Kevin Nolan on Burnham Thorpe

Posted on March 25, 2015 by Kevin Nolan

Greenwich.co.uk’s Charlton match reporter Kevin Nolan turns travel writer with this account of his visit with wife Hazel to Burnham Thorpe, birthplace of Nelson.

The village of Burnham Thorpe is one of the five “Burnhams”¬† clustered together near the North Norfolk coastline, the biggest of which is Burnham Market. But Burnham Thorpe has a claim to fame which sets it apart from its brethren. It was there on September 29th 1758, that Lord Viscount Horatio Nelson, Britain’s most celebrated naval hero, was born in All Saints parsonage, the sixth of eleven children raised by the rector Edmund Nelson and his wife Catharine until her death when Horatio was nine.

Not that Burnham Thorpe, at first glance anyway, exploits its reflected glory. As you approach the village through agreeable countryside to be found nowhere else in England, you are directed by just one wooden sign which has seen better days and lies at an unreadable angle. Or, at least, it did when my wife Hazel and myself went out of our way to visit the village some ten or so years ago. The off-kilter sign mentions the Nelson connection but that’s the first and last reference to Burnham Thorpe‘s favourite son.

We took to the casual, understated way in which the locals handle their connection to one of the most famous Englishmen of them all. Even the village’s only pub, the Lord Nelson, was re-named from “The Plough” shortly after Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, its re-branding¬† clearly unconnected to modern marketing.

It was in The Plough that the Nelson family hosted a come-ye-all party before their 13 year-old midshipman went to sea with his uncle Captain Maurice Suckling in 1771. Nearly 250 years later, the local boy would return to a pub which wears its years elegantly and has hardly changed. And being a man of the people, he might even stand his round, because unlike his military contemporary, the Duke of Wellington, who regarded the cannon fodder he commanded as “scum”, the admiral and his sailors shared mutual respect and affection.

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Much of Nelson’ lasting reputation is explained by the almost reckless bravery he showed in combat. Convinced that his crews were encouraged by his refusal to direct operations from a safe place, the peerless tactician put his body on the line and made no attempt, despite the pleading of his staff officers, to spare himself the same danger his crew were undergoing. His courage had cost him an arm and the sight in his right eye during past engagements at Santa Cruz and Corsica.

Out of favour with the Admiralty and placed on half pay, Nelson spent five mid-career years back in Burnham Thorpe fretting that his naval career was over. As their resources grew thinner, the call from London eventually came and his superiors, many of them still sceptical about “the Nelson touch”, placed him in charge of the Fleet, with orders to track down and destroy the French navy. This was spectacularly accomplished at Trafalgar, where he was cut down by a French sharpshooter but lived long enough to learn that every man had done his duty as England expected.

Horatio Nelson had made plans to be buried alongside his parents in the All Saints church graveyard. The outpouring of national grief at the loss of their greatest hero made that unthinkable and when his body arrived back in England, it was laid in state for several days in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, ferried upriver, then buried in the crypt under St. Paul’s Cathedral. The city of London came to a halt for the biggest funeral a “commoner” had ever been granted.

Back in Burnham Thorpe, meanwhile, life placidly continued, its only concession to celebrity being the change of name two years after Nelson’s death of the local pub. This quintessential English village has little truck with tourism and bears its history lightly on each shoulder. It’s a beautiful place, thankfully unapproachable by motorway, but be careful with the rum-based libation they call “Nelson’s Blood” on offer inside the Lord Nelson. Splice the mainbrace, by all means, but steady as you go. We’ll say no more….

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