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North Walsham

North Walsham is a large market town situated fourteen miles north of Norwich. The name 'Walsham' derives from Wael's homestead. St. Nicholas' Church - which is the second largest in Norfolk - dates from the 15th Century - but unfortunately lost its tower in 1724.

St. Nicholas' Church

The town is home to The Paston Grammar School - which was founded in 1606 by Sir William Paston. Distinguished 'Old Pastonians' include Lord Nelson (and his brother), Henry Rider Haggard, Stephen Fry and Allan Smethurst - The Singing Postman. Today, it is still an educational establishment - namely Paston College.

Paston College Gate

Paston School Gate

Sir William Paston and the Rev Michael Tilles (the school's first teacher) are both remembered in the school song:

Sir William Paston, he up and said
The Norfolk lads, I am sore afraid,
Have overmuch liberty
Come hither Rev Michael Tylles,
and into their heads we'll hammer
Godly learning to guide their wills
Arithmetic, writing and grammar.

(See complete song)

Sir William Paston - a descendant of the letter-writing Pastons - has a magnificent tomb inside St. Nicholas' Church. It was designed for him by John Key of London.

Sir William Paston Memorial

Sir William Paston, St. Nicholas Church

St Nicholas also contains the grave of a long-forgotten poet called Henry Headley. He was born at Irstead in 1766 - the son of the Vicar of North Walsham - and was educated at the Norwich School and at Oxford University. In 1780 he published his first collection entitled Poems and Other Pieces. He was unable to marry Myra - the girl he loved and after marrying another in haste - lived for some time in Matlock in Derbyshire. However, he was already suffering from consumption and, despite a trip to the warmer climes of Portugal, died tragically at the age of 23. He is buried next to his parents.

North Walsham has a number of other literary associations:

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)

In Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story The Dancing Men - Holmes and Watson take the train from North Walsham to Ridling Thorpe. (The fictional village of Ridling Thorpe is probably a composite of Ridlington and Edingthorpe.) Here is Watson's description of the landscape they see from the train window:

'...yet there was much to interest us, for we were passing through as singular a countryside as any in England, where a few scattered cottages represented the population today, while on every hand enormous square-towered churches bristled up from the flat green landscape and told of the glory and prosperity of old East Anglia. At last the violet rim of the German ocean appeared  over the green edge of the Norfolk coast, and the driver pointed with his whip to two old brick and timber gables which projected from a grove of trees. 'That's Ridling Thorpe manor,' said he.'

In the story Holmes cracks a code composed of dancing men - an idea which Conan Doyle picked up while staying at the Hill House Hotel in Happisburgh during his motoring holiday in 1903.

George Borrow (1803-81)

In Lavengro (1851) George Borrow records a boxing match which takes place in North Walsham on 17th July 1820. Borrow's father was a pugilist.

'I think I now see them upon the bowling-green, the men of renown, amidst hundreds of people with no renown at all, who gaze upon them with timid wonder. Fame, after all, is a glorious thing, though it lasts only for a day. There's Cribb, the champion of England, and perhaps the best man in England; there he is, with his huge, massive figure, and face wonderfully like that of a lion. There is Belcher, the younger, not the mighty one, who is gone to his place, but the Teucer Belcher, the most scientific pugilist that ever entered a ring, only wanting strength to be, I won't say what. He appears to walk before me now, as he did that evening, with his white hat, white greatcoat, thin, genteel figure, springy step, and keen determined eye.'

Agatha Christie (1890-1976)

During the 1930s the crime writer used to spend her summer holidays at the Beechwood Hotel in the town. She used to travel up to Norfolk by train from London and would write in the summer house in the garden. The hotel was owned by two doctors and after dinner Agatha and they used to discuss poisons.

The author's pestle and mortar and eight of her favourite leather-bound books were given to the hotel and can still be seen today.

Mal Peet (1947-

Peet grew up on a council estate in North Walsham and was educated at the Paston School before studying English and American Studies at Warwick University. He described his family life in the town as 'emotionally impaired'. He has written a number of books for young adults - often with sport-related plots e.g. Keeper (2003) and The Penalty (2006). He was once quoted as saying:

'Like many people (I suspect) I had no real interest in children's literature until I had children of my own. It'll sound a bit evangelical, I suppose, but I truly believe that there are few things more important, useful, and protective than sharing stories with your children. After their bath, heaped into a big, deep chair, doing the voices, discussing the pictures, softening your voice as the rhythm of their breathing deepens... You start to understand why certain books work and others don't.'

Peet's 2011 novel Life: An Exploded Diagram is set in Norfolk in the fictional village of Bratton Morley and tells the story of Clem Ackroyd. Clem falls in love with Frankie who is the daughter of a rich Norfolk farmer and their passionate love affair is played out against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stephen Fry (1957-

In his autobiography Moab Is My Washpot Stephen Fry describes how he hated attending Paston School and how he used to play truant. (He was sent here by his parents after being expelled from Uppingham.)

'Paston School lived up to all my prejudices, as things always will to the prejudiced. I did not take to the place one bit. I can remember barely anything about it, except that it was there that I started to smoke and there that I learned to play pinball: not within the school grounds, but within the town of North Walsham. For within a very short space of time I started to cut the school dead. I would get on the Cawston bus and dismount at either Aylsham or North Walsham and then head straight for a cafe and spend the day pinballing, listening to records by Slade, the Sweet, Wizzard, Suzi Quatro and smoking interminable Carlton Premiums, Number Sixes and Embassy Regals.'


More photographs of North Walsham

More Paston Family Photographs

More Norfolk Sherlock Holmes photos





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