WYMONDHAM is a market town about ten miles south of Norwich. When I first remember driving through it 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 carriage is only now being removed. All the through traffic went along the windy streets in the centre of medieval Wymondham, along narrow Damgate Street and past the quaint old market cross. Since those days is has been bypassed not once but twice, and the dual carrriageway now does not approach the town.
For a couple of years when I was thirty years old I drove an old Ford Transit minibus round Wymondham, returning the Day Centre users to their homes after their day’s outing. This happened once a week on Wednesday afternoons and was strictly voluntary and unpaid. 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.
Most of the elderly people were just left at their front door because I was alone in the bus and could not leave the passengers for long, but my last drop off was Mr Isbill whose house I was able to enter 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 mid eighties in 1980. 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. I can remember our local lengthman on the minor roads around Framingham Earl, but I think the main roads would already have been too dangerous for a pedestrian with a barrow to walk along. The roads were narrow and no bends had been straightened out; there were no pavements, and no DayGlo jackets for road menders to wear. And at the time there was no upper speed limit – they used bring Jaguars out from the garage in Norwich and try to do the ton on the mile of straight outside our house, all quite legally.
Mr Isbill liked a snack when got in, and it was always the same – a Jacobs Cream Cracker and butter. He sat down and told 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 , or lengthman as they were known. Lengthmen were responsible for a stretch of road, and were very proud of their length. They were provided with not much more than a shovel and a two wheeled barrow, and with these 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 at the time. Nowadays the same job is done by whole crew of men and a JCB digger. Nobody is responsible for a length any more, grups have been replaced by elaborate drainage systems (or nothing at all) and litter is frequently dropped but infrequently collected. When it is done it is by a group of men with plastic bags and an attendant motor vehicle. In the early 20th century the whole country was kept much neater.
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 more infrequently than that, it could make me feel a bit dazed when driving round in the minibus. With the possibility of low blood levels causing me to faint 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. This 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 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. Thereafter 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, 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 people as Ben Jonson and John Donne, as recorded in the Trumbull papers.