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Norfolk and the Fens, 9-14 October 2020

Updated: May 8, 2021




Foreign travel is pretty much forbidden these days, so here we are in Norfolk. Staying with our immensely generous and welcoming host Martin Price (on the left in the picture), we plan to enjoy some of the treasures and delights of north-west Norfolk, with an excursion to Norwich thrown in; ending up in deepest Fenland to explore some of my past.


Brancaster


Martin is a long-time member (and ex-Captain) of the prestigious Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, which name is deemed too much of a mouthful – so everyone calls it Brancaster.


The “Royal” bit of the name caused a bit of unexpected trouble in 1891 when the club was founded. They’d printed up all the notices and paperwork when someone asked whether anyone had bothered to apply to be Royal. No one had – what a disaster! They had to creep round to Sandringham (conveniently nearby) to put it right. They got it all right, though history doesn’t relate how amused Queen Victoria was - or was not.


The club is right on the sea, with the links stretching along the coast behind the sand dunes. The sea can be challenging, particularly when helped along by a vigorous north-easterly wind, as it was when we were there. The clubhouse is protected by hundreds of vast granite boulders, imported (shortly before Martin’s captaincy) from Derbyshire at considerable expense. They certainly look as though they should do the job.


The dining room has been well-Covined – if that is an expression – with everyone obeying the rules. This had extended – to the dismay of some members – to kicking out the nice old furniture in the dining room and replacing it with large round featureless tables to allow the diners to keep their distance and shout at each other.


Ethanol


We found ourselves witness to one of the curious by-products of the desire to be Green. Huge vehicles trundle along the country roads, also passing noisily by Martin’s cottage, transporting the ground-up maize grown in the vicinity that is destined to be made into ethanol, apparently to reduce the amount of petrol we use. Returning to London, I remind myself of the studies that say that the production of ethanol in fuel actually increases the emissions of carbon dioxide. Who knows? I guess the local farmers are happy to get the subsidies for growing the maize.




Deepest Norfolk


We weren’t expecting to learn new words in Norfolk. Arriving at North Creake and following Martin’s meticulous directions, I missed the turning to his cottage, partly by failing to recognize the “chicane” he referred to. As everyone but me seems to know, a chicane is a kind of S-bend in the road. How about “Creake”, as in North and South Creake? A creake is a hill – a rarity in flat Norfolk, according to Noel Coward’s character in Private Lives. There are a lot of Staithes too – an inlet, we learn.


One of the purposes of our trip is to look at some churches and cathedrals, guided by the massive tomes produced by Simon Jenkins. His description of the little church in North Creake (below) is bizarre and caused us much merriment. He talks about approaching it “beneath” a wall that looks more like the wall of a “keep”. Actually, you approach it through an entirely typical small porch. Where is the wall? I was picturing a tunnel. Was he – shock, horror! – muddling it with South Creake? We went to South Creake and there one finds a tunnel of trees. Had I misread it all? We spent some time amusing ourselves in imagining the letter I would write to Sir Simon, pointing out his carelessness, until I re-read his words. No tunnel is mentioned, of course. We decided that he must have meant to describe the very solid wall of the bell-tower, which you pass by. To say you go “beneath” it may be a bit misleading, but it hardly justifies a letter to add to his in-tray.




Salle


One of our main objectives is to see Norwich and its magnificent cathedral, which neither Mary nor I have ever been to. We decided to take in a visit to the church at Salle (pronounced as in Saul) on the way, encouraged by Sir Simon who gives it four stars.


The church is indeed impressive, standing rather alone and deserted. Mary was particularly sad to see bird droppings on the floor; and some of the old wooden carvings are sadly decayed.


However, it certainly has its features. The most curious is the font, with a tall, intricately carved cover suspended by an immense pulley. We found ourselves speculating how the baby being christened would be inserted under the cover without risk to life or limb. The font itself has ancient carvings of the seven sacraments – bet you can’t name them!


Another unusual feature is the wooden 17th century pulpit, constructed in three tiers to allow for a “reading desk” as well as a “clerk’s desk”.


