Wells-next-the-Sea was the venue for this year’s works outing with Jo Parfitt, my partner in crime and the force of nature who is Summertime Publishing. We love a day out at the seaside when the weather’s set fair. Getting there was a bit of adventure in itself. The first stage was a stately railway journey through the ripe fields, reedy wetlands and sleepy hamlets of North Norfolk. My sedation was only interrupted when I spotted the large station sign at Gunton. Well, it didn’t look like a G to me. The two-carriage train deposited us at Sheringham, a bucket and spade resort where undertakers and vets never go out of fashion. Then onto a little bus for a white knuckle ride along the curvy coast, through flint and stone villages with impossibly narrow streets called ‘Old Woman’s Lane’ and the like. There was little time to admire the view. I held on for dear life, wishing I’d worn Pampers.
Well-heeled Wells is a gorgeous little resort and working port surrounded by pine forests, sandbanks and saltmarshes. We lunched aboard the Albatros, a genuine Dutch cargo ship serving up fake Dutch pancakes. They were delicious. The tide must’ve been out because the boat had a distinct starboard list; I felt quite tipsy even before a drop had passed my lips. Happily, I managed to regain my sea legs after half a bottle or so. We didn’t make it down the agenda to the 2016/17 marketing strategy. We got stuck on gossip. Can’t think why.
The train back to Norwich was packed with sunburnt kiddies and lively country cousins out on the lash. The painted ladies opposite shared shots of raspberry liqueur and a Bottecelli babe squeezed into the aisle next to me. As the crowd nudged past, the shapely Norfolk broad fell off her heels and tipped her ample rack into my face.
‘My, my,’ I said. ‘A total eclipse.’ How she laughed.
Apart from a half-hearted attempt at learning to drive in my twenties (booked some lessons, took a test, nearly killed someone, didn’t bother with a replay), I’ve never seen much point in getting behind a wheel. After all, the Tube has always been the best way to get around the Smoke; only plummy-voiced wankers in Chelsea tractors and micro-dicked Russian oligarchs in Jags drive through Central London. And let’s face it, I’ve always been partial to sipping the sauce, so a night bus was always the obvious choice as I tottered off home in the wee small hours with a drunken Yank in tow. I do admit though that I’ve always taken the precaution of stepping out with a bone fide driver; a chauffeur comes in very handy for those out-of-town errands.
Liam was driving a company VW when we first met. I can’t deny it was convenient and the cross-Channel lunch in Le Touquet via Le Shuttle was a fun date. My pert booty slipped quite nicely into the front passenger seat and the sound system was loud and fabulous. When we took the momentous decision to jump ship and paddle ashore to Asia Minor, the Golf went back to the dealer and we didn’t buy a car in Turkey. Why would we? We were neither mad nor suicidal. Four years later, with family duties to perform in London, we pitched our tent in Norwich and parked a sexy-arsed Renault Megane outside it. And now, with a new flat and different duties, va va voom has been handed down to my sister and we’re car-less once more. They’ll be no more driving Miss Daisy here. And anyway, Sainsbury’s deliver the Pinot Grigio free of charge.
Norwich is stuffed with the biggest, finest, oldest and firsts in all the realm. There’s a gem on virtually every corner. These are a few of my favourites. Hover over the image for a brief hint and click for more scintillating facts that you never knew you wanted to know.
