With a prized location at the heart of East Anglia, a unique history, and 5,000 new homes on the way, Thetford faces a choice between dormitory or destination. Which way will it go? NOAH VICKERS reports

It may not be obvious to those who drive straight past, bypassing it on the A11, but Thetford is at a crossroads - not just of the ancient routes which pass through it but as it considers what its future holds.

The town - Norfolk's fourth largest settlement - is about to undergo a significant housing expansion which will bring great changes.

It has already gone through more transformations than most places. The town was East Anglia’s ancient capital and vies only with Winchester and the City of London in claiming to have the country’s oldest mayoralty.

The birthplace of American revolutionary Thomas Paine - with a gleaming gold statue in the town centre - Thetford is also known as having been one of the principal filming locations for Dad’s Army and for having had Britain’s first black mayor, Dr Allan Glaisyer Minns, in 1904.

“We’re a big town with a small community vibe,” said Corinne Fulford, 56, who runs the Leaping Hare tourist hub.

“It's very friendly, people are always willing to help. That is I think the difference between Thetford and some other market towns. It’s very friendly and open.”

But Thetford is set apart from other towns in another crucial way: it grew exponentially as a so-called ‘London overspill’ in the decades after the Second World War.

A deal struck between Thetford and London’s councils in the late 1950s saw the construction of vast new housing estates in the years that followed, to accommodate thousands of young families from the capital.

“Whilst there’s absolutely no question the development in the 60s made a huge change, therein lies the rub,” said Ms Fulford.

“If you were part of a very small market town where pretty much everybody knows each other, and suddenly that’s blown apart - which it was - that takes a lot of getting used to, and adjustment. And I think people are still adjusting to that.”

Despite the disruption, it was a migration which breathed new life into Thetford’s economy, as four new industrial estates sprung up across the town, creating some 9,000 new jobs by the end of the 1960s.

And Thetford is growing once more. The 2011 census revealed a population of 24,833 people - a growth of 12.7pc since 2001.

In 2015, a plan to build some 5,000 new homes on the town’s northeastern edge was approved by councillors. The development, known as Kingsfleet, is gradually being built on various parcels of land, with the first phase due for completion by 2029.

Along with nearby Attleborough - which is itself set to expand by 4,000 homes - Thetford has been identified in Breckland’s local plan as one of the district’s two towns which are best suited for major growth.

“We have an opportunity to do one of two things,” said town and district councillor Roy Brame.

“We could become a dormitory town - a nice place for people to live, with all the amenities, and a lovely place to bring up children.”

“Now, I have, personally, no problem with that, as long as we’re the best dormitory town.”

Good road and rail links to both Norwich and Cambridge, and beyond, mean the town is well placed for such an outcome.

But Mr Brame said his preference would be for Thetford to instead become more of an employment hub, attracting workers as well as tourists from the ring of larger towns and cities that surround it, like Cambridge, King’s Lynn, Norwich and Bury St Edmunds.

But Thetford's geography also has its downsides, he added, pointing out that part of the difficulty in implementing a strategy for the wider Thetford area was its position by the border of two counties, requiring a high level of collaboration between Norfolk and Suffolk's councils.

Oliver Bone, curator of the town’s Ancient House museum, agreed that there was plenty of further potential for tourists, saying: “I think the natural history of Thetford is wonderful, and perhaps overlooked.

“People zoom past it in the car, but it’s brilliant to stop off and have an explore.”

The 61-year-old added: “I would like to see a bit more done with the river, because it is such a wonderful aspect [of the town].

“You used to be able to hop on a steam-powered paddle boat at Thetford and go all the way to Cambridge or all the way up to King’s Lynn.”

While he admitted there would be several obstacles to revive such a service, he said he would like to see its return explored.

Married couple Maryska and Barry Sumner, who moved up from Devon three years ago, were full of praise for the town.

“We knew nothing of Thetford when we first moved here, and we love it,” said Mr Sumner, 70.

His wife, 76, said: “Everybody spoke about the downsides, but we came here and we were open minded.”

“What really sold us was the house, which is near the river,” she added.

“The more we saw [of the town], the more we liked it,” said her husband.

Asked what 5,000 new homes could mean for the area’s future, Mr Sumner said: “I would hope it would inject new life into the town centre.

“But I would also like to see the infrastructure to be improved to be able to cope with that influx of people - bus services, doctors, things like that.”

He added that a direct train service to London could also bring benefits to the town.

Out on the outskirts, the progress of the vast Kingsfleet development is plain to see, as smart new houses are erected in neat rows and crescents, west of the A1075.

Jessica McKee, 24, who works for the East of England Ambulance Service, has lived in Thetford with her family for seven years.

On the new development, and with her partner, she's just bought her first home.

“Thetford has been pretty great for us, since we moved here a few years back…

“The bus station, smack in the middle of town, is brilliant to have. Most of our family members use it to get back and forth from Bury.

“We’ve definitely noticed in the last year there’s a lot more going on in terms of housing and also what shops and amenities are available to us.

“We’re very close to things like Thetford Forest… The best part of it [the development] is that we’re surrounded by greenery.”

She added that a new station on the Norwich-Cambridge rail line, for which land has been set aside on the Kingsfleet masterplan, would be “really nifty to have”.

“My partner works in Cambridge, so for commuting and things like that, that’s going to be wonderful to have, because he won’t have to drive every day.”

Migration to Thetford

The agreement between Thetford Borough Council and London County Council was struck in 1957.

A wave of 5,000 Londoners to the town that year was followed by another 5,000 in 1960 - increasing the town’s total population to 17,000.

They were accommodated in new social housing, the money for which came from London County Council.

The new industrial estates which sprang up as a result of the migration played host to well-known companies like Thermos, Jeyes, Danepak and Conran.

New Thetford residents received a letter from the mayor and a welcome pack with information about the area.

But migration from London had not subsided for long before the European Union began to expand.

The accession of Portugal in 1986, and much of eastern Europe in 2004, saw significant migrations from both of those places.

The 2011 census revealed that almost 30pc of the Thetford population were of Portuguese descent.