site unseen The Customs House, King's Lynn

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The Independent Online
Arguments over the European Union, a single currency and tabloid xenophobia can obscure the fact that, for centuries, we have happily traded with the towns and cities of what is now Germany. Imports, exports - we both benefited.

Most British visitors to Hamburg today are struck by the inhabitants' Anglo-enthusiasm, which was barely dented by wartime bombing. In fact, it was English architects and advisers who helped rebuild Hamburg after a terrible fire in 1842.

Similarly, a walk around many English towns displays ancient trading links. King's Lynn in Norfolk, for example, still boasts a long, two-storey building of 1478 which was once the home of the Hanseatic League of Baltic merchants.

These traders made full use of the nearby river Ouse and ensured that in the Middle Ages Bishop's Lynn - as it was then called - was prosperous. The delightful 'chequerboard' Guildhall of Holy Trinity and the numerous merchants' houses still provide picturesque reminders of this affluence.

With the dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century, Henry VIII changed the town's name to King's Lynn but fortunately did nothing to spoil its elegant appearance.

Easy to get to by train - from King's Cross to King's Lynn in little more than an hour and a half - the town is noted for its two guildhalls, its two markets and its two fine churches of St Margaret and St Nicholas. The still functioning port and docks continue to make use of Lynn's riverside location.

Not that the Ouse was always friendly. The porch of St Margaret's contains a series of high-tide marks showing the levels sometimes reached by the unruly water. New flood gates should prevent any destructive repetition.

But even King's Lynn exhibits one gruesome reminder that its past has not always been full of sweetness and light. In Tuesday Market Place, one house bears the sign of a heart. Apparently a witch was being burnt here at the stake when her heart suddenly burst out from her body (a forerunner of Aliens?) and escaped into the Ouse.

But enough gore. One particularly fine building exhibits both 17th-century architecture and King's Lynn at its best, namely the Custom House of 1683. Boasting a bewigged statue of Charles II, this was once a merchants' exchange where traders from home and abroad swapped international gossip.

There never has been a 'Little England'.

The Customs House, King's Lynn, Norfolk