By the middle of the nineteenth century Dereham was known as the ‘Garden of Norfolk.’ The name reflected the many market gardens, fruit fields and orchards that surrounded the town. It was in stark contrast to its previous title as ‘the dirtiest town in Norfolk.’
The town was fast expanding. In 1845, Dereham was home to nine butchers, eight blacksmiths, three gunsmiths and ten bakeries. There were thirteen beer houses and twenty taverns, among them the George Inn on the edge of the market place. There were confectioners, perfumers, tailors, milliners, cabinet makers, straw hat makers, saddlers, wine merchants, watchmakers, wheelwrights and whitesmiths.
With this new look came new opportunities. At the start of the 19th century, the town had welcomed a new vicar. Charles Hyde Wollaston was a younger brother of the distinguished scientist William Hyde Wollaston. His father was a well-known astronomer. By the time he arrived in the town, he was thirty four. He and his wife moved into the rectory.
The Wollastons had ambitious plans. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the couple owned more than a hundred acres of land. Much of it was laid out as Vicarage Park, which extended into Scarning near Church Farm on what is now the Draytonhall Lane estate. Here the Wollastons planted trees to create fashionable vistas in the manner of Capability Brown. And there were contemplative walks beside the stream.
The inspiration for the pleasure grounds is not clear, but may have been encouraged by the expertise of Dereham’s many gardeners. One of these, William Moore, ran a nursery on Commercial Road, employing six men and two boys. The nursery contained many exotics. The botanist James Grigor recorded that Moore’s nursery was ‘chiefly noted for its rich and varied collection of American plants and shrubs.’ When Grigor visited he found ‘a heavenly blue Morning Glory’ in flower in one of the greenhouses. The flower had come from the New World.
The Wollastons’ development of their land was ongoing. In the 1840’s, they straightened the watercourse at Vicarage Park. Ten years later, the town’s new vicar Benjamin Armstrong wrote that ‘the gardens and grounds’ of the vicarage were ‘exceedingly pretty and extensive, one chief feature being a shrubbery walk to the church, well-timbered and admitting occasional peeps of the beautiful church through the foliage. A pretty drive goes up to the door, and a park-like meadow is spread before the drawing room windows.’
The site remained unchanged for many years. In the 1990’s, the Church sold the vicarage and the grounds immediately around it. The park to the south was partly developed for housing and a conifer belt was planted to provide a screen between the houses and the vicarage. The land to the north of the vicarage was used for the construction of a new school and further housing. At the same time, Church Farm was sold and the land developed into the housing estate.
The meadows of course remain, as does part of the pleasure grounds laid out by the Wollastons. The watercourse still runs in a roughly straight line across the meadows into Washbridge, and on to Rushmeadow, where local workers used to grow water cress for London’s fashionable restaurants and hotels. Although there is no mature timber left, the outline of former tree clumps have been identified.
As for Mr Moore’s nursery gardens, these are now lost beneath Morrisons car park.