Probably not knowingly. Henry VIII changed the name of the town to King's Lynn, as a mark of favour and to acknowledge its importance as one of the most prosperous ports in the country. It hasn't quite been all down hill since then. Charles II, in periwig and tights, looks down from the stone-built Custom House, one of the most handsome smaller buildings from his reign. But as trade with Holland took second place to sugar from the West Indies, King's Lynn, on the Wash, found itself on the wrong side of the country, and first Bristol, followed by Liverpool and Glasgow, jostled it into relative obscurity.
The Lufftwaffe missed most of the centre, but the planners had the borough in their sights, knocking down chunks to build a London overspill estate in the dismal style of the 1960s and all but sealing the town's doom: it became a place to avoid living in, if you could.
Or so it seemed until recently. But as small-town life has become more attractive (think of Ludlow), and enthusiasts for fine architecture have discovered that domestic magnificence can lurk in unlikely neighbourhoods (think of Spitalfields), King's Lynn finds itself on the brink a new dawn.
Simon Thurley, the charismatic director of English Heritage, astonished friends by buying what is virtually a merchant's palace there a few years ago. His example has now been followed by no less a figure than David Watkin, professor of art history at Cambridge and a legend for exacting standards of taste.
It combines the three magic ingredients of an urban renaissance in the making: quantities of elegant houses; modest prices by the standards of London and the South East; and an unexpectedly decent train service that gets you to Cambridge in three-quarters of an hour and King's Cross 45 minutes later.
You might not think of going to King's Lynn by car; you might not think of going there at all, come to that. Built at the point where the Great Ouse debouches into the Wash, the town is marooned on an extremity of the East Anglian plain, surrounded by potato fields worked by East European labourers (Lithuanian beer is served in King's Lynn pubs). The town may not be a shopping mecca but it has everything needed to support life. There is also a theatre, an arts centre and the King's Lynn festival every July. Top-rated independent schools such as Gresham's in Holt and Wisbech Grammar over the Cambridgeshire border are within reach.
The long property boom may have transformed other parts of Britain, but King's Lynn slept through it all. Stephen Fry may live on the fashionable North Norfolk coast, only a few miles away, but not much of Chelsea-on-Sea is to be found in down town King's Lynn. One traffic warden, rooted to the same paving stone for a quarter of an hour, seemed to be in a state of suspended animation when I visited. King's Lynn is not the King's Road, and possibly better for it.
I had the feeling of having stumbled into a foreign town: unexpectedly splendid, predictably slow-moving and, as in France, with property to goggle at. Belton Duffey (01553 770055) is offering Wood House, a six-bedroom, Grade II-listed Georgian town house on King Street, for £385,000 (the equivalent in Cambridge cost nearer £1 million).
With its two square towers, St Margaret's Church on the Saturday Market Place is on the scale of a cathedral. Founded in 1100, it was enhanced over the next four centuries by the rich merchants who belonged to the Trinity Guild, whose magnificent 15th-century hall, with a chequered façade of stone and flint, stands just beyond the churchyard railing. The town's other guildhall, St George's, owned by the National Trust, is the biggest in the country. Representatives from the Hanseatic League, an alliance of merchant guilds along the North European seaboard during the late Middle Ages up to the 17th century, opened up in King's Lynn, and the alliance helped shape the town, which still has something of the flavour of a Baltic port. As Simon Thurley explains: "All the merchant's houses had show-off facades to the main streets and long warehouses running back to the docks behind."
Only a few hundred yards from the Saturday Market Place is the Tuesday Market Place, which covers three acres and was originally bigger. "The walk between the two of them is as good as anything in the country," says David Watkin. The dominant impression is of mulberry-coloured Georgian brickwork, sash windows, square parapets and pediments over doors. Prof Watkin's house, facing St Margaret's, has a ballroom designed by Matthew Brettingham, who supervised the construction of nearby Holkham Hall. Often the Georgian facades simply front much older structures. The earliest parts of Dr Thurley's house date from the 1250s, the latest from the 1860s, "and it has a bit of everything in between".
Sheridan Estate Agents (01553 766777 ) is asking for offers in excess of £180,000 for a two-bedroom apartment and £235,000 for three bedrooms carved out of an ancient warehouse on King's Staithe Lane, abutting a tower built for merchants to look out of. It "oozes character", according to the particulars. The conversion is the work of the excellent King's Lynn Preservation Trust. If you prefer an authentic, three-bedroom cottage, Grade II-listed, there is an example on Church Street, off the Saturday Market Place, for sale through Abbots (01553 765146 ) for £185,000.
A short stroll from the Saturday Market Place brings you to The Walks, a series of 18th-century avenues, which are being restored under the Heritage Lottery Fund's initiative for public parks. A four-bedroom, late-Georgian house overlooking The Walks is on the market with Hawkins Countrywide for £215,000. Not far away an attractive Regency house is being offered by Millsopps (01553 775151) for £169,500. And a former Methodist parsonage, a six-bedroom family house with a garden at £435,000 (Abbots) is something not often found in the historic centre.
By Clive Aslet 22 April 2008 www.telegraph.co.uk
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