After a dull, damp winter, the spring has been warm and friendly – pale blue skies and wispy clouds – perfect weather for back-garden BBQs and slow walks along the Wherryman’s Way. Some readers may remember our clash with Daisy, the mad cow last autumn. On the warmest day of the year so far, we decided to return to the scene of our undoing. It was time to finally face our demons.
We took a circuitous route from Chedgrave, through Loddon, past pretty cottages dripping with wisteria and locked-down pubs looking sad in the sun, finally arriving at the riverside clearing at Pye’s Mill.
After a brief stopover for some extra vitamin D and a beef baguette, we girded our loins and wandered into the field where the evil cows graze. Keeping a watery ditch between them and us, we proved that man and beast can live together in perfect harmony, as long as they keep to their side of the moat. Job done and safely home, we chucked a couple of burgers on the grill.
I cannot lie. I was so relieved when off licences were added to the list of essential retailers. A dry lockdown would be way beyond the pale ale and, thankfully, local shops are well-stocked with the hard stuff, helping to tranquilise us through the coronavirus crisis.
We’re creatures of habit, Liam and I. And touring the village watering holes for a few bevvies is one of them. We call it doing our bit for the local economy. As they’re all shut up for the time being, we get our fix by cracking open a bottle and joining in the White Horse virtual pub quiz on Facebook every Monday at 8pm. It’s not quite the same as the real thing and it’s too easy to cheat – not that we do, of course – but it’s as good as it gets right now.
Simon, Chedgrave’s very own jolly landlord, is doing his bit to keep community peckers up and the virtual quiz really helps. He also does a nice line in colourful shirts to brighten up the dullest of days – always a talking point. Sartorially, though, he’s got a long way to go before he can compete with the nation’s all-time favourite pub landlady – bottle-blond, chain-smoker, Bet Lynch (AKA Julie Goodyear). Bet’s signature look was leopard skin. She covered everything in it, even her chest exerciser.
Brassy Bet’s tenure behind the bar at the Rovers Return on Coronation Street may be long over but you can catch her glory days weekday afternoons on ITV3. That’s what I do.
The north folk round these parts take Christmas very seriously. The pretty sisters of Loddon and Chedgrave are decked out in their best festive livery and we’ve had fairs and fairies, themed evenings and evensong, Santa and his servants, mulled wine and warm bitter and a host of other merry romps. The villagers have gone to town for good causes, including the homeless of Norwich. Even a stuffed wild boar’s head at a local pub has got into the spirit of the season.
But the biggest bauble must go to local neighbours who’ve created a winter wonderland in their front garden. Completely mad and totally marvellous.
This year, Liam and I jollied in London for our birthdays. A state of the art, hi-tech micro-room in St James’ was the perfect base for our foraging. We arrived on Remembrance Sunday and the centre of town was buzzing with blazers, badges and bling under a canopy of Christmas lights. It was fun being tourists with time on our hands to roam and drink it all in, something we rarely did when we were worker bees on the treadmill.
Talking of drinking it all in, no trip to the West End is quite the same without a jar or two in a local hostelry. As seems to be our habit these days, we ended up at Halfway to Heaven, a gay bar just off Trafalgar Square and the splendid den of iniquity where Liam first caught my roving eye 13 years ago. Quite by chance, we arrived just in time to catch their annual Remembrance Day show.
The pub was rammed with military veterans – men and women, young and old, straight, gay and everything in between, all in their Sunday best – enjoying a convivial mingle with the regulars.
Halfway to Heaven has become something of a safe and welcoming place for ex-military LGBT people. Who knew? But it was a wonder to behold. When we were at the bar ordering drinks, a middle-aged woman was chatting to the manager.
“Thank you for being so nice to my dad and his husband,”
she said, pointing at two old soldiers in the corner.
