A Day Out With Elspeth On A Bus Named Lady Fermoy

I reprised my trip aboard Norfolk Green and Coasthopper buses, and this time was on one named after Ruth COMMA Lady Fermoy, friend of Queen mum who made her grandchild Princess Diana cry.

I did the bit I couldn’t do with Pocahontas and kept to the north west corner of Norfolk. Shame as she lived in this corner, around Heacham, which I went through, but alas, no sign of the lavender fields I chose a more laborious bus to view, and only the gates of Sandringham and a mere sign to Snettisham park. (If you want these, catch a bus 11 and not a Coasthopper).

Rural buses are funny: a day trip in itself. People don’t sit with their companions; they shout and reach across with sweets and other goodies. Strangers can talk at you, not interested in engaging. An older man with crutches took the seat of another older lady and showed no gratitude that he was let on the bus first: it may be expected, but his lack of manners galled me. Another wheelchair user parked his chair and sat elsewhere; the driver moaned it would fall when the she drove off and made a young woman stand so it could be put away, empty. Thus the wheelchair user took up two spaces whilst depriving someone else of their seat. Neither of those are my definition of being disability positive. And at the speed those buses fly round wyndy country roads, it’s not safe or pleasant to stand and I passionately believe you pay for a seat.

I was equally cross that Norfolk Green do not use big enough buses for times when they know it’ll be busy – early buses on a summer Saturday ought to be full bus sized (not mini coach) and better still, double deckers. As many users are disabled or older people, the need to sit is all the more important. There’s also the fear of not being able to get on – or being so crowded and uncomfy standing that you have to get off, which happened last time. Only by receiving a comp to compensate did I consider using Coasthoppers again.

The bus ride was mostly enjoyable for eavesdropping on other passengers and pleasant rural and sea views. Good, because to reach my main destination, I had to spend most of the day on the bus and had too little time to do what else I’d have chosen. For instance, I drove through the harbour of Wells next the sea, but couldn’t check out whether its shops have gone the way of Cley and Burnham because I’d never have got to Hunstanton and back before the buses stop and I’d get stranded.

I’d like to mention Walsingham, who seems to have accrued more shops since I last saw it, and I still rate it as my favourite Norfolk village, for reasons I share in the Pocahontas and my Quest for East Anglia’s Prettiest Village posts (see left side bar). I also thought East Rudham between Fakenham and King’s Lynn had potential as a specially pretty for Norfolk village, if it only had as many shops as you know where.

North Norfolk2 I went to Burnham Market, which I argued against being the prettiest, because I just had to check and to make sure those shops are as awful as I thought and that its people are as I judge them to be. I didn’t need long in Burnham. It is pretty, and I do secretly like the shops – but its Chelsea on Sea moniker feels less and less apt – is it because London on Sea’s taken? And it’s hardly the King’s Road or especially SW3’s resident’s day out. I tested friendliness of its shops: I found them to be average. One replied graciously to my toy sheep mascot comment. As for capital snootiness: I heard one posh voice talking about champagne for her film crew into her phone, but I heard some Norfolk too, and no City money making boasters, as I had been led to expect.

Some Coasthopper bus timetables miss off several places they do in fact call at. Burnham Deepdale is such a place – with shop chains that have no business in such a setting, and a backpackers’ hostel but barely a village.

Hunstanton was my main destiny. On suddenly realising where I was, I rang the bell, got off, and found myself standing in the old town, beyond my map, with nothing about me to tell me where I was. (There’s no announcement or display telling you where you are on rural buses).

I used my nouse to walk beside the golfcourse carpark towards the beach. There is only one chance to descend onto it and to those famous striped cliffs before they run out about a mile later. I was stuck on the barbed wire top of cliff walk, hearing the sea and people enjoying it, but not being able to glimpse the cliffs. Instead, I read Samaritan signs every few yards which made me sad but also strangely generated ideas that I had no thought of. The wire also meant a kite or lost scarf can’t be retrieved and is very nanny state – and doesn’t deal with the reasons someone might wish to jump.

