It was a warm but rainy day for our first forage into Norwich since March’s lockdown. I must admit we felt unexpectedly anxious at the prospect of leaving the sanctuary of the village and heading into town on a bus. We girded our loins, with masks and sanitisers cocked and ready.
It was actually fine. Because of social distancing rules, bus capacity has been reduced and, as we were two of only six passengers, there was plenty of room. This didn’t stop a young couple sitting together in non-designated seats and removing their masks to chat. What is it with the young? They may feel indestructible, safe in the knowledge that the dreaded lurgy is unlikely to bring them down, but that won’t stop them super-spreading to the rest of us.
It was good to get back into the city again. Norwich was busy but not packed – almost normal. Big Issue sellers were back on the streets and most cafés and shops were open. The only thing noticeably missing were the buskers and artists who, in better times, provide a weird and wonderful addition to Norwich’s street life.
Wherever we went seemed well-organised and COVID-secure with lots of one-way systems going on. Most people complied. No one was overwhelmed with punters, though. It’s an anxious time for traders, I’m sure.
After a bit of retail therapy, we headed to the Lamb Inn for a cheeky bottle of blush and some hearty pub grub, using a handy app to order and pay. Our food and drinks were brought to our table by a delightful young waitress. It was all done efficiently and with a reassuring smile. I think this continental style table service might catch on – until winter sets in that is.
We moved to Norwich in 2012 after our four year adventure in Turkey. During this short time, the city has become busier, buzzier, more welcoming and more diverse – from Chinese students studying at the University of East Anglia and South Asians working for Aviva, to the rucksacked troupes of Spanish school kids wandering around thanks to direct flights from Spain to our very own little International airport. Tourism is on the rise, ably assisted by the merry band of volunteer ‘here to help’ street hosts handing out smiles and leaflets. We might even get a bumper crop of visitors from Vietnam – now that the CEO of Vietnam Airlines described the city as ‘irresistible’ and ‘serene’. Same-sex couples can and do walk down the street hand-in-hand and the Norwich Pride event is a firm fixture on the city’s annual social calendar.
Things aren’t perfect – far from it. The increase in rough sleeping and substance use is the most visible sign of this. Not that there’s any cash to fix the problem in the barmy blond bombshell’s big pre-election giveaway. There are very few votes in helping the homeless. And, even in liberal Norwich, small minds still exist. A case in point is the silly man who refused to drive a bus because the route number was displayed in rainbow colours. He allegedly told passengers, ‘This bus promotes homosexuality and I refuse to drive it.’ As we all know, the mere sight of a pretty rainbow can turn even the most red-blooded bloke in an instant. Just like the pealing of church bells makes us all fall to our knees to pray. He was reported to the bus company and suspended, pending an investigation. Good. I have no wish for him to lose his job but he really does need to leave this bigoted nonsense at home and get on with what he’s paid to do.
One gloriously sunny Sunday, Liam chucked me on a bus for one of our regular jollies to the small towns of Norfolk. We caught the right 5a to North Walsham, not the wrong 5a run by a totally different bus company going nowhere near North Walsham. Why two different routes with the same number? Beats me. Must be a Naarfuk thing. The right 5a bumped along twisting country lanes past spooky woods, grassy pastures and bountiful fields of glowing rapeseed. 45 minutes later, we landed in North Walsham’s market place.
According to Wikipedia, North Walsham is…
…an Anglo-Saxon settlement, and with the neighbouring village of Worstead, became very prosperous from the 12th century through the arrival of weavers from Flanders. The two settlements gave their names to the textiles they produced: ‘Walsham’ became the name of a light-weight cloth for summer wear, and ‘Worsted’ a heavier cloth. The 14th century ‘wool churches’ are a testament to the prosperity of the local mill owners.
Sadly, North Walsham’s glory days are long gone. We took one look around and got back on the bus. 45 minutes later we’d returned to Norwich, drowning our sorrows in a bottle. The bus fares were a tenner. That’s ten quid I won’t see again.
Queuing is as quintessentially British as fish and chips, a Sunday roast or chicken tikka masala. I’m all for it. It appeals to my first-come-first-served sense of fair play. And it makes city living just a bit more bearable. Every-man-for-himself is where chaos lies and the Devil thrives. But even I have a limit. Regular readers may recall I recently spent a few days in Sitges, near Barcelona, visiting old friends who’ve just become newbie expats and purveyors of apparel to the queens. Being there was fun, getting there (and back) not so. The entire journey felt like one long, dreary line – through security, through passport control, at the departure gate, up the steps to the plane in the drizzle. All that shuffling just to board a flying bus so stripped back that clinging to the undercarriage of an RAF troop carrier would hold more appeal. This was no frills, no thrills Ryanair, an airline that bombards its punters with emails, changes the rules of the game just for fun, befuddles with an incomprehensible cabin bag policy and pisses off by ‘randomly’ allocating seats that all seem to be in the middle. Statistically, how likely is that? And the flight was an hour late both ways. Oh, the glamour of it all. I drank through it.
Ryanair’s current strapline is ‘Low Fares Made Simple’. Navigating your way through the endless maze of ‘extras’ on their website ain’t simple and, with a monopoly on the London Stansted to Barcelona route, it ain’t cheap either.
Hell won’t be all torture and torment; it’ll be an eternal Ryanair queue going nowhere.
Ironically, real buses here in Norfolk often now come with leather seats, free WiFi and charging sockets for fancy phones. And this is supposed to be a backwater.
Wells-next-the-Sea was the venue for this year’s works outing with Jo Parfitt, my partner in crime and the force of nature who is Summertime Publishing. We love a day out at the seaside when the weather’s set fair. Getting there was a bit of adventure in itself. The first stage was a stately railway journey through the ripe fields, reedy wetlands and sleepy hamlets of North Norfolk. My sedation was only interrupted when I spotted the large station sign at Gunton. Well, it didn’t look like a G to me. The two-carriage train deposited us at Sheringham, a bucket and spade resort where undertakers and vets never go out of fashion. Then onto a little bus for a white knuckle ride along the curvy coast, through flint and stone villages with impossibly narrow streets called ‘Old Woman’s Lane’ and the like. There was little time to admire the view. I held on for dear life, wishing I’d worn Pampers.
Well-heeled Wells is a gorgeous little resort and working port surrounded by pine forests, sandbanks and saltmarshes. We lunched aboard the Albatros, a genuine Dutch cargo ship serving up fake Dutch pancakes. They were delicious. The tide must’ve been out because the boat had a distinct starboard list; I felt quite tipsy even before a drop had passed my lips. Happily, I managed to regain my sea legs after half a bottle or so. We didn’t make it down the agenda to the 2016/17 marketing strategy. We got stuck on gossip. Can’t think why.
The train back to Norwich was packed with sunburnt kiddies and lively country cousins out on the lash. The painted ladies opposite shared shots of raspberry liqueur and a Bottecelli babe squeezed into the aisle next to me. As the crowd nudged past, the shapely Norfolk broad fell off her heels and tipped her ample rack into my face.
‘My, my,’ I said. ‘A total eclipse.’ How she laughed.