One thing we confirmed during our cheery jolly to Shrewsbury is that, according to Salopians (as Shropshire folk are called), it’s pronounced Shroosbury, as in ‘Taming of the…’. We also discovered that it’s tranquil, polite and stuffed with interest – from amazing ‘olde worlde’ architecture along Dickensian streets with quirky names to match to an embarrassment of watering holes and eateries to suit all tastes and pockets. And rain didn’t stop play – well this was the wet West Country (or rather the West Midlands as pointed out by an old friend – you know who you are). It’s west of East Anglia so that’s good enough for me. In fact, the number of Welsh accents we heard almost convinced us we were actually in Wales.
After a good old gander round the narrow streets and little lanes, we happened upon ‘The Nag’s Head’, a bijou pub on Wyle Cop (yes, that’s the name of the street) to be welcomed by an old codger at the bar supping Guinness. He said…
I knew you were comin’ so I put ABBA on.
‘Dancing Queen’ was followed in quick succession by Freddie Mercury, Elton John and George Michael. As Liam slurped his large Merlot, I googled ‘gay bars in Shrewsbury’ and guess what came up? Yep, The Nags Head.
Britain’s longest river, the Severn, wraps around Shrewsbury like a leafy boa (very much like Norwich’s Wensum) which presumably provided an effective defence against the marauding Welsh way back when. These days the calm waters provide a pleasant riverside stroll and opportunities for a tipple or two on sunny days.
Day two was spent in lovely Ludlow, a genteel medieval, Tudor and Georgian assortment sitting on top of a hill overlooking rolling Shropshire countryside. Poet Laureate John Betjeman described Ludlow as ‘probably the loveliest town in England’ and we could see why. The sun poked through the clouds for market day and judging by the posh merchandise on offer, we knew Ludlow was a notch or two above. The town is famous for food so, after a good look around, we settled on delicious Thai for lunch provided by an Anglo-Thai gay couple. We seem to have a nose for the gay thang.
So that was Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Are they on the leader board for our dotage? Shrewsbury certainly, Ludlow less so. Lovely as it is, I don’t think we’re nearly posh or genteel enough.
We’re all doomed according to those in the know. Global warming is melting the ice caps, sea levels are rising and, sooner rather than later, Britannia will sink beneath the waves along with much of the rest of the world. Mother Earth will likely survive – thrive even – but without us to muck it up again. And it probably serves us right. Still, while we wait for the next biblical flood, I do my bit, recycling-wise. This might seem like pissing in the wind but I do it anyway, separating this from that. These days about three quarters of what we chuck is tossed into the communal recycling bin, though it’s fair to say much of that consists of glass bottles of the wine kind. Our rubbish has always rattled.
My temperature is raised by some of our neighbours who seem incapable of following simple recycling guidelines or, more likely, are too idle to be arsed. But I get really heated by the vast quantity of soft plastic film that wraps pretty much everything these days. This can’t be recycled. Gawd knows why. So off it goes with the peelings and scraps to the incinerator to cause even more global warming or to end up swimming about in the oceans. I can almost hear the dolphins scream.
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.