The Millennium Library is a fitting successor to the first provincial municipal library – the most visited outside London. And guess what? They stock my book
The largest lips in the East and a great kisser
The only English example of a beguinage (a community of lay women living a life of poverty and chastity). The pretty thatched-roofed building is now the Briton’s Arms Restaurant
England’s most highly ornamented castle keep sitting atop England’s largest castle mound. Norwich Castle was founded a few years after the nasty Norman Conquest of 1066 when poor Harry got it in the eye. That happened to me once
The largest cathedral close in England and a great place for a picnic on a hot summer’s day
The only English city to have been excommunicated by the Pope when revolting peasants sacked the priory in 1274
Church of St John Maddermarket
The largest walled medieval city in England and bigger than the City of London. You need a vivid imagination – there’s little left of it now, more’s the pity
The first mass production of shoes in Britain – because life’s a catwalk
The first driving school in Britain opened in 1919. I could never be bothered to learn and relied on the kindness of strangers during my street walking days
The largest and most elaborate guildhall outside London. It’s rather dwarfed by the over-imposing and slightly Stalinistic Art Deco City Hall
England’s first provincial newspaper founded in 1701. It didn’t last long. The newspaper closed in 1713 after the Great Carrier Pigeon Hacking Scandal of 1712 (I’m kidding)
This is the rather over-imposing, slightly Stalinistic City Hall. The impressive building retains many of its original Art Deco features and has the longest balcony in Britain (at 365 feet). That’s the Catholic cathedral in the distance
The first and still only UNESCO World City of Literature in England
The first book written by a woman in the English Language came from the pen of Julian of Norwich in 1395. Strange name for a woman but, by all accounts, she was off with the fairies
The first blank verse to be published was written by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (eldest son to the Duke of Norfolk). Also, Harry and his mate Sir Tommy Wyatt were the first English poets to write in the sonnet form that Shakespeare later used. Harry didn’t make it to duke as the other Harry (that randy despot Henry VIII) had him beheaded for treason.
Rosary Cemetery was the first non-denominational cemetery in England where people of faith and people of none could together rest in peace
The only medieval friary to survive the Reformation intact – St Stephens and Blackfriars Halls are now used for all sorts of jollities including the annual beer fest piss-up
The largest cathedral cloister in England and very peaceful it is too
Lollards Pit is the only gay pub in the world to be found on the very site where heretics (the Lollards) were once burned to death. A delicious irony, don’t you think?
The first all-metal aeroplane in the world (1919)
Elm Hill is reputed to be the most complete medieval street in England, with buildings dating back to Tudor times. There’s not an elm tree to be seen, though.
The first municipal computer was delivered to Norwich City Hall in 1957 – with the brain power of a Casio pocket calculator (probably)
The Norman Cathedral is one of the most complete Romanesque buildings in Europe. That’s something to get down on your knees for
With thanks to Visit Norwich for much of this treasure trove.
For a glorious tail-end to summer, the flip flops were dusted down and the shorts were washed out for a final flourish and a sunny bite with my publisher Jo Parfitt, the tour de force who is Summertime Publishing. Jo was passing through the county, visiting her folks before she sets sail on her latest expat expedition, this time to Malaysia. Jo treated us to a gastro-pub lunch at the Orange Tree in Thornham, on the north Norfolk coast. It was an unmissable chance to cruise through the bread basket of England during harvest time while it’s still above sea level. Thornham is a picture-postcard hamlet dripping with money, converted barns and upmarket holiday lets, the kind of place featured on those minor-channel relocation programmes like ‘Escape to the Country.’ Liam loves to watch these shows but since we don’t quite have half a million stashed away in an off-shore piggy bank, watching is all we ever get to do. The pub grub was delicious and Jo was delightful, as were her splendid parents who popped along for a glass. While Jo is sipping Singapore Slings on her latest posting, she’s asked me to join her small cohort of trusted confidantes, a huge complement and a nice little earner. So, to Ms Parfitt, I thank you. To Summertime authors, if your Kindle file goes tits-up, on my head be it.
With the weather finally on the up and blossom dripping from the trees, the citizens of Norwich were out in their droves doing what the Brits do best – shop and sup. Purses and plastic were loosened in a brave attempt to drag the economy out of the abyss. Technically, the economy is as flat as a witch’s tit, rather than triple dipping and the patient needs all the TLC it can get. Market stalls toppled out onto the pavement, till queues weaved round Primark, the M&S food hall heaved with Norfolk broads and we couldn’t find a table in Pret a Manger when we bagged a baguette.
We escaped the madding crowd by browsing the floor show in the Forum. Modern art isn’t everyone’s cup of char but Liam loved it. I left him to peruse the exhibits and ordered a couple of drinks at the bar. Cheers!
