Deep in the heart and soul of Norfolk are a handful of places that none but a tiny minority of travellers have heard of. Take Swacking Cuckoo, for instance. Or Mount Ephraim. Or Little London, near Corpusty…
If we still had parlours, it might make a challenging parlour game for Norfolkmen and Norfolkwomen to attempt to name a village or hamlet that could not be accurately located by the remaining company.
In the event of my becoming involved in such a raucous pastime, I might go for Oxnead.
It’s not too far from civilisation, and in recent times, a sign has even been installed on the approaches. But ask your average citizen from Norwich, only about ten miles away, where Oxnead is, and the stare you get in response may well be completely blank. Or they may head off for Oxborough, which is somewhere else again.
Times change. In the 16th and 17th century at least, Oxnead was well known as the main seat of the distinguished Paston family, from whom stemmed a unique collection of letters – most in the 15th century, when their main home was Paston Hall, on the coast, but also in the 17th century, when most were written by the 1st Earl of Yarmouth, Robert Paston.
Oxnead Hall today is a private house owned by the Aspinalls, who are interested in their Paston heritage and have a strong rapport with the Paston Heritage Society. So it was that they opened their gardens to more than 80 invited guests recently and allowed us to celebrate the society’s 21st birthday there, including a performance of poetry, prose and song.
It is easy to see why the Pastons valued the hall. In its rebuilt state (only one wing of the 17th century hall remains, and the relatively new, in-your-face front structure – built before the Aspinalls moved in – is said to be uninhabitable for structural reasons), it still presents an imposing spectacle, not least because of the extensive gardens descending towards the River Bure.
These can be seen quite well from the footpath on the other side of the river, or from the track running to the east of the hall. They can also be glimpsed from the grounds of the old church, not quite so imposing but containing interesting relics of the Pastons, including a bust of the much-loved Lady Katherine, who died in childbirth, and the tomb of Admiral Clement Paston, a nationally admired figure who carried out much of the 16th century rebuilding.
It is hardly surprising that the site is being advertised as a wedding venue for 2015: it is romantic and picturesque, with a church in the grounds. But you don’t have to ditch your current spouse and start again to enjoy the delights of Oxnead. A stroll around the hamlet, starting at Brampton, perhaps, provides a glimpse into both the past and the future.
Assuming you can find it, that is.