Warning – the tide comes up far and there’s no prom underneath, just sheer cliffs and rocks. Could I have got stranded on the beach?

Hunstanton’s an odd resort, unlike any other – developed wholesale but without the seaside architecture one would expect – there’s no pier, or old theatre/cinema. It’s more villagey but with soulless modern flats and big developments like the Oasis leisure centre on the seafront, and a tiny bus station. It’s the honeyish carr stone of the area that is most distinct and that makes this corner of Norfolk feel part of the Wash and Fenlands, apart from the rest of the region and even its own county.

The chief final place to comment on is Castle Rising, for Fakenham has little – big church tower, local cinema chain in the old corn exchange, but the town seems evacuated as the shops shut around 530. Happily I needed little time there (unlike my first trip to Walsingham) as the bus changes were tight but I’m told that Norfolk Green (now disappointingly part of the Stagecoach empire) will wait for its own buses. North Norfolk1 North Norfolk North Norfolk - Copy You can see the fortification at Castle Rising – or rather, the earthworks and a flag, as you drive in. It’s hardly Windsor, think more like Norwich – another square Norman lone keep, but with its baileys in tact. How to get into the earthworks was not obvious as a driver or on foot. When I pointed this out to (otherwise very kind) staff, they seemed unimpressed, saying you can see the castle from the bus stop so you don’t need a sign, and didn’t take in the fact that for security reasons, castles only have one entrance and I could have wasted my precious hour wandering the village trying to guess where the visitor entrance actually was. There’s little else in Castle Rising except a pub and joint shop and tearooms called Unique, the former being in a barn and stuffed with hats and fascinators, so I didn’t want to get stuck there; and if I’d missed my bus, it would have meant I’d miss my ongoing connections and have an expensive cross county taxi fare. The castle has reverted to its erstwhile aristocratic owner and fallen out of English Heritage’s portfolio. A semi ruined but gimmick free monument has something – you just enjoy the remains for what they are, and there’s still enough to climb about and imagine what it was like to live in, and no gore tours. Audio guides are another pound, but there’s little in way of display and the ones that are, are half erased.

After a dizzying amount of time aboard buses – Lady Fermoy and all her ancestors – I was glad to come to land as it were.

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Elspeth’s Quest for East Anglia’s prettiest village

This is a new strand, a quest which will go round the country – seasides, cities, spa towns….

This first post is about villages.

As I’ve been writing about it most, I start with East Anglia.

As I was denigrating Burnham Market (below), who claims to be Norfolk’s prettiest, I began thinking – where is the prettiest village?

North Norfolk2 - Copy - Copy

I think I was a little harsher on BM in my Norfolk/Pocahontas post than I really meant to be. As with all those gentrifying places, I am ambivalent, and sometimes intrigued. But I do share the resentment of locals who see their communities being taken over by those capital dwellers with Jezebel eyes…

Politics aside, I find that Burnham Market is not overly pretty in its own right; it appears appealing because there’s an unusual amount of shops and a trend to visit. I’m still intrigued to know why the London influx was on this village, and not others. The coloured rendering and the red brick – common in Norwich but not this part of Norfolk – helps its perception of prettiness; but I still think: there is nothing to visit other than those puffed up shops and a certain inn. Even on its own website, the things to do in Burnham involve facials, or links to further afield.

And Burnham’s hardly fodder for the National Trust, is it?

Unlike Suffolk’s Lavenham, which is where I’ll champion, though there’s some wonderful Essex villages I’m getting to know. I’m not alone in thinking there’s not much of note in Cambridgeshire other than its cities, and even the brochures and glossies don’t offer any dissent from that. I would defy anywhere in the country to do better than Lavenham, though I am aware of several very lovely villages in those famous counties such as Gloucestershire, but whom get more attention – but not necessarily deservingly.

