This was a rather eventful year from a personal point of view, and it was termed the year of the watershed by my father. However the year was notable for other reasons, far beyond the family’s concerns. In 1959 Norwich trialled the new Post Code system; it was slightly different from the system rolled out nationally a decade later. Ours in Poringland was NOR 42W (it became NR14 7QR). On a slightly wider scale it was the year in which the M&GN railway in Norfolk was closed, and the former Gresham’s school pupil Sir Christopher Cockerell launched his invention the Hovercraft. The Morris Mini Minor (soon to universally known simply as the Mini) went on sale and the first section of the M1 Motorway was opened. In Cuba the revolutionary Fidel Castro entered Havana.
For the Mason family it was a year of change on several fronts. My father’s lease on his shop in Orford Place came to an end, and although he was prepared to pay the much higher rent demanded by the landlord, none of his fellow tenants of the the adjacent properties was, and this meant that he was compelled to seek alternative premises. He took the bold decision to buy a Georgian mansion in Surrey Street. Without a shop window he could not be sure his customers would follow him, but at least (as an optician) a shop window was not essential to his business. The house had been derelict for several years and needed a lot of work done on it. The freehold on the five storey building cost him the grand sum of £4,500, and he had to take out a mortgage, but he was able to pay it off in less than ten years. To get some idea of property values back then our family bungalow outside Norwich was worth £1,000.
My eldest sister had met a Canadian who was doing his PhD in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College in London, and they married in July before she emigrated to Canada in August. Her younger sister had just finished a 3 year teaching course at a college in Twickenham and was due to start teaching in Suffolk that September; she needed to move into digs in Ipswich. All these things were added complications for my parents, who really had enough to worry about with the business move.
To top it all the biggest event of the year for me was being sent off to boarding school at the tender age of ten. This happened in late September, after the Battle of Britain open day. I can’t remember which local airfield hosted the display this year – there were so many air bases in Norfolk to choose from. Once that celebration was over there was nothing standing between me and the abyss of leaving my dear home. I can remember walking down the road towards Arminghall with the younger of my two sisters (the elder one was already in Ottawa), filled with dread. How my parents could have sent a terrified little boy away to boarding school I do not know, but I am so glad they did. I experienced so many things that I would never have done had I stayed at home, and most of them were positive; it was an excellent education that propelled me to Oxford ten years later.
With all this going on there was no time for us to have our usual summer holiday at Southwold in 1959. I spent a lot of time in the house at Surrey Street doing my little best in scraping the old whitewash off the walls in preparation for a coat or two of more modern distemper, or perhaps bang up-to-date emulsion paint was already available. The whole building had to be rewired (it was still equipped for DC current, which hadn’t been used for years). The plumbing was rudimentary and there were no bathrooms for the guests – the building had previously been a commercial hotel.
Instead of the usual annual holiday my sister and I went for days out by train. I can’t remember anywhere we went, but Cromer, Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Felixstowe must have featured. As the fate of the M&GN shows, the rail network was already shrinking, but places like Swaffham, Fakenham East and Wells were still accessible by diesel multiple units. Aylsham and Burnham Market had already lost their passenger service in 1952. though Watton railway station was still open to passengers until 1964. Unfortunately I never went there.