British weather is notoriously changeable – from drab to sparkling, drenched to parched, cold to clammy – sometimes all in the space of a few days. Perhaps that’s why it’s a bit of a national obsession and the staple of many an awkward conversation in a lift. It pays to take full advantage when a fine weather front rolls in. And take advantage we did when balmy air blew up from the Continent to bestow a mini heatwave for Easter. We jumped on a bus and headed for a riverside pub in Thorpe St Andrew, a pretty hamlet on the outskirts of Norwich. Liam wanted ducks, I wanted wine. The wine won. The only duck we saw was on a road sign.
When the big skies of Norfolk are low and dreary, the only remedy for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is an emergency injection of sunshine. Happily, we don’t actually suffer from SAD but hey, any excuse for a holiday. And we thought we’d better get a trip under our belts before a hard Brexit brings the sky falling in. So we’re off to Gran Canaria for a bit of fun in the sun. To call Gran Canaria, with its cheap thrills and even cheaper men, a bit of a gay cliché is an understatement. And the icing on the cake is our stay at a men-only bungalow complex, one that tends to attract the slightly older gentleman. We’re expecting saggy arses, ravaged faces, walkers and a defibrillator on standby behind the bar. Liam intends to amuse himself by counting the liver spots round the pool. We should fit right in. Now that’s what I call sad.
Last month’s prolonged heatwave, reminiscent of our Turkey days, drove us from the sticky city to the cute little towns of Bungay and Beccles, just across the county line. Norfolk and Suffolk (the north folk and the south folk) are sister shires of the old East Anglian Kingdom and a gentle rivalry still persists between them, most notably played out on the pitch when Norwich play Ipswich at the footie. Bungay is a handsome town where the pace of life is stationary. At its heart is a long-abandoned tumbledown castle. A finely-tuned imagination is needed to picture it in its former glory.
After a slow meander around the Georgian streets, we settled on a cream tea in the little café next to the Buttercross, where local farmers once displayed their produce. It was, as Liam put it,
A gay with a bun in Bungay.
Since all the town’s banks have shut down and there’s only one ATM left, Lloyds Bank have pitched a mobile branch in a car park. Given the relentless rise of internet banking, it’s anyone’s guess how long this will last. These days, I can even pay cheques into my account using my smarty pants phone.
Next on the mini tour was Beccles, five miles along the border – a more substantial town and strangely awash with banks and ATMs. Beccles is one of several riverports on the Broads, the network of rivers, streams and flooded medieval peat excavations so beloved by those who like to mess about in boats. Beccles Quay is where dedicated boating folk can pick up supplies, get a proper wash and empty the chemical loo.
In 1981, sleepy Beccles was rudely woken by a tornado, one of the 104 twisters waltzing across England and Wales and the largest recorded tornado outbreak in European history. But East Anglia isn’t Oklahoma. Hardly a roof tile was lifted and the town dropped back off to sleep. It’s been dozing ever since. After another slow wander, we found ourselves parked in a pretty beer garden to bask in the warmth and imbibe the tranquillity. I confess I got a little tiddly. Must’ve been heatstroke. Hiccup!
What better way to spend a steamy afternoon than at a traditional village fête? The community-minded folk of Poringland do it every year. The neat and tidy village, just a few miles south of Norwich, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Porringhelanda’, though you’d never know it was old from the modern sprawl built over the ancient roots. I’ve never been to a proper village fête before. It was everything I’d imagined – dancing kiddies, face-painting, bouncy castling, good causes, competitions, arts, crafts, pulled pork, candy floss and cakes, lots of cakes – and some things I hadn’t – a podgy spiderman with love handles and visible panty line, and the campest compere since Julian Clary. All that was missing was DI Barnaby from Midsomer Murders poring over a bell ringer done-in with a cake slice behind the hoopla.
Liam bought a couple of tickets for the tombola. His prize? A pink spaghetti-strap nightie for the fuller figure. How the ladies giggled as they handed it over. Keen to get in touch with his sexy feminine side, Liam slipped it on and gave me a twirl.