Lavenham1

The whole of Lavenham really does look like this

Lavenham is part of a swathe of lovely Wool Towns who I’m sure I’ll write about as a Day Out, and who ignore the county border and run from south Suffolk into north Essex. Coggeshall might well compete – alas I’ve not visited yet – and Thaxted is a serious contender and contester for prettiest village, though like many others listed here, it was once a town because of having a mayor and market. It has a guildhall, large church, important timbered and brick buildings, a windmill and the homes of a famous composer and infamous highwayman. But I think Thaxted isn’t the best because you can see all these in one well framed view, and it has few places to eat and shop (photo below).

Lavenham et al would be impressive even if they were purely residential. I expected a single old street, cunningly photographed to appear as many, but it is as well preserved as it appears – and better. It does have several shops and one could meet many needs without ever leaving the village – alpaca products, theatre set curios for three thousand pounds, artwork, chemists, and places to eat and drink. It’s also got a publisher, two museums (none in Burnham Market) and several societies – is this something that Burnham has? – they aren’t on the BM website, which was more welcoming and inclusive sounding than I’d expected. There are individual buildings worth seeing at Lavenham, and not just that church and Guildhall. You need to walk around, not just pass through a single spot. Lavenham’s not revealed all in one postcard, unlike popularly photographed nearby villages such as Kersey or Cavendish.

I also think its undulations help Lavenham’s picturesque quality. Fun to descend on a bike too.

Long Melford2

Long Melford (above) has something Lavenham doesn’t – the green and the two mansions – but I think I still prefer Lavenham for a more compact feel (ie herring shaped town grid round a market rather than one long street). Perhaps I need to do a post on not well known but pleasant villages of the region, for I can think of many who again would be famous by other counties’ standards. Why is Burnham prettier than Hingham, or Woolpit, or Bildeston? Why does Finchingfield get on postcards, but Haughley and Gt Bardfield don’t? (Why does my spell checker not know their names but it does Burnham’s?) Clare is very special, but it kind of a town. It has a castle and a priory which Lavenham doesn’t, but the church is less interesting and its museum in Ancient House is small. It is pretty and has good facilities – or am I just getting inured?

Finchingfield Thaxsted

Finchingfield and Thaxted, both in Essex

I still rate Little Walsingham (see previous article) because it’s unusual to have an abbey in the heart of a village built for pilgrims. I like that today (though not medievally), Walsingham’s focus is not on commerce, but on genuine spiritual seeking; and that it’s still a real village. I love its antiquity, and the many timbering and flint facades.

My ideal village has history – that’s pre 1700, timbered buildings, maybe some warm stone and brick; authentic (not manufactured) charm; local but not yokel; something to visit other than just shops, although I like several of those; an outstanding medieval church, something else heritage to visit, and something to do by night. A monthly film club/dramatics club/some quality concerts would be suffice for a village (but not for me, I do need my city). Colour is also important, and a little variety. Lavenham, you’re still winning.

Suggestions for contesters welcome. Or people who want to stick up for Burnham Market – I would gladly be proved wrong.

(More on Burnham in ‘A Day Out With Elspeth on a Bus named Lady Fermoy’)

A Day Out With Elspeth on A Bus Named Pochahontas

-Which is a Coasthopper Bus, which are all named after Norfolk locals (the Native American visited). And therefore, this post is about North Norfolk, and Norfolk in general.

Coasthopper named Pocahontas

Norfolk in particular – Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Norwich and Thetford – all have or will have their own entries.

Norfolk is wetlands and desolation, and that’s not necessarily a derogatory remark. Many places’ character and pleasure is the isolation and quiet they offer. Despite being one of Britain’s most populous counties in medieval times, Norfolk has the impression of spacious, uncluttered, unpeopledness. It’s also quite wild, even eerie.

Windmill Without Sails

Windmill Without Sails by me

Apart from the above listed towns, there’s not many places to especially pick out about Norfolk; what’s considered special here would be mediocre by other counties’ standards. The postcode changes from NR for Norwich to PEterborough in the west and IPswich in the south reflect a character change too – PE is like the Wash: fenland flat with a sort of dirty dark honey stone, a little more Midlands; and IP has prettier, older towns and exposed timbers, and is more like Suffolk.

