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North Elmham and the Saxon Cathedral

Walk where Saxons prayed and Victorians built their railways.

Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 115ft (35m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Disused railway line and paved roads, 1 stile

Landscape Railway track and open woodland and farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 238 East Dereham & Aylsham

Start/finish TF 987216

Dog friendliness Dogs must be kept on leads on bridleways

Parking Car park near Saxon cathedral in North Elmham village

Public toilets None on route

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© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 Look around the site of the Saxon cathedral, then leave the way you entered. Turn left along a gravel track with North Elmham's parish church of St Mary to your right. The path winds downhill with hedges on either side until you reach an old brick bridge with a disused railway running underneath it. Cross the bridge and look for the stile immediately to your left.

2 Cross the stile and descend 14 steps until you reach the disused railway line. Turn right, and continue along the path until functional railway tracks appear. At this point the path moves away to the right, safely tucked to one side. After about ¾ mile (1.2km) you reach County School Station (which was handsomely refurbished in 1999) and a good place for a break. Walk through the white gates marking the level crossing, and follow the Wensum Valley Walks sign (blue arrows) ahead of you. Continue for another ¾ mile (1.2km), past Blackhall Farm, until the footpath leaves the railway track and emerges on to the B1110.

3 Turn right and, when you reach the remains of a Victorian railway bridge, keep left, following the blue cycle-way signs directing riders to King's Lynn and Fakenham. Walk on this quiet lane until you reach a T-junction. Turn left and continue to the next junction.

4 Bear right, passing pretty Ling Plantation on your left. Turn sharp left along Great Heath Road signposted to North Elmham, following the rustic wooden fences surrounding Ling's Farm until you reach the other edge of Ling Plantation. Walk along this lovely lane for a little more than ¾ mile (1.2km), until you reach some scattered houses. Look for the footpath off to your right, opposite the track leading to Dale Farm on your left.

5 Take the footpath to the right, mostly a wide gravel track. Follow it around to the left behind some houses and then right, towards another small plantation. The footpath hugs the edge of the woods for a short distance and eventually becomes the access point for some houses. The path eventually emerges on to the B1110. This is North Elmham's High Street. Opposite you will see Millers Old Cottage.

6 Turn right along the High Street and walk until you see signs for the Saxon cathedral off to your left. Follow them back to the car park.

In the period often known as the Dark Ages, when Christianity was fighting to establish itself in England, the Saxons founded a cathedral at the small village of Elmham in Norfolk. This quickly became the most important religious centre in East Anglia and was the seat of bishops. It is even possible that Edmund, the early King and martyr who was murdered by Viking raiders, was crowned here. So, from the year ad 800, or possibly slightly earlier, the bishops of East Anglia resided in North Elmham, running their sees and managing their religious and secular affairs.

Around ad 866 the Danes arrived, and were said to have laid the place to waste, destroying not only the cathedral, but the settlement too, forcing the bishops to abandon Elmham for a safer place. The see was re-established in ad 955, and a new cathedral raised, possibly on the site of the old one, and these are the foundations that have been excavated and that can be seen today. Four years after the Norman Conquest, the see was moved again, this time to Thetford, where it remained until 1094. It was then decided Norwich was a far more prestigious place and the see was moved once more. This move, however, was permanent and the bishop still has his cathedra (or seat) in Norwich Cathedral today.

The Saxon cathedral was probably a timber building - we have two separate accounts from the 13th century and both claim it was built of wood. Certainly archaeologists have discovered post holes, indicating a fairly basic structure. Unfortunately, one Bishop Despenser raised himself a fortified manor house here in the 14th century and the foundations of the Saxon cathedral are all mixed up with those of his house. There is a huge earthwork to the north west of the site, but this is more likely to be a Norman motte (or castle mound) than a Saxon fortification. Because the remains are confusing, historians argue about what is what, with some claiming that the foundations we see today do not belong to the cathedral at all, but are part of a private chapel erected by Bishop Herbert de Losinga between 1091 and 1119.

We may never know what the Saxon cathedral looked like, but the Norman chapel is easier to make out. The transepts were similar to those at Norwich Cathedral and the abbey at Bury St Edmund, so they must date from after the Conquest. The north doorway is also Norman. The twin towers (often referred to prosaically as 'armpit towers') are an unusual feature in England, although they appear in Germany in the first half of the 12th century. Wander around the ruins and decide for yourself what they once were.

Where to eat and drink

The King's Head Hotel in North Elmham has a restaurant and an outside play area. Dogs are allowed in the bar and garden. The Railway pub has morning coffee, bar meals and a pleasant beer garden at the rear. There's a chippy opposite the Railway, while K-Family Stores and the post office sell snacks.

What to look for

County School Station was built in 1873 specifically to provide a railway service to the County School and was in use until 1953. It has been carefully restored and is now a visitor centre and museum with a small café and picnic area. There is plenty to see, including photographs and maps. The line is still used by the Fakenham and Dereham Railway Society, so look out for trains.

While you're there

Gressenhall and its Roots of Norfolk, a museum of rural life and more, is about 3 miles (4.8km) to the south of North Elmham. The evocative museum is based in the old workhouse. Pensthorpe Waterfowl Park is located in Fakenham, to the north. Here you will see plenty of wading birds, ducks, swans and geese, along with woodland walks, wildflower meadows and attractive gardens.

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