Recently, Liam and I were enjoying a drink at a local watering hole, entertained by a lively band of Vikings – rowdy, boisterous and very, very drunk but much less troubling than the deliciously named Sveyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, who sacked and torched Norwich in 1004 (and went on to become the first Danish king of England). Eventually the marauding sons of Odin decided to go pillaging elsewhere. As they stumbled to the door, a hulking red-faced redhead threw Liam a broad smile. Thinking his longboat had come in, Liam started to chat and asked the man where he was from. ‘Norway’, came the reply with a proud flourish. He offered us a palmful of loose change. ‘I’m going home, I won’t need this. Give it to charity,’ he slurred. We directed him to the charity box at the bar which he managed to find, but only just. Then off he staggered down Timberhill – to catch the last longboat home, I guess. Or maybe just a flight from Stansted.
It was that time of year again when I joined my partner in crime and the force of nature that is Jo Parfitt for our annual general meeting to discuss this publishing malarkey and plan the road ahead. It also provided a welcome excuse to have a proper natter. Previous AGMs have been on this side of the North Sea and so Jo suggested we pop across the water to her elegant gaff in The Hague. We bit her hand off.
Not that it was all work and no play. That would make Jack a very dull boy. Naughty gossip was definitely at the top of the agenda, accompanied by tasty fare and free-flowing wine. Jo and husband were generous hosts. The ‘any other business’ involved a walkabout. As our lodgings were city-centre chic, we had plenty of time to amble round the cobbled streets of the tidy and graceful City of Peace and Justice. We had to keep our wits about us – looking left not right, eyes anxiously peeled for the trams and cyclists coming at us from every which way. We were lucky with the weather: warm and breezy with a few heavy rain clouds that failed to burst, and we took full advantage of the café culture spilling out all over the bricked pavements.
We even got the chance to hop on a tram to delightful Delft, a mini-Amsterdam without the reputation, criss-crossed with pretty canals and home to blue pottery and the House of Orange. The still waters were distinctly green in places: a quick dip would have been unwise.
Just to demonstrate we’re not total lightweights, cultuur-wise, we took in the cute and bijou Vermeer Museum to sample Delft’s most famous artist. Liam was definitely plugged in to the Vermeer vibe.
We flew the KLM City Hopper to and from Amsterdam’s manic Schiphol Airport courtesy of the rather sedate Norwich International which is more of a hut than a hub, but then we were home 30 minutes after landing, chilled white in hand.
One thing we confirmed during our cheery jolly to Shrewsbury is that, according to Salopians (as Shropshire folk are called), it’s pronounced Shroosbury, as in ‘Taming of the…’. We also discovered that it’s tranquil, polite and stuffed with interest – from amazing ‘olde worlde’ architecture along Dickensian streets with quirky names to match to an embarrassment of watering holes and eateries to suit all tastes and pockets. And rain didn’t stop play – well this was the wet West Country (or rather the West Midlands as pointed out by an old friend – you know who you are). It’s west of East Anglia so that’s good enough for me. In fact, the number of Welsh accents we heard almost convinced us we were actually in Wales.
After a good old gander round the narrow streets and little lanes, we happened upon ‘The Nag’s Head’, a bijou pub on Wyle Cop (yes, that’s the name of the street) to be welcomed by an old codger at the bar supping Guinness. He said…
I knew you were comin’ so I put ABBA on.
‘Dancing Queen’ was followed in quick succession by Freddie Mercury, Elton John and George Michael. As Liam slurped his large Merlot, I googled ‘gay bars in Shrewsbury’ and guess what came up? Yep, The Nags Head.
Britain’s longest river, the Severn, wraps around Shrewsbury like a leafy boa (very much like Norwich’s Wensum) which presumably provided an effective defence against the marauding Welsh way back when. These days the calm waters provide a pleasant riverside stroll and opportunities for a tipple or two on sunny days.
Day two was spent in lovely Ludlow, a genteel medieval, Tudor and Georgian assortment sitting on top of a hill overlooking rolling Shropshire countryside. Poet Laureate John Betjeman described Ludlow as ‘probably the loveliest town in England’ and we could see why. The sun poked through the clouds for market day and judging by the posh merchandise on offer, we knew Ludlow was a notch or two above. The town is famous for food so, after a good look around, we settled on delicious Thai for lunch provided by an Anglo-Thai gay couple. We seem to have a nose for the gay thang.
So that was Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Are they on the leader board for our dotage? Shrewsbury certainly, Ludlow less so. Lovely as it is, I don’t think we’re nearly posh or genteel enough.