A few quieter days while I recharge ahead of trips to Purbeck, Mansfield, Brighton and others later this month, and there’s few quieter places than Norfolk’s Downham Market. I’ve giving it short shrift over the years, but it’s only 40 minutes away on the train and worthy of reevaluation, even if it is a bit of a desert pub wise.
Downham is a Fen-edge town of 10,000, relying mainly on agriculture but with a fair few commuters into Cambridge and London (90 minutes). It’s interesting to compare it to similar sized Fenland market towns like Chatteris and Whittlesea which combine some solid architecture with an excess of fried chicken shops.
What you immediately notice is the volume of bungalows, and the sense that nearly all the shoppers are older than you – sure signs of dormitory status. Over the decades I worked in Fulbourn, colleagues would progressively be working further away from their base as Cambridge house prices boomed and housing development shifted to Ely and well beyond. As in Whittlesey, you get a lot of property for your money here.
It’s certainly not a tourist destination, as Ely and King’s Lynn 15 miles either side of it aspire to be. There’s some pleasing art in the Town Hall, and the library has a little leaflet describing the “amazing architecture” of this “Gingerbread” town, but the Town Clock and carrstone houses shown above are not what brings folk here. Rather it’s the inexplicably popular garden centre café that people sit behind tractors on the A10 for ages to visit.
Despite two large Supermarkets, Downham does still seem to support the sort of independent businesses long replaced by takeaways elsewhere, with a record shop, sweet store and quite a few antiques dealers in the town. I can’t really explain the survival of a good half dozen hotels and smartish B&Bs either, but they do give the town a certain faded charm.
There are six pubs, including three with accommodation, in the town, which will bring great joy to fans of Greene King IPA, Adnams and Doom Bar. The White Hart and Live & Let Live are pleasingly basic, the Crown Hotel is pleasant.
It’s the Railway Arms that draws the occasional beer tourist though, with what is essentially a micropub winning National Cider Pub of the Year in 2013. It’s an attractive drinking spot, and I joined the tourists drinking halves of Cockeyed Cider. It’s opening hours revolve around early-morning and mid-afternoon drinking, a novel concept.
I did walk a few miles west of town along the Ouse, but I continue to resist the charms of the Wash and it’s big skies.