I used to regard myself as quite an artist. As an adolescent I even imagined making art my career. I produced many paintings in the 1970s, heavily influenced by my father’s expectations of what a picture should look like. Painting is a solitary activity, and by the time I was thirty I had abandoned it for the more gregarious pursuit of playing in an orchestra. Music also has the advantage that once it has been played it has gone, vanished into the ether, leaving no scraps of paper and paint to dispose of.
I did not leave art behind completely; I continued to doodle a few sketches, but my main artistic endeavours turned to woodcarving. This was a big change; I didn’t use paint brushes or palette knives any more, but I needed chisels and gouges instead. I was fortunate in having a few already, which I had inherited from my father; he was not really a woodcarver (although he did produce a charming scene on the door a grandmother clock that is now in the possession of my sister), but he was an inveterate collector of tools. I could have done with more of them, but I had enough. These tools had to be kept sharp, so a grinder was useful and an oilstone essential.
I had been taught the basics of painting and drawing by my art master Stuart Webster, but as a woodcarver I was entirely self-taught. I worked out a few principles for myself; in doing full 3-D objects the technique was very different from doing low-relief carvings (my preferred method). In this you were essentially drawing in light and shade, and this meant exaggerated undercutting to produce the necessary shadows.
The type of wood used produced very different results. Lime wood was the medium used by that masterly carver of the 17th century, Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). Some of his best work may be seen at Chatsworth House. I don’t wish to minimise his achievement, but is so easy to carve in lime that it is rather like cutting cheese. The grain of the wood is not an issue, and does not affect the resulting carving in any way. With oak this is an entirely different matter; oak is a very hard wood, and an intractable material; the grain is very important. An oak carving is robust and often you can see the way the chisel was used centuries after the carver laid down his tools. This not the case with lime. Objects in oak and lime are the two extremes, but they are also the most common woods used by the woodcarver. Other woods are also carved, but those with contorted grain (like burr walnut), while giving an excellent surface texture for furniture, are impossible to carve.
I had some success with my woodcarving; I entered a carving of a trout in a competition that was run by the Post Office for its employees. Although their number is large (well over a hundred thousand), postmen are not namely for their artistic ability, so perhaps it not surprising that I won first prize. This entailed a trip up to London (on a rail warrant provide by the PO) to the Post Office HQ, which was then still in its historic hub of St Marin’s Le Grand (it later moved to Old Street, which I also had occasion to visit on a different matter). What the prize was I have forgotten (it wasn’t much) but the occasion was special. I was presented with my prize by a man who later became Managing Director of the Post Office. He was a very unimpressive character; he may have had hidden depths, although the progress of that venerable institution into the 21st century suggests that he was as mediocre as he appeared to be.
I subsequently entered another work in the competition few years later, but this time I only came second, and that did not entail another trip to the capital. The winning entry was a sculpture of female nude, which some of my colleagues suggested had more to do with its success than genuine artistic rigour. My declining health gave me other things to think about, and woodcarving was at an end.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
Sardines come from Sardinia, at least the name does. They can be any small oily fish, and a young pilchard may be so described. At one time in history the young pilchard was apparently very prolific in the seas around this Mediterranean island, which is how the sardine got its name. ‘Sardines’ are exclusively tinned fish nowadays; named ‘pilchards’ they may be sold tinned or fresh, but a tinned pilchard is a slightly larger fish than a tinned sardine. Sprats are only available as fresh fish. Sardines are a name not a species, and are a British food; they have been around for a long time. The novelist Anthony Trollope (1815 – 1882) refers to sardines; the angular sardine tins were then called boxes, and ‘fish in boxes’ were served at one of the tea parties he describes. Tins for the preservation of meat were developed for the Royal Navy by the innovative engineer Bryan Donkin in the early 1800s. The tinning of fish soon followed, and sardines were the perfect size and flavour for this.
