Stalham is a hidden gem with so much more than it looks. In his latest column, Robert Paul, director and president of the Museum of the Broads (and past president and vice-president of the Broads Society) looks at the city’s past, present and future.
We’re all in a rush these days and rarely have time to stop and appreciate what is around us.
Bypasses are often built to divert traffic from the centers of our towns and villages – a good thing of course, to relieve traffic congestion and pollution. The downside is that people may be rushing to visit only the supermarkets and retail parks that have often been built on the outskirts.
When we have time to stop and explore, there are often surprises in store, interesting buildings, fascinating stories, and little gems to discover.
Nowhere is this more true than in the town of Stalham, at the southern end of the “borders” of North Norfolk.
It has always been a town in two parts, separated first by the Yarmouth and the North Norfolk Light Railway.
This was later the Midland and Great Northern Railway (the M&GN line) often referred to as the “Muddle and Get Nowhere” line due to its predominantly rural destinations. At its peak, there were 100 trains a day.
This nickname became the “Missed and Greatly Needed” after it closed on February 28, 1959. The present A149 now follows the route of the old railway line, continuing to “divide” the city.
But back to the early days. There are several explanations for the derivation of the name Stalham. The popular opinion is that it means “riverside settlement” chosen as a good location because of its accessibility by water, abundance of wood for fuel and construction, good land. agricultural land and a slightly elevated, dry site where present-day High Street now stands.
Flat-bottomed sailboats sailed up the Ant River in search of such a place. Stalham’s first record dates from 1045 in a document called Codex Diplodmaticus Aevi Saxonici.
St Benet’s Abbey at Holme held 120 acres of rich farmland at Stalham, supplying produce to the Abbey by wherry.
Thus, the future of the city was secured thanks to the efficient transport system provided by the river, the wealth of agricultural land and the availability of timber and other natural resources.
The remains of St Benet’s Abbey can still be seen on the banks of the River Bure near Ludham.
Over a few centuries, the splendid St Mary’s Church, completed in 1400, dominates the High Street and remains the oldest building, with its squat tower in a distinctive perpendicular style.
Extensive reconstruction took place in the town in the 1690s, replacing the readily obtainable reed for thatch and timber with soft red brick and tile, made in the local brickyard.
The river leading to the staithe became known as the Stalham Dyke, the mills and granaries were expanding and developing rapidly, largely thanks to the water transport system.
Here Burton was a name associated with Stalham’s mills and granaries for over two centuries and the family continued in business until very recently (circa 1995). receipt, written in fountain pen on a Dickensian-style desk in a small office that had changed little in a century.
Mills, granaries and agriculture were the lifeblood of the town – the 17th century Jacobean mansion, Stalham Hall on the old Yarmouth Road, was one of the largest landowners.
The 19th century saw major developments in Stalham’s growth – he remained largely self-sufficient, exporting grain and livestock by river and wagon to Norwich.
The year 1833 saw the founding of the city’s fire brigade, one of the oldest in the country.
The building and fire engine still exist and are managed by the Firehouse Museum Trust. It was established due to unreliable insurance and possibly the high fire risk posed by factories.
There are records of major fires at mills around Norfolk and the Broads, and the Bristow Mill in the town was actually destroyed by fire in 1908. Interestingly, I have since found out that I was a distant relative of the Bristows.
Return to High Street and the Barclays Bank building. Although the space does not allow for the whole story, a bit to whet your appetite.
It started out as a private credit union, but in 1891 architects Boardman & Sons of Norwich and renowned “How Hill” designed a new building for the Gurneys who then merged with Barclays to become Barclay & Company.
In 1906 it was destroyed by fire, was restored and reopened in 1908, continuing as a bank until 2015 when it was last closed.
Great changes took place at the end of the 19th century with the opening of a “school board” in 1878 and of course the arrival of the railway, reaching Stalham in 1881 from Melton Constable.
It changed everything, including the disappearance of river transport and wherries. Once the Broads were discovered by authors such as George Christopher Davies and Peter Henry Emmerson, it set the stage for the region’s enormous growth as a vacation destination, with one of the largest corporations in boat rental established near the staithe.
With the closure of the railway line in 1959, the A149 became the main road transport link, again dividing the city.
So what about nowadays? After a somewhat turbulent period following the construction of a large supermarket near the High Street in the 1990s which saw the demise of several stores, Stalham is on the rise again.
The High Street is once again flourishing with many shops, small businesses and cafes all doing roaring commerce. There are two pubs and two museums – the Firehouse Museum and of course “my own” Museum of the Broads downstairs on the staithe.
In 1841, the population was 761 and today stands at just under 4,000.
Thanks to the tireless work of the Stalham Area Business Forum, city council and local businesses, a new iconic city sign has been erected and now stands atop the High Street.
Well worth a visit in itself, it depicts elements of the town’s history with beautifully designed ‘pictures’ by local artisans, featuring a windmill, the train station, the Firehouse Museum, St Mary’s Church, the Barclays building and the magnificent Baptist Church.
Its message is ‘Welcome Stalham’, so next time you take the A149 don’t rush, just stop and enjoy what the city has to offer.
What would I like for Stalham next? Well, as mentioned more than once here, the city is a city of two halves.
I wish big companies such as the well-known supermarket and the various national housing development companies, which are very present at the moment, to unite with the town hall and design and build an iconic pedestrian and cycle walkway connecting the staithe and the city.
It could be fabulous – can’t wait.