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Thursday, 30 November 2017

Norwich to Wymondham - In Search of Kett's Oak

Kett's Oak

A 12 mile walk linking Norwich and Wymondham

Kett's Oak is a tree that folklore states was the meeting place for what was to become Kett's Rebellion in the year of 1549. The ageing tree still stands forlorn by the roadside, passed by 1000's of motorists each day, no doubt most of whom are oblivious to this piece of roadside history. This walk seeks to pay homage to Robert Kett by returning to his tree, and researching into the whys and wherefores of the infamous rebellion which followed.

Norwich to Wymondham Walk - Essential Information

Walk Statistics:

Start point
Norwich View in OS Map | View in Google Map
End Point
Wymondham View in OS Map | View in Google Map
Total Walk distance
12 miles
Walk difficulty
Easy
Terrain
Footpaths and country lanes
Obstacles
Do not attempt to take the footpath between Ketteringham and Hethersett - it is extremely dangerous

Maps:

The following maps and services can assist in navigating this route. The links include published hard copy as well as online plots and downloadable GPX route data for importing into navigational software and apps.

Ordnance Survey Explorer Map
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Online Ordnance Survey Route
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Online OpenStreetMap Route
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Online Google Route
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ViewRanger App Route
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GPX data for route (download)

Transport:

Details of public transport that is required for the walk

First Group - Bus Service
Service Number
14/15/15A - First Group Norwich buses Green Line route linking Norwich with Wymondham
Timetable

Walk Data

Date of Walk
2016-12-19
Walk Time
09:30 to 13:00
Walkers
Griffmonster
Weather Conditions
Grey winters day

Walk Notes

The inspiration for this walk was to visit an iconic tree. There are many trees in Norfolk but this particular tree, generally known as Kett's Oak, has folklore and history associated with it and is worthy of a walk to find it. It is said that under this very tree in 1549 Robert Kett assembled a group of rebels ready to march on Norwich. Aggrieved at the enclosing of common lands, the loss of livelihood and threats of enslavement and the spiralling costs of living, Kett fired up many from the local community to take their grievances to Norwich in what was to become to be known as Kett's rebellion. Despite acquiring a common army of 16,000 men from across the county and having the strategic advantage against the kings troops, the rebellion failed and Kett was hanged and the common man was put back in his place by the ruling classes.

Norfolk once had a waymarked trail known as Ketts Country Path. However this appears to have been abandoned and certainly does not appear on the Norfolk Trails website these days. It can still be retrieved from archive.org although I cannot vouch that any waymarkers are left along this 20 mile route. One notable absence from this route is its lack of including Kett's Oak. Surely this would have been a highlight of such a walk. Therefore, this Griffmonster walk seeks to rectify this and provide an alternative route between Norwich and Wymondham, passing by the famous old tree along the way.

The first section of the walk heads out of Norwich to Cringleford along the busy Newmarket Road. There is plenty of space along the pavements and it is not as horrendous as one may expect. There is more road walking through the villages of Eaton and Cringleford before the route eventually leads past a housing estate, across the Southern Bypass and out onto the country lanes away from the hubbub of the city.

The path crosses fields to Ketteringham where the original plan was to follow a footpath into Hethersett as depicted on the Ordnance Survey map. This is clearly defined and a well used track that leads from the road, down to the railway and then descends down the embankment of the A11 highway, a giant dual carriageway monster of a road. At this point the humble walker is expected to briskly dodge the traffic across the southbound carriageway, hurdle the crash barriers on the central reservation, then take ones life into ones hands again in traversing the northbound carriageway in order to get to the continuation of the public right of way. I looked. I assessed the situation. It could be achieved. But, it did not seem the sensible or safe option considering the volume of traffic that flows along this main artery into Norwich. There really should have been a footbridge. The Kett in me sought to gather an aggrieved mob of ramblers to march on Norwich. Sadly there was no-one around, only myself. I decided that the pen is mightier than the sword and swore to write an aggrieved email to the said authorities to register my complaint in the strongest possible terms.

This obstacle necessitated a diversion along the road to Hethersett although this did have its positive side with the discovery of a mysterious structure on a little green island in the junction of country lanes at the western end of Ketteringham. This curious octagonal brick building with pitched roof could possible be a water pump or well judging by the weathered metal handle that exudes from one of its walls. Thus far I have found nothing about its identity or history. A similar structure exists by the gate to an old house a few yards back up the road into the village and the fact this house is named Wellgate House does suggest that this is a covered well. This is also confirmed on old 19th century OS maps which mark its position with a W indicating a well.

