A Daytrip from London
Steeped in atmosphere and haunted by its past, King's Lynn is neither quaint nor picturesque. What makes it appealing, though, is the sharply medieval aura of its narrow streets and ancient buildings. Once an outpost of the Hanseatic League, its older sections are more reminiscent of northern Germany or the Low Countries than of England. Like so many great places, Lynn reveals itself slowly and with reluctance. Much of it is mundane. Yet, to stroll its quays and half-forgotten alleyways is to awaken memories of a world long vanished.
The River Great Ouse brought early prosperity to Lynn. Connecting the seaport with the rich hinterlands of England, the Ouse provided a watery route for commerce to follow. And follow it did. By the end of the 12th century, Lynn was the fifth-largest port in England and the center of trade with the frozen north. Then known as Bishop's Lynn, the town expanded rapidly during the 11th century and began its Hanseatic association in the 13th. When exports declined in the 14th century, the port turned to coastal shipping and fishing. Henry VIII knew a good thing and made the place his own in 1537, changing the name to King's Lynn. Prosperity continued through the 18th century, when the coming of the railways rendered the inland waterways and coastal shipping obsolete, making Lynn the backwater port and market town that it is today.
If time permits, or if you’re staying overnight, you might consider visiting nearby Castle Rising and Sandringham, a home of the Royal Family.
Trains operated by First Capital Connect depart London's King's Cross Station hourly for the under-two-hour ride to King's Lynn, with returns until late evening.
By Car, follow the M11 to Cambridge and switch to the A10. King's Lynn is 103 miles north of London.
This trip can be taken in any season. Colorful outdoor markets are held every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. The local Tourist Information Centre, T: (01553) 763-044, W: visitwestnorfolk.com, is in the Custom House (5) on Purfleet Quay. King's Lynn is in the county of Norfolk, and has a population of about 40,000.
FOOD AND DRINK:
You'll find pubs and restaurants all along the walking route, including:
Griffins (Duke’s Head Hotel, Tuesday Market Place) Inventive International dishes in an historic country hotel. T: (01553) 774-996. ££
Riverside Rooms (in the Arts Centre) An atmospheric restaurant on the river's edge, with indoor and outdoor seating. T: (01553) 773-134. X: Sun. ££
Tudor Rose (St. Nicholas St., off Tuesdays Market Place) A 15th-century inn with a restaurant. T: (01553) 762-824. £ and ££
Archers (Purfleet St., near the Custom House) A convenient spot for an inexpensive lunch. T: (01553) 764-411. X: Sun. £
Giffords (Purfleet St., off King St.) A wine bar with good-value meals, including vegetarian. T: (01553) 769-177. X: Sun. eve. £
Hog’s Head (High St., below Tuesday Market Place) A busy pub with good ales. T: (01553) 660-780. £
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
Leave the train station (1) and follow the map to the Tuesday Market Place (photo, above) (2), an attractive open square where a colorful outdoor market is held each Tuesday. At its far end turn right on St. Nicholas Street and stroll over to St. Nicholas' Chapel, founded in 1145 to handle the overflow from St. Margaret's Church, which by the 12th century was already too small for the growing population. The present structure dates from 1419 but is now closed. Behind it is True’s Yard (3), all that’s left of an old fishing community that was largely demolished during a slum clearance in the 1930s. Two adjoining cottages have been lovingly restored to tell the story of the hard, dangerous life the Northenders lived in the 1850s and 1920s. A guide will take you around, and perhaps let you into the old St. Nicholas’ Chapel. T: (01553) 770-479, W: welcome.to/truesyard. Open daily, 9:30-3:45. £. Gift shop.
Return to the Market Place, noticing the fine old houses on its north side, and make a left. At the far corner of Water Lane is the Corn Exchange, an exuberant Victorian building of 1854, now converted into a theater.
The King’s Lynn Arts Centre (4) is a complex fronting on King Street. It occupies the former *Guildhall of St. George, the oldest and largest medieval merchants' guild building in England. Built around 1410, this may be the only building still standing in England in which Shakespeare probably performed in one of his own plays. Again used as a theater, it is the center of the annual King's Lynn Festival held in late July. T: (01553) 773-578, W: kingslynnarts.co.uk. Open to visitors Mon.-Fri. 10-4, Sat. 10-1 and 2-3:30; except when it's in use. Free. The adjoining structures, all beautifully restored, now house an art gallery and restaurant.
Turn right on Ferry Lane and walk out to the quay (photo, above, at low tide) for some good views of the old harbor. There is a tiny ferry from here to West Lynn.
King Street has hardly changed through the centuries. Wealthy merchants once lived in the homes along its west side, behind which stand ancient warehouses and private wharfs. Here and there, narrow alleyways lead to the river. The same pattern of residences and adjoining warehouses repeats itself on Queen Street and other streets parallel to the Ouse. At the corner of Purfleet Street, once a fleet, or creek, is located the most notable structure in Lynn, the *Custom House (photo, top of page) (5). Built in 1683 as a merchants' exchange, it was designed in the Palladian style by the town's mayor, Henry Bell, who was also an accomplished architect. The niche over its entrance contains a statue of Charles II. This elegant structure now houses the Tourist Information Centre.
