diamond geezer

 Monday, February 15, 2016

Day out: King's Lynn

And if the Mart's not on? King's Lynn still has plenty to offer, but perhaps wait for non-Arctic weather.

»» The River Great Ouse
King's Lynn owes its existence to the fourth-longest river in the UK. Now more important for drainage than for navigation, the man-made channel of the Great Ouse carves drably across the Fens, and still has a couple of miles to go when it passes the town's quay. Don't expect to see the sea, just a flat horizon, and the odd angler slouched over the wall above a deep grey tidal river. The longest strip of quayside runs between two watery inlets, the Purfleet and the Millfleet, and features a string of heritage buildings. These include a 16th century college and a Tudor warehouse, the latter naturally now a cafe/restaurant. Set back from the river, the most distinctive building is the Custom House, a squat and turrety merchants exchange which now doubles up as the town's Tourist Information Office. It's a good one too, and best visited early in your trip, plus upstairs there's an extra exhibition upstairs for a quid.

»» West Lynn Ferry
A small proportion of the population of King's Lynn live on the west bank of the Ouse, not the east. With the nearest road crossing a mile to the south, a ferry service has plied across the river for several centuries and still runs regularly today. The latest incarnation is a low-loading boat with space for over a dozen passengers, accessed from a steep staircase at the end of a long narrow passageway called Ferry Lane. A crossing takes two minutes, plus time for manoeuvring and embarking and alighting, and is operated by a jolly team of driver and cast-off-er-cum-clippie. At one pound single and one pound fifty return it's also a bargain, scudding over the tidal water past the occasional seagull and buoy. Whilst the vast majority of passengers are West Lynn residents commuting or shopping, the management didn't seem too surprised when I spent only fifteen minutes on the opposite shore (there's not much to see, apart from the main town looking back) before returning on the next timetabled trip.

»» The Old Town
King's Lynn has managed to hang on to some of its medieval town, most particularly in the area around the town hall. This overlooks the Saturday Market Place, as opposed to the Tuesday Market Place, although I saw no evidence of any stall-based trading here at the weekend. A twist of narrow streets winds past some achingly attractive terraced residences, and also Hanse House, the only surviving Hanseatic League warehouse in the country. Above all this looms King's Lynn Minster, formerly St Margaret's Church, whose interior isn't quite as impressive as the exterior suggests. But do pause by the main door to check out marks in the wall showing the high water level in this part of town, with January 1978 here scarier even that the great North Sea inundation of January 1953.

»» Lynn Museum
Housed in a disused church beside the bus station, what might have been a minor museum has been greatly boosted by a Bronze Age treasure in the opening gallery. The Holme Timber Circle was built by prehistoric man on a saltmarsh up the coast, specifically in 2049BC because timber-dating is pretty damned good these days, and subsequently buried by the sea. Rediscovered on a beach in 1998, courtesy of gradual erosion, the ring of several dozen wooden posts was swiftly nicknamed Seahenge. A decision had to be made whether to leave it exposed to rot or whisk it away for preservation. The latter course prevailed, using the same technology that saved the Mary Rose, and the timbers now reside in a moisture-free semicircle inside the former chancel. Here too is the upturned tree trunk excavated from the centre of the ring, whose original function remains uncertain, but what a find! Elsewhere, the usual local museum fare, well presented. Entrance is free from October to March, and costs £3 in spring and summer.

»» True's Yard Fisherfolk Museum
The other main museum in town is more of an independent effort. Based around the only surviving fishermen's cottages in Lynn, a group of volunteers have assembled a miniature time capsule remembering multifarious aspects of the town's life. They focus particularly on Northend, the less well-off part of town, where the fishwives and herring smokeries once were. The two restored cottages are both one-up one-down, with no cooking facilities other than a fire, no running water, and the most ridiculously steep stairs I've attempted in some time. The 1881 census shows nine or ten sleeping in each, putting our current 'housing crisis' into sharp perspective. One current exhibition at the True's Yard features a multitude of photos of royalty visiting King's Lynn, which they seem to do rather a lot given that Sandringham is just up the road. Meanwhile visitors to the museum are reminded in every single room that photography is not allowed, and by golly the buzzer on the front door is loud, and I dearly hope the tearoom has better custom in the summer.

»» St Nicholas' Chapel
One thing a thriving medieval town needed a lot of was churches, but St Nicholas' Chapel proved one too many. It was built as an overflow for St Margaret's so that the residents of Northend didn't have so far to walk on a Sunday, indeed it's the largest 'chapel-of-ease' ever built in this county. Alas modern congregations are considerably smaller, so the number of parishioners dwindled away to unsustainable levels and in 1992 all regular services ceased. Thankfully the Churches Conservation Trust stepped in to maintain the building, which is splendid, and still open for eight hours a week (on Tuesdays and Saturdays) should you wish to look inside. The 15th century roof is a magnificent wooden structure decorated with 22 carved angels, the stained glass window above the high altar has been recently (colourfully) restored, and the name Robinson Cruso appears on the floor tiles by the font several times. Come after dark and the building is fully illuminated, part of a town-wide Lumière art project which kicks off at Easter each year.

and also...
»» The town is unduly fond of its most famous son, George Vancouver, a naval explorer who charted the Pacific coast of North America in the late 18th century. You can probably guess which Canadian inlet and island he charted and 'discovered'. I'm less certain he'd be honoured by having King's Lynn's modern shopping quarter named after him.
»» The town's middle classes used to promenade in The Walks, now restored as part of a public park, where you'll also find Red Mount Chapel, a stopping point on pilgrimages to Walsingham. Across the road in an ornamental garden, only the tower of the town's Franciscan friary still stands.
»» Before you come, check out this page on the town's tourist website where you can download various guides and walking trails - these come highly recommended.
»» It's been a tough few weeks economically for the town. A couple of weeks back the Arts Centre in St George's Guildhall held its last event, a victim of insufficient income, closing off access to the largest surviving medieval guildhall in Britain. Almost simultaneously the Caithness Crystal factory on the outskirts of town held a closing down sale of business assets and stock and promptly folded. Hopes are now being pinned on a new visitor attraction due to open at Easter, Stories of Lynn, in the medieval Town Hall complex. They'd really like to see you here. Add Lynn to your list.

My King's Lynn gallery
There are 40 photos altogether [slideshow]

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