WYMONDHAM is a market town about ten miles south of Norwich. When I first remember driving through it the town was on the A11 main road to London. Until the 1960s this was a single carriageway along its entire length; indeed the last section of single carriageway has only recently been dualed. All the traffic went along the winding streets in the centre of medieval Wymondham, along narrow Damgate Street and past the quaint old market cross. Since those days it has been bypassed not once but twice, and the dual carriageway now does not approach the town.
For a couple of years around 1980, when I was thirty years old, I drove an old Ford Transit minibus round Wymondham, returning old folk from the Day Centre to their homes after their day’s outing. This happened once a week on Wednesday afternoons and was voluntary and unpaid work. The transport was rather ancient but well maintained by Semmence’s, the local garage in Wymondham. This was near the railway station. The only slightly difficult part was finding your way round the town to their various homes, but as Wymondham is not a large town I soon found my way round. Pople Street was, I recall, where several of the old folk lived. I don’t suppose many thirty-year olds were spending their afternoons on such activities, even once a week, but I found the tales of the old people fascinating.
Most of the elderly people were just left at their front door because I could not leave the passengers for long, but my last drop off was Mr Isbill who always invited me in. I was able to enter his house for a chat, there being no one left waiting on the bus. He was a veteran of the First World War- he would have been in his eighties when I knew him. The experience of warfare had evidently not put him off guns, because pride of place in his living room was a stuffed woodpecker which he had shot. It was a green woodpecker, which is a showy bird, and having killed one is not the sort of thing we would be proud of today I fancy; but this was yesterday.
He must have retired about 1960. This was about the end of the era of the lengthman. What was a lengthman? I can remember our local lengthman going round the minor roads in Framingham Earl, but I think the main roads would already have been too dangerous for a pedestrian with a barrow to walk along. That was what a lengthman was basically, a man with a two wheeled barrow who patrolled a length of road. There were no Day-Glo jackets for road menders to wear in those days, but with just his spade he kept the verges immaculate. Unless you are now a pensioner you can have no idea quite how badly things have declined in the neatness of our environment. Anyway Mr Isbill had spent his life as the lengthman round Wymondham.
I found that Mr Isbill liked a snack when he got home, and it was always the same – a Jacobs Cream Cracker with some butter on it. He would sit down and tell me where to find the ingredients, and I soon found my way round his pantry. While he was eating we talked. He had spent his working life as a roadmender. Lengthmen were very proud of their length, and with their simple tools they had to gather litter (not a big problem in those days), dig out the drainage “grups” and fill in small potholes. An eye was kept on the general condition of the road and the system worked well enough at the time. Nowadays the same job is done by whole crew of men with at least a JCB digger who travel the area once in a blue moon. Nobody is responsible for a length anymore, grups have been replaced by elaborate drainage systems (or nothing at all) and plastic litter is frequently dropped but infrequently collected. When it is done it is by a group of men with bin bags. In the early 20th century the whole country was kept much neater and plastic bags were unknown in Mr Isbill’s time.
In the end I had to give up my Day Centre run because Wednesday was also the day for me to give blood. Although this only happen every six weeks or so it could make me feel a bit dazed for a time afterwards. With the possibility of low blood levels causing me to faint when driving round in the minibus I thought it was safer to stop.
I still have the letter written to me by the local administrator of MIND, the organisers of the Day Centre, when I stopped. The person in charge was a woman who lived near Wymondham. She was the wife of Alan Borg, the first curator of the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia. He was next appointed (soon after I gave up my position at Wymondham) to be the Curator of the Imperial War Museum in London, which meant a move from Wymondham to the capital. After a period at the War Museum he was promoted to be in charge of the Victoria and Albert Museum. His wife who wrote so kindly to me was an eminent lady in her own right, the daughter of the Marquess of Downshire. I have discovered this only recently, while researching this piece on The Lengthman. Her ancestors had corresponded with such eminent people as Ben Jonson and John Donne, as recorded in the Trumbull papers. This is all on a rather higher sphere than me and Mr Isbill, but I think I prefer my memories.