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.
As described in my post, Gran Canaria, Sex Emporium, of many years past.
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.
All in all, not a bad gig.
Liam’s birthday is only a couple of weeks after mine so we tend to celebrate our birthdays together. When I say ‘celebrate’ I don’t mean razzmatazz, wild parties, clubbing or jetting over to Paris for a romantic city break. We’ve neither the energy nor the readies these days. No, a nice meal and good conversation washed down by a bottle or two is now the order of the day. Recently, an Ivy Brasserie opened here in old Norwich town. The original Ivy Restaurant is in Covent Garden in Central London and has been serving up posh nosh to the rich and infamous for a hundred years. Back in the day, I was lucky enough to have the readies to lunch there a few times. Although pricey, the food was (and probably still is) amazing. Keen to cash in on the brand, Ivy Brasseries have started popping up all over the best places. The classic has become a chain.
So we decided to treat ourselves and give it a whirl. Was it worth it? Absolutely – lavish decor, relaxed atmosphere, exemplary service, flirtatious waiter, great food. And autumnal skies gave way to bright, warm sunshine – no jacket required. What’s not to like?
Image courtesy of The Ivy, Norwich
I’ve always said that a meal without good company is just food. And with Liam, I’m always in the best company whether it’s at a fancy bistro or sharing a bag of chips on the way home from the pub.
Little ol’ Norwich has been voted as one of the top twelve places to live in the UK according to the Sunday Times (as reported in our local rag, The Norwich Evening News). And then Time Out London did a full page spread praising Norwich as one of the happiest cities in the realm. The magazine recommends a few places we know well – The Grosvenor Fish Bar (voted as one of the best chippies anywhere), Wild Thyme for the veggies (but sadly out of action right now due to an inconvenient fire), The Plough (prettiest beer garden in the city), The Playhouse Bar (for an arty student vibe) and Strangers Coffee House (they have their own roastery). I could’ve written the piece myself.
So why are we thinking about laying our cloth cap in God’s Own Country when the time is right? Well, we like it Oop North and, as we shuffle towards our twilight years, it pays to be on the right side of God. Just in case.
Time Out page courtesy of – you know who you are!