Hethersett and Wymondham are linked by a long straight road which in days gone by was presumably the old A11. Despite the new arterial highways presence that has blocked up the footpath access, this reclassified B1172 is also a busy road. Fortunately there is a pavement through to the end of Hethersett and beyond this is a permissive path that runs along the field boundaries bordering the road. The boundary is marked with various hedgerow fauna and intermittent trees and it is along here that the tree known as Kett's Oak is situated. It is easily picked out as there is a wooden truss that supports one of its ageing branches and iron railings around it with two plaques, one stating Ketts Oak 1549 on the roadward side and on the opposite side W. H. Back 1910. Although commonly known as Kett's Oak it is also known as the Oak of Reformation and was marked as such on old maps. More about that in the main feature of this walk below.

It is worth standing here in contemplation, listening on the winds for the words of Kett as he fired up his supporters. Angry men. Men who had their common lands taken from them. Men who had their living standards cut and cut again. Men who were threatened with slavery by the land owning gentry. This tree supposedly heard all of this. And who knows what would have happened if the rebellion had succeeded.

The fields and woodland around this area have been acquired by Natural England and have been allowed to grow wild. There are permissive walks throughout this area although at the time of walking the project appeared to be very much in its infancy. This provided a decent walking route into the north side of Wymondham from where country lanes can be followed into the town.

The final part of this walk was a visit to Wymondham Abbey although a funeral was in progress which prevented a tour of the buildings interior. Another time, another walk. Even so it is worth the excursion down past the Abbey, then along the meadows by the River Tiffey and back up into town to the bus stop, ready to head back to Norwich.

It is unfortunate that the pub on the main square which advertised local Norfolk ales only offered the output from a Suffolk based national brewer. One look at their ale range necessitated a walk straight back out of the hostelry and consequently no pub appears as part of this walk. I am subsequently told that the The Green Dragon on Church Street is well worth a visit. this is a 14th century pub that has guest beer from many of Norfolks famous small brewers.

I did send the angry email about the right of way across the A11. I wrote in concise but assertive language, clear and to the point, stating that it was downright dangerous for ramblers to traverse such a busy main highway and that there should be a footbridge to allow access, after all the footpath was there long before this modern highway and proof of this shown on old OS maps. I received no reply back. I guess ignoring emails is Norwich Councils method of dealing with modern day rebels as it is not as messy as having to clear away a hanged body and eventually the threat goes away... apart from the persistent ramblings of rebels such as the author of this article.

Wymondham Market Cross
Wymondham Market Cross

Directions

The route follows country lanes and footpaths through to Ketts Oak and beyond to Wymondham

From Norwich bus station, leave via the steps onto Queens road, turn right and take the underpass across the road. Take the left at the roundabout onto the A11. Where the roads branch take the right onto Newmarket Road and keep to this, over the outer ring road and through to the exit into Cringleford. Follow the road down through Cruingleford, across the old river bridge and then bear round to the right at the junction to pass the church on the left.

Where the road returns to the main road, turn left then immediately right down the side of a housing estate, Cantley Lane. keep to this, past the houses and onwards to the bridge across the A47. There is a bit of a dog leg to get across the bridge but the route is obvious and brings one out onto Cantley Lane on the other side. Turn left onto the lane and follow the road round to where it passes under the railway. Take the footpath on the right that rises up to the side of the railway and follows its course for a mile. Navigate around the house at the end on our onto the road. Turn left and follow the road across the railway. Immediately after there is a footpath on the right which diagonally crosses the field out onto the road into Ketteringham. Turn right and follow the road through the village. Keep straight ahead at the junction where the road bears to the left. At the next junction take the road on the right and follow this through to Hethersett.

Turn left onto the main road out of the village. There is a broad pavement to the end of the housing where a car dealer is the last sign of civilisation. Immediately after this a permissive path leads down onto the field side of the hedge. Keep to this and Kett's Oak soon reveals itself on the left.

Continue along the path until it leads off to the right. Take this and at the top turn left and follow a curved route past some trees. Keep to this until the path straightens out and a little further onwards there is a path on the left. Take this and follow it out onto the road.

Follow the road for a mile until there is a footpath on the left that cuts across the field. At the far end cross the road and turn right along the road briefly to Hewitts Lane on the left. Take this road through the Wymondham housing estates continuing straight ahead until it meets a junction with Town Green. Turn left, then veer off on the right down Vicar Street. Pass the abbey on the left and continue down to the river. Cross the bridge and before the railway take the path on the left through the meadows. At the far end turn left onto Damgate Streeet and proceed up this back into town. Turn right at the top adn continue to the Market Cross where the buses back to Norwich are found on the left of the Market Cross.

