BRANDON, in the county of Suffolk, England, shares its name with towns in Durham, Lincolnshire and Warwickshire. In its time however, it has been known by many variants. As W. G. Clarke tells us in his 1908 Guide to Brandon, the settlement “was anciently known as Brandona, Brantona, Braundon, Brandones Ferye, and Brand, the last-named being still used by many people in the district.”
The Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names explains the likely origin of the name as follows:
“Brandon, usually ‘hill where broom grows’, OE bröm + dün”, the earliest known spelling being in the 11th Century when the town, gradually expanding up and along the rising ground of the river valley, was indeed called Bromdun. If further proof were needed the site of Bromehill Fair and of Cardinal Wolsesy’s priory of Bromehill (built by Sir Hugh de Plaiz c.1220) lay just over the parish boundary to the north of the present railway tracks and local people can attest to the fact that broom still thrives in the well-drained sandy soil of the area.
In the words of W. G. Clarke, Brandon “is built on a gentle northern slope to the alluvium of the river-valley, which broadens out below the town and forms a tongue of the fenland. In the post-glacial period it was a creek of the fen sea, and the Little Ouse is still often called ‘Brand Creek’.” The river once formed the boundary between Suffolk and Norfolk, Brandon falling in the main on the Suffolk side. But then as now, even though the border has since shifted to coincide with the present railway line, a small portion of Brandon has strayed over into the neighbouring county.
It is not difficult to guess why the town later acquired the name of Brandon Ferry for it is said that a ferry once replaced the ancient ford across the river Little Ouse, the lowest crossing point before the great expanse of the Fens, on the much frequented route for pilgrims wending their way to and from the famous shrine at Walsingham. This name survived the demise of the ferry itself for a wooden bridge was built in the Middle Ages, subsequently giving way to one of stone construction that endured from the seventeenth century until the 1950s. Yet the name Brandon Ferry lingered on well into the late 18th century and references to the High Street area as ‘Ferry Street’ continued into the 19th century.
Despite scattered clues to indicate the presence of Neolithic, Iron Age, Bronze Age and Roman inhabitants the earliest evidence of a significant and settled community at Brandon was discovered in Staunch Meadow on the southern bank of the Little Ouse near Brandon Lock. Here lie buried the remains of one of the most important Anglo Saxon settlements yet discovered in the British Isles. Described by the archaeologists as a ‘wealthy, literate, Middle Saxon settlement of either royal or monastic status’ it has yielded such a wealth of important information that almost fifteen years after the first phase of the excavation was concluded analysis of the discoveries continues.
It is possible that the incursions of the Danes, and ultimately their overwintering at Thetford in 868 led to the abandonment of the Staunch Meadow site but whatever the cause sometime in the late 9th Century the centre of population moved southwards to higher ground between the site of the present church and the London Road and than at some point, as yet undetermined, the town split almost in two.
Brandon’s agricultural community was centred around the demesne lands of the manor of Brandon which in 970AD was given to the monastery at Ely. This area became known as Town Street or ‘Tip’ (thought to be short for Tipperary as many of workers who put the railway through Brandon in the 1840s were Irish and their camps were situated in this area of the town).
The commercial focus of Brandon remained along Ferry Street where enterprising folk capitalized on the road and river traffic. The pilgrim travelers of the Walsingham Way had long required accommodation and refreshment. Then later, wharves were built near the river crossing in essence making Brandon an inland port enabling goods from Kings Lynn and other large towns on the Fenland Waterway system to be offloaded into smaller craft which finished the journey upriver to Thetford.
Over time Ferry Street became High Street lined with retailers and tradesmen, inns and the houses of wealthy merchants whereas the residents of Town Street with its largely agriculture-based economy were, apart from a select few, a great deal less affluent – the majority of the houses being rented by agricultural labourers from the landlords of large estates.
