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Soirées in Swaffham

Walk from the gracious town of Swaffham to the ancient Peddars Way.

Distance 5.2 miles (8.4km)

Minimum time 2hr 15min

Ascent/gradient 131ft (40m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Roads, paved lanes and public footpaths

Landscape Country town and its surrounding agricultural countryside

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 236 King's Lynn, Downham Market & Swaffham

Start/finish TF 820089

Dog friendliness Dogs can run free but be wary of traffic

Parking Car park in centre of Swaffham, by Market Cross

Public toilets None on route

1 The walk begins in the centre of Swaffham, near the Market Cross. Once called the Butter Cross, this Palladian-styled structure is topped by a little figure of the goddess Ceres. She is holding a sheaf of corn, indicating that even in those heady, fun-filled days people still acknowledged the importance of agriculture in the town's existence. It was given to the town by Lord Orford in 1783. Aim for Woolworths and turn left, continuing north until you reach Sporle Road. You pass the splendid church of St Peter and St Paul on the way

2 When you reach Sporle Lane, turn right and walk through the residential area, then cross the bridge over the disused railway. The town gradually peters out and the lane becomes a track. When you reach the A47, cross it (very carefully) and aim for the lane opposite and slightly to the left, where you can walk on the verges after a while. After about ½ mile (800m) follow the signs for the Peddars Way on your right.

3 The lane eventually reaches the A47 again. Cross it and head for the path for cyclists and walkers only. You find yourself in yet more open country with vast fields that make you feel small as you make your way through them. When you reach a crossroads, turn right and head back in the direction of Swaffham. The path crosses the dismantled railway and, after about a mile (1.6km) of peaceful traffic-free walking, comes out on the North Pickenham Road. You can see the giant 1,500,000-watt wind turbine of Ecotech from this stretch, its huge propeller slicing through the sky like a giant windmill.

4 Turn right along the lane and head back into town. Turn right at its end into White Cross Road, which is signposted to the town centre. There are some handsome houses here, dating to Swaffham's glory days, although The Barn, built in 1739, just pre-dates them. London Street is worth walking down since it contains many Georgian and Queen Anne gems. If you find yourself disorientated, just look for the church spire to guide you back to the centre and the car park.

Swaffham owes much of its present-day elegance to late 18th-century and Regency times, when it was a centre for well-connected people to attend balls, soirées and concerts. One of the places they met was the handsome Assembly Rooms, now a school, built in 1776-8. There was also a theatre, which entertained such august personages as Horatio, Lord Nelson and his family (and his mistress, too, according to the records). People gathered in Swaffham for 'the season', and so many clergymen ranked among their numbers that the Bishop of Norwich was reported as being concerned that they were neglecting their parishioners.

One of the most prestigious events in the days of the Regency was the annual hare coursing hosted by the Swaffham Club. This was established by Lord Orford, a nephew of the writer Horace Walpole, in 1786. He had a fine hound called Czarina, who regularly chased hares across the heaths surrounding Swaffham. She is thought to be the ancestor of every pure greyhound alive today. When she was completing her 47th - and final - race, Orford became so excited that he fell off his horse and died.

The church of St Peter and St Paul dates mostly from the 15th century. It is made from fine Barnack stone, imported from the north, and its distinctive spire can be seen for many miles around. Go into the north aisle to see the fabulous Tudor windows. Legend has it that these were funded by the Pedlar of Swaffham. This particular man had gone to London and was on London Bridge when he met a stranger. The stranger told him about a dream in which he had gone to a garden (the one he described was the pedlar's own) and excavated a huge treasure trove. The pedlar set off home with great haste, discovered the treasure and donated the money for the north aisle of the church.

While you're there

Swaffham's Ecotech is a scientific and environmental discovery centre that informs visitors about issues relating to climate change, pollution and alternative power sources. The centrepiece is the Ecotricity Wind Turbine, which, at approximately 215ft (65m), dominates the country for miles. Climb the 300 steps to the top for breathtaking views. The centre also has an organic garden, interactive exhibits, and The Rotten Experience, which examines natural decomposition processes.

Where to eat and drink

There are a number of pleasant venues in Swaffham for snacks and meals, including the Greyhound Inn and the Red Lion Hotel, both in the centre of town. There is also an interesting restaurant called Haydn's Rest. A little farther out is the George Hotel.

What to look for

There is an informative local museum above the town hall, where you will be entertained by the story of John Chapman and his buried treasure. A lively market takes place each Saturday, along with an auction. In the Church of St Peter and St Paul don't miss the superb double hammerbeam roof in the nave, and the chancel.

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