The path across the main A11 showing the two carriageways and crash barriers that walkers are required to negotiate in order to continue along the footpath - crazy!Ketteringham Village well
On the left The path across the main A11 showing the two carriageways and crash barriers that walkers are required to negotiate in order to continue along the footpath - crazy!; On the right Ketteringham Village well

Features

Kett's oakView in OS Map | View in Google Map

The story of Ketts Rebellion is an interesting lesson in history and is documented in a variety of books and websites including wikipedia. One should read this and the various references at the bottom of this article to fully comprehend the whole story. A brief iteration of the events are given here.

Some documents paint a picture of Kett as being no more than an outlaw who rightfully met his just rewards whilst others speak of him as a leader of a band of men driven to such extreme measures by their situation which had been exacerbated by the changing laws of the land that favoured the land owning gentry. To fully comprehend what occurred one has to look at the history of the times leading up to the rebellion. Prior to this uprising in 1549, an Act of Parliament was passed known as the 1547 Vagabonds Act which enabled vagabonds, a classification given to anyone who had no employment, to be enslaved for two years. This legislation set down the jurisdiction of how a master should treat such a slave. A slave had to be fed bread and water or small drink and were allowed to be worked by beating, chaining, or other methods the master may choose. This Act also enabled slaves to be bought and sold just as other slaves and should no private man want the vagabond slave, the slave was to be sent to their town of birth and be forced to work as a slave for that community.

In addition to this new legislation, the 16th century saw a significant rise in landowners invoking their legal right of enclosure of land. This effectively enabled land owners to fence off common land which had historically been areas where the common man had rights of grazing livestock collecting firewood and cutting turf for fuel. Taking this right away effectively removed the livelihood of many commoners pushing them into unemployment or vagabonds as termed by the legislation. Add to this was the fact that there was rampant inflation caused by increased taxes to pay for historic wars against France and Scotland which reduced a lot of the population to little more than poverty and misery.

Given this scene it is not surprising that prior to the rebellion there had already occurred some disorder around Wymondham with fences and hedges of enclosed land being ripped up by commoners. This came to a head on July 6th 1549 at a feast day in Wymondham. With fired up spirits, a mob full of grievances set out to tear down more enclosures in an attempt to regain the common land which they claimed was their right.

It should be noted that Robert Kett was not a commoner, and although described as a tanner, he was a landowner whose family had held the manor of Wymondham since the 12th century. When the mob came to his land he took sympathy on their plight and became their leader, ready to fight for justice. One must guess that he was either a very popular man or a born leader for within the space of three days he had roused the men to join him in a crusade to petition the authorities with a set of demands to return the rights of the common man.

Folklore states that Ketts Oak on the Norwich road, just outside of Wymondham, is where he grouped an army of men to march on Norwich and where under its shade took a solemn oath to reform the abuses in church and state. The rebels were refused permission to march into the city and they had to navigate around to the eastern side of Norwich where they set up camp on Mousehold Heath with their headquarters being set up in the ruins of St. Michael's Chapel. In the ensuing days it is reported that his army of men grew to some 16000 with folk joining from all across Norfolk. This was quite an army which certainly outnumbered the population of Norwich at the time. Although Mousehold Heath still exists to some extent, the Kett camp was located in what is now a housing estate at the top of Ketts Hill off to the right where there is a road named Camp Drive.

It was during this occupation of the heath that Kett came up with a proclamation of 29 demands which were put before the authorities. On 21st July, a Kings messenger arrived with a rejection of the demands but offering only a pardon if they went back to their homes. Kett refused to accept the pardon as in the eyes of the rebels they had done nothing wrong, they were merely attempting to regain their rights.

With the rejected demands, this put the rebels on a confrontation with those in authority. Now, Mousehold Heath is located on the hills above Norwich and this provided a strategic advantage against their enemies and a place to instigate both raids on Norwich for food as well as providing cover from any attack. It has also been alleged that Ketts men used artillery to bombard the city although it is intriguing how such humble common men would have gained such weapons. With these advantages Kett's Rebellion looked to be winning taking some victories against the city. However, their downfall was almost laughable. How true this story is, is unknown and the exact location of the defeat also a mystery. Folklore states that some of the rebels spoke of a prophetic Norfolk legend which stated

The country gnoffes, Hob, Dick, and Hick,
With clubbs and clouted shoon
Shall fill the vale
Of Dussins dale
With slaughter'd bodies soon.

