By Haydn Brown.
Crossing the River Waveney from the south, through a flat landscape, the old Norwich Road entered Norfolk at Scole, or “Schoale,” as the name was often spelled in old times. To the west, Scole was bordered by the parish and town of Diss. This parish nowadays contains not just the village of Scole, but also Billingford, Thelveton, Frenze, and the deserted village of Thorpe Parva. Indeed, in the 19th century the parish was known as ‘Scole with Thorpe Parva and Frenze’, before reverting to simply ‘Scole’ when in 1935 the parishes of Billingford and Thelveton were abolished and joined to Scole. Scole was also recorded as Osmondeston in the Domesday Book. The name ‘Osmodeston’ derives from the Old English for Osmond’s enclosure or farm.
In years past, when coming over the little bridge which once straddled the Waveney, the village could be seen huddled together on either side of a very narrow road, which rose as it continued north. Both the village and its church were dominated by a large building of mellow red brick, its panelled chimney-stacks and long row of beautiful gables giving the impression of an historic mansion having, by some mysterious chance, been lifted from a nobleman’s estate and placed beside the highway. This is the White Hart which, at no time, was a private residence, but built as an inn; and an inn it remained for well over two-and-a-half centuries.
Scole itself, was quite a celebrated place in the days when the Inn flourished. Then, every traveller in Eastern England had either seen or heard of the “Scole White Hart” and its famous sign that stretched completely across the road. Because a great many coaches halted at the inn for teams to be changed, passengers had plenty of time to examine what Sir Thomas Browne thought to be:
“the noblest sighne-post in England.”
Both Inn and sign were built in 1655, for James Peck, described as a “Norwich merchant,” whose initials, together with the date, were seldom noticeable on the centre gable. The elaborate sign alone cost £1057 to make and erect. It was of gigantic size and loaded in excess of twenty-five carved figures of classic deities. As explained by a Charles Harper, in 1901, there was:
“Chaste Diana, with bow and arrow and two hounds; she had a place on the cross-beam, in company with Time in the act of devouring an infant; there was also Actæon and his dogs, a huntsman, and a White Hart couchant. On a pediment above the White Hart, supported by Justice and Temperance, was the effigy of an astronomer ‘Seated on a Circumferenter,’ who by some Chymical Preparation is so affected that in fine weather he faces the north and against bad weather he faces that quarter from whence it is about to come.
On either side of the astronomer were figures of ‘Fortitude’ and ‘Prudence’, a position hardly suitable for the first-named of those two virtues, but certainly too perilous for the second. Further suggestions of Olympus, with references to Hades and Biblical history, adorned the other portions of this extraordinary sign. Cerberus clawed one side of the supporting post, while Charon dragged a witch to Hell on the other; and Neptune bestriding a dolphin, and Bacchic figures seated across casks alternated with the arms of twelve East Anglian noble and landed families.
Two angels supported respectively the arms of Mr Peck, his lady and two lions – those of Norwich and Yarmouth. On the side nearest the inn appeared a huge carving of Jonah coming out of the whale’s mouth, while, suspended in mid-air, and surrounded by a wreath, was another White Hart.”
Although Sir Thomas Browne had been impressed with this work, an early 19th-century tourist, apparently, dismissed it as “a pompous sign, with ridiculous ornaments”. Shortly afterwards, the sign was taken down, for no other reason than “it cost the landlord more to keep it in repair than the trade of the house permitted.”
Together with this, the once celebrated ‘Great Bed of the White Hart’ also disappeared. It was a round bed and said to be capable of holding twenty couples and, therefore, a good deal larger than the famous Great Bed of Ware [see below]. Perhaps it was because guests did not relish this co-operative method of sleeping together, or maybe because sheets, blankets and coverlets of sufficient size were not easily available, that the Scole Great Bed was chopped up for firewood. Why on earth did anyone suppose that beds of this size and capacity would ever be desirable?
The “Scole White Hart” must have been among the very finest of inns and posting-houses in its day. Its wide staircases, its large rooms and fine panelled doors, its great stone-flagged kitchen, all proclaiming how great its old prosperity must have been. Even the wide-spreading yard at the rear of the Inn, together with its outbuildings, would have given some hint of how heavy the traffic must have once been, positioned as the Inn was, at the junction of the Lowestoft, Bungay, Diss and Thetford Road with that from London to Norwich. However, a gradual shrinking trade was to cause parts of the inn to be let; whilst the stone and wooden porches, seen in the old print, disappeared. The coach entrance was blocked up to become the bar, and the window mullions gave way to sashes. Nevertheless, the building still retained a noble architectural character which, perhaps, appears more interesting today.
Little or nothing is found in contemporary records of “Scole White Hart”; only that of its later years, when indignant would-be coach passengers stood at the door on a day in October 1822 and saw the drivers of the “Norwich Times” and “Gurney’s Original Day Coach,” fired by rivalry, and recklessness in their long race from Whitechapel, came pounding furiously up the road and over the bridge, passing the White Hart without stopping, and disappearing in clouds of dust in the direction of Norwich. It was said that Thorogood was driving the “Times” and both coaches started from London at 5.30 a.m. The “Day” coach reached Norwich at 5.20 p.m., and the “Times” ten minutes later, neither having stopped for changing horses during the last twenty-five miles. This was a “record” for that period, the usual time being fourteen hours.
Probably these ‘disappointed’ passengers stayed the night; a prospect which surely no one would have complained about? Guests at the “White Hart,” seem to enjoy being ‘coaxed’ into a feeling that they were living in another era; a feeling that would have grown as each wandered upstairs to bed, almost lost along the roomy corridors. After they had closed the nail-studded doors of their bedrooms and crept into the generous embrace of a damask-hung four-poster bed and gazed reflectively around their panelled room and up to the curiously coffered ceilings, they would have dropped soundly off to sleep. Old times would live again, faded flowers blossoming once more, forgotten footsteps echoing along the passages of time, post-chaises clattering up to the door, its noise consciously telling the sleeper that the sound is only that of a jolting rustic tumbril going down the road in the early morning. However, this is the twenty-first century, and the “White Hart” survives – from the back edges of life.
Besides the “White Hart,” there remains little else at Scole. The plain flint tower of the church still stands by the roadside, on the ascent that leads from the village. Two or three inns, a few rustic shops, cottages, and a private residence of the past also helped make up this tale. Scole, in fact, has not grown greatly since it was a Roman station, and when the Roman soldiers whose remains have been found near the river occupied the military post on the long road to Venta Icenorum.