“Thursday is the market day. The corn market is held at the Great Eastern Railway Hotel, adjoining the railway station. The fairs for cattle and toys are held February 14th and November 11th. There are some comfortable inns; and sub-branches of Gurneys and Co. Norwich Bank, and Oakes, Bevan and Co. of Bury, open every Thursday only. A considerable trade is carried on in malt and timber and in fur and skin dressing. Barges ply to and from Lynn with corn and coal. Gas works have been erected by a local company, and the town has, since the commencement of 1869, been lighted with gas. Gun-flints, and flints for building and ornamental purposes, are manufactured here: during the continental war, which terminated with the battle of Waterloo, and before percussion caps were introduced, the trade in gun-flints was the chief dependence of the working classes here…”
Much has changed since this trade directory was published in 1883 but surprisingly, it seems, almost as much has stayed the same. Market day is still Thursday (Saturdays as well now) but the Market Hill has become a paved pedestrian area. There is no longer a corn market although the Great Eastern hotel remains as popular as ever. The many commercial barges have been replaced by a few private pleasure cruisers and a few rowing boats but moves are afoot to improve the navigation and rejuvenate the river. The inns are still comfortable, though not as numerous, and some of those remaining have changed their names. All that remains of the Gas Company is the lane called Gas House Drove and the manager’s house – aptly named the ‘Gas House’. Alas the maltings are no more.
The flint knappers and furriers have also disappeared – the invention of the percussion cap and changes in fashion respectively saw to that; the nearest we get to a toy fair is an occasional antiques and collectors fair at the local Leisure Centre. However many of the surnames you hear around and about the town would have been familiar in the 19th century and some go back even further still; the WHARFs and the ROLPHs, the ROYALs, NORTONs, SHINNs, PARROTTs and ROUGHTs.
In 1941 Arthur Mee wrote:
“It is a little town where a thousand years are as yesterday, for men are doing here today what was being done before the pyramids were built. Fifty centuries will not take us back to the beginning of it all. The men of Brandon are knapping flints as they were doing when Hereward the Wake may have lived in the Fens close by, when the Romans were building London, when Homer was telling his immortal stories, and when Abraham dwelt in a tent. There is something to see here that can be seen nowhere else in England, stirring us with the thrill of immemorial time as a sound to be heard that has been going on for centuries and is perhaps soon to vanish for ever.
“Everywhere in these old streets shaded by trees are flints. Most of the houses have flint walls; there are flints in the road, in the pavements, in the church. But Brandon is not all stone. There are dark pines round about it, and heaths with miles of firs and bracken, said to be one of the few breeding-places in England of the stone curlew; there is Brandon Hall, a delightful 17 century house in a Dutch garden; and an enchanting corner by the Little Ouse, where an old bridge with five arches brings us from Suffolk into Norfolk. Lovely meadows and woods, an old mill, and a charming inn among lawns and flowerbeds, all contribute to the making of a picture too delightful to be spoiled.
“There was a church here before the Conqueror came over the heath, but the building we see is mostly 14th and 15th century, with queer gargoyles still looking down from the tower after 600 years. Among the rough flints in the walls are patches of brickwork looking rather odd. An old sundial says, So Passeth the Glory of the World, and, also outside, are two stone coffins perhaps belonging to Crusaders. The spacious north porch shelters a grand old door and a beautiful stoup.
“Within are arches on handsome clustered pillars, a quaint company of corbels, a big 13th century font, and an east window whose unusual tracery has been admired since Chaucer’s day. There is a very old Bible, old pews with carved poppyheads, part of a 16th century screen with traces of painting in the panels, and a striking peace memorial window with three warrior saints. The beautiful chancel is the sleeping place of an infant Samuel, a little one whose nine months of life ended in 1854.
“But it is not for the church that we come to Brandon, but because it is perhaps the first workshop in England, the spot where the first wholesale merchants were making flint weapons and tools, long before a furrow had been ploughed in Europe. Here in holes in the ground, or perhaps in lake dwellings among the Fens, lived Stone Age men who made more flint weapons than they wanted and bartered them for skins and food. We can see the pits where they quarried flint, and there is still an ancient digging 80 feet deep where in modern times a fossil antler was found buried in the rock. It was used as a pick-axe over 5000 years ago, and thrilling it is to handle it. At Grimes Graves, a few miles away, are the astonishing tunnels these ancient quarrymen made; and on Lingheath Common we can see hundreds of pits where flints are still quarried.
“The most exciting place in Brandon is a yard behind an inn, where we heard the tapping of a flint knapper in a shed close by, and found a man bending over his work as the Stone Age men had done. He had a leather pad on his knee and a hammer in his hand, and we saw him pick up a rough piece of rock , rest it on his knee, and strike it so skilfully that the flints flaked off as he wanted them. He was making flints for the old flintlock guns still used in the Congo and Malaya; and for the savages in the dark places of the earth he was making flints for kindling fires and killing game. It is an astounding thought that when the work of knapping flints began in this place the men who worked here were less civilised than the tribes for which these flints are made in our own day.
