Two Up, Two Down

Our little house is one of a small row of four workers’ cottages standing proud next to the 12th-century parish church of All Saints. Built in 1852, each dwelling once consisted of just four rooms – the original meaning of a ‘two up, two down’ – with water supplied by a well at the end of the row and, in all likelihood, a single outside latrine shared by all and sundry. There must have been quite a queue when cholera struck. The well’s still in full working order but, these days, only used for watering the roses.

One of our neighbours, a sucker for genealogy, obtained the entries for the 1911 national census. It provided a tantalising glimpse into the lives of the residents of our little terrace at that time. 

While Liam was lapping up a concert by a local ladies choir at our spitting-distance church, I took a look through the documents. I really hope Mr Jackson the wherryman*, widow-woman Maria, James the omnibus driver, Mr Kerry the jobbing gardener and all their assorted families had happy and fulfilling lives. I guess we’ll never know, but the chances are their day-to-days were hand-to-mouth, horribly insecure and plagued by illness or the fear of it. Life expectancy at the time was about 56 for women and 52 for men, though this average was skewed by high child mortality rates which meant if you did manage to survive to adulthood, you had a better chance of growing grey.

Still, this was a big improvement on the situation when the houses were first chucked up. Back in the 1850s, life expectancy was only 42 for women and just 40 for men. As life was short and often grim, it’s little wonder people took to religion for solace. Thank God for the doorstep chapel.

*a wherry is a shallow-draught barge with a large single sail once used to transport cargo on the rivers and broads hereabouts.

Beware of Mad Cows

Beware of Mad Cows

As we’re the only gays in the village, Liam, in his infinite wisdom, thought it would be fun to get better acquainted with our new parish. I thought pub crawl. He thought picnic and a gentle stroll along the river Chet. Now, anyone who knows me, even ever so slightly, knows I don’t hike, roam, ramble, trek or yomp. Still, I thought, what’s the worst that could happen?

Having hunted and gathered our provisions – a meal deal at the Co-op – we ambled across the pretty graveyard of Loddon’s fifteenth century Holy Trinity Church in search of the leafy gate to one of the many Broads walks which make up the Wherryman’s Way. As we passed the rows of lopsided headstones, we were serenaded by squawking rooks. It was an ominous sign.

The trail guided us through a tunnel of wild foliage, across babbling brooks and along country lanes to a riverside clearing called Pye’s Mill. The mill’s long gone but it’s a pleasant spot with picnic tables, a barbecue grill and a place to shelter from the rain. We munched on our lunch watching the holiday boats slowly chug along the still waters of the river.

Fully replenished, we embarked on stage two of our great expedition – across a marshy field populated by bugs and a small herd of black cows grazing on the lush grass, tails flapping about to shoo away the flies. We’re both city boys and the only cows we normally see are sliced up at the Tesco’s meat counter so we kept well clear as we tip-toed around the puddles and shit.

Suddenly, a white-faced beast with pendulous udders and a mad cow look in her eyes emerged from the brush heading towards us, mooing in earnest. We stopped. She stopped. We stared her out. She stared us out. Guess who blinked first? Knowing the game was up, we turned round and started slowly retracing our steps. She followed. We quickened our pace. She quickened hers. Then she charged, picking up quite a speed, udders sloshing from side to side. We ran. Yes, we ran. It wasn’t our finest hour and thank the Lord there was no one around to video the pathetic sight of two old poofs fleeing from one ton of angry beef hell-bent on making mincemeat of us. It could have gone viral. Liam even considered chucking himself in the Chet to escape. Having seen us off, she trundled back into the bush.

Returning to Pye’s Mill, we glanced back at our nemesis. She was being closely followed by a cute little brown calf. That was why the old cow was so pissed off. She was protecting the veal. Pity they didn’t mention that in the guidebook. I knew we should have gone to the pub.

The Only Gays in the Village

By chance, Liam spotted a renovated 1850s cottage for sale in a small village called Chedgrave, ten miles southeast of Norwich. We went to see it. We liked it. We put in an offer. It was accepted. We put the micro-loft on the market. Our first viewer put in an offer. We accepted it. So we moved. Just like that.

We’d been thinking alot about our almost-final destination – the one before we get dragged kicking and screaming into a care home for the bed-wetting bewildered. For an age, tatty and batty Knaresborough in North Yorkshire was the odds-on favourite but after leading by a mile, it fell at the last fence. Why? Well, the town is so wonderful, nothing comes up. It seems no one leaves. And I can’t blame them.

Chedgrave is a small hamlet on the Chet, a river that forms part of the Norfolk Broads National Park. There isn’t much in Chedgrave – a church, a pub, a few shops. Fortunately, it’s twinned with Loddon, a pretty village with a lot more to offer. Both villages are on a fast bus route to Norwich so our regular city fix of stage and screen is assured.

We may be the only gays in the village. Will the village suit us? Will we suit the village? Will we get run out of town by an angry mob of red-faced, thick-set farm hands brandishing pitch forks? Will Liam join the WI and make strawberry jam? I’ll keep you posted.

