What's life like in Norfolk's 'most isolated' village?

Yvonne Harrold, Saham Toney villager

Yvonne Harrold, Saham Toney villager - Credit: Sarah Hussain

Where do you think is the most remote village in Norfolk? The answer, according to government statistics, might surprise you. It certainly surprised the locals. SARAH HUSSAIN reports

Residents in Saham Toney thought it was a joke when they were asked if they considered their village to be the most isolated community in Norfolk... But statistically that is the case.

Data from the Department for Transport identified the location as the most remote in the county, and the 43rd most remote in the entire country.

Officials based their calculations on an analysis of the length of time it takes for locals to reach their nearest services - shops, schools, GP surgeries and employers - by public transport or by walking.

In the official rankings of Norfolk communities, the Tilney, Mershe Lande and Wiggenhall ward, in the west of the county, and Mattishall, in Breckland, were the second and third most remote locations.

But it was Saham Toney, in the south west of the county, which fared worst.

Saham Toney from the air

Saham Toney from the air - Credit: Archant

The average minimum journey time to the nearest key service by car was 19.2 minutes, and by public transport 75.7 minutes.

So how did the locals greet this news of their isolation? Mostly, with bafflement.

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All were quick to point out that this apparent site of seclusion was on bus routes, connecting it to nearby market towns via hourly services.

And that Saham Toney is separated by just a couple of fields, and a distance of little over a mile, from the bustling metropolis of Watton, which is home to a medical practice, a dentists, banks, a supermarket and other shops.

Saham Toney, which is near Watton

Saham Toney, which is near Watton - Credit: Sarah Hussain

The divide between the two settlements can be bridged in a 20 minute walk, or a three minute drive.

And for those who don't fancy tackling this epic journey, Saham Toney itself offers plenty: it has a primary school, pub, country hotel, church, memorial pavilion with a cricket and rugby field, and big village hall, which features a main hall, small hall, meeting room, kitchen, community bar and toilets.

Saham Toney Village Hall

Saham Toney Village Hall - Credit: Sarah Hussain

The hall, known as the Wells Cole Community Centre, hosts weekly groups including yoga, art and a camera club, and is also home to a post office on Thursdays.


'There's loads of bus stops'

Members of the Saham Toney arts group

Members of the Saham Toney arts group - Credit: Sarah Hussain

Around a dozen members of the Saham Toney art group were gathered there on Tuesday morning.

All questioned why the village had been given its 'most remote' status.

Jackie Johnson, 75, who moved to the village from Croydon 48 years ago, said: "I'm surprised, we're about 20 odd miles in either direction from hospitals.

"We have shops in Watton and Dereham.

"We used to have a little wooden hut as a community centre, but we now have a good centre with different groups going."

Jean Barrall, 77, had previously lived in the nearby village of Thompson, which she said seemed far more isolated.

"This village has real heart to it and people are lovely. A lot goes on and people look after each other.

"It's not isolated, you can get buses from here to Dereham, Swaffham and Watton.

Several bus stops are located around the village

Several bus stops are located around the village - Credit: Sarah Hussain

"I drive to Watton for shops. But if you don't drive you only have to walk down the street for bus stops. There's several around the village."

The village offers plenty for people to do, which perhaps means that it doesn't feel remote, even if its transport links are not as good as those in other places.

David Branson, member of the Saham Toney art group

David Branson, member of the Saham Toney art group - Credit: Sarah Hussain

David Branson, 78, said: "It could be isolated from a public transport perspective. But it's never been a factor that has affected me.

"There's a good village community and facilities, possibly the best village hall of the villages around here. You go to some and it's a village hut."

Mike Adams said: "I don't feel isolated at all. There's no trouble getting to hospitals and medicals if needed.

"People come here to have a different way of life. We all do different things."

He said north Norfolk seemed more remote.

In some respects, though, Saham Toney could seem isolating.

"In terms of transport, we can do with rail services improved. That plays into isolation," Mr Adams added.

"If I wanted to go to London I was told to drive to Ely. It's 30 miles away and Norwich is 30 miles away.

"If I wanted to commute I would not have moved here."

Other rail stations - Thetford and Attleborough, both on the Norwich to London line - are closer, but not by much. 

Yvonne Shaw, 75, said that a car was essential to avoid getting stuck in Saham Toney.

Unless residents had one, they "can't really get out", she said.

Statistics back her up. Data from the ward's 2021 neighbourhood plan show the population of around 1,500 mainly relies on cars to commute.



'We've a cricket, football and a golf club'

Residents on Richmond Road also rejected Saham Toney's new label.

Yvonne Harrold, 89, moved to the village 56 years ago for her husband's work as a blacksmith engineer and said although times have changed people still have access to local facilities.

Picture of Saham Toney after the Second World War

Picture of Saham Toney after the Second World War - Credit: Sarah Hussain / Yvonne Harrold

The former nurse and member of the village's heritage group said: "You don't feel isolated, you know if you were desperate people will help.

"When I first moved there were four to five shops, general stores, and we used to have a van come around with stuff once a week and another chap on his bicycle.

"I didn't have to move, people delivered milk, bread and fish. That's all gone now.

"If you're lucky you now get shopping online or go to Tesco or Waitrose to deliver.

"Most people have cars to travel to Watton or Dereham, and there's also the bus.

"You go up to Watton, Swaffham or Shipdham for dentists or doctors.

"Saham Hills is more isolated."

This was a common response from locals, to point out that other neighbouring villages, such as Saham Hills - less than a mile away - were more remote.

Thompson and Great Cressingham both came up repeatedly.

George Collier, who lives in Saham Toney

George Collier, who lives in Saham Toney - Credit: Sarah Hussain

George Collier, 29, who has lived in Saham Toney all his life and commutes to Dereham for retail work, said: "There's not that many facilities but Watton is close by and it has things. It's a 20 minute walk.

"It has a cricket and football club, and golf club.

"When we moved it was a small village but there's been a lot of development and small housing estates near the school.

"The traffic going past has increased on this road."


'There are lots of work-from-homers'

The Old Bell pub in Saham Toney

The Old Bell pub in Saham Toney - Credit: Sarah Hussain

There was a time, apparently, when the village boasted nine pubs. Now it has just one, the Old Bell.

Owner Graham Morton said: "If you go to Wood Rising, Great Cressingham or Thompson, they have nothing.

"It's quite a big village here.

"I guess it's down to more bike ways and cycle paths. The school numbers have gone down, but it's a good school.

"A lot of people work from home, and a lot of our customers are people who have moved down here from London."


'We're much more isolated'

Diana Pengelley, church treasurer at Saham Hills Methodist Church.

Diana Pengelley, church treasurer at Saham Hills Methodist Church. - Credit: Sarah Hussain

Over in Saham Hills, Diana Pengelley, church warden of the Saham Hills Methodist Church, thought her village was more isolated than its big brother, Saham Toney.

The 82-year-old, who has her shopping delivered, said: "You do have to have transport up here. It's got no bus service, it's got nothing.

"Apart form the church there's not a lot going on here.

"The closest shops are Watton so people drive over.

"It's more isolated. We used to do meals on wheels which was great for people who can't get out, but that's all gone."




SAHAM TONEY'S NEAREST SERVICES AND FACILITIES

Hospital - Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, 20 miles away

Doctors and dentists - Watton, two miles.

Cinema - Hollywood Cinemas, Dereham, 10 miles; Light Cinema, Thetford, 16 miles

Leisure Centre - Swaffham, eight miles.