“It is the oldest industry in England, 200 generations old, yet we spoke here with a man who may be the last of all the flintknappers. He learnt his art from his father, but his son knows nothing of this ancient trade. The breaking of flints for building purposes may go on for many years, but the demand for kindling flints is almost done. Yet in all our travels through the Motherland we have had few experiences more strangely impressive than this, of seeing a skilled industry which has been handed down unchanged from father to son, from generation to generation, from century to century.”
P64-66 The King’s England: Suffolk, May 1947, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Olive Cook in her book Breckland was less complimentary, considering the town to be “similarly if not as extensively defaced” as Thetford
“The approach to the town on the Thetford road is through industrial sites among which a few twisted pines recall the dramatic, primeval aspect of the scene in the fifties. A big estate of bungalows and G.L.C ‘overspill’ estates conflict with the flint cottages which still stand, and giant concrete lamp standards of the gallows type ruin the proportions of the broad main street. The name of one of the developments, Warren Close, recalls the former vast rabbit warrens of the Brandon landscape and the special association of the town through its felt hat and fur factory with the most fecund inhabitant of Breckland. The effects of myxomatosis were already becoming apparent when this book was first published. The cony now is all but extinct in the region, Lingwood’s factory is no more than a memory and it is only in place names that this once ubiquitous creature and with it the warrener’s profession are still celebrated. An even more regrettable change in Brandon itself is the departure of the knappers from the Flint Knappers’ Arms. The names of the pub, of the new estate, Knappers’ Way, and of the town sign showing knappers at work are the only reminders of Brandon’s ancient industry, although flint-knapping does go on now and then in cottages in the area.
“Bridge Street and the Ram Hotel to the right of the river the viewpoint being roughly from the bridge looking away from the townSanton street…follows the course of the river, passes Santon Downham, lying among trees on the far bank of the stream, and emerges in a huge timberyard on the outskirts of Brandon. The town stretches to the left of the river beyond an old-fashioned inn with the sign of the ram and over the modern bridge which, after years of hot debate, has replaced the picturesque seventeenth-century structure with its four irregular arches. The broad High Street slopes upwards almost imperceptibly from the water. Low flint houses, starkly set against the wide sky, a few quiet shops and an inn surmounted by the peeling, grimed effigy of a white hart make a singular impression of alloofness, of sharp, bracing denial of the cosiness and intimacy of the average English small country town. At right angles to the long main street, London Road passes Lingwood’s hat and fur factory, an industry built up on the fecundity of Breckland rabbits. Here all attempt at town architecture ceases.
“Straggling, untidy gardens, chicken runs, a terrace or two of flint cottages, a few council houses give way to a waste of stony brecks and pines. Even the Church of St Peter does not relieve the desolation of the spot. It is much restored and contains little of interest apart from some mutilated bench-ends, conspicuous among them a cluster of fern fronds overshadowing a crude, headless figure with pipe-like arms in an attitude of prayer and with large plant forms growing on the front of her dress.
“Yet Brandon, like Breckland itself, has the attraction of strangeness. There is an untamed look about its flintiness, a scent of heath and pine in its air which excites our more primitive instincts. Excitement is quickened by the hundreds of swifts whose scream haunts the town as they rake the eaves in their rapid flight, skim sidelong by the river or with a rush of wind swoop suddenly under the bridge.
“But more unusual than the atmosphere and aspect of the little town is its characteristic sound, the sound of clear, precise tapping which on every weekday of the year can be heard coming from the yard behind the Flintknappers’ Arms, the public house at the corner of Thetford Road and High Street. It is a sound which has echoed, if not from exactly that spot, in that parish for thousands of years. It is the noise made by the flintknappers as they ply the trade of their Neolithic forebears, a trade followed nowhere else in England.”
Masters of Flint by A J Forrest
“Flint was mined in East Anglia more than 3,000 years ago by Neolithic miners who understood mining technology and also knew how to fashion weapons and tools out of the material they brought up from their pits.
“And a new industry was born at Brandon nearly 200 years ago when men who may well have been immigrants to the town began the knapping of gunflints whose effectiveness was proved on the field of Waterloo.
“A. J. Forrest is well qualified to write of this strange local industry that blossomed in time of war and survived on an export trade with some of the most backward territories in the old Empire. He first approached the Brandon flint knappers nearly fifty years ago, and now lives in a flint-walled cottage at Brandon no more than a stone’s throw from where the knappers worked.”
ISBN 086138 016 9, 1983, Terence Dalton Limited, Lavenham, Suffolk. Available from Amazon for £7.00 + p&p