A perfect example of community spirit
Tucked away in the middle of west Norfolk you’ll find Great Massingham, a traditional country village that doesn’t just have a rich history - it has an even brighter future
It’s probably fitting that the beautiful village of Great Massingham owes its very name to a family - because you could hardly hope to find more community spirit or a more optimistic atmosphere. After the Romans left in the 5th century, a group of Anglo-Saxons settled in the area and the ruling family became known as Maersings after Maesron, the head of the household. The new community became known as Maersingham and the rest (as they say) is history.
An Augustinian priory existed here from at least the 11th century, and even Edward I (one of England’s greatest monarchs) visited in March 1302 on his way to Walsingham. Within a century of the Domesday report there were two churches in the village, and England’s first prime minister Robert Walpole was educated there as a young boy
Although predominantly agricultural (this was one of the first areas in the country to begin raising pigs on an industrial scale), Great Massingham once had a blacksmith, butcher, baker, a general store and at least five pubs – the last of which is The Dabbling Duck, itself a great example of the village’s community spirit.
Great Massingham even has its own airfield, the legacy of the RAF commandeering one of the largest farms in the village for a base during the Second World War.
Saved from redevelopment in 2006 by two local farmers, the pub is run by Mark Dobby and his wife Sally, who’ve taken the pub onto the national stage, being judged Best Pub in the 2018 Eat Norfolk Food & Drink Awards. In October it was included in The Sunday Times list of the 80 best places to stay in Britain.
But don’t think that Great Massingham is all about history. It has one of the most impressive village greens in the county, several distinctive duck ponds (which may have started their lives as chalk pits), a thriving primary school, a hugely popular and well supported village hall, an enterprising Historical Society and separate Biodiversity Group. The village has even won a CPRE Community Open Spaces award and several Pride in Norfolk awards for villages with a population under 1,000.
It’s also home to Lings Country Goods, the family-run business established by John and Julia Morton which is now in its third decade.
This year will see the third anniversary the company’s Heath Farmshop, which offers fresh local produce to villagers and people in the surrounding area and has a special link to Massingham’s past.
“My grandfather was the village butcher and I can remember helping to make sausages there when I was a child,” says John. “There’s a lot of emphasis on buying local and eating naturally these days, and since we raise our own rare breed cattle and sheep it seemed natural to open the farm shop, which has been really well received. In a way I’ve come full circle - although I don’t make the sausages anymore.”
This sense of local people in Massingham working for and serving the community is perfectly epitomised in Mark Eldridge, who’s recently transformed the village shop and launched the adjacent Cartshed Tearoom last August.
“I did live in a small village before coming here,” he says, “but it didn’t have anything like the feeling, atmosphere and culture that Great Massingham has. My wife Kerry and I instantly fell in love with the village, and although we originally planned to buy and develop a holiday home in it we decided to move here permanently.”
It was a timely move, as the village shop and post office soon came up for sale.
With a 20-year background in retail and a real feel for the community he’d just joined, Mark gradually built a genuine village hub. He introduced around 1,000 new products, expanded the delicatessen, refurbished the shop, extended its opening hours and even helped establish a mobile post office that now visits 15 different villages in the area - and quadrupled the number of people it serves within six months.
“To be honest I can’t believe how well it’s been received,” says Mark. “The feedback we’ve received from villagers has been amazing - they’ve given us so much support and they’re now friends as well as customers.”
My wife Kerry and I instantly fell in love with the village, and although we originally planned to buy and develop a holiday home in it we decided to move here permanently.
- Mark Eldridge
But Mark and his team didn’t stop there.
They converted two derelict garages behind the shop into a stylish tearoom, naming it the Cartshed Tearoom after the buildings’ original use.
“It was a fantastic space, and we thought it would be perfect for a tearoom,” says Mark. “It was another way of bringing the village together.”
Managed by Mel Whitmore, the Cartshed Tearoom is a delightful tearoom and serves a range of breakfasts and light lunches - the vast majority of it homemade. You can’t miss the vintage metal sign for Lyon’s Tea which dominates the space - and it was actually found in the building’s foundations during the renovation work.
It opened in August at a challenging time for the hospitality industry, but Mark says the last five months have been really positive.
“It was a very strange time for a new business to open, but it’s been fantastic,” he says. “We’ve had so much positive feedback and people are now travelling many miles to visit us. We’ve got great food and we’ve got a great team - but we probably couldn’t have done it without the support of the local community. And that’s what puts the ‘great’ into Massingham.”