We were to meet up with the fragrant Roving Jay for one of our regular bloggers’ food-and-drink conventions but our plans were scuppered at the last minute. As we’d already bought the bus ticket, we went into town anyway for a wander around. Tombland, Norwich’s historic heart, is looking splendid after a recent wash and brush up. You might think the name comes from something spooky but it’s actually old English for ‘open ground’ (or such like) and is where the old market was held until those dastardly all-conquering Normans moved it to its present location a little after 1066 and all that.
It was a great day for a stroll so we decided to check out Cathedral Close, the substantial grounds of the grand Norman church. The Close is full of statues – of men mostly, as is the norm. However, one woman, Edith Cavell, has pride of place at the entrance. Ms Cavell was a British nurse in German-occupied Belgium during the Great War. She is remembered for tending to soldiers from both sides of the trenches and for helping about 200 Allied soldiers escape. Arrested by the Germans, she was tried for treason and shot by firing squad. It caused quite an international incident at the time as it wasn’t the done thing to shoot women – only horses. As she was a Norfolk lass, Edith Cavell is buried in the cathedral.
Doubtless, someone will discover something about Ms Cavell’s words, views or deeds that wouldn’t quite be cricket by today’s standards and demand she’s knocked off her plinth. That would be a shame.
Naturally, a chilled bottle was waiting for us at the end of the trail. We settled down at the Red Lion Pub on the river next to the Bishop Bridge, built in 1340 and the city’s oldest, to watch people messing about in canoes. Bottoms up!
Our next family do since the end of lockdown was to Liam’s lot. A fun family BBQ in rural Hertfordshire, a night or two in Cambridge and a visit to Ely, a teeny-weeny city with a vast cathedral dominating the flatlands. ‘The ship of the Fens’ can be seen for miles around, demonstrating just how important He used to be to the prince, the pauper and everyone in between. There’s been a house of God on this spot since 673.
Ely sits on a small plot of high ground at the heart of the Fens, a once expansive marsh long since tamed by dykes and ditches, and drained for agriculture. The city has a quirky feel to it and, despite being only 14 miles from Cambridge and 80 miles from London, projects an air of splendid isolation and self-sufficiency, perhaps inherited from times past when it was an island, cut off for much of the year.
Obviously, the huge church is the main event. I’m not even remotely religious but its sheer scale forces you to look up to the heavens in utter astonishment.
The twin villages of Loddon and Chedgrave have ancient roots. Both are listed in the Domesday Book of 1086, that great asset register commissioned by that great asset stripper, William the Conqueror. Bill the Bastard wanted to know how much tax he could squeeze out of his newly acquired kingdom.
The earliest written mention of Loddon (Lodne or ‘muddy river’ in old Celtic) was before the Norman conquest, in the will of Ælfric Modercope written around 1042. Ælfric was a wealthy Anglo-Danish theyn (high-ranking retainer), a favourite of Emma of Normandy, consort to Cnut the Great, king of England, Denmark and Norway (and quite a few Swedes too). That would also be the legendary King Canute who tried to order back the tide. Sadly, that’s just a tall tale. Yes, I have spelt ‘Cnut’ correctly.
It’s not known just how intimate Alfie was with the serial Queen (she was the widow of Cnut’s predecessor) but he was one of the richest theyns in all East Anglia and by far the biggest landowner in old Lodne. Not that I’m one to gossip. A thousand years later, Alfie lives on with his rather butch bronze effigy standing on top of the village sign on Farthing Green.
Chedgrave’s sign features three different spellings of the village name – Chedgrave, as now, Scatagrava, the old Danish name and Chattegrava, the Latinised version used in Domesday.
The name is thought to derive from some Anglian bloke called ‘Cheatta’ plus either ‘Grove’ or ‘Pit’ (depending on the original pronunciation). I prefer ‘Cheatta’s Pit’. Sounds a bit more dark ages and vaguely pagan. I have fanciful notions of Cheatta and his kin dancing naked round a fire pit to celebrate the summer solstice. And the fact we live on Pits Lane next to a recreational space called ‘the Pits’ adds a little spice to the fantasy.
We should have been in Spain in June – visiting old friends in pretty Sitges and a few days in gorgeous Girona. The pandemic put paid to that, of course. And, since foreign travel is probably off the agenda this year, I thought I’d raid the archives to find something about a holiday many, many years ago in a land far, far away.
For John Garner (1967-2003)
I was a Turkey virgin. It was 1997, my first time. John and I had booked a holiday with an old mucker and his latest squeeze. We were thirty-something boys-about-town desperate for a little respite from fast living and the daily grind. The glossy brochure promised tranquil simplicity and that’s what we got. Our digs were a modest whitewashed villa nestled on a craggy headland on the north side of the Datça Peninsula. The lushness of our rural idyll was totally unexpected – so much richer than the dry bush of Andalucia and the Greek islands I’d been used to. And the silent sunsets were life-affirming – spiritual, almost.