For the Love of God

For the Love of God

Come Christmas time, the patients at the surgery where Liam earns an honest crust are a generous lot. Gifts of biscuits, sweets, chocolates and the odd bottle of booze flood in. Liam comes home laden with festive fancies. We keep a few and donate the rest to St Stephen’s Church. It’s an ancient pile, founded over 900 years ago and now mostly dating from the sixteenth century. The roots might be old but the approach of the dedicated team of clerics and laypeople is bang up-to-date. Community engagement and outreach are the services of the day. Much of the nave is given over to a café which…

‘… provides an open place for people to belong, whether customers, volunteers or those experiencing tough times… the café is a place of welcome, refreshment and peace.’

St Stephens Church

It’s a Heaven-sent distraction from the hubbub outside and operates a ‘pay what you can’ policy where punters can pay the suggested price, more, less or nothing at all. The church also runs a seasonal food bank for those in need. When we dropped off the Quality Street, Fox’s luxury selection and Ferrero Rocher, I apologised for only bringing sweets and biscuits. A lady with a kindly face replied…

‘Everyone deserves something nice for Christmas, don’t they?’

It was a humbling experience. I’m not religious in the slightest but if this is what the love of God means, then long may it continue.

Jack and Liam Move to Norwich

Jack and Liam Move to Norwich

Hardly breaking news is it? But it’s the title of a little something I wrote back in the summer of 2014 for the Visit Norwich City of Stories website. I was chuffed at the time when it was chosen as the opening piece in a series showcasing different aspects of Norwich life. I even pitched up at the red carpet launch and helped myself to one too many cocktails. The website has recently gone from literary showcase to shop window and content has been updated to feature the best the city has to offer. My article still stacks up I think, so I’m posting it here for posterity, with a few images to give it life.

City of Stories

Jack and Liam move to Norwich

Jack and Liam took up pole position outside a coffee shop to sup their lattes and people watch. The passing footfall was a bumper crop. A warm summer’s afternoon had delivered coaches of North Folk and charabancs of tourists to Norwich’s cobbled streets. Dutch lowlanders in sensible shoes mingled with happy snapping Koreans; local gentry in waxed jackets weaved through the hipsters in vintage garb; busy bees in smart suits hurried past, glued to their smart phone and a jester-hatted Big Issue seller competed with a line of smiley charity workers collecting direct debits for the cause. In the middle of the rainbow crowd, two men with well-fed midriffs and trendy whiskers paused to take in a busker crooning for his supper. They grinned as the Frank Sinatra tribute segued from New York, New York to a local interpretation of My Kind of Town (‘Naaridge is’) and when the final chords faded to nothing, they tossed some coins into a trilby perched on a Fender amp and vanished into the throng holding hands. Like everyone else in the surprising city, they were doing it their way.

Norwich Buskers

Jack ran his fingers along the cartoon tourist map. The tapestry of streets was weaved with familiar names of old London Town like Charing Cross, Blackfriars Bridge, Bishopsgate, Spitalfields, Haymarket, and Pudding Lane, threaded with roads of goats, cattle, dogs and a rampant horse, and stitched with more holy places than a mitred man could shake his crook at. But clearly this was not London. What the boys from the Old Smoke heard was an altogether different soundscape, just distant enough to escape the orbit of the great metropolis and the relentless surge of Estuary English. Somehow, Norwich had preserved a unique linguistic heritage, a melodic sweep of bouncing vowels and dropped consonants pickled down the centuries.

The inquisitive strangers downed their coffees to roam the streets. Their meandering took them to the Assembly House, a gorgeous pile of Georgian elegance and the perfect stage for Regency debutantes in ribboned bonnets to chase Mr Darcy and his magnificent britches around the courtyard fountain. Next door, the architectural show continued with the Theatre Royal, its modern overcoat disguising 250 years of board treading. A quick circuit of the front-of-house posters revealed an eclectic tradition of new and old, high-brow and kitchen sink, top hats and tutus, laughter and tears.

Back down the hill and along Gentlemen’s Walk, they passed neat rows of multi-coloured market stalls lined up like beach huts marooned at low tide. The vast City Hall, looking down on the medieval guildhall it replaced, provided an over-imposing backdrop.

Jack and Liam scampered down a maze of lanes and alleyways, a treasure trove of independents – shops, pubs and cafés. Norwich had bucked the national trend of sameness. Maybe the city’s relative seclusion had bubble-wrapped it from the commercial onslaught of identikit chains or perhaps wise burghers had protected the endangered. Whether by accident or design, it was a window shopper’s dream.

The most complete medieval city in Britain boasted the guide book, and as they pounded the streets up Saint This, down Saint That and along the lazy winding river that caressed the city like a feather-leafed boa, Norwich oozed the ages from every brick, paving stone and stained glass window. The city, it seemed, was triple dipped in history.

Finally, Jack and Liam came to rest on the far side of a handsome stone bridge and sat under the shade of a sprawling tree outside the Playhouse, the Theatre Royal’s little sister. A tree-top teapot in vivid yellow wafted in the breeze. The walk-weary old Londoners rested with a bottle of Merlot in the Playhouse beer garden. Close to the newly elevated University of the Arts, the bustling bar was the trough of choice for young fashionistas and their arty mentors. Jack and Liam took their seats in the refectory and imbibe an ambience that overflowed with naive optimism.

And that’s how it happened. One heady afternoon in the garden of the Playhouse Theatre Bar, Jack and Liam found somewhere new to lay their hats. An offbeat, theatrical, cosmopolitan, romantic, open-minded and open-hearted place set beneath the true-blue skies of Norfolk. Norwich, a surprising city. A place to live and a place to start living.

A random sample of Norwich’s medieval churches…