East Anglia’s ancient capital has many layers of history, from the iron age castle mound to the filming of Dad’s Army. Thetford’s heaths and forests, among sandy, pine-fringed Brecks, are also worth exploring. Ride the train along the Little Ouse Valley or take a minibus to wild Knettishall Heath, where three long distance paths meet. Thetford makes an excellent base for a staycation exploring the area - we've added some tips on places to stay at the end.
1. Arrive by Train
Trains arrive regularly on the Breckland Line from Cambridge and leave a few times per day for Norwich. Thetford’s also on the long-distance line from Norwich, heading for Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester on the way to Liverpool.
- Picturesque Ely is just twenty-five minutes away by train, on the railway that connects Thetford with Cambridge and London.
- Sit on the left when heading from Cambridge towards Thetford for the best views of Ely Cathedral above the marina.
- And – if there’s room – switch to the right hand side for the best views of the Little Ouse Valley. The countryside around Brandon is especially beautiful.
- Look out for little Victorian St Helen’s church, with its octagonal tower, very close to the railway – one of England’s smallest churches.
2. Dad’s Army
The classic 1970s BBC series, Dad’s Army, was filmed in and around Thetford each summer. Thetford guildhall became Walmington-on-Sea Town Hall (a German pilot is left dangling from the clock in one episode).
• There is a statue of Captain Mainwaring by the town bridge in front of the Light Cinema.
• This is a ten minute walk from the railway station; simply head down station road, turn left and right onto Whitehart Street, past the Ancient House Museum.
• The Bell Inn featured in various episodes along with several other town locations.
• There is even a Dad’s Army Museum, which celebrates the town’s connections with the well-loved TV show, in the Old Fire Station on Cage Lane.
• The Marigold tearooms are generally open at the same time as the museum and serve cakes baked to wartime recipes.
3. Thetford Priory and more
Thetford’s landmarks date from thirteen different historical eras, from Vikings to World War II and beyond. Among the famous former Thetfordians are Maharaja Duleep Singh and Thomas Paine, who wrote The Rights of Man. Duleep Singh’s son, Prince Frederick founded Thetford’s Ancient House Museum, which explores the town’s history.
- From Captain Mainwaring (see 2 above), turn left beside the water and cross the footbridge onto Butten Island to find the equestrian statue of Duleep Singh, last Sikh ruler of the kingdom of the Punjab and former owner of the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
- The town is also the birthplace of Thomas Paine and there is a statue of him on King Street, holding his book Rights of Man (1791).
- How to get to Thetford Priory: Head back along the river, with the water on your left to find Thetford Priory. Cross under busy London Road, turn immediately left, with the fence on your left, and follow the road round to find the ruins of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
- Cross back over the river and turn left to find the main priory – England’s only surviving remains of their kind. One of the biggest monasteries in East Anglia, it was founded in the early 12th century.
- Don’t miss the 14th century gatehouse and the prior’s lodging at the far end, with some weather-beaten remains of ancient carvings.
- If this has whetted your appetite for local history, note that the Ancient House Museum offers a “Twilight Ticket”, from an hour before closing.