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Gressenhall and Rural Life

Enjoy Norfolk's spectacular workhouse museum and then walk through countryside changed little through the centuries.

Distance 8.5 miles (13.7km)

Minimum time 3hrs 30min (allow several hours for museum)

Ascent/gradient 180ft (55m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Country lanes and footpaths, can be muddy after rain

Landscape Gently rolling agricultural land

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 238 East Dereham & Aylsham

Start/finish TF 975170

Dog friendliness Dogs can run free, except on bridleways

Parking At Roots of Norfolk, Gressenhall

Public toilets None on route; toilets at café in museum

1 Leave the car park and turn right on to the B1146. Take the next right, which is the Nar Valley Way, one of Norfolk's prettiest long distance footpaths. This takes you past a copse and then through Gressenhall itself. When you reach the Swan Inn turn right, past more houses, until you reach a crossroads. Turn left here, following signs for the Nar Valley Way.

2 After about 100yds (91m), take the footpath to your right, still the Nar Valley Way. This narrow path lies between tall hedges and is like a green tunnel in summer and spring. It widens eventually and, after about ¾ mile (1.2km), emerges on to a track called Stoney Lane. Turn left, still following signs for the Nar Valley Way, and walk for another ¾ mile (1.2km) until you reach a plantation of tall pine trees. Turn left, leaving the Nar Valley Way. The foundations of the deserted village of Bittering Parva are to the right.

3 When you reach a crossroads and Ostrich House, follow the lane towards Longham. At the next fork bear right, past Longham Village Hall Sports and Social Club, and walk along the wide street. Turn sharp left at the White Horse at Longham. Walk down a hill, then up the other side, with pretty views across working land to your right.

4 Once you have passed the barn conversions and a pair of silos, turn left at Park Farm Cottages, and walk for about ¾ mile (1.2km), ignoring the first lane to your right, and bearing right at the next junction. At the junction after that bear right again, following signs for Dereham, past the old cottages on your left. The road winds along a shallow valley until you reach a brick bridge and Norfolk Herbs at Blackberry Farm.

5 Turn left along the gravel track signposted to Drift Farm (public footpath) and follow the signs to the right before you reach the farm itself. When you reach a crossing of paths, take the one to your left, towards Beetley. The path traverses an orchard and can be very muddy. Eventually, some tall trees come into sight and you will see the outlying houses of Beetley village. When you reach the Stables and Mill House, turn left on to the main road. Walk along this lane until you see signs for the Roots of Norfolk museum on your left and follow them back to the car park.

What should be done about the poor? This was the question that vexed politicians and philanthropists in the 18th century, just as it does today. The answer in those days, however, was to build workhouses, so that people were provided with beds, clothes and food, and their waking hours were taken up with 'honest labour'.

One such institution was built at Gressenhall between 1776 and 1777, at the cost of some £15,000. It was called the Union Workhouse, and was home to married couples, children and single people alike. The building is impressive - a surprising sight to appear suddenly among the trees in this pleasant Norfolk countryside. It was H-plan in design, with two L-shaped extensions in the east. More buildings were added in the mid-1830s, when the Poor Law Amendment Act required workhouses to change.

Visitors today will be astonished at the size of this fascinating museum. Not only are there exhibitions about living in the workhouse, but Union Farm still works the land in the traditional way using heavy horses. There is a 1930s-style village high street with a post office, blacksmith's forge and grocer, and well-maintained gardens, including 50 acres (20ha) of unspoiled countryside with marked woodland walks and nature trails. There is also a cemetery for those who died here and yards where men and women were separated by high walls.

Formerly called the Museum of Rural Life, it has undergone a massive refurbishment, and is now called Roots of Norfolk. Begin your day here, learning about what life was like in Norfolk in bygone days, and then move on to a country walk where little has changed since Union Workhouse rang with the voices of its pauper inmates.

What to look for

The little Church of St Peter in Bittering stands completely on its own; it dates from the 13th century and was altered during the 15th. There was once a moated manor house near by, and although it was destroyed in the 1800s the moat is still just visible.

While you're there

Norfolk Wildlife Park is just off the A1067 in the village of Great Witchingham. This is home to a massive collection of European birds and mammals, and boasts such unusual creatures as Barbary apes, lynx and wild boar. The aviaries specialise in birds of prey, although there are also waterfowl and perching birds (passerines).

Where to eat and drink

There is a pleasant café in the museum, serving teas, coffees and snacks, as well as hot meals and cold drinks. On the walk you can take a mid-way break at the White Horse at Longham, which serves excellent home-cooked meals and real ales during lunch times and in the evenings. The Swan Inn in Gressenhall has a beer garden and serves home-made dishes and desserts.


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