My Kind of Town: King’s Lynn is as much about time as it is about place
Unfortunately for ‘place’ it is always in the same place, but not always in the right place. The turning tide of economic change creates winners and losers; King’s Lynn has been both. The story is evident on every street corner; the high-water mark of medieval European mercantile swagger and the low point of top-down municipal solutionism.
King’s Lynn was once the gateway to England, a medieval entrepôt connected to the Hanseatic League. But it has long lost its lustre. Trade turned westward to Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, and King’s Lynn found itself facing the wrong way and slowly settled into backwater by The Wash. Growing up there I remember being told by someone who I thought should know these things, “Norfolk is an island”. An arresting idea that has stuck with me. I think she meant the sense of separation that Norfolk’s geography creates relative to London, placing it at the end of the line, an outpost visited only by those going there, not passing through on the way to somewhere else. And King’s Lynn is right on the furthest edge of the ‘island’, with its docks and the River Ouse now at the back rather than the front where they once were.
It is an intriguing town; a mash up between medieval street pattern, with remnants like The South Gate still standing, and the Abercrombie-lite precinct that crashes up against the conservation area, leaving hollowed-out pockmarks for rear servicing.
In an effort to transform its fortunes, King’s Lynn was designated as a London overflow town in 1962 and, to deal with demand and increasing footfall, the town centre was pedestrianised two years later. This radically changed the town’s urban grain as rear service access and off-street surface car parking were introduced. A weirdly insular centre has emerged with its frontages hiding a strange back-land bizarrely located on main routes in and out, like a moth-eaten fine knit jumper. Perhaps this is why I’ve always thought of King’s Lynn as a mystifying place; it never quite makes sense, its character ruptured and fleeting.
It shows how a town is as much about time as it is about place; a temporal plan is rarely something found on a map or masterplan, but perhaps it should be. King’s Lynn’s calendar is written in its spaces and names. Saturday Market Place and Tuesday Market Place sit at each end of the High Street.
Each market place has its own church, St Margaret’s and St Nicholas respectively. Saturday Market Place is the older civic centre, with the chequerboard Guild Hall still opposite the church. Tuesday Market Place is the livelier upstart with its eighteenth-century glossiness: the Duke’s Head Hotel – the place for afternoon tea – and the banks, now coffee shops and pizzerias.
It was the location of the annual Valentine’s Day trade fair granted in 1204, which has evolved into the King’s Lynn Mart, a funfair crammed into the square and now in its 815th year. The magical transformation of the square was an annual highlight of my childhood. The waltzers and dodgems squeezed into the market place with the Big Wheel taking you up and over the roof tops to view the inky river and lights of West Lynn on its other bank.
“The future is not like it used to be”, as Steve Jobs said, and King’s Lynn’s strange schizophrenia between the historic conservation area being too perfect and increasingly ‘clean’, and the rest that has been left to muddle on with the consequences of top-down solutionism still reverberating 50 years on makes you wonder what’s next. Messy and ill-defined is not bad; the tendency to want clean and tidy is the death of a place – we need to understand and respect the rough edges. It is a question of what to leave alone as well as what to change. How do traces of life get integrated into a change that feels like it might endure? I can’t help feeling that the weird back-lands might be King’s Lynn’s future; places that can be slowly colonised and richness allowed to emerge when there are many hands put to the task. We may find a temporal plan of a place is the only one we need.