9 wonders of Wymondham
- Credit: Archant © 2008
We all know how to pronounce it properly. (Think win and you’re a winner, think why and you’re not.) But did you know all these winning facts about Wymondham?
Wymondham’s twin-towered Abbey is more than 900 years old. It was originally two churches – one for the town and one for a monastery. A project to build into the ruins created when the monastery church was destroyed in the 16th century has created the Abbey Experience – designed to bring history alive and reveal stories and treasures. These include human-size angels high in the beams, the lavish Ninian Comper altar screen, dedicated as a war memorial in the 1920s, and a square of embroidery, more than 700 years old and believed to be one of the oldest pieces of English embroidery in existence.
Wymondham prison, now the town museum, was the first in the country to be built with separate cells for prisoners. Prisoners had been chained in communal dungeons and when prison reformer John Howard visited in 1779 he called it ‘one of the vilest prisons in England.’ His recommendations led to the new prison – which was soon copied across Britain and the United States.
The Great Fire of Wymondham raged through the town in June 1615 – destroying the Norman market cross, the town hall, vicarage, school and around 300 homes. Two men and two women were convicted of arson and executed and a book detailing the losses suffered by families reveals that the poorest were paid in full, people on middle incomes tended to get between a quarter and a half of their losses, and richer people less.
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The most famous Kett of Wymondham was the leader of the 16th century rebellion against land being stolen from common ownership and enclosed into big estates. But Robert Kett was not the only Kett to die for his principles and beliefs.
Francis Kett was just two years old when his uncle Robert was executed. He was born in Wymondham and grew up to become both a priest and a doctor of medicine – but was burned for heresy at Norwich Castle for suggesting Jesus was a good man rather than God.
Robert Kett was a landowner who became outraged by the hardship caused to his landless neighbours by their enclosure of common land. His rebellion began with a riot in Wymondham in 1549 and by the time he reached Mousehold Heath, outside Norwich, he was leading 15,000 people. He refused an offer of amnesty, on the grounds that innocent men needed no pardon. The rebels captured the fortified city of Norwich but were eventually defeated by an army of trained soldiers at Dussindale. Robert and his brother William were hanged for treason, Robert from the walls of Norwich Castle and William from the west tower of Wymondham Abbey.
Vermin and vending
Wymondham’s octagonal Market Cross was built on stilts in 1617, to protect valuable town documents from flood and vermin. It is said that rats were nailed by their tails to the side of the building in a bid to deter other rats from approaching – only ceasing in 1902 when a child was bitten and died of blood poisoning.
Today the beautiful building is owned by the town council and used as a Tourist Information Centre. The stall-holders and shoppers who gather every Friday are the modern-day successors of the markets which have been held here for more than 900 years. Wymondham’s Farmers’ Market (the third Saturday of each month) was the first in the county in 2000 and Wymondham also has the county’s first egg vending machine at Cavick Farm.
London’s gloriously lavish Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has an intriguing Wymondham link.
The theatre, alongside the Globe, was planned and designed more than 350 years ago, but only completed in 2014.
The project was led by architect Jon Greenfield, of Silfield, near Wymondham, who found out how to join the timbers to create the angles needed for the multi-sided stage and ceiling by studying the construction of Wymondham Market Cross.
Where the Globe would have catered for the masses, with audiences standing in the open air, or seated on benches, the Sam Wanamaker is a reconstruction of a theatre for aristocrats. The ceiling is gilded with stars, chandeliers sparkle with lit candles and painted cherubs frolic through fluffy clouds – inspired by the intricate wooden screen in St Mary’s church, Attleborough.
Window to the past
The sketch of a long-lost window, scratched in stone inside Wymondham Abbey, could rewrite the history of church architecture. In a niche at the back of the monastery church, a designer sketched out a pattern for a great window. The circle of petal-like shapes above arched panels has tracery reaching upwards and dividing to allow as much glass as possible to be built into the window. No such window exists in the modern church – but 500 years ago a twin monastery church backed on to the parish church. The secret scale drawing might have been its grand east window.
Experts believe it dates from the 13th century. Earlier windows were cut into masonry but architects devised a way of shaping separate pieces of stone to create more delicate designs. The earliest known example of this bar tracery is in Reims Cathedral, France. Here in Norfolk the blocked west window at Binham Priory, near Holt, might have been the earliest English example – but the Wymondham window could have been even older.
Wymondham Abbey has its own railway station, at the western end of the heritage Mid Norfolk Railway. The town railway station, a short distance away, is on the main line between Norwich and Cambridge. Wymondham also has two highly regarded high schools: Wymondham High Academy in the centre of the town, and Wymondham College, the largest state boarding school in the country. The college was built on the site of a United States Air Force hospital and its chapel is still in a Second World War Nissen hut. Families pay for accommodation, but not teaching, at the school originally designed for bright children from remote areas with no nearby grammar schools, or whose parents were based abroad.
In January 1958 more than 800 Anglo Saxon coins were discovered here as a drain was being dug.
Wymondham holds an annual music festival and a biennial literature festival. Wymondham Words 2018 will run from mid October into the first week of November.
Full details of the programme at wymwords.wordpress.com