By Haydn Brown.
From Thetford to Wymondham on the A11, which is approximately 21 miles between the two, there is a flat six miles near Attleborough. In the midst of this level tract of country, that used to have few villages and houses is the Attleborough by-pass. Today, alongside this modern thoroughfare is an increasing dilapidated stone which, to many, looks like a milestone; but when it was in its original position, long before the by-pass was on any drawing-board, it sat only three-quarters of a mile beyond the sixteenth mile-stone stone from Thetford. Clearly, it is, or was, something else other than a mile-stone.
In fact, it is called ‘The Dial’ stone, erected as a memorial to a donation by Sir Edwin Rich, which allowed the reconstruction of a six-mile section of the old road in 1695. It was one of the first three turnpikes to be authorised in Britain and the second to be built, predated only by the Great North Road. This old pillar used to be crowned by a sundial, though this no longer survives – and has not done so since just after 1730. As for the inscription, it just about says: –
‘This pillar was erected by order of the sessions of the peace of Norfolk as a grateful remembrance of the charity of /Sir Edwin Rich K/ who freely gave ye sum of two hundred pounds towards the repair of ye highway between Wymondham and Attleborough/AD 1675’.
This inscription was restored in 1888 but is now partly illegible again. When the Attleborough bypass was opened in 1984 the Dial was restored and reset on the far side of the new road.
So, who was this Sir Edwin Rich, whose charity was so necessary to the upkeep of these six miles of road between Attleborough and Wymondham? Well, he was a distinguished lawyer, a native of Thetford and born in 1594. His monument in the church of Mulbarton, three miles from Wymondham, is rich in moral reflections and surmounted by a large hour-glass, and further adorned with eulogistic verse which was written by himself about himself! It quaintly tells us the circumstances of his birth and breeding:—
“Our Lyef is like an Hower Glasse, and our Riches are like Sand in it, which runs with us but the time of our Continuance here, and then must be turned up by another.
To speak to God, as if men heard you talk,
To live with men, as if God saw you walk.
When thou art young, to live well thou must strive;
When thou art old, to dye well then contryve;
Thetford gave me breath, and Norwich Breeding,
Trinity College in Cambridge Learning.
Lincoln’s Inne did teach me Law and Equity.
Reports I have made in the Courts of Chancery,
And though I cannot skill in Rhymes, yet know it,
In my Life I was my own Death’s Poet;
For he who leaves his work to other’s Trust
May be deceived when he lies in the Dust.
And, now I have travell’d thro’ all these ways,
Here I conclude the Story of my Days;
And here my Rhymes I end, then ask no more,
Here lies Sir Edwin Rich, who lov’d the poor.”
He died in 1675, at the age of eighty-one, and not only left those £200 towards the repair of the road, but made a curious bequest to the poor of Thetford of the annual sum of £20, to be distributed for 500 years, on 24 December every year for bread or clothing. Why he should have limited his charity to a mere five centuries it does not say, nor was it clearly understood what was to become of the property of Rose Hill Farm, Beccles, whence the income was derived. Perhaps he thought the end of the world would come by 2175!
It is said that Sir Edwin was a prudent as well as a pious man. No doubt wishing for some recognition of his excellent traits and achievements, he judged it best to write his epitaph himself: and a very curious mixture of humility and pride it is. There were sufficient reasons for him leaving a bequest for the maintenance of this road, which was in his time an open track, going unfenced the whole 31 miles between Thetford and Norwich, but plunging, in the 14 miles between Larlingford and Wymondham, into successive bogs and water-logged flats.
If anyone consulted a large map of Norfolk of the time and scanned this district well, it would have been seen that on descending from the uplands of Thetford Heath to the Thet at Larlingford the road traversed a considerable area, veined like the leaf of a tree with the aimless wanderings of many streams, and dotted here and there with meres, or marshy lakes, as those of Scoulton and Hingham.
In Charles Harper’s words of 1904:
“It was then a veritable piece of fenland, where the bitterns boomed among the reeds, the corncrakes creaked, the great horned owls hooted, and the gulls screamed in unstudied orchestration. The last bittern— “bog-bumpers” the country-folks called them—long years ago was gathered into the natural history collections of rare birds, and the bass-viol bellowing’s of his voice are no longer heard after sundown. The great horned owls, too, are no more; but lesser owls still tu-whoo in the woods, and the screaming gulls of Scoulton yet startle the stranger as they rise, voiceful, in their many thousands from the mere.”
In 1675, when Ogilby’s “Britannia,” was published, this spot was pictured on his sketch-plan of the road as “Attleburgh Meer,” and was apparently something between a bog and a lake. It stretched across the road, and to a considerable distance on either side. This was in the very year of Sir Edwin Rich’s death, when his bequest became available and this hindrance to travellers was abolished. Very shortly afterwards, the Dial commemorating Rich’s liberality was erected, on the very spot where that “slough had once been.”