It was one of those warm and overcast days threatening thunderstorms that saw us at Sculthorpe Mill near the pint-sized market town of Fakenham, about 25 miles north-west of Norwich. The mill sits astride the River Wensum and there’s been a watermill on the site since the time of the Domesday Book of 1086. These days they’re pulling pints rather than grinding corn. Outside, the grounds were trickling and luscious – at this time of year, Norfolk simply glows with bounty, even when the sun struggles to poke through. Inside, the mill was as quiet as a silent order. A little background music on a low setting would have lifted the mood a notch or two.
We were in attendance for the annual general meeting with Jo Parfitt, my partner in crime and the force of nature that is Summertime Publishing. Jo brought her delicious mother along for a light bite too. Lunch was nice and we quickly whistled through the agenda to get to the gossip. By any-other-business, the sun decided to put in a late appearance and we couldn’t resist a few snaps sitting on the old mill pond wall.
After lunch, Jo dropped us in Fakenham to catch our bus back to Norwich. Fakenham was once described as ‘the most boring place on Earth’ in a travel guide. Although the quote was actually taken out of context, it’s rather stuck. Fake news for Fakenham? Perhaps, but despite a few pretty buildings, it did have a one-cow-town feel to it. Sad but true.
When Liam planned our ‘jolly’ down memory lane, he wasn’t to know it would be the hottest May Day holiday on record. The Sun puts a smile on everyone’s face, doesn’t it? And we smiled our way round Bankside, my favourite district of London. Back when the first Elizabeth was on the throne, old Southwark was a riot of licentiousness – playhouses, brothels and taverns – beyond the jurisdiction of the City of London’s buttoned-up elders who wagged their fingers from the other side of the Thames. This is where Will Shakespeare plied his trade among the players, the prostitutes and the drunks. That’s my kind of town.
Not that there are many ne’er-do-wells milling around these days. The area has cleaned up its act and is now home to over-priced flats, over-priced eateries, over-priced bars, world-class modern art and a working replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It certainly pulls in the crowds.
I went all thespian and began to recite the only lines I could remember from my part in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1976…
You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now perchance both quake and tremble here,
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
And roar I did, when Snug the Joiner became the lion in a rabbit costume smelling of mothballs and accessorised with an improvised mane. Times were hard in the seventies.
Liam decided my hammy Shakespeare was putting off the tourists and bundled me onto a riverboat and took me to a different kind of theatrical show – a little fairy dusting of trad drag.
It was an eventful afternoon made all the more eventful by the delightful boys from the Abbey Rugby Club in Reading. They were on a ‘Monopoly board tour’ and had landed on Trafalgar Square for a queer beer. Well fancy that. And I did.
Well not actually Barcelona – Sitges, a smart resort a few miles south which has been a magnet for the A-Gays for donkey’s years, even before that bastard Franco kicked the bucket. And to continue the fine tradition, an old friend and his partner have just exited Brexit and parachuted in. We might join them, who knows? Sitges is a coastal retreat untroubled by the political hurricane currently battering Catalonia. Like expat ghettos everywhere, it’s bubble-wrapped from the tedium of real life.
My flying visit was a business trip with added benefits. My old mucker is opening a gay ‘lifestyle’ store (no sniggering at the back) and I’ve been building his website. The shop should do well given the town’s perennial appeal to likely lads looking for supplies and fancy pants to drop. That was the business bit. Getting to spend time with one of my oldest friends was the benefits bit. Unfortunately, the weather was crap at both ends of the Bay of Biscay. I went from this:
As it was a pac-a-mac break, I didn’t get the chance to rub shoulder pads with surgically enhanced Eurotrash or old queens with painted faces and matching poodles. Still, the food was delicious, the booze free-flowing and the gossip salacious, so it was well worth coming in from the drizzle for. Naturally, the sun came out the day after I left. This is how Sitges normally looks: