Last day at Holkham Post Office

Closure of rural post offices throughout Norfolk has led to public protests and petitions from people fighting to preserve what they regard as an essential community facility.

By Richard Parr

Closure of rural post offices has led to public protests and petitions from people fighting to preserve what they regard as an essential community facility.

But on Monday, in one corner of the county, a post office closure marked the end of an historic era for one of Norfolk's best-known stately homes and brought to an end an unusual role for a member of the county's aristocracy.

When the door closed for the final time at 1pm at the picturesque post office on the Holkham Estate, set inside a flint-walled rose garden, it brought to an end nearly 300 years of over-the-counter service and put the Earl of Leicester out of a job for which he was paid the princely salary of £5,000 a year.

“I get paid £5,000 a year by the Post Office but, of course, I have to pay Biddy Bunkle, who has run the office, rather more than that,” he joked.

On Monday, Lord Leicester went behind the counter of the tiny office for the last time and spoke of his family's links with the old government office of Postmaster General.

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Lord Leicester's ancestor, the first Earl of Leicester, was the first person to hold the title of Postmaster General in the cabinet of Sir Robert Walpole, England's first prime minister. The post has now been abolished

Lord Leicester believes it was in recognition of this post that subsequent Earls of Leicester have held the title of sub postmaster.

“I believe I am the only Peer of the Realm to carry the title and it goes back to when the first Earl was appointed Postmaster General in 1733, so today is the end of an era in my family's history,” he said.

At one time there were three post offices at Holkham, two in cottages at New Holkham and Holkham village and one in the hall itself.

In an old black and white photograph that appeared in the Times' sister paper the Eastern Daily Press, taken in the 1930s, the third earl, Thomas Coke, is pictured buying a stamp in his own post office.

While it is the end of a family link with the post office for his family, Lord Leicester says it is sad that so many small post offices, particularly those in rural communities in Norfolk, are closing.

“It is a great shame that these post offices are closing because for many people, particularly the elderly, they provide a lifeline. It is assumed that everyone has a car and computer but, of course, they haven't. They are also important as a place of social meeting for people,” he said.

But he pointed out that Wells was only a short distance from Holkham and there was a regular bus service into the town.

There can be few more attractive settings for a sub post office, located as it is at the rear of historic red-bricked Ancient House and fronting a pretty rose-filled garden surrounded by a 10-foot high flint and brick wall which is the original sea defence wall surrounding the estate.

While the Earl confessed to never actually working behind the counter, he bid a fond farewell to long-serving officer-in-charge Biddy Bunkle, for whom the closure means retirement after 26 years behind the counter. Lord Leicester was joined by his son and heir, Viscount Coke, and his wife, the Countess of Leicester, in wishing Biddy a long and happy retirement.

Mrs Bunkle, 71, of Burnham Overy, said it was a sad day for her because she would miss the many people living on the estate, including its retired folk who called in every week for their pensions

“In its busiest times we would have between 30 and 40 people coming into the post office for their pensions. Countless visitors have remarked on how lucky I am to be working in such pleasant surroundings and, yes, I certainly have been fortunate,” said Mrs Bunkle.

t The Wells Road post office within the Budgen's store at Wells Road in Fakenham also closed for the last time yesterday despite a vigorous campaign to save it.