I left Burnham Market around 8 a.m. and headed down the road to Burnham Thorpe. Norfolk appears to have missed the UK highway building boom, and the road to Burnham Thorpe was one of those narrow country lanes that are particularly harrowing to someone accustomed to driving on the right-hand side of wider roads. Fortunately, the village was only a short drive and there was no one else on the road. In fact, until the last minutes of my two-hour visit, I saw no human beings except the driver of a distant farm tractor. Burnham Thorpe village is tiny as well as sleepy — only 144 people today, a decrease from Nelson’s day. I should not have been surprised, as Nelson’s father is credited with saying about Burnham Thorpe, “All is hush at high noon as at midnight.”
Nonetheless, Burnham Thorpe does more than a credible job of honoring the immortal memory.
I began my pilgrimage at Nelson’s birth site. Nelson was one of at least eight children born to Edmund Nelson and Catherine Suckling Nelson. Several of his siblings died in infancy, including a previous Horatio. Nelson was named after Lord Horatio Walpole, one of his mother’s relations. Edmund Nelson owed his rector’s position at Burnham Thorpe and several others to his wife’s Walpole connection, and the Suckling-Walpole “interest” proved vital to Horatio’s career on numerous occasions.
The old rectory was “pulled down” in 1803, but the Nelson Barn remains (now a B&B). Along with the trees, outbuildings, and stone walls, they give a good sense of the place where Horatio spent much of his first twelve years.
During Nelson’s time a country pub called The Plough existed in the center of Burnham Thorpe. Nelson visited there often during his Burnham Thorpe sojourn from 1788-1793. During that time Nelson lived in the Rectory with his wife Fanny, a widowed mother whom he married during his tour of duty in the Leeward Islands. The Burnham Thorpe sojourn was Nelson’s period of near-poverty. Throughout the Burnham Thorpe years Nelson continually sought a naval command, difficult to obtain for half-pay officers during a time of peace. Despite his quick success and patronage, he had also made a few enemies during his early career. Still, from all accounts during the Burnham Thorpe years he was a dutiful son and husband, purportedly making a number of improvements to the property.
The Plough, pictured below, became The Lord Nelson after Nelson’s victory at the Nile in 1798. I had hoped to lunch there, as the internet had good reviews of it as an authentic country pub with much Nelson memorabilia. Unfortunately, The Lord Nelson closed in 2016 and its future is uncertain. The inside was empty and its present owners have stripped even the hanging pub sign from the front. From what I can tell, The Lord Nelson’s exterior hasn’t changed much over the centuries. There are stories of how Nelson held a celebratory recruiting banquet on the second floor when he finally got appointed to command HMS Agamemnon in 1793, as war clouds gathered between Britain and revolutionary France.
Left in disappointment by The Lord Nelson’s closure, and anticipating an early exit from Burnham Thorpe, I scouted around the village and glimpsed All Saint’s Church in the distance. I set off on foot and was rewarded for my efforts.
Along the walk to the church I passed the Manor House, a lovely 15th century building that was extensively modified during the 18th century. The Manor owner was Lord Orford, although the building eventually passed to Lord Walpole, Nelson’s mother’s distant relation. Nelson must have visited here, although I couldn’t find that confirmed anywhere.
All Saints’ Church is a 12th century building that has been renovated many times since. Although still the parish church, it has also become a museum to Nelson and his family.
Although no one was present when I visited, the church door was open. The day was May 7, a propitious day as I found when I viewed the copy of Saintsbury’s Royal Navy Day by Day opened on a table inside the church. Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, HMS Victory, was launched on that same day in 1765.
Inside, the church contains a number of panels explaining Nelson and his family’s connection with Norfolk and Burnham Thorpe. The sanctuary itself has a wonderful open feel, aided by the morning light. The lectern is made from wood taken from Victory and the walls contain Nelson’s correspondence, commemorative plaques, and a Nelson bust. It also contains the Nelson children’s commemorative plaque for Edmund upon his death in 1802, which you believe must have been largely financed and authored by Horatio.
Other commemorations to Nelson date from the 20th century. Naval officers contributed to repair the All Saints’ bell, and the battle ensigns from HMS Nelson, a WWII era battleship, are hung in the sanctuary.
As I walked away from All Saints to my car, parked at The Lord Nelson across the village playfields, I left feeling I had obtained a sense of Nelson’s origins and one of the few places on land where he had established roots.