Thetford and the area around it is one of the most ancient settlement areas of the county of Norfolk. The flint mines at Grimes Graves, to the north of the town, show that there was much activity in the area in the Neolithic period, some 2500 years BC. The ancient route of the Icknield Way had already been established by then. Earth fortifications were built by the Iceni people about 500BC and by 40AD a major ceremonial complex had been built on what is now known as Gallows Hill.
The crossing point for the river continued to be important in Roman times, and a Roman hoard of gold and silver items and a temple have been found, again in the Gallows Hill area. Into Anglo-Saxon times a village grew up and then a Viking raiding party spent a winter in Thetford. A great battle was fought close by, and the Anglo-Saxon King Edmund killed. More Scandinavian settlers arrived, and the town grew, only to be burnt again - twice - by the Viking King Swein. When King Canute ruled England, Thetford was important enough to be one of the towns minting coins.
By the time of the Norman conquest in 1066 Thetford had become the sixth biggest town in the kingdom, with probably 4000 people living there. Thetford castle was built as one of the many castles constructed by the Normans to establish their control over the kingdom. Until then the main cathedral for the region had been at North Elmham, but a new cathedral church was built in Thetford. However, it was only a few years before the county cathedral was moved to Norwich, though Thetford retains a bishop to this day.
In the time of the civil war between the supporters of King Stephen and the Empress Maud, another castle was built and the defences of the town improved, but the importance of Thetford was already being to wane. It is believed that Richard I granted the town its formal charter in the 1190s. Records show the importance of the religious establishments in the town through to the 1500s, but Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries had a devastating effect on local trade and wealth. A charter granted by Elizabeth I led to a revival of fortunes, and the fundementals of the Great Charter formed the basis of local government until 1974.
In the English Civil War Thetford was very much a Parliamentarian town, and was an important military gathering point. Later in the 1600s, a devasting fire swept through the town. In 1737, Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, going on to become an infamous traitor or a leader of reform in America and France, depending on your point of view.
On the main coaching road from London, Thetford was a main stopping point. The many coaching hotels in the town can still be seen, with their wide arches for the coaches to make their entrances. It was well after the Second World War that the main London road ceased to run through the centre of town, with first one bypass and then todays main bypass making the London journey easier.
Of the many other events recorded in the town, the acquisition of the nearby Elveden estate by the Maharajah Duleep Singh is one of the more memorable. He became ruler of the Punjab in 1843 before coming to Britain to live as a country gentleman. His son Frederick donated the Ancient House which is now the town's museum.
Today Thetford retains many much evidence of its past. A town re-development scheme instituted in 1957 led to the influx of many new residents, the majority moving from London. This has led to considerable growth in the size of the town, and many modern houses and industrial areas, but the core of the ancient town remains for the visitor who parks their car and sets off to explore.
The timber framing of the Ancient House Museum betrays its ancestry, and doubtless timber framing is hidden behind many of the fronts of other buildings in the town. It is an appropriate building for the town museum, donated by Frederick Singh, son of Maharajah Duleep Singh
Thetford was a principal stopping place on the main road from London to Norwich. It was equipped with several hotels for the overnight stay, and today the wide gateways into the hotel courtyards betray their part in the coaching trade
Built in 1829, when it replaced earlier wooden structures, the town bridge carried the main road from London to Norwich until after the Second World War
The centre of Thetford can now be kept traffic free and provides a pleasant place to walk and shop. The modern road surface does however remind us of the many coaches that rattled their way to and from Norwich and London in times past. Lifting ones eyes above the modern shop facades reveals a rich variety of buildings from earlier centuries