The old bridge at Attlebridge was, in spite of its age and the narrowness of the roadway, still carrying traffic from Norwich to Fakenham until 1973. There was still a rail connection for freight (mostly coal) to Fakenham until 1980. This line went from Wymondham via Dereham to Fakenham; there was also a goods line through Attlebridge itself in 1973, although the station had closed fourteen years earlier. Anyway, the point is that Fakenham was not entirely dependent on this ancient bridge for its goods. This bridge now stands forlornly abandoned by all but the occasional pedestrian. I am glad to say that I have been one such traveller on foot; cars are now prevented from crossing by bollards. To see it now it is hard to believe that traffic used the bridge until well after World War Two.
Alongside this bridge was where a hermit lived in the middle ages. Such a hermit or anchorite had two contrasting aspects to his character; he had in theory abandoned all worldly things, yet by living on a bridge that carried a busy main road, all the world and his wife passed by. Why was this such a busy place? The Fakenham Road that used the bridge was the main pilgrimage route from Norwich to the shrine at Walsingham. It was not only pilgrims going norththat used the road; Chaucer’s Reeve would have passed the hermit on the first stage of his pilgrimage from his home in Bawdeswell to Canterbury. The wood on the hill above Attlebridge is still called the Walsingham Plantation, nearly half a millennium since pilgrims last passed on the way to the shrine. There has been recent action by Norwich Cathedral to re-establish the Walsigham Way as a long distance footpath. It is instructive to meditate on such things, instead of rushing past to join the Northern Distributor Road, which will debouch all its travellers into Attlebridge.
In 1882 the railway station at Attlebridge was opened, and the first station master was a man called Alfred Joseph Polks. Until 1959 passengers could get on and off the train at the village en route to Norwich or Leicester, although it has always had a very small population and few would have done so. This was the case except for a few years during the Second World War, when it was the nearest station to a large USAAF airbase. In fact the base was called RAF Attlebridge (all American airbases in Britain were officially owned by the RAF). Then the station became the point where goods trains for the base were unloaded, and off-duty airmen could catch the train from Attlebridge into Norwich for rest and recuperation. A constant stream of American airforce trucks would have crossed the ancient river bridge on their way from the base in Weston Longville (a couple of parishes away in fact), carrying personnel and munitions. It was a very different kind of pilgrimage, one not of peace and devotion but of war and destruction. The ancient bridge saw them all.
This airbase had originally been used by the RAF before being transferred to the Americans when they entered the war. It remained a American Heavy Bomber base until 1950 flying Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. In the last year of the war another airfield was established at RAF Swannington, even closer to the railway station in Attlebridge. This airfield was used by de Havilland Mosquito light bombers, flying night raids into Germany. After the war ended the base was transferred to a maintenance role, where Mosquitos were mothballed for use in any future conflict. RAF Swannington closed in 1947, although the airfield was not sold off by the War Office until ten years later.
Throughout the 19th century the Lordship of the Manor of Attlebridge was held by members of the Micklethait family, squires of the nearby estate in Taverham. When Henry Micklethwait’s elder brother died without issue in 1877 he inherited the titles. He spent his career as an officer in the Royal Navy, and retired to London, so he never lived in the parish. Nevertheless the Micklethait family provided the village with a school in 1870. Although the population was well under 100 souls it had a malthouse, blacksmith, butcher’s and a village shop. I trust that by being on the main road these businesses got some passing trade.
My earlier post on Attlebridge concerned my own experiences of the village during the past 30 years.