Downham Market stands on rising ground overlooking fertile fenlands. With origins in the Dark Ages, its name means ‘a settlement on a hill’ and has a very practical location, offering views over the Fens with the opportunity to see the approach of potential enemies. Downham Market became a market town in Saxon times and it is one of Norfolk’s oldest market towns.
Because it stood on one of the few areas of land that was above the level of the Fens, it was immune from the floods that, until 300 years ago, made the surrounding flat area an expanse of desolate marsh land.
There has been a town on this site for over 2000 years – and some of its historic past is still in evidence today. Downham’s attractive black and white clock tower overlooks the market place. It was presented to the town in 1878 by Mr. James Scott who was a grocer and draper of the town. Built by William Cunliff of London, it has a square gabled clock face with four dials.
Another noteworthy feature is Downham Market Town Hall, built in 1887/8 with local white brick and carrstone. The latter was quarried in the town and many houses were built of this stone. The use of this distinctive stone lead to Downham being referred to, at one time, as the “Gingerbread Town”. A fine example of one of the carrstone and brick houses is on the corner of Priory Road and London Road; it has crow-stepped gables and a fine octagonal brick chimney.
In 1816 the Crown Hotel was the scene of one of the “Bread Riots”, when hungry agricultural labourers kept the local Justices of the Peace ‘prisoners’ there until the Militia arrived.
On May Day 1646, King Charles I hid in an Inn that once stood where the Swan Inn now stands. He was disguised as a clergyman attempting to evade capture by Parliamentary forces after the battle of Naseby.
Links to the Waterways
The relationship of Downham to the waterways has always been strong. A charter from Edward the Confessor in 1053 lists the rights and liberties granted to Ramsey Abbey, and provides an indication of its importance:
“I also yield to them (the abbots) the market of Downham, with rights of entry and departure by water and by land, and all the rights which relate to it”.
The wealth and protection of the Abbey would have helped the market to flourish and the town has a long-held reputation for its butter market and the sale of cattle and horses.
In the 17th Century, the Earl of Bedford and his ‘gentlemen adventurers’ financed the first major plan to drain the Fens with work undertaken by Dutch engineer, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden. Downham Market benefitted from the increased prosperity that resulted. Work to protect the area from flooding continued more or less constantly, well into the middle of the 20th Century when the creation of the Relief Channel which runs from Denver to Saddlebow, King’s Lynn, has managed to effectively control the draining of water from this part of the Fens.
The Butter Market was still operating into the last years of the 18th century. Local transport by boat proved more reliable than road haulage, with Monday mornings seeing a number of carriers taking loads of butter from the area to Cambridge by boat for its onward journey to London by road. At its peak, 2000 casks or firkins containing 56 pounds of butter from the region was transported this way to London, supplying thousands of households. Return journeys brought goods into Downham for purchase by local tradespeople or private buyers, clearly demonstrating the importance of the Fens waterways in transporting produce around the country.
The prosperity of the town was furthered with the building of the Ely to King’s Lynn railway, which reached Downham Market in 1847.
Downham Market and the surrounding area has a variety of things to do and see. Visit the Downham Market Tourist Information Point for more information.