The perfect mix of the past and the present
Norfolk has some of the most beautiful and historic towns in the whole country, but few of them can rival Swaffham - which has a unique historic heritage, a beautiful setting, and a very bright future...
A few years ago the actor and writer Stephen Fry (who has lived close to the town for over 20 years) offered a glowing review of Swaffham, praising the way it had found the ideal balance between tradition and modernity.
“There’s something about the place,” he wrote. “It’s a perfect market town, and it’s perfectly placed in the heart of Norfolk’s equally perfect Breckland.”
It’s hard to disagree, because Swaffham really does have something for everyone.
For starters, the town is a treasure trove of history. Its famous market place dates back to the 14th century, and the iconic (and Grade I listed) Butter Cross topped with a statue of the Roman goddess Ceres was built for the town by the Earl of Orford in 1783.
The nearby church of St Peter and St Paul is one of the finest in Norfolk and is one of the few remaining churches to have carved wooden angels around the top of the walls. And the town’s village sign was created in 1929 by Harry Carter, the grammar school’s art and woodwork teacher - who would go on to make some 200 signs for local towns and villages before his death in 1983.
And you can’t ignore the fact that Harry’s cousin Howard spent much of his childhood in Swaffham, where the young man became interested in ancient Egypt thanks to frequent trips with his father to the now-demolished Didlington Hall. From there he would go on to become one of the most famous archaeologists of all time when he discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 - a story celebrated in a special section of the exceptionally well-curated Swaffham Museum.
In 1912 a young man from Hertfordshire called William Johns was appointed as the town’s sanitary inspector, a rather inauspicious start to a prolific 46-year writing career that would see him produce some 160 books and create the immortal character of the pilot and adventurer Biggles.
But Swaffham isn’t just a town resting on its historic laurels. It’s also home to a forward-thinking and wide-ranging selection of independent businesses.
The extraordinary Strattons boutique hotel (which was recently judged the Best small Hotel in the UK at the International Hotel Awards) is only the tip of the iceberg. From innovative opticians like DA Seaman and creative interior designers such as Poppi Interiors, to independent clothing stores such as Artichoke and the bicycle shop Bike Electric, Swaffham is exactly what a town should be - with local people working together and supporting each other.
Perhaps the legendary tale of the Pedlar of Swaffham is an appropriate way to close, especially as he’s depicted on the town’s sign. According to folklore, a certain John Chapman took his frequent dreams literally and left Swaffham for London in the hope of finding a fortune.
Having stood on London Bridge (fruitlessly) for several days, a local shopkeeper told him he’d often dreamed that if he went to a certain orchard in Swaffham and started digging he’d find buried treasure. John duly returned to his home town and inevitably found the treasure.
There may be some element of truth in the story, but that’s not really the point.
The most important thing about the legend of the Pedlar of Swaffham is that the real treasure is right on your doorstep. And Swaffham is surely one of the brightest jewels in Norfolk’s crown.
The fabulous image at the top of this page can be purchased as a ready-to-frame print (along with over 50 other incredible local images) in a range of sizes from our online gallery here.