Simon Jenkins refers to the wonderful carvings of 160 angels supporting the roof, all of which are of course invisible. It’s amazing how medieval, and indeed later, artists used to work on things that no one could realistically see.


Norwich



The cathedral is definitely one of the wonders of English architecture, begun and largely completed in the first half of the 12th century, and so mainly Norman Romanesque. But the vault was added two hundred years later in the very different Perpendicular style, causing the great Dr Pevsner to comment that the latter style works much better with the Norman than the more normal early Gothic. It does indeed, with its splendid fan vault. The view down the nave is wonderful.


This view is somewhat broken up by the organ that is stuck in the middle, just as it is at King’s College Cambridge. Which made me think that it must go back to much the same time. But no – on closer inspection it’s relatively modern, causing some criticism among the critics, and the locals apparently.


The cathedral is still situated in a delightful Close, containing elegant houses, formerly housing clerics, no doubt, but now such non-clerical types as solicitors and accountants. We waited outside before going in and were horrified to see a nasty modern statue in the Close, just identifiable as a mother and child. It’s sad that the Church, doubtless in its worthy desire to involve today’s artists, goes so far astray.


The cathedral has the second tallest spire in Britain (second only to Salisbury, since you ask), which looks magnificent and has survived the centuries. It is also much appreciated by a family of peregrine falcons, who we looked out for, but they were away travelling.


The Norfolk Club


We were honoured to be invited to have lunch at the Norfolk Club, founded in 1770 and still going strong. Our host was Gervas Steele, a long-standing friend of Martin who we met earlier in the year on Bequia. The club is a delight: it’s the sort of place where you’re encouraged to wear a jacket and tie. How nice! - although I did see some minor deviations from this dress code as I looked around the dining room. Gervas gave us a conducted tour. The lunch was excellent.


Ely


Returning from Norfolk via Ely was an obvious choice. Ely has one of the great cathedrals of England, even of Europe.


It was also where my father went to school, his parents coming from nearby, leading us to extend our travels towards a walk down memory lane, at least for me, and a minor exploration of family history, again so far as I was concerned.


Ely Cathedral you can see from a distance, unlike most others, in view of its position in the flat lands of the Fens – the “Ship of the Fens” as they say.


Ely has a more relaxed ambiance than some places. People were unfailingly helpful and charming. Also, adherence to the Covid rules was less authoritarian than what we’d become used to (as to which I will revert!).


You enter the cathedral through the west door and so are immediately confronted with one of the most dramatic views possible – the immensely tall nave with its painted ceiling. Again it’s a mixture of Norman (in the nave) and Perpendicular (not the vault, but in the chancel at the east end).


The sad part of it is that it must have been at the centre of the dreadful Puritan extremists of the 17th century (Oliver Cromwell came from St Ives, not far away). The result was that the delightful Lady Chapel was vandalized. It is still wonderful, but all the hundreds of small statues around the side have had their heads crudely hacked off. It is amazing to me that religion, even the Christian religion, can lead people to commit destruction of this kind. It is also one of the reasons for the lack of medieval stained glass both in Norwich and, even more so, in Ely.


We had lunch at the Old Fire Engine House, the restaurant recommended by Martin and indeed others – a lovely place just on the edge of the cathedral precinct.


I managed to amuse all our neighbouring diners in the restaurant by a piece of complete imbecility. We parked at what I thought was called the cathedral car park. We then went to the cathedral and after that the restaurant – me losing my sense of direction in the process. I thought I knew where the car park was and set off after lunch in the supposed direction. I found a car park, which looked suspiciously unfamiliar, and of course no car. Luckily I found a taxi to take me back to the restaurant. The nice waitress in the restaurant then pointed me in the direction of the correct car park, only a few minutes walk in the opposite direction to what I had thought. Very exhausting, but good exercise, and nice to give free entertainment to a load of strangers, I suppose.


The Old Hall, Ely


We stayed at a recently renovated Jacobean Manor House just outside Ely, called the Old Hall. It was a bit of a surprise. I had selected it from the Internet without much research. It looked all right and wasn’t particularly expensive.