Turn right into King Staithe Square. A staithe is a waterside depot equipped for loading boats. The Bank House on its south side has historic significance as it was from here that the explorer Samuel Cresswell successfully set out in 1850 to discover a northwest passage to India. Note the statue of Charles I above the doorway.
Turn left and follow South Quay. King Staithe Lane, to the left, is a delightful remnant of the past. Continue along the quay to the Green Quay Discovery Centre (6), a thoroughly up-to-date interactive celebration of The Wash and its environment, complete with an aquarium, videos, computers, telescopes, and more. T: (01553) 818-500, W: thegreenquay.co.uk. Open daily 9-5. Free.
Make a left into St. Margaret's Lane. The Hanseatic Warehouses (7), now restored and used as offices, were built in 1428 by the Hansa merchants as their local depot. Next door to them is Hampton Court, a great block of merchants' homes, countinghouses, warehouses, and apprentices' quarters, begun before 1200 but considerably altered later.
Turn right on Nelson Street, which has some very attractive old façades. Follow Bridge Street to All Saints' Street. Along the way you will pass the timber-framed Greenland Fishery of 1605. In the 18th century it became a pub frequented by whalers, hence its name. It is now used for offices. Making a left up Church Lane, stop at All Saints' Church (8), built in the 14th century over Norman foundations. The painted rood screen is about 600 years old. Continue through the churchyard to Tower Place and turn right down St. James' Street to the Greyfriars Tower (9). Dating from the 15th century, this is all that remains of the old Greyfriars monastery that was disbanded by Henry VIII.
Return to St. James' Street and turn left, then make another left on Church Street. A right on Priory Lane leads to the Priory Cottages. In the courtyard, reached through an archway, stand some magnificently preserved old houses, once part of a Benedictine priory established about 1100. Go around the corner and visit St. Margaret's Church (photo, left) (10), one of the few parish churches to have two towers. A mixture of styles ranging from Norman to Victorian, the huge church was founded about 1100 and is noted for its two great Flemish brasses, each nearly ten feet long. Don't miss the flood marks by the entrance; the latest, and highest, being dated 1978. They tell a lot about the hazards of living in Lynn.
Cross the Saturday Market Place to the 15th-century Guildhall of the Holy Trinity (11), incorporating parts of the present Town Hall and the Old Gaol. Inside this lurks a scary exhibition called Tales of the Old Gaol House, recalling stories of local witches, murderers, robbers, and highwaymen set in the original 18th- and 19th-century cells. The tour begins in King’s Lynn’s 1930s police station and ends as the culprits meet their doom. Included in the visit is an astonishing collection of regalia, including the famous so-called “King John Cup,” probably of 16th-century origin but having nothing to do with the tyrant who, however, did grant the royal charter of 1204. Among the borough archives is the Red Register of 1300, one of the oldest paper books in the world. T: (01553) 774-297. Open Easter through Oct., Mon.-Sat. 10-5; Nov. to Easter, Tues.-Sat. 10-4. ££.
Thoresby College, opposite the Guildhall on Queen Street, was built about 1500 and is now a youth hostel. Farther along, at number 46 Queen Street, you will come to the Town House Museum of Lynn Life (12). This superb attraction re-creates ordinary life in Lynn throughout the ages, with all manner of artifacts on display, including period room settings from the Middle Ages, the 17th century, the Victorian and Edwardian eras, both World Wars, and the 1950s. T: (01553) 773-450. Open May-Oct., Mon.-Sat. 10-5, Feb.-April, Mon.-Sat. 10-4. Closed Bank Holidays. Gift shop. £.
Turn right on Purfleet Street and follow the map through a modern shopping center to Market Street and the Lynn Museum (13). Four thousand years of West Norfolk life are brought to life here with active displays and re-created settings from prehistoric to Victorian times. T: (01553) 775-001. Open Tues.-Sat. 10-5. £.
From the nearby bus station you can get a ride to nearby Castle Rising or Sandringham before ambling back to the train station.
Castle Rising (photo, right)(14), built in 1138, is one of the best Norman castles still standing in England. It can be reached by taking the bus marked for Hunstanton, which runs every half-hour. Ask the driver to let you off at the right place and be sure to inquire about the return schedule before leaving Lynn. The ride takes only 20 minutes. T: (01553) 631-330, W: castlerising.co.uk. Castle open April-Oct., daily 10-6; Nov.-March, Wed.-Sun. 10-4. ££, includes audio tour. Picnic area.
Sandringham (15), a home of the Royal Family, lies just beyond this on the same bus route. Purchased by Queen Victoria in 1862, its 600-acre spread of landscaped beauty was the favorite residence of George V. Besides the mansion, you can visit the extensive gardens, and the coach museum with its collection of royal cars from a 1900 Daimler to the half-scale Aston Martin used by princes William and Harry. T: (01553) 772-675, W: sandringhamestate.co.uk. Open mid-April-late July and Aug.-Oct., daily 11-4:45. Closed when the Royal Family is in residence, usually mid-July to early Aug. Ask at the tourist office. £££; less for just the grounds and museum. Gift shop. Restaurants. Those with cars should follow the A149 north in the direction of Hunstanton.
Text and map copyright © 2003 by Earl Steinbicker, updated to 2009.
The new, updated 2011 DAYTRIPS FROM LONDON is now available.