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.
We’ve just celebrated our eleventh wedding anniversary – steel according to some traditions – so I bought Liam a metal whistle to use when he’s trying to bring me to heel – good luck with that one! We revelled in some style with a spot of lunch at Bishop’s – one of Norwich’s best eateries – all posh nosh and fine wine. Afterwards, we staggered up St Andrew’s Hill for digestifs at The Cosy Club – one of the city’s swankiest drinking dens – fashioned from the Victorian grandeur of the old NatWest bank on London Street. There is nothing particularly cosy about the lavish interior. More style over substance we thought.
As well as our legs-eleven anniversary, it was also thirteen years since we first met after work in a gay bar just off Trafalgar Square in old London Town. Our eyes met across the crowd of boozing suits and bewildered tourists. Liam reeled me in with a double gin. And that, as they say, was that. The number thirteen may be unlucky for some, but definitely not for me.
Contrary to rumour, the age demographic around the pool of the gentlemen-only bungalow resort was more mixed than anticipated. Everything else, though, was as billed – comfortable abode with a few luxury touches, an obliging Portugeezer host, glorious weather and a warm and inviting salt-water pool (despite the black tiles giving the water the appearance of the Thames at London Bridge). The complimentary bottle of Cava went down a treat too.
Mostly we lazed, read and exchanged small talk with our fellow inmates, all looked over by a serene statue of the Buddha. What he made of the wibbly-wobbly willies slowly sizzling like bangers on a BBQ, God only knows. When I first holidayed to Gran Canaria back in the early eighties, nudity was strictly verboten. As the years rolled by and buttons loosened, full frontal was allowed but only after the cleaners had left for the day. Now, it’s okay to let it all hang down wherever and whenever you fancy, even while sipping a sex on the beach at the bar. Public licentiousness, though, was off the menu, particularly in the jacuzzi. It clogs up the filters, apparently.
We kept our family jewels firmly under wraps except in the privacy of our bung. Our eyes, though, were everywhere and especially drawn to a tattooed man from Doncaster with well-nibbled nipples and pendulous equipment. Well, it would’ve been rude not to look.
As we lolled around the pool, the travelling sun poked through under the parasol. Liam said…
I must put something on my face.
I suggested. How we laughed.
Being of a certain age and disposition, we only ventured out a few nights to the bars which are mostly located in a shopping centre which…
…is a naff treat for all the senses, a crumbling multi-layered open air shopping and sex emporium. It started to fall apart as soon as it was built. By day, it’s an over-sized pound shop patronised by ancient slow-lane Germans in busy shirts and socked sandals. But, at the stroke of midnight, the racks of tat are wheeled away, the garish bars throw open their doors and the entire place is transformed into a gaudy cacophonous neon-lit cess-pit of drunken debauchery.
The place hadn’t changed much except, perhaps, for the drag acts, which have raised their game since last we were there – a little more vaudeville and a little less Blackpool.
One steamy afternoon, we jumped in a cab to the lighthouse at Maspalomas for a light lunch and a few bevvies. First up was a low-brow diner with a slapped-up Gemma Collins lookalike sitting on the next table with her Essex companions. Next up was a gay oom-pah-pah bierkeller serving strong ale and bar snacks to the jolly leather-faced Germans. We were gutted to learn that ‘brot mit knoblauchsauce’ was German for garlic bread. Who knew? The afternoon ended at a posh café sinking a delicious bottle of Rioja while watching the sun go down.