We were a week in. The hairdryer heat of a blistering August had us limp and reclining. Lazy days were spent lounging round the trickling pool – G&T in one hand, chick-lit in the other, swallows ducking and diving overhead and the deafening chorus of randy cicadas. Sultry nights brought lively conversation to a score of Holst and Madonna, and tumblers of chilled plonk on the empty beach, counting shooting stars as the lights of Bodrum flickered on the horizon. It was sublime.
But John wanted more.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he said, peering over the top of a Jackie Collins.
‘What?’ I said. ‘In this heat?’
‘You can’t lie on your back with your legs up all the time,’ he said. ‘Mehmet’s getting the wrong idea.’
Mehmet, resident bottle-washer and dogsbody – and a dead ringer for Danny Kaye – showed a persistent interest, clipping bushes around us and throwing that all-too-familiar knowing look as he lit the candles each time the power was cut – a regular event most evenings. The lightless nights switched on the stars.
‘I think Mehmet’s got our number, don’t you?’ I said.
‘Look, the boys need a little privacy, you know, to get better acquainted,’ said John. ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink.’
I laughed. ‘They don’t need any encouragement. They’ve been at it like rabbits since we landed.’ I nodded at the two of them canoodling like horny otters in the pool. ‘Thank God I packed the earplugs.’
‘Oh, come on,’ said John. ‘Let’s go explore.’
Leaving behind our holiday companions to their splashing foreplay, we strolled through the ramshackle hamlet of Taşbükü and down to the sand and shingle beach. I was moist. I lifted my tee-shirt to dab my forehead and dry my specs. In the distance I could see Cleopatra Island, a verdant rock in the Gulf of Gökova. It shimmered, mirage-like.
‘Did you know,’ I said, pointing over with my glasses, ‘legend has it that Cleo snogged Mark Antony on the beach of Cleopatra Island?’
‘Oh,’ said John. ‘How very Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. Wonder where he put his helmet?’
‘Where we all do, I imagine. So, where are we going?’
‘Over there, let’s go over there.’ John gestured to a long line of buildings at the far end of the bay.
‘Why?’ I said, unimpressed.
‘Because it’s there, stupid.’
Like intrepid explorers of old, we set about our quest with vigour, flip-flops in hand, splashing through the wash, joking and laughing along the way. It took about an hour to reach our destination – an assortment of identikit cubes toppling down the hill to the beach. We climbed the crazy paving steps through a rusting iron gate.
‘Oh, it’s just another holiday resort,’ John said, all drop-lipped.
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a gander anyway. Could do with a drink. Spot of lunch, maybe?’
John agreed. ‘Yeah. A cheesy pide and a glass of Efes.’
We wandered along the winding leaf-littered paths, past locked-up houses with empty terraces dripping in twisted bougainvillea. It was desolate, all waterless pools and shuttered cafés.
‘Where is everybody?’ I said.
Where indeed. It was a ghost town – soul-less apart from a street dog nodding off in the shade and a few mangy cats bickering about the bins. There were no over-wrought toddlers splashing about, no tanked-up dads propping up the bar, no mums leathering-up under the sun, no courting couples getting hot under the collar in the sweltering heat. It was eerie and unsettling. Like walking through the abandoned set of Eldorado.
‘We’re being watched,’ John whispered.
‘What do you mean we’re being watched?’
‘Over there. There’s some bloke hiding behind that bush.’
I grinned. ‘Trust you to notice a man hanging round a bush.’ But John was right. A dusky face with a handlebar moustache was poking out between the branches of a pink oleander, mumbling into a walkie-talkie. We could just hear the screechy static.
‘Now what do we do?’ I said.
Our pace quickened. Moustache man didn’t follow.
But all of a sudden, a hook-nosed apparition in black appeared from the shadows – more screechy static.
‘Okay, that’s it,’ I said. ‘Best get out of here – sharpish. Let’s head back.’
‘We can’t go back,’ said John, starting to panic. ‘The black shirts are waiting for us.’
‘To do what, exactly?’ I said.
‘Haven’t you seen Midnight Express?’
‘Get a grip, John.’
We fast flop-stepped up the hill to the entrance of the development. Hook Nose stalked us all the way, keeping a wary distance. As we neared a boom gate at the top, a pretty boy with messy hair and a grin wider than his waist emerged from a sentry box and waved us through to the open road with his walkie-talkie.
Crisis over, we stood by the side of a dusty track gathering our thoughts.
‘Bloody hell,’ said John. ‘That was close. Thought we were gonna get strip-searched.’
It was just a few short weeks ago when we were in London for my old girl’s 91st birthday. Everything then was normal. The Tube was packed and the streets thronged with kids, shoppers and tourists. As we’d got into town early, we took a stroll around the magnificent Natural History Museum in South Kensington to gawp at the long-extinct, alongside the mass ranks of over-excited scouts. Little did I know we might be going the way of the dodo ourselves.