You used to have to remove a key from the tin and wind back the lid to gain entry to the fish inside, and if the key had been lost (as sometimes happened) you had a problem; but now you just have to pull back a ring instead. The technology has improved a little, but the taste of the fish remains the same as it has always been. Tomato sauce or other more exotic flavourings are added nowadays, but in my opinion you cannot improve on the plain fish served in brine or sunflower oil. The overfed and over-indulged consumers of 2017 may dismiss the humble tin of sardines as beneath contempt, but they are much better for you than the processed snacks that the manufacturers love to force down your throat; they are also much cheaper. At one time I used to buy a tin of pilchards to feed my dog, as it was cheaper than buying a tin of dogfood; nor was it bulked out with such indigestible ingredients as ash, which happens with some commercially produced dogfood.
Besides being an inexpensive source of protein, sardines do not require cooking or even heating to provide the basis of a meal. A tin of sardines, with sufficient fish to feed a person, or even two if they are not too greedy, may be bought at Sainbury’s for under 50p; at other shops they may be had for less. When there are such nutritious and cheap foods available, people must be in dire circumstances indeed to need to access a food bank. I am glad there are those charitable folk who support these facilities; I just hope that none of these hungry recipients of free food spend any of their scarce resources on smoking. Unlike a sardine, a cigarette is both bad for you and expensive. You may protest that such people are in the grip of an addiction, but I used to smoke and I know that with just a little will power it is not hard to give it up.
‘Sardines’ is also the name of a party game, played by children. The adults in whose house the game is played have to be quite relaxed about the resulting mayhem, because the game requires that as many children as possible squeezing into small an unsuitable corners of the dwelling. My own childhood house was too small for the playing of sardines as we were squeezed in like sardines anyway, but my grandmothers home in Kings Lynn was amply big enough, and at Christmas I and my cousins would crowd under beds or into wardrobes while others found us and joined us. It was also a popular game during the long winter evenings at weekends at boarding school. The lack of domestic furniture in which to hide was compensated for by the much larger area in which to hide, in box rooms and cupboards. Whether at school or not, ‘lights out’ was a prerequisite of playing sardines.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
Although in the distant past places like Cley, Thornham and even Cromer had a coastal trade, this was back in the days of sail. At Cromer ships had to be beached to unload their cargoes of coal; on the incoming tide it was possible to float them again, but only in an unladen state. With the coming of steam tramps most of the smaller ports lost their coasting vessels. However Lynn, Wells and Yarmouth retained a regular trade of seagoing steamers, which grew throughout the latter part of the 19th century. This trade lasted into living memory, but today only the port at Kings Lynn remains in use by international shipping. Even Lynn is slowly declining, as the size of the craft becomes ever greater; many of the vessels that now visit Lynn are too large for the Bentinck and Alexandra docks which are protected by a lock gate. More and more shipping has to be moored on the river outside the docks, where it is subject to the tide. In recent years the annual tonnage of cargo handled by Lynn Docks has fallen from three-quarters of million tonnes to half a million.
At Yarmouth the new outer harbour was hailed as representing a new beginning for the port, but has struggled to find customers. This is partly due to the appalling road system that serves this East Coast town. The dual carriageway sections of the A47 and the A12 end many miles short of the dock. It is also partly because the charges are so high, according to the mariners who still use the inner harbour. Only the ships associated with commissioning and decommissioning (mostly the latter) of oil and gas platforms use the harbour on a regular basis. The servicing of the wind farms off the East Coast has been directed not to Yarmouth but to Lowestoft.
On the last Sunday in August 1984 Molly (then my fiancée) and her Mum and Dad were attending the Annual Lifeboat Service on the quayside at Wells-next-the-Sea. I was there too. It was high tide, and before the band could begin we had to wait while two coasters docked at the quay. One was the Momsunen of Scarborough, and the other was a ‘flat iron’ called Blatence. In those days there was still a trade importing soya beans into Wells and the exporting of malting barley from the harbour. There is now a new harbour there, nearer the sea, but there are no longer any trading coasters that use it. There is still a fishing trade, and this new harbour is where the boats tie up, and the vessels which go out to service the growing number of wind farms off the North Norfolk coast moor there too.
