Climate change has brought many new bird species to our shores as regular visitors. Some, such as Cattle Egret and Spoonbill, have stayed and bred in North Norfolk’s amazing nature reserves.
The names of birds such as the Linnet and Lark, the Falcon, the Blackbird, the Pheasant, the Eagle and so on have become immortalised in pub signs around Britain. The same is true in North Norfolk such as The Three Swallows at Cley, The Duck Inn at Stanhoe, and The Black Swan at North Walsham.
But why were ten pubs, mostly in North Norfolk, called the Ostrich? Were these too an earlier reflection of climate change? The truth is more simple than that.
Ostriches and ostrich feathers feature in many family coats of arms. It is said to represent ‘knowledge and understanding’.
And this huge flightless bird is the heraldic emblem of the Coke family - now of Holkham Hall, a magnificent Palladian mansion just over ten miles west of Blakeney.
The ostrich marks 400 years of Norfolk history which began in the village of Mileham in mid-Norfolk, between East Dereham and Fakenham.
The story begins with Sir Edward Coke who was born in Mileham in 1552 and educated at Norwich Grammar School and Cambridge University.
This Norfolk lad became a barrister, judge and politician. He was Attorney General to Elizabeth l and Lord Chief Justice to James l. His high profile cases included bringing treason prosecutions against Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes. His methods were said to be brutal even by 17th century standards and his influence is recognised to have had a profound impact on English law and on the development of our constitution.
Coke (pronounced Cook) fought both for and against the Crown who he ruled in court was not above the law. His powerful position as a lawyer and politician was recognised by everyone and he was seen as strong, incorruptible and respected. Some said he was the embodiment of the common law and one of his works is said to be ‘the foundations of our law’.
Coke was said to be instrumental in the passage of the Petition of Right, a document which is now considered to be one of the three crucial constitutional documents of England, along with Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.
In 1628, Coke established the dictum ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’.
It was because of his legal ability that he was given the ostrich as his coat of arms. The ostrich is said to be able to eat anything and Coke was reported to be able to digest any legal problem, however complex it might be.
He became extremely wealthy and bought vast estates in Norfolk and Buckinghamshire and his descendants continued to prosper.
King James I claimed that Coke ‘had already as much land as it was proper a subject should possess’. But the story goes that Coke asked for the king's permission to just ‘add one acre more’ to his holdings.
Once he was given Royal approval, Coke went on to buy the estate of Castle Acre Priory in North Norfolk - one of the most expensive ‘acres’ in Britain.
One of his descendants, Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, built Holkham Hall over 34 years between 1734 to 1768.
Another descendant, Thomas William Coke (1754-1842) - also Earl of Leicester - was an eminent politician for Norfolk for 50 years and a great agricultural reformer who became known as Coke of Norfolk. He was famous for planting one million trees, introducing crop rotation and entertaining the rich, famous and Royalty to the annual three-day ‘Shearings’ at Holkham. At these events they inspected and discussed the beautifully kept fields of the home farm, farming innovations such as drilling seed and new equipment, and his improved breeds of sheep and cattle. This was then followed by equally famous long convivial dinners, punctuated by speeches and toasts.
The Holkham estate today extends over 25,000 acres, 22 tenanted farms and 300 houses spreading from Wells-next-the-Sea to Castle Acre.
It is in Castle Acre - where Coke bought his ‘last acre’ - that you can still visit Norfolk’s remaining Ostrich Inn where it is claimed Oliver Cromwell’s grandmother used to prop up the bar. The Ostrich Inn has great food, great beer and a wonderfully attractive 400 year-old building.
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