The heedless men within the dale
Shall there be slain both great and small

which they interpreted to be a sign of their guaranteed victory and so they headed down to the low lands of Dussindale and battle against the armies brought up to Norwich to quell this rebellion. Their foe was the Earl of Warwicks army, a troop of trained armed men and mercenaries. As soon as Ketts men were seen to descend down to Dussindale, the Earls Army marched on them and swiftly vanquished the rebels with their superior forces and firepower.

Of the rebels that survived the battle nine of the leaders are said to have been carried to the Oak of Reformation upon which they were hanged, cut down and their bowels pulled out and burned before their faces, their bodies beheaded and quartered and their heads and quarters set upon poles on the tops of towers and gates. Another 30 were similarly executed on the gallows at Magdalen Gate in Norwich, whilst 40 more were hanged at the Market place gallows. Many others suffered similar fates in other unspecified places bringing the total beheading to more than 300.

As for Robert Kett, he was initially captured and imprisoned in the tower of London, before being brought to trial and finally returned to Norwich Castle on 7 December 1549. Here, he was drawn up from the foot of Norwich castle to a gibbet that had been erected on the top. He was left there hanging there till he died of hunger and his body decayed and fell back to earth. This is highly unusual as the gibbet was customarily used to hang the dead bodies of criminals in metal cages as a warning to others against such crimes. Death by gibbet was a rare occurrence and therefore this obviously emphasizes the seriousness the authorities took over Kett's actions. His brother William, who had also led the mob, suffered a similar fate on the west tower of Wymondham abbey on the very same day.

The reference to the so called Oak of Reformation offers a bit of a mystery. Traditionally this is said to have been the place where Kett sat and counselled his followers, dispensing justice on both disorderly followers and unpopular local landowners who were charged with robbing the poor and imprisonment. However the location of this tree is uncertain and indeed may have been a variety of locations rather than one specific place. The tree on the Norwich road near Wymondham which, to this day, is still known as Ketts Oak is certainly marked as The Oak of Reformation on maps prior to the 20th century but there are issues with the estimated age of this tree. Some estimates of tree growth allege that this tree is no older than the year 1800 unless it experienced some unusually slow growth over the centuries. If this is the case then we may deduce that either this is the location of an original tree which was pulled down by the authorities after the rebellion and replanted at a later date or merely a commemoration tree added by his surviving followers. Whatever its history, it is in a fairly sorry state these days. The Norfolk Heritage website succinctly described it as having been split down the middle where it divides into two huge branches; one branch has been lopped off, the other is supported on a wooden truss. The crack has been filled with cement and roofed with tarred felt, and the tree bound with iron bands, long enough ago for the bark to grow over them.

There is also a Kett's Oak in the grounds of Ryston Hall near Downham Market which exists to this day. The Ryston Hall example is certainly old enough to have been around in Kett's time but it is unlikely to have been visited by Kett in person and is much more likely to have been a meeting point for his supporters from West Norfolk who may have set off to join the rebellion at Norwich.

In addition to these two trees many documents refer to an Oak of Reformation on Mousehold Heath although even references from the late 18th century declare the tree was long gone. One reference states there is not only no vestige left, but even not a tradition as to the place where it stood. The fact that the time-scale of the whole rebellion lasted two months from early July to late August, during which time the rebels were encamped on Mousehold Heath seems to point to these hills above Norwich being a plausible location for the Oak of Reformation. In addition an early account from 1742 states His tribunal seat was in an old tree, where sat the Jolly Tanner accompanied with his counsellors and assistants, being two chosen men out of every hundred of the rout. Hither came the complaints of the camp, and from hence commissions were issued out to plunder ships and gentleman houses of armour and artillery, so that this tree was termed the Oak of Reformation. This speaks of the camp and provides the means as to how the rebels gained their artillery which would presumably have been from their raids down from the heath.

An alternative view is that the mighty oak tree offered a recognised place of administration and counsel and would have been located in the locality of where Kett and his followers were at the time. Such a case would imply that both the original Wymondham oak and the Mousehold Heath oak held the epithet of the Oak of Reformation as the group passed through to Norwich. Maybe there were more long forgotten oaks since they also camped at Bowthorpe and Eaton Wood. However such views are purely speculation and have no documented substantiation.

There is a lot more that can be researched and really this small article is just scratching the surface. It is worth spending some time reading the various accounts and documents that are refernced in this article.

References
Wymondham Abbey
Wymondham Abbey

Gallery

Below are a selection of images taken from from the photo album for this walk. Feel free to browse through these or click on an image to view a larger version in the Gallery.

Summary of Document Changes

Last Updated: 2017-12-01

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