I have already chronicled the slow decline and eventual demise of the Port of Norwich. This was established in the early part of the 19th century, when sea-going steamers could go up the river to the East Anglian capital. When sail or the quant (a type of punt pole) was the form of propulsion only keels and wherries made the voyage from Yarmouth, and these vessels only occasionally made short passages out to sea. It is sad that only yachts and motor cruisers now use the river in the city, but I can see no prospect of sea-going ships ever returning. It was a brief period in the history of the river, lasting less than 200 years, only back in the middle ages stone was brought from Caen in France to build. Occasionally a barge will be towed upriver to Cantley to bring equipment to the sugar beet factory, but otherwise commercial traffic no longer uses the river Yare. Smaller sea-going vessels still use the inner harbour at Yarmouth, but the fall in the price of oil has put a severe strain on the energy sector which provides almost all these ships.
The ports at Morston and Blakeney are now almost exclusively used by canoes and sailing dinghies. The fishing trade has largely been replaced by leisure boating; these harbours are left high and dry by the low tide, but the regular alternation of sea and mud hardly matters at all to these dinghies. They are hauled out to spend most of their time ashore anyway. The regular service ferrying tourists out to Blakeney Point to see the seals makes up the boating service by slightly larger vessels.
These harbours, and that at Brancaster too, were mostly used by dinghy sailors even sixty years ago, when I first visited them. The days when they were real fishing ports was well before my time; the days when grain and flour were shipped from Blakeney and Cley to Newcastle, to be replaced for the return voyage by coal from Gateshead on Tyne, was two centuries before that. At Cromer and Sheringham the number of commercial crab boats probably still exceeds the number of pleasure craft pulled up on the beach, because the necessary launching through the surf is far from easy. In most weathers it is a wet procedure, and requires old tractors to assist the beaching of the boats. In the days before tractors were available cast iron winches were used, and a few of these might still be seen in the 1970s, although they were no longer used. Years ago you could find one or two similarly beach-launched fishing boats at places like Winterton, Sea Palling or Mundesley, but now virtually only Weybourne is left with a fishing boat or two.
Look out for my next post on the leisure use of the Norfolk beaches, to be entitled ‘Summers by the Sea’.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
Camulodunum was the first capital of Britain. This was in Roman Britain, and the whole idea of Albion being one country, let alone having a capital city, were novel concepts to the Celts. Its modern name of course is Colchester. It takes this name from the river Colne which flows through the town. As the river approaches the sea in opens up into a wide and muddy estuary which is famous for its oyster beds. The Romans of Camulodunum enjoyed oysters and the shells survive in their kitchen waste.
My most frequent view of Colchester is from the railway station on the Great Eastern mainline. All passenger trains stop there, but the last time I was passing through we were held up for nearly half an hour, with no information as to why. The railway service is much poorer than it was forty years ago, when diesels ruled the tracks. The steam hauled Britannia expresses of sixty years ago were infinitely superior to anything running today; there were plush restaurant cars for one thing, and real coffee served from a coffee pot. Now you are lucky if you get a plastic mug of instant coffee served from a trolley. Even without delays, the timings are not that much better now, in spite of modern electric traction. But back to the early years of Roman occupation.
Colchester had a legionary fortress built soon after the Roman conquest in AD 43. It was already a prosperous place when the Boudiccan rebels descended on the town. They were taking no prisoners; having massacred the population at Camulodunum they moved on to Londinium and Verulamium (London and St Albans), where they also destroyed the Roman towns. They moved north to eventual defeat by Gaius Suetonius Paulinus in the Battle of Watling Street. Even now archaeological remains of burnt buildings dating from AD 61 are being turned up in Colchester, chilling evidence of the destruction wrought by Boudicca and her forces.
After the town of Londinium was established that became the capital of Britain. This importance of London did not survive the end of the Roman Empire on our shores. England became a conglomeration of kingdoms after the Anglo-Saxons arrived, and even after it became a single kingdom, Winchester rather than London was its capital. London had reasserted its primacy before the Norman Conquest and has been our undoubted capital for over a thousand years. Although it lost its status as capital early on, Colchester remained an important town from the time of its foundation.
