Sir John Fenn (1739-1794) is not himself noted as an author, but was instrumental in identifying the value of, and publishing, the world-famous Paston Letters, providing a detailed insight into life in the 15th century. He also made many other contributions to local life, and his wife Ellenor was a pioneer of child centred education. Their home at Hill House is just off the Market Place in Dereham, while Ellenor is recognised by the newly established Ellenor Fenn Garden a short walk away in the town.
As reported by Literary Norfolk Dereham (formerly East Dereham) “is particularly important for its connections with the troubled poet William Cowper (1731-1800) and the novelist/travel writer George Borrow (1803-81). It was also the birthplace of the science fiction writer Brian Aldiss.”
The main site for William Cowper, Poet and Hymnodist is the Cowper Memorial Congregational Church in Market Place. The church is on the site of the poet’s former home, which was demolished to build the church. Cowper is one of the most popular poets of his time – the forerunner of romantic poetry. The phrase ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ is from one of Cowper’s poems. He died here and is buried in St Nicholas’ Church (a 5 minute walk away), which has a stained glass window in Cowper’s memory. There is also a window dedicated to Cowper in Westminster Abbey.
Walking between the Cowper Memorial Congregational Church and St Nicholas’ Church takes you past the Romany Rye Public House, named after one of George Borrow’s books. This, and another book – Lavengro – contain various references to the local area, most notably ‘Pretty, quiet Dereham, thou pattern of an English town’. (There then follows a section which seems clearly about William Cowper). Borrow lived for a time (though, contrary to some belief, was not born) at Borrow Hall, itself sited a mile or so out at Dumpling Green, a lengthy track which is also a public footpath.
A little later came Benjamin Armstrong (1817-1890), vicar at East Dereham from 1850 to 1888. Throughout his life Armstrong was a great diarist and there are now three published editions of his diaries which relate to his years as Vicar of Dereham, the last edited by his great grandson. Armstrong’s affection for East Dereham was recorded in his diary in 1875 and he wrote (after returning from time away) “… no country after all, like England, and no county in it better than Norfolk, and no place in Norfolk better than East Dereham”.
Finally, and more recently, there is Brian Aldiss, the science fiction writer who gave his name to a shopping area in the town – Aldiss Court.
Explore Dereham on foot with Dereham Walkers are Welcome.