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.
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.
On those rare occasions when the sun comes out, the wildlife of Blighty flocks to the coast like migrating wildebeest. Not one to buck the national trend, Liam poked his toe out of the front door and decided a day trip was on the cards. He had Cromer in mind, a seaside resort on the north Norfolk coast. The town was in carnival mood and Liam fancied his chances in the knobbly knees contest. To my ear, Cromer sounds like it should be north of the border not north of Norwich. Half an hour across the flatlands, we reached our destination. An hour later, we managed to find somewhere to park. Cromer is a dainty and neat little place serving up the time-honoured seaside fare of battered fish, non-dairy ice cream, snotty sea food and cream teas on doilies. The town was packed to the rafters with day trippers getting in the way of these gay trippers. A bracing wind blew in from the bleak North Sea and crazy bathers braved the chilly waters. We were a long way from the fierce Meltemi Wind or the warm waters of the Aegean. The elusive festival was nowhere to be seen. Slightly dejected, I took Liam and his prize-less knees to the pub for a drink. I ordered a glass of white at the bar. The burly barman dressed in a riot of freshly-inked tattoos (just like the skies, tattoos are big in Norfolk) was having none of it. “We don’t sell wine by the glass,” he said in his farmer’s twang. The scary regulars stared on as they supped pints of the usual (whatever that was). That was that. Time gentlemen, please. As we headed back to the car, I caught a glimpse of a large fading poster flapping in the wind. Jimmy Cricket was the star turn at the end of the pier show. I thought he’d long since dropped off his perch. Perhaps it goes to prove that old jokers never die, they just go to Cromer. That’ll be me, then.
While looking for a new gaff to lay our hats we boxed and coxed with trunks in tow. Some of our time was spent with Liam’s folks in Edmonton, North London. The area has a strange familiarity, and not for the obvious reasons. As a world city, London is used to migration and transience. London is what it is because of it. Centuries of settlement and resettlement have reinvented and re-invigorated the city in an endless cycle of renewal. This constant shift in the cultural cityscape is not without its challenges but it is always enriching.
Forty years ago Edmonton was host to a thriving Irish community. Catholicism, the craic and the tricolour dominated the local scene. Forty years on, next generation Irish have moved up and out leaving a rump of the old who are slowly dying off. Nature abhors a vacuum; as the Irish up sticks to greener pastures, Turks fill the spaces in between. Of course, Turkish people are no strangers to London. The colonial connection to Cyprus established Turkish and Greek communities, now decades old. The partition of Aphrodite’s troubled isle following the 1974 Turkish invasion helped to bolster numbers on both sides of the Cypriot divide. Ironically, both communities live cheek-by-jowl in a way that is no longer possible on Cyprus itself. They don’t exactly mix but neither do they growl at each other from opposite sides of a thin blue line. When I lived in Walthamstow, my local convenience store was run by Turks and my greying hair was clipped by the Greek barber next door. I wisely avoided the Cypriot question while Stavros wielded a cut-throat razor.
Back in Edmonton, the ethnic influx is of a different kind. Recent immigrants tend to hail from Turkey itself rather than Cyprus. This has introduced a more traditional feel to the area. Grubby old pubs that were dying on their feet have been turned into colourful restaurants and locked-up shops have been given a new lease of life as tea houses. There’s even a branch of Doğtaş – a well-known (and horribly gaudy) Turkish home furnishings chain – in the local shopping centre. It’s all brought a new vibrancy to the vicinity. Unfortunately, as well as a fresh new Anatolian look, the Turks have also imported their truly terrible driving habits. Lollipop ladies leap for their lives.
Mission accomplished on the flat front, we said our temporary goodbyes to old Norwich Town and ventured back to London. Norwich has remained a bit off the beaten track since it’s not connected to the motorway network; it’s an hour’s drive along single and dual carriageways until the roar of the M11 is reached. This gave us the opportunity to take in a full English at a Little Chef. I suspect this traditional chain of roadside eateries is destined to die. Just like the Bates Motel in Psycho, Little Chefs are in the wrong place and, these days, weight-rich, time-poor Brits prefer a processed cheese burger to go. It’s a crying shame.
One the way to Liam’s folks, we couldn’t resist a minor detour to our old home in Walthamstow. We pulled up outside. It was as if we had never left. Four years down the line and the pretty little Victoria terrace hadn’t changed a bit. There was the heavy red Thirties door with feature Art Décor stain glass window, the twisted wisteria dripping from the bay window and the neatly trimmed chest-height box hedge. Even the original sash windows were still dressed in the same wooden Venetian blinds we’d left behind. It was like uncovering a time capsule; our old life had been preserved in aspic. We smiled at each other but didn’t linger. It doesn’t do to go back.