On Wednesday 4th January 1984 we had not much work to do in Norwich, and my sister and I decided to go to Colchester to have a look round. The weather was bright but cold:
“I packed up the book I had sold (but forgot to post it in Colchester). After a cup of coffee we left at 10.15 and got to Colchester in 1½ hrs. First we called at the Tesco in High Woods and got some groceries and took Fido for walk through the woods.
To East Hills and parked outside the Youth Hostel and walked to the Goat and Boot where we had fish and chips and a G & T. A log fire was burning in the bar. I found a good bookshop where I bought some bargains. In the town centre it cost 50p to park but we were close to the museum. It has a fabulous collection of Roman artefacts, and many things to buy. The exhibition was of luxury goods, high quality glass, Samian ware and mosaics etc. I enjoyed it all. The museum is a large Norman castle built on the site of the Claudian temple. We left at 4.20 and got home at 5.55 without rushing. We had stew and dumplings for supper. I had bought some cards at Colchester museum, and put them in my scrap-book. “
It is interesting to note that with all the road improvements that have taken place in the last 30 years it still takes 1½ hours to drive from Norwich to Colchester; perhaps the roads have not been altered that much after all!
THE STORY OF ROMAN BRITAIN
Like the similar sounding Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire, the place-name is of Danish origin and so hints at a time of conflict in the distant past. For most of its history however Sculthorpe has been far removed from the events that have shaped the destiny of Europe. Sculthorpe is a village north-west of Fakenham in Norfolk. It has a small population of under 1000 and would not feature in this blog but for the fact that at the height of the Cold War it was the site of Norfolk’s principal US airbase.
RAF Sculthorpe had been constructed in 1942 and hosted a succession of foreign airmen, starting with the Free French. It subsequently saw both the New Zealand and Australian Airforce before becoming a US airbase in 1949.
The skies over East Anglia were full of military jets in the 1950s. Among many others RAF Coltishall, St Faith’s, Swanton Morley and Marham flew regular sorties of British aircraft, and RAF Sculthorpe supplied the USAF quota. In those days you could always tell which were which just by glancing up. The fuel used by RAF burned clean and the aircraft left just a white vapour trail, but that burnt by the Americans was less refined, and left a brown exhaust.
RAF Sculthorpe was on our route from Norwich to Snettisham where my Aunt had her holiday home. Our journey took us through Fakenham (which in those days had two railway stations but no bypass) and then out on the A148. We soon left this road and turned right onto the B1454 which went near the runways. Just past the turning on the main road was the Four Winds cafe and filling station. This cafe was frequented by the USAF personnel from Sculthorpe airbase.
My Dad liked to call in at the Four Winds to buy me a Coke. After parking our little British car among the huge American automobiles we would sit at a table and watch these strange foreign servicemen in their fatigues. These were very informal compared to the way British servicemen were then dressed. One feature which tickled my father was the fact that their names were displayed above their breast pockets. This enabled him to address complete strangers by name; “Hi Macdonald” he could call out as we passed. This made me squirm with embarrassment of course.
The Four Winds had a jukebox; these were up-to-date items in the fifties, but they were not common. There was coffee bar at the top of Bridge Street in Bungay where the local Teddy Boys congregated that had a jukebox, but that and the one at the Four Winds were the only two I knew. My father would put in his sixpence and get me to select one of the 45s. The elaborate mechanical arm would move round, pick the record out and transfer it to the turntable. The loudspeaker was turned up on the bass and the throbbing sound was all part of the experience. It was all straight out the Mid-West of America, and nothing like sleepy rural Norfolk.
