The other day, my nephew and namesake asked me how many times I’d moved digs down the long, long years. I had to trawl the deepest recesses of my scatter brain to dredge up faded memories of homes sweet homes, tallying first with my fat fingers, then with my stunted toes. My digital sum revealed that our 17th century weaver’s gaff in Norwich is also my 17th home. It has a certain poetic ring to it don’t you think? Over the years, I’ve done home and away, foreign and familiar, new and old. Until now, I’d never done artisan (that’s homes not men, by the way). I’d never done public house either but it turns out that our new croft was converted into a pub in 1760. The first licensee was a certain Samuel Westall. Sam was a worsted weaver by trade but must have thought pulling pints and spinning yarns would be more profitable than downing pints and spinning yarn. Perhaps Sam saw the writing on the wall (though he probably couldn’t read what he saw) and decided to turn in his wheel before Jenny started her spinning. The pub was called the Kings Head and served up real ale to the drunks of Norwich for over 170 years until its sad demise in 1932. Somehow, I always knew I’d end up on my back in a bar.
The pictures are hooked, the classic Habitat vases are strategically placed in medieval nooks, the beds are nattily dressed and the gay scatter cushions have been scattered gaily. Our Gallic Lady of the House gazed down on us enigmatically as we popped the cork on the French fizz and toasted to a job well done. The ex-semigrey repats are in and we’re sorted. Liam’s loving the kitchen and loving my Radio gaga. We’re wallowing like proverbial pigs. We’ve finally sussed the complex recycling palavar. The slightest infringement of the rules and the feeble boys with their feeble wrists won’t take the crap. It wasn’t like this with my little plastic save-the-world box in Walthamstow and it certainly ain’t Turkey.
Our tatty chattels finally made it across the high seas, landing safely at the port of Felixstowe in Suffolk. Her Maj’s Revenue and Customs eyed the consignment with cynical suspicion and decided to x-ray the boxes for contraband Turkish delight. This public service was provided at our expense, incurring a charge of £100. Isn’t this a bit like being frisked by the fuzz and paying for the privilege? The boys in blue found nothing untoward and the family silver was released. That was that, or so we naively thought.
We received word from the carriers that our precious cargo would be delivered by a 19 metre road train (their words) and if they couldn’t park within 15 metres of our new gaff we could kiss our goods goodbye (my words). When I pointed out that the medieval streets of old Norwich are characteristically narrow and that a 60 foot mega truck was a tad excessive for our modest six square metre load, they recanted and decided that a van of standard girth would suffice.
D Day arrived. The van pulled up outside and two large gentlemen swung into action, huffing and puffing as they piled the boxes into neat rows inside our new living room. The entire sweaty exercise was completed in under 30 minutes. As we unpacked each box, it was obvious that spooky hands had been fondling our family jewels. A shattered lamp emerged from one battered box. Glass fragments from the same lamp magically appeared in a different box. Hey presto. The backs of photo frames had been removed and replaced with the clips left open (the same photo frames suffered the same fate when they delivered to Turkey four years previously). Most distressingly, the base of one of our tall super-sleek speakers had been hack-sawed off and the broken thread lay discarded at the bottom of the box. Just as well we smuggled out the rechargeable marital aids in our hand luggage. Clearly, this bump and grind was much more than a bit of rough handling by a hairy docker. Who would have thought?
The day after we moved into our ancient gaff, a nice man called Richard from Virgin Media (not the Richard, obviously) installed our all singing, all dancing multimedia techno-wizardry – 30 megabyte fibre-optic broadband, telephone line and high definition TV. The whole compendium was half price for six months and came with free installation, free equipment and free weekend calls. We now have more channels of crap than you can shake a stick at. Currently, I’m being forced to watch wall-to-wall Olympics (Liam’s current obsession). We’ve never had HD TV before. I can see every wrinkle, every blemish, every spot and every blackhead on the faces of the famous – except for Gary Lineker (who surely must have had a nick and lift). No wonder an old bundle of ageing TV presenters decided to hang up their auto-cues and throw in the flannel: there are some things even the thickest slap can’t hide. Now we have free weekend calls, they’ll be no more Sunday Skype calls to mother. Just as well. I could never get the bloody thing to work properly from Turkey anyway and the compulsory weekly check-in was always a painful exercise, invariably ending in complete frustration.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Norwich was England’s largest city outside London and, until the eighteenth century, vied with Bristol to be the Sceptered Isle’s second metropolis. The original source of the city’s wealth was the wool trade (England’s principle foreign exchange earner in those far flung days). As the industrial revolution swept through other parts of the country, Norwich slipped down the civic rankings. The city was relatively untroubled by industrialisation and avoided most of the urban blight that followed it. Much of what did exist was flattened by the Luftwaffe in 1942. The blanket bombing was a bit of threadbare affair as the Jerrys missed both the enormous city hall and Jeremiah Colman’s mustard mill. Despite the bulldozing frenzy of the 60s and 70s that disfigured too many British towns, Norwich has managed to preserve much of its charming medieval legacy.
Apparently, Jeremiah Colman was one of those rare Victorian philanthropists who were good to their workers. This goes to prove that you can get filthy rich without screwing the poor. Until recently, Colman’s was the main sponsor of Norwich City Football Club. This crown has now passed to Delia Smith, Blighty’s most famous no-nonsense cook and obsessive football fan. However, St Delia (as she’s known in the pie trade) is not a local lass. Norwich’s most famous daughter is Edith Cavell. Nurse Cavell was shot for treason by the dastardly Germans in the Great War because she helped smuggle British prisoners of war out of occupied Belgium. It caused an international outcry at the time and badly damaged Imperial Germany’s image. Well, it just wasn’t cricket and not nearly as funny as ‘Allo, ‘Allo.
Like anywhere, I’m sure it has its problems but Norwich today is a sparkling hilly liberal jewel within a flat sea of true blue conservatism. The council is Labour-controlled and the city returns two members to Parliament. The current incumbents – Simon Wright (Liberal Democrats) and Chloe Smith (Tory) both have progressive social views, including a healthy understanding of LGBT issues. Right on Norwich, here we are.
Our loft aspirations turned to dust. Someone else reached the finishing line before us and we were back to square one. Do not pass go, do not collect £200. This is what happens when dreamy loft lodgings are offered to several letting agents simultaneously: chaos and disappointment run amok. Still, at least our reservation fee was promptly refunded. Decent billets were flying off the shelves at a rate of knots so we rose early to catch the elusive worm, zipping back up the A11 in our borrowed Renault Megane at the crack of dawn. It was a fruitful tour. On our first viewing we bagged ourselves a genuine 17th Century weaver’s cottage at the edge of Norwich’s medieval quarter just a short sashay from the action. So, instead of a writer’s garret, I shall be weaving my words in a converted artisan’s flint and brick dwelling dating from the 1640s. Just think, the original weaver first moved into his brand new designer hovel (no mod-cons at the time) when the humourless Protestant Taliban chopped off Charlie Stuart’s head, established the English republic, banned music, closed down the play houses and outlawed Christmas (and let’s not even talk of the unspeakable things they did to the Irish). It’s no wonder the Commonwealth didn’t last; it was so boring. I wonder what Killjoy Cromwell would have made of us? Off with their heads?
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.