It was hotter than Havana the day a paddling of technicolor plastic ducks floated into town for the Grand Norwich Duck Race on the River Wensum – a plucky contest held every year for charity. As usual, the competition for the most outrageous outfit was fierce with the over-sized over-the-top bath tub toys lined up like a beauty pageant, vying for votes. My personal favourite was the pretty in pink flamingo impersonator. All style over substance, I suspected. The long luscious legs were more suitable for wading than for swimming. The ducks race along the short distance between St George’s and Fye Bridges. I say ‘race’ in the loosest sense of the word. It’s always more an aimless drift as the waters of the genteel Wensum flow at a lazy, almost stationary pace. We placed a small wager on some random duck. We didn’t win and retired to a local watering hole to drown our sorrows.
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.
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.
The Gay Pride marching season is in full mincing swing. But while 40,000 and 160,000 well-wishers lined the parade routes of Belfast and Brighton (respectively) last Saturday, we amused ourselves with something to give even the glitziest of drag queens a run for her sling backs. The Grand Norwich Duck Race, starring oversized bathtub playthings draped in outrageous livery, is a plucky battle fought each year for charity. Once in the waters of the sedate River Wensum, Daffy and his flock all tried to float the wrong way and had to be marshalled up the course by a man in a canoe. Congratulations to the duck from City College for a worthy victory. We retired to the bar of the Playhouse Theatre for a celebratory tipple in the beer garden. Norwich really is quackers.
Returning from one of our regular pilgrimages to the Great Metropolis, we took a different route home from Norwich Station. Just for the hell of it. Rather than hurry along the Prince of Wales Road and its grubby hotspots of ill repute, we headed for the Riverside development (all commuter flats and chain restaurants) and wandered across one of the fancy new foot bridges that span the River Wensum. The semi-industrial district on the other side is ripe for redevelopment. What the Luftwaffe hadn’t flattened was finished off by Fifties and Sixties planners. Thankfully, the breeze block and concrete grimness is moderated by a sprinkling of treasures, including the Dragon Hall, a stunning medieval trading hall on Kings Street and one of The ‘Norwich Twelve’ erections of distinction.
As we pushed up St Julian’s Alley (pun intended) we stumbled across St Julian’s Church, a tiny shrine now dedicated to Julian of Norwich. No, this Julian wasn’t a fella, but a lady named after the eponymous saint. She was a religious recluse who lived in a cell propped up against the wall of the building, a kind of hermit’s lean-to. It’s no surprise that prayful seclusion was the lifestyle of choice for many folk during the poxy ages.
The Lady Julian has quite a claim to fame. She penned the first ever book known to have been written in English by a woman. Fancy. She wrote her tome, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, in 1395 after experiencing intense visions of Christ during an illness that nearly saw her knocking at the Pearly Gates. Unlike many of her contemporaries (and ours), Julian talked of love, hope and forgiveness rather than duty, sin and punishment. Regular readers will know that I’m not remotely religious, but I reckon we could do with a bit more of Julian’s kind of divine message. So much better than the my-God’s-bigger-than-your-God world in which we still live.
In the summer of 2012, we parachuted into Norwich on a wing and a prayer. We hadn’t the slightest inkling whether this golden-oldie city of medieval steeples would suit us or not. It was a difficult ask: somewhere we could replant our off-peak life but avoid the workhouse and somewhere within a bearable commute of London so we could keep tabs on our folks.
When we first paddled up the Wensum, we somehow ended up living in a Grade II listed Seventeenth Century brick and flint weaver’s cottage. The place had been through the wars and oozed history. By the Nineteenth Century, weaving had gone the way of the dodo and the cottage was reincarnated as a public house. In the Thirties, the Great Depression depressed ale sales along with everything else and time was called on the Devil’s brew. After that, the building gradually fell into miserable dereliction, boarded up and unloved. The final insult came when the building was gutted by fire; demolition seemed likely. Cue the city elders who stepped in with their compulsory purchase powers, repaired the structure, modernised the fabric and flogged it off. In 1986 the Weaver’s Cottage was reborn as two comfortable maisonettes with all mod-cons. The partially charred beams above our marital bed are the one remaining sign of that near-death experience.
A year and a bit on, those itchy feet are back but this time we’re moving across town, not continents. We’re rather taken with Norwich and have decided to put down roots by buying a small piece of it (while we can still afford to). So it’s goodbye to our pretty weaver’s cottage with its olde worlde beams, toffee-coloured fireplace and drafty halls and hello to our handsome warehouse conversion just beyond the old city walls with big picture windows, views across the burbs and proper insulation. We’re expecting our bills to plummet. Otherwise, that workhouse beckons.
Norwich’s river is called the Wensum. The name derives from the Old English adjective wandsum or wendsum, meaning ‘winding’. It’s aptly titled. The river caresses like a feather boa, arching around the town and providing ample opportunities for boozy afternoons in riverside inns when the weather’s right. So far, the weather’s been right for much of the time. The Wensum is a lazy river with a slow flow. Apparently, this is caused by a large number of redundant upstream water mills. Plans are afoot to modify the mills to enable the river to behave more naturally. In the meantime, the idle waters are a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes. We’re well acquainted with the sipping beasts of Anatolia. After four itchy years, our tough old hides eventually developed a natural immunity to their veracious appetites. Their slower, more timid English cousins don’t stand a bug in hell’s chance with these old pros. Top up, anyone?
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