Large scale deployment of American bombers to RAF Sculthorpe ceased in 1962 and although the base remains Ministry of Defence property to this day, and is still used occasionally for training purposes, it is normally deserted. Without its customers the Four Winds closed. From being the major centre of American bombers in Europe the village of Sculthorpe returned to the peaceful non-entity of the Norfolk countryside.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
It was August 1966. Aged 17, I had just passed my driving test. It was fortunate that I had passed, as my sister had arranged this holiday in Ireland for me to practice my driving in a relaxed environment. Had I failed, and it was touch and go, she would have had to do all the driving herself. I recall that in the theory test (not a separate exam as it is today, just a few questions as I sat in the driving seat of the car) I got none of the questions about the speed and the car’s stopping distance correct. Luckily the practical part of the exam was OK, which seemed to satisfy the examiner. He told me to go home and study the Highway Code for this information on stopping distances, which of course I did not do. I still could not tell you how slowly you must be travelling to stop within x number of yards. I have spent a lifetime of fairly safe driving, ending over 40 years with a clean licence, without ever learning these important facts. Although the speed question would still include miles per hour, the stopping distance would now be expressed in metres; where else could we go so many decades mixing imperial with metric measures with scarcely a thought? This peculiar mishmash of measurements has been a feature of British life for years. Will we ever go over to kilometres I wonder?
But back to the beginning of August, 1966; we drove across England and Wales from Norfolk to Fishguard in Pembrokeshire. I can remember nothing of this part of our holiday. Now you can only go to Rosslare from Fishguard, but in 1966 you could also take a ferry to Cork. The vessel, the S. S. Innisfallen, had been built in 1948 and was sold by B & I Ferries in 1967. She was bought by Greek shipping company and broken up in 1985. Because this was a much longer journey than Fishguard to Rosslare, it involved an overnight passage and a cabin. It was a rough crossing and a very uncomfortable night; the sort of night when you fear not that you might die, but that you might live. It was my first experience of real seasickness, but the minute it was over and you entered calmer waters you immediately felt fine and wondered what all the fuss had been about.
The car we took (and the car I had taken my test on) was my Fiat 500. This had very generously been passed on to me by my sister Tiggie for my 17th birthday. The car was exactly like the one in the photo, except that this is a model of course. It was the same ivory colour, had a sun roof and the same front opening doors. We had to wait while it was unloaded at Cork; there was no roll-on roll-off ferry service in 1966, so it had to be craned out of the hold. Then it was off round the coast of Western Ireland. I do not have to tell you how long ago this was, and so you must forgive me if my memory is less than perfect. Nevertheless I remember our visit to Blarney Castle. The kissing of the Blarney Stone involves quite a stretch across a void and I declined to attempt it.
The poverty of the ordinary Irish was very noticeable. Never had beggars approach me so blatantly before. There had been the occasional itinerant (tramp) who would call on my mother ‘for a cup of tea’, but nothing like the Irish children who would openly beg for pennies as we walked down the street. The Irish pounds, shillings and pence were pegged to the British coinage, and British coins were freely accepted in Ireland, although the reverse was not the case.
After visiting Limerick we went further north to experience an intimate evening of Irish culture (mostly folksongs) before we headed back to Cobh and Cork. It is funny how little inconsequential things stick in one’s mind; I particularly remember how the water came out of the taps at our hotel in Cobh with lumps of peat in it! Also at the hotel was a lifebelt from the Lusitania hanging on the wall. This was the liner which was torpedoed off Cobh in the First World War.
After a fortnight it was nearly time to make the passage back to England; the crossing was as smooth as the outward crossing had been rough. I have one more memory of my holiday in Ireland; although this was several years before the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the authorities in Eire were jumpy about the possibility of terrorism. ‘Have you brought any sporting guns with you?’ asked the customs officer. My sister obviously thought this was a question about our sporting intentions rather than the possibility of importing an arsenal of weapons into the Republic. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘ but we have got a fishing rod.’
THE STORY OF THE PAST
We normally associate drifters with Yarmouth and trawlers with Lowestoft, but in fact both types of vessel could be found in both these East Anglian ports. The beam trawl was invented some time in the early nineteenth century; before that most fishing was done by hook and line. Trawlers did not begin to sail out of Yarmouth harbour until the fishing fleet was transferred to the river Yare from Barking on the Thames in the middle years of the nineteenth century. They were based not on the northern Yarmouth shore but from Gorleston on the Suffolk side of the river. Cod was then not commonly caught in the North Sea, although haddock was. The earlier type of fishing vessels had been the lugger, rigged with lugsails as the name indicates, where the sail extended fore of the main mast. This simple type of sail was fine for open water, but was harder to handled in confined waters such as the river Yare.