In fact, it was quite a find: not really a hotel at all, more a seriously up-market B&B. It was originally owned by the family of Oliver Cromwell’s mother (I hope I’ve got that right) and bought, in a seriously ruined state, by the current owners fairly recently. They are a family of mother and two daughters, the husband and father having died three years ago. The family have done an amazing job in renovating and rebuilding the house. Their main business is weddings, frankly not just doing bed and breakfasts. But it was immaculate. We didn’t meet the mother, Alison Morbey, as she was away, but the daughters, Antonia and Alex (all the As), were charming and full of information about the background to what they’re doing. I’m sure Covid isn’t helping, but they seem to be survivors.


Manea


This was our next destination, which requires some considerable explanation. Manea is deep in the Fens: at the end of long straight roads, passing through nowhere in particular.


Its claim on our attention was that my grandfather – my father’s father – was vicar there for many years, nearly 30 to be precise, between 1925 and 1953. And the aspect that may appear bizarre to outsiders is that I never met him, except probably as a baby – for reasons that are too involved to go into in a journal like this (see the memoir of my childhood for details!).


Manea was a small village in my grandfather’s time, but is now quite a bit bigger. It has its websites, from which I had got enough details to be able to make contact with the current churchwarden. She readily agreed to meet us and show us the church. We duly met her there and went into the church – not much in use now, what with Covid and Archbishop Welby’s regulations.


We saw the list of vicars on the nave wall, showing the Reverend F F Herbert for all those years.


Mrs Hankins, the churchwarden, now a fit and active 81 year-old, remembers the Rev Herbert, although largely for his ultra-long sermons. My grandmother supplied much of the pastoral side of the work of the parish and Mrs Hankins said that she thought she could find a letter that my grandmother had written to her mother thanking her for looking after a dying parishioner. Amazingly, she managed to find it and send it to me by the time we got back home that evening. An efficient lady. One wonders if there are others lining up to take over her role when the time comes.


We looked at the outside of the house standing next to the church, which we were told was where the Rev Herbert lived. It’s now a refuge or centre of some kind for disruptive teenagers.


Holywell


This was the final step down Memory Lane. Orchard Cottage, Holywell, was where I spent most of my first five years, escaping Hitler’s bombs. The village is tiny and a dead-end – it’s on the way to nowhere.


We stopped outside Orchard Cottage, just after the eponymous holy well at the bottom of the churchyard. Should we disturb the current residents? Mary thought no. I thought, why not?


I rang the bell and a lady emerged looking rather cross, assuming that I was about to sell her some insurance. But when I explained, she was overwhelmingly friendly. She and her husband – who also appeared when he saw that the coast was clear of insurance salesmen – seemed to be fascinated to hear about what the place was like 75 years ago.


Actually, it was very different. The cottage I remember was mostly made of wood. It has long been dismantled and replaced, probably in stages, by a modern bungalow, built on stilts and overlooking the fields.


We then went along to the Ferry Boat pub, which has been going strong, to my knowledge, for at least the last 80 years. It serves a good lunch, at the same time as maintaining a complex network of barriers and one way systems designed to defeat the virus that I suspect is almost non-existent in the village. As to which, see below.


Covid


I have refrained from much comment on Covid and the way they seem to be dealing with it in the places we visited, although the fear of it pervades everything.


The main conclusion I came to was that the various regulations are imposed and enforced with a diligence and strictness in inverse proportion to the dangers and risks involved. An example of this was in Norwich Cathedral. On a spectrum of relative risk, one would put it at the low end: big spaces, one of the highest ceilings in the world, and frankly a very limited number of people. But we were faced with an array of one-way systems, masks, taped-off pews and barriers that made the regimes in other more risky places appear relaxed. It all seemed to be being enforced by a sinister verger in a black cassock wearing a black mask, hovering in the background.


It was the churches that stood out in all this. It made me think wickedly that the Church seems now more concerned about saving our bodies than our eternal souls.


On a more positive note, Ely is more relaxed: sensible, but relaxed – fewer vergers in black cassocks. It certainly made it easier to appreciate the spiritual atmosphere of the place.




Tony Herbert

16 October 2020


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