I like a capital to resemble its provinces, but it seems one has to choose between charming county or city. Suffolk and Essex are prettier than Norfolk, but have no outstanding city (the same is true of Gloucestershire and Somerset); Norwich is one of Britain and Ireland’s most special historic cities (certain locals say it features on a European level), but, sorry Nelson County, this top slice of the Pig’s Bum of England (I think a map of Britain looks like a chicken riding a pig) is not one of our nation’s strongest.

Norwich’s looks are seen more in north Suffolk; there’s flashes of it in North Walsham, perhaps even certain angles of Holt. But there’s only one village that looks how I’d hoped Norfolk might, having known its county town – and that’s

Me at Walsingham

Little Walsingham. Pilgrims come, but it seems, tourists do not so much, and there’s little to do if you’re not in one of the three Christian shrines or the snowdrop ridden original abbey and holy site – the Catholic one being a LONG walk out of the village. Architecturally, it’s a very interesting village (and former small town), one of the few with a museum. I had expected a kind of Lavenham, plenty of shops and places to eat; though I was really hopeful for an eastern Glastonbury, and wondered if alternative spirituality was also present here (no hippies but occasional Hindus). But there’s only two each of local shop, tearoom, pub, shrine shop. If you’re on the steam train, beware there’s not much of a station of around it (the original’s now an Orthodox shrine). And if you go by bus, you have a long wait till the next one – and risk being stranded, for you’re many miles from alternative transport, so plan carefully if you’re using it, for the service ends late afternoon.

Perhaps I should state here, for anyone unfamiliar – RURAL BRITAIN STOPS EARLY. Shops are shut by 530pm – perhaps even 4, they are closed often on Sundays and Bank Holidays, and transport is reduced. More anon on this re the Coasthopper.

These comments can sum up much of the county: infrequent, early stopping buses and closing shops (sometimes seasonal too); in the North, some perhaps incongruous posh shops and eateries among little to do, espicially by night (a film society if you’re lucky, but little arts outside the larger towns).

Holt is over-egged and is not the Londoner’s bijou that brochures make out; it’s very country Norfolk, but there’s no activity here except the little old fashioned shops – colourful and quaint, but no buildings of individual interest, and nothing to visit or do by night – and the steam train station is A LONG way out of the centre.

I am not sure of the attraction of Burnham Market, whose billing as the land of the second homes squad of a certain kind of affluent is mostly a repellent to me (‘Chelsea on sea’ is overused and I quite like Chelsea). Burnham’s got some much needed colour (amidst the swathes of grey flint round there) and a village green, but the houses which would have been artisan are now expensive… why? And you can get everything Burnham offers in Norwich, plus all the things it hasn’t got. Burnham calls itself Norfolk’s prettiest village, but if it’s true, it says something about Norfolk – I refer you to my para under my painting above.

I shall post separately about best villages.

There’s the slice of Norfolk’s pie that seems to get less attention, in terms of transport and tourism – the Mundesley (Munds-ly)/Happisburgh (Hays- bra) chunk. Lighthouse, woods, beach hut, quiet.

The rest of this is more about North Norfolk, between Cromer and Hunstanton.

Cromer pier

Cromer pier by me

People have a preference over Sheringham or Cromer – both fishing villages turned seaside resort, but Sheringham feels closer to fishing village still. It begins as a Holt-like local high street (from the stations – the Poppyline heritage one is Sheringham’s best bit) and becomes tourist seaside with a bit of tack, but if you turn towards the church, you find books, gallery and two smart restaurants. The concrete sea fighting wall is now adorned with pictures, which takes off some of the grey. It does have a Little Theatre and this includes a behind release but interesting and quite arty film programme.

