Custom House and statue of George Vancouver
The historic Norfolk market-town of King's Lynn is well worth visiting. King’s Lynn Custom house (above) was built in 1683 by Henry Bell and modeled upon Dutch architecture which occupied the site previously. In fact, the influence of the Dutch permeates the cultural history of Norfolk. Evidence of the Dutch influence in trade, migration and immigration and even dialect can be found in the place names, family surnames and architecture of Norfolk including King's Lynn.
The architecture of King's Lynn's historic quarter affords a generous insight into its medieval past and hints of voyages of trade, exploration and pilgrimage made by its citizens. Situated forty miles due west from Norwich at the mouth of the River Ouse and the Wash estuary, sheltered from the North Sea yet within easy sailing distance to the coast-line of Scandinavia, North Germany, Flanders and the Baltic, King's Lynn's location meant that it became a busy and prosperous sea-port during the Middle Ages. Inland it's geographical position to the Midlands and Norfolk meant that it also exported large quantities of British produce including wool and pottery.
Such was Lynn's sea-trading importance that it was once a member of the Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic League, a confederation of sea-ports radiating around the Baltic Sea, traded in commodities such as amber, resins, furs, rye and wheat. Individual Hanseatic ports had their own representative merchant warehouses. There was a Hanseatic representative in the English cities of Boston, Bristol, Hull, Ipswich, Norwich, Great Yarmouth and York. However, the only surviving example of a Hanseatic warehouse in England can be found standing close to the harbour at King's Lynn.
Nikolaus Pevsner, author of the authoritative guide to the architecture of England, was an admirer of King's Lynn. Pevsner stated that the walk from the Tuesday Market Place to the River by the Customs House was one of the finest in the world. Near the market-place is the medieval Guildhall. Like Norwich's medieval Guildhall its facade has a chequer-pattern design, a symbolic reminder that it was once where revenues were collected, payments placed upon a table of the same chequer pattern, like a Chess-board. In Britain, the Minister for finance is known as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a title which retains a remnant of the money-collecting tradition.
The church of Saint Margaret’s has some remarkable, ornately-carved pews known as misericords, (folding chairs which flip upwards as in cinemas). They were made for monks to support them standing during long church services and date from circa 1370.
Also in King’s Lynn there’s the Red Mount, a peculiar 15th century chapel described by the architect Nikolaus Pevsner as 'one of the most perfect buildings ever built' and 'unique'. In a flat landscape it was a prominent land-mark and stop-over point for religious pilgrims en route to the holy shrine of Walsingham.
King's Lynn's most famous pilgrim of the Middle Ages was Margery Kempe. The daughter of a Lynn mayor, Margery Kempe (c.1373 -1440) was a remarkable woman. In addition to bearing fourteen children when married, she embarked upon pilgrimages throughout England and Europe to Aachen, Venice, Rome, Spain, Norway, and even made pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 1414. A dramatic enactment of Kempe's recorded visit to Julian of Norwich was recently realised by a UEA drama group in their re-construction of their medieval mystery play Mary's Step's.
Margery Kempe's religious mysticism was portrayed as all accounts of her agree, with emotional, volatile and fervent piety, not untypical of much religious sentiment of the Middle Ages. Although she was unable to read or write Margery Kempe dictated her life's events to produce one of the earliest European autobiographies and an informative travelog of the age.
King’s Lynn was also the birth-place of George Vancouver (1757- 1798). A statue of the sea-port's most famous citizen was erected nearby the Custom House. Vancouver was an officer in the British Royal Navy who explored and charted North America's northwestern Pacific Coast, including the coast of Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands and even the southwest coast of Australia.
It's also in King's Lynn ( in a museum adjacent to the Bus-Station ) that an important prehistoric artifact is now on display. It's the so-called 'Seahenge', a timber circle with an upturned tree root at its centre, which was first detected during an exception low-tide in 1998. It's estimated that Seahenge was constructed in the twenty-first century BCE, over 4000 years ago during the early Bronze Age in Britain. Like its more famous Stonehenge, the wooden circle of tree-trunks were most probably constructed for religious and ritual purposes.
Seahenge at Holme-next-the-sea, 1998.
An artist's impression of how Seahenge may have looked 4000 years ago.