The first proper day of spring found us leaping into the car to make sure we didn’t miss it. Liam fancied a road trip to the north Norfolk coast and had the resort of Sheringham firmly in his sights. The town was heaving with families who had the same idea, all making the most of the Easter holidays. The air was thick with a heady blend of exhaust fumes, deep fried cod and sickly-sweet candyfloss. Memories of childhood came flooding back, jaunts to windswept resorts before I discovered the joys of Spain. And believe me, Sheringham was windswept. The North Sea was working hard to propel ice cream scoops from cones, causing deafening tantrums from the buggy brigade. Fortunately, the wind was warm. Just a few weeks ago, the nipple-hardening gusts would have petrified the kiddies to the spot. I can’t say I liked Sheringham that much. From its name, I expected cute and quaint. I got bucket and spades and amusement arcades, fine if that floats your boat. The beach, though, is impressive.
Biker Boys in Cromer
From Sherringham, we swept inland to the Georgian market town of Holt for a root around and a light bite. The main road into town is dominated by a large funeral directors’ showroom and I suspect it does a brisk business. More of a large village, handsome Holt drips money, judging by the number of Chelsea tractors cruising through the streets and the price of property in the estate agents’ windows. Sadly, Holt was more or less closed. It was Sunday and Sundays are still sacred in this corner of the county. We found just one bar/restaurant open. The owners had clearly given up their day of rest to monopolise the day’s trade. At eight quid for a cheese and ham toastie, they were making a killing.
We made it back to base for a final snifter before sundown. Naturally, the riverside beer garden at the Playhouse Theatre Bar was our hostelry of choice. We were the oldest bingers in town as we sat like a couple of old pervs watching the exuberant youngsters around us and ear-wigging their artful (and sometimes pretentious) conversations. I didn’t realise Fred Perry tops are back in. Shame. I chucked all mine out in the Noughties.
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A bright spring sky and a benign forecast enticed us out for a countryside foray. We fancied a look around a reconstructed Iceni village near the hamlet of Cockley Cley (there’s a joke in there somewhere but I’m damned if I can find it). Cast your minds back to the history books of your early school days and the chapter on Queen Boudicca (Boadicea). As the story goes, the Iceni were a Celtic tribe who lived in what is now the county of Norfolk. Following the Claudian conquest of 43 AD, King Prasutagus of the Iceni (Boudicca’s other half) kept his crown by taking the Emperor’s shilling and becoming a client of the Romans. When he died, he left his lush forests and clearings in equal share to his two daughters and fiddling Nero. The perfidious Romans ignored his Will, flogged Boudicca, raped her daughters and took the lot for themselves. Dowager Boudicca was seriously pissed off. Bent on revenge, she joined up with other revolting tribes and went on the rampage. The startled Romans got quite a kicking and the rebellion nearly succeeded in booting the double-crossing conquerors out on their toga’d arses. The insurrection failed in the end but not before the rebels torched London (the first great fire), Colchester and St Albans, slaughtering the inhabitants. Folklore has it that the old Norfolk broad is buried under platform 9 or 10 of Kings Cross Station in London.
We stopped for tea in nearby Swaffham, a pretty market town with kerb appeal and a sprinkling of charm. Sadly, it was closed for the winter (apart for the odd charity shop and the ubiquitous and over-priced Costa Coffee). We climbed back into the car and headed south, passing open fields populated with freakish scarecrows dressed like the Ku Klux Klan. Liam muttered something about Jerry Springer the Opera and sped on towards the Iceni village. Contrary to the forecast, it started to rain. More by luck than judgement, we found the faux settlement hidden along a nondescript country lane. The gates were firmly locked, like Swaffham, closed for winter.
Memo to self – next time you fancy dipping your fat toe into the history of the Ancient Brits, Google before you go.
NB. Jerry Springer, the Opera caused quite a storm when it was broadcast by the BBC and went on national tour. Some bible-bashers with an irony deficit thought it was blasphemous. I saw the show at the National Theatre and thought it was hysterical. Here’s a clip of the tap dancing Klan. Skip to 1:38 to get to the best bit.