You could walk to Cromer over the Bump! but the official (acorn signed) path takes you inland further than you might expect and it also takes longer – with erosion and snotty caravan parks, the direct coastal route isn’t possible; if you go along the beach, beware: tides come in quickly and right up the shore.

Beeston Bump

Cromer’s tall church tower is easily seen from Beeston Bump, and it’s evidence that this was a place of importance before railways and daytrippers. Its central streets are still tight and evoke a medievally feel – Jetty Street and Hans Place, looking from the old style cinema to the great church tower, are a couple of my favourites. Neither town is large, but both have sufficient amenities, and Cromer is one of the seasides few to still have an end of pier show. That pier and the only remaining grand hotel give it more presence than Sheringham. Both have easily accessible clifftop walks and other nature, and two museums each.

There’s no other real resorts until the very western edge of the county at Hunstanton. I’d hoped to visit to report here, but couldn’t stand the two hours of Coasthopper bus – one of the few ways to reach Hunstanton without a car. There was a problem and the popular little coach was filled at capacity from its first stop. Many of us got off at the first viable place, which changed my day plan from riding the whole of the coast to exploring a small section. I think I’ve learned that despite a very good value ranger ticket (which also allows you on some of the trains – called a Bittern line ranger), that you can’t be too ambitious. Many of the walks or attractions (eg Blakeney Point, seal trips) take a couple of hours and the early stopping of the buses again makes stranding a real possibility. Coasthopper also say sometimes they can’t guarantee everyone getting on – not funny if you’ve an hour’s wait, let alone if it’s the last bus of the day.

Cley (Cly – below) and Stiffkey (Stoo-ky?) can be summarised by my above comments – with the addition of how shocked I was by the busyness of the coast road, a tiny single lane going through the heart of the villages with NO PAVEMENT. Many drivers in over large vehicles were selfish ones and it didn’t make for pleasant wandering.

Cley windmill from marshes

However, I did something not in the tourist maps – I walked to Binham, which must be about 3 miles as it took an hour along the road. Mostly you can do so safely and get on a verge, but there were a few trickier points nearer Stiffkey. Binham’s as pretty (or not) as any of the other villages that way, it has a pub (not cheap or over friendly) and a wonderful priory.

Binham priory across fields

The priory is across fields, and is under half the length of what it was with no towers, but there are several reconstruction drawings to help you imagine it. Frustratingly, the different ownerships of the ruins and church mean that guides do not refer to the whole. Beware, there’s a sort of maze/dead end among the ruins where you have to take a little jump. I thought Binham’s interior looked poky in photos, but there is a strikingly… I have tried several times to put the atmosphere into words… spiritual, peaceful, a place to linger and pleasant to be… lighter inside than I’d expected for a place with most of its windows sealed up. It had more of an effect than Cley church which I also visited – though I’d like to commend both churches for allowing visitors to enter each day and trusting us to do so without a warden to harass us (take note, Wymondham Abbey!) And Binham has nice new loos.

Binham Priory inside

You probably can’t see, but there are pleasing mouldings on the furthest bottom arches.

I’ve been to all the towns in Norfolk bar 3, but the only other place I’d like to single out today is Holkham. The hall is too plain and Palladian for my liking, but the beach is special. However, I’m not going to join the boast that it’s the country’s best, though it is one of the best in the county – but then, most of Norfolk’s beaches are loved because of that natural, grassy duny untouched feel. You walk to Holkham’s down boardwalks and there’s no facilities after the hall. I personally prefer some cliffs too, but this has the backdrop of pines. I will close with an old picture of me impersonating Ms Paltrow at the end of Shakespeare in Love, filmed here. I like the symbolism of walking to fresh new worlds.

Me on Holkham beach being Gwyneth

A Day out with Elspeth in Thetford

Standing up for armpits…

Thetford

I daren’t take my camera so here’s a sketch of both my visits

This was one of the first places I wrote a travel guide on. I note that I’ve only really had a day out there twice, despite often being in the East of England. My Thetford visits seem about completing the set, having been everywhere else; though this time it’s because I wanted to go to a forest. And see an adder, who did not do me the honour of appearing.

In 2002, I began by quoting the sobriquet that Thetford’s the armpit of Norfolk. This feels cruel and rude, and I recall from whom I heard the moniker, and a little irony. However, I went on to explain why it wasn’t undeserved – and my experiences that day understandably led to that conclusion.

Here’s what I wrote on my first visit:

I went straight from the station to what was advertised as a peaceful riverside ruined priory. I found it off a ring road, next to an electricity generator, in glorious isolation, optimal for abduction. I couldn’t read the information panels due to graffiti – the artist’s reconstruction of the abbey was obscured by a willy. I had to renegotiate the generator to find the river and a public green, which I expected to be populated by pram pushing, ice cream licking, book reading citizens, pleasantly enjoying the day. Instead, two pubescent girls whizzed past on bikes, and quite unprovoked, sprayed at me from a pressurized can. And then I recognised the street names – infamous to those who have worked in certain professions. Further alarm bells were raised when the chapel in the unmanned Tourist Information Centre (housed in a church) was marked “For private prayer – NOT other uses.” It made me wonder what else had been tried in there, and if it was too unsafe to leave staff in.

This time, the TIC has moved and is most certainly staffed. I revisited the abbey and people were enjoying it – older ones who seemed to be visitors, and locals sitting among the ruins, much as at Bury St Edmunds. The new information panels feature CGI images of the abbey as it was (but too white inside), and there’s not a willy in sight. Extra points if you can get to the gatehouse – supposedly on a permissive path on private land, the mixed message sign was on a locked gate. I took the river path for a few miles, and found it full of locals just enjoying their heritage and greenery, and there was nothing threatening, though I was on my guard. The only bit that worried me was the pine trees off the Abbey estate. After being misled by a leaflet that it’s possible to walk to the forest from central Thetford along the river, I clutched at the sight of a few scots pines to compensate for my wasted and somewhat lonely journey (more anon). The debris immediately sent a message that this was not the place to linger for a forest experience – or not the sort in the leaflet.

The Little Ouse leaflet about a river walk from Brandon to Thetford stations is most misleading. It claims it’s 9 miles, but it took a long time to reach what seems only a third of the way. After you cross the A11, you’ll feel like you’re in the forest, it says. Well, it was tree-ier, but nothing like the scenes you pass on the train, or the image in my mind. I did see a heath, opposite a weir, but by now, it felt eerie. The leaflet vaguely says I could take a detour into the woods to find a solitary ruined Warren Lodge, but there were no signs. I could see myself on this tiny, unlaid path (less than a foot wide) for hours, then having to pop out of the foliage and cross a busy road… and decided I’d be happier returning.

The town centre of Thetford has sadly not improved since my first visit. As capital of the Brecks and an isolated reasonable sized town, one would expect better facilities. It’s a town that’s looked to, but its paucity forces it to look to others: Bury St Edmunds being the nearest, but cities are 3o miles away. The first street you see from approaching from the station – White Hart – looks quite promising, especially with timbered Ancient House. The staff were lovely and the updated museum was interesting, though a bit too child friendly, as ever. The main hall is impressive, as is the contemporary Bell inn, who takes up a whole corner. At that corner, things worsen. The usual post war story is true of the main shopping area, King Street, but improvements are being planned. I was shocked at how little shops there are – I’ve been to town a third of the size and had way more to look at. I wondered how locals survive. And I counted only about 6 pubs, 3 coffee shops (none being appealing) and takeaways, but only one thing that vaguely approached a restaurant. After being ignored for 10 minutes in a café on the site of a church, I decided to forgo eating and drinking. I couldn’t even see a convenience shop or supermarket. It’s all discount shops and a tiny dark WHSmith; a couple of banks and the ubiquitous eyewear and mobile phone chains.

The Guildhall‘s art gallery shows watercolours of landscapes for sale for c£45 amidst the opportunity to buy very cheap refreshments. The Edwardian, classical guildhall also houses an occasional Dad’s Army museum, about the TV show filmed here. I was given directions that featured Captain Mainwaring’s statue.

That statue’s area – the colourful Victorian Town Bridge – is wonderful view of the back of the blocky little shopping centre and some scaffolding. I tried to find the bus station, needing the loo, and was puzzled, but then I saw a tiny bus emerging from the wasteland carpark and noted a few people huddled round a seat and a bus timetable poster. (Ironically, the ancient grammar school is opposite, with a leafy impressively chimneyed neighbour). This is the site of the 1000s cathedral. Note how ecclesiastical sites are now used.

Minstergate sounds delightful and recalls York, seeming to promise essential English quaintness as a prelude to a major church. Perhaps it once did; today, it’s a back passage that passes the peeling paint of the Charles Burrell museum, volunteers within keen to share their knowledge of steam engine making (no loo); and then there’s the ring road and that generator before you encounter the abbey precinct’s new entrance gates.

The King’s House is a well known Thetford sight, as is the statue of Thomas Paine outside, but there’s a garden round the back (with toilets) and from there, it’s obvious this is a house named for a Charles, not a George, as the front view suggests. Brick and sashes give way to flint and freestone gables.

The castle area is quite different to everything else. The local flint dominates, giving it character, and it’s quiet, and one imagines that perhaps different denizens reside within the cottages and couple of industrial buildings, and the old gaol. The huge castle mound resembles a summer fruits pudding, and the iron age earthworks are allowed to be covered in unfettered natural plants (ie not shaved to an inch of the grass’s life). It’s a short but dangerous walk to the set of three thin old Nuns’ bridges, driven over by selfish maniacs, and further meadows, commons and the British Ornithology Headquarters in the former Nunnery.

You can come back via the Guildhall and quite quickly walk to the station. This would be handsome, but the original flint bit is boarded up, and despite several trains passing, it is dark and isolated at night. There are more flinty older quiet houses around here, but I still did not manage to glimpse the Priory’s gatehouse.

 

A history of Thetford (easily mistyped to suggest theft) points out that its attempts at prosperity were constantly defeated: as Saxon regional capital and cathedral city, the see was moved to Norwich in under 25 years, and the founder didn’t even make an offshoot monastery here, as he did at Lynn and Yarmouth. Thetford set up its own, and had 22 churches and several religious houses, but the Dissolution took those. It tried to be a spa town, but the Georgian gentry were unable to navigate fen and forests; it was industrial, but that declined too, and then the 1960s invasion – not this time of Danes or Normans – but London overspill, an arrangement that can’t have been wanted for both locals and newcomers, combining two disparate strong communities in a remote setting. Thetford swelled but it caters for the small place it was before. There’s no arts, no cinema (why not a local chain like Hollywood here?), few shops, and not even the wretched likes of Starbucks and fast food have entered those forests. The forest ought be called Brandon, for the trade description act, as it’s where the visitor centre is.

 

 

 

 

A Day Out With Elspeth in Great Yarmouth

Yarmouth 1aYarmouth 1b

Yarmouth has best medieval town walls in the East of England 

I began a travel book ten years ago and this is one of the earliest entries. My adult relationship with the Norfolk seaside began 15+ years ago by exploring the historic old town that I was surprised to learn of. A wry affection grew, embracing the tackiness and what may politely be called rambunctiousness of the resort and celebrating the old; but my starshaped rock coloured glasses came off after a few year’s gap. Having experienced new cities, I was less able to allow those who love the candyfloss, repeating bassline, cheap gifts and louche entertainment to enjoy Yarmouth and accept it as it is, and less prepared to spend further time there myself.

The Historic Quarter is more like a sixteenth. On my most recent trip, I was struck by how short the nice part of South Quay is compared to the length of the river, the busy roads carved through it, and the industrial sheds opposite that the guidebooks omit.

What I mind most is the lack of improvement over those years. I had read that the Quay was getting done up, but apart from small trees who don’t seem to have grown, nothing seems different and the decay is now greater than when I first visited. Tarting up the library and one of the worst shopping centres/bus stations I have seen with shiny glass have done nothing. As my expectations rise, I am no longer piqued by Spudulike (one of the last branches of the jacket potato fast food chain) and am fussier about my cafes – though Yarmouth does have a few nicer ones – Portuguese run Quayside Plaza on South Quay and Hoorah Henry’s near the cinema on the prom.

Perhaps one of the worst aspects is the view that greets the visitor from Norwich, by road or rail. Across verdant fens rises what could be an amazing prospect, like Arthur’s Camelot in First Knight. Instead: a power station, Social security offices and an urban sprawl that must make many holidayers wonder if it’s too late for a refund. I wonder how residents’ hearts must sink.

The railway station does nothing to alleviate this sense of foreboding. A 60s smelly pile waits and is locked pretty early even in season, making catching trains unappealing – Yarmouth only has one branch line (to Norwich), sometimes only once an hour, making you sit at a deserted open platform with no facilities or staff.

Leaving the station, you are presented with a rotting bridge which could be a feature. Vauxhall’s curved iron structure resembles a mini Tyne bridge, but most of it is roped off as dangerous, so it can only be used by cycles and pedestrians. One wonders if the signs really do direct you across it or if this is some method of keeping faarenners out – a violent answer to the Blarney Stone local joke. It’s now half restored in resplendent red, but awkwardly, I like the unpainted dilapidated side better.

Routes to market and beach or historic quay are not pretty either, and you could spend several moments wondering if you’d got lost or if the town really is this bad.

Yarmouth 2

A good guide will tell you that you are on your way to a quay that Daniel Defoe called the best in Europe, full of merchant’s houses and unique alleys called rows (rough little squeezeways which were and perhaps are dangerous and unappealing, lest you romanticise them); to the largest parish church in the country (now a Minster) in a large green graveyard with tame squirrels (read anon) by the timbered birthplace of Black Beauty penner Anna Sewell; some of the best medieval town walls in the country; to some important early seaside architecture from when the town was fashionable, including classical arches and Georgian style homes and several Edwardian cinemas. It has a dozen museums (Time and Tide especially is good – the only one open on Saturdays!) and many more visitor attractions, meaning it’s one of the few really good all weather British seasides (which you need!).

Yarmouth shows as many changing and contradictory faces as British summer can. It caters for unique (ahem) shopping (watersnakes anyone? Or a Buddha – next to some nipple tassels and smurfette toys), animals, amusements for adults and children – did you know Yarmouth has the oldest rollercoaster, in the world, I think? And one of the first piers, and a cinema in a Victorian aquarium, and the only Edwardian working circus, which doubles up as a venue for orchestral concerts.

I could show you pages in my scrapbook that make Yarmouth look good. But the lens is deliberately cutting off what’s around it – the busy ring roads, industrial decay and ugly post war housing (though happily not tower blocks) and an atmosphere that is as hard to capture by pen as it is with a camera. The suburbs bleed into the centre and people’s front doors are open as they visit neighbours and call out to them.

Improvement and life is starting around the King St area with artists studios and St George’s church becoming an arts centre, but the overall feel of Yarmouth is still better encapsulated by the former waxworks museum. Louis Tussaud clearly didn’t have his aunt’s gift and the outdated figures needed signs to identify them.

I have to append the awful exhibit at the Elizabethan House museum. Having enjoyed an amazing plastered ceiling and learned about possible conspiracy in shady rooms with a fireplace adorned by poorly painted nipples with the areola missing (that’s the second time I’ve mentioned those this article) – I passed through the children’s room. And there is an entablature of dead squirrels all round an table! Worse still, there’s postcard of this bizarre and and unanimal friendly sight – one fears for those graveyard squirrels! This is exactly the juxtaposition and rapid change characteristic of Yarmouth that I have been trying to convey!