading off to Felmingham. We're now heading west to Aylsham, and instead of the old route along Banningham Road, these days we're encouraged to take a little detour round the town, via the A140.

The town has grown an estate or two in recent years, but its heart is still the lovely small market place (a refreshing cup of tea and cake at Biddy's might be called for at this point…). Take the Cawston Road out of town, picking up the 'official' B1145 again.

Cawston's St Agnes' Church gives us another multitude of angels to enjoy. If the shivers don't run up and down your spine when you enter the church and look up, well...

Next, to another stunning church, at Salle. The tiny village seems in inverse proportion to this magnificent building, which is more like a small cathedral. Can you spot the Green Man?

Then it's the small town of Reepham. If you haven't already had a pit-stop, then there are several choices here, including the old station, or try Dial House on the market place. Those cakes won't eat themselves, you know…

Bawdeswell is the next port of call. English students everywhere will know it from the reference in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales – 'Osewald the Reeve' comes from here. Its church is a 1950s neo-Georgian creation, replacing a medieval original destroyed in a Mosquito plane crash in 1944 which killed both its crew. The village is on a Roman road that runs all the way to Durobrivae (Water Newton), near Peterborough.

After a small diversion on to the A1067, it's back on the B1145 to Billingford, one of the two Norfolk villages of that name. The straightness of the road hints at the Roman link, and the fabulous Worthing helmet – a star find in the Castle Museum – was discovered a little way south of the road.

North Elmham is another village packed with historic interest, most notably its church and 'cathedral' site perched high on a hill. The small Norman chapel was converted into a fortified manor house by revolt-crushing bishop Henry Despenser. But there was originally a timber church here, possibly the Anglo-Saxon cathedral of East Anglia. The village church tower, open during fetes and the August 'village weekend', offers sensational views.

When we used to visit North Elmham in the 1990s it had what was billed as the most northerly vineyard in the world, one of two then along this road – the other was at Lexham.

Crossing Brisley Common, one of the largest in Norfolk, and it's impossible to miss the massive tower of St Bartholomew's Church. Inside the church there's a crypt, said to have served as an overnight jail for prisoners making the melancholy journey from Lynn to the County Gaol at Norwich.

Mileham has the remains of an ancient castle, a reminder of the critical strategic importance of controlling this route. A mile or two further on is the busy village of Litcham, with the centuries-old Bull Inn at its crossroads.

Sadly, the fascinating little village museum has now closed. The building was owned by Mr and Mrs Shaw who also used to run a small animal and bird rescue sanctuary for many years behind their house, in one of the great secret gardens of Norfolk, taking in a huge former quarry and even a lime kiln.

A couple of miles further on, and a slight diversion take you past Lexham Hall, which usually has the distinction of being the first National Gardens Scheme attraction in Norfolk to open every year, its February snowdrop walks being a firm local favourite.

Tucked away in a farmyard is East Lexham church, its massive round stone tower testament to Saxon roots. This ancient church has one of Norfolk's newest church delights too, a modern-themed Nativity painting unveiled in 2013.

Turning back on the 'proper' B1145 route takes you past Rougham and then through miles and miles of rolling farmland until you reach Gayton. I suppose the sprawl of Lynn will take a giant stride towards this village one day, but I hope not. I rather like the quietness of the stretch of road which begins here, the result of a string of shifted and deserted medieval settlements.

Ashwicken church has one of Norfolk's loveliest settings, perched up on its hill, while a couple of miles closer to Lynn takes you past the Bawsey quarries, exploited for their fine sand for centuries. Then you pass between two lost villages – on your right, the ruins of St James' Church (the original Bawsey), while tucked away on your left, unseen from the road, are the remains of Mintlyn Church.

And here's where the B1145 comes to an end, meeting the A149 at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital roundabout.

Well, officially, anyway. But as the original route continues straight and so tempting towards Lynn, let's just stay on it…

Down through Gaywood, past the Clock. Built as a Great War memorial, this was moved stone by stone and brick by brick in 1989 in the county's biggest 3D jigsaw puzzle to make room for a road scheme.

You then move on past the handsome buildings of 'KES', the King Edward VII Academy, paid for in an astonishing act of generosity by an old boy, William Lancaster. He was knighted in the new school hall by the titular king in 1906.

On again, into the town itself, crossing over the Gaywood river. Here, the town's East Gates once stood, a handsome counterpoint to the still-extant South Gates. Sadly, its narrowness meant it was torn down to ease the passage of carts and coaches (the gate's foundations can still be seen under the bridge).

And then… it's Lynn's one way system, desperate to rush you off south. So we'll pretend you have a magic pass which lets you carry on straight along Norfolk Street, the road finally – finally – running out as it meets High Street, a stone's throw from the Tuesday Market Place.

Only, once upon a time it didn't. When I was growing up this was a branch of the much-missed Woolies which, due to a quirk of rights-of-way, you could pass through and out of the back, heading off down Ferry Lane to catch the boat to West Lynn.

That store-based shortcut may have vanished, but the ancient ferry still runs. So it's time to round off your trip with the brief journey across the Great Ouse.

Back on dry land, and looking back from West Lynn gives you the chance to enjoy the vista of the historic waterfront, including the Custom House (which wins my vote every time as Norfolk's most beautiful building) and Lynn Minster.

Our journey is over at last, a journey that began on the seashore and ended on a riverbank. It's been a little bit of an epic in its way, a reminder of the vastness of the county, the richness of its countryside and settlements, and the depth of its history.

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