By the middle years of the 19th century the smack was becoming the more usual kind of trawler. The sails of these vessels were attached to the masts, allowing both fore and mainsails too be hoisted. The smack “Cambria” of which Thomas Lound was the master was launched on the 25 November 1869 from Messrs Smith’s yard in Yarmouth. This was when ketch rigged trawlers were the latest thing on the river. Thomas Lound was my step grandfather’s grandfather, born in Tunstead near Stalham in about 1830. He began his working life on a farm but always longed to go to sea. He was at sea at the time of the 1871 census, skipper of the Cambria with a crew 5, a mate and four hands. Thomas Lound was 37, but apart from him the oldest member of the crew was only 23, and the boy was only 17 years old. Thomas Lound worked on the land as a young man, carting malted barley to Norwich among other things, but he moved with his young wife to Yarmouth where he took up the fisherman’s life.
He would sail a long way from Yarmouth on his annual round trip. In the spring he would set out from the East Anglian coast north abouts to Ireland and thence on to Iceland. Returning to European waters he would sail down the North Sea coast of Scotland on the way to the coast of France, Belgium, Holland and Denmark. He then sailed into the Baltic and visited the ports of Germany and Poland. Salt was the only way of preserving the catch – no ice was then available – and the Cambria would call at ports along the way, to unload the fish and stock up on salt for curing them, and to take on food and water for the crew. Finally in the autumn the Cambria would return home to Yarmouth, avoiding the worst of the winter weather while the boat could be overhauled.
In going so far into deep waters Thomas Lound was exceptionally adventurous; most smacks fished south of the Dogger Bank. The fish caught in the North Sea did not require curing when caught but was taken by fast sailing cutters to the Thames for transfer to Billingsgate fish market. Then the haddock could be smoked and the plaice fried and sold to the London poor- the origin of the fish and chip shop. Fast sailing cutters also sailed to Grimsby and Yarmouth, where the railways gave quick access to the industrial towns of the midlands and the north. Unrefrigerated fish trains lasted into my lifetime, and I can still remember the strong smell of fish on platform 5 of Norwich station, where the trains from Yarmouth and Lowestoft still arrive, though these days without the fish.
I must stress that the smack Cambria should not be confused with the preserved Thames barge of the same name.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
This late 19th century jar of bloater paste was very much an East Anglian product. With massive quantities of herring landed in Great Yarmouth every autumn there was no shortage of fish to turn into bloaters and then process into fish paste. Bloaters are herrings left to become bloated (or gamey) by being lightly salted and lightly smoked but left ungutted. They were particularly popular in Norfolk and are still available from a few places on the coast. The complete loss of the fishing industry and the almost total disappearance of the local fishmonger has led to them disappearing from tea tables though.
Bloater paste too has disappeared from the shelves. Shippams were the last to make it and they have now ceased production. In my twenties crab and bloater paste were made in Sheringham; compared with Shippams and other large fish paste makers it was very good. Crab paste was made from fresh boiled crabs from the Sheringham crab boats. The herrings did not come from Sheringham because they are not caught off the North Norfolk coast, but the fish would have been caught not far away. But whether it was crab or bloater paste, it was all 100 percent what it purported to be. None of this unspecified “fish” or (even worse) cereal was included. Now even the most expensive pastes are filled out with these ingredients today. Among the tastiest of seafood dishes is the Cromer crab. Although lobsters are also caught off the North Norfolk coast they all go to London for sale to the classy restaurants. We in Norfolk much prefer the taste of crabs. Lobsters are tough and flavourless in comparison.
The delicious flavour of bloaters is out of sync with times. Even forgetting about the acquired taste of the bloater, herrings are not widely eaten. They have BONES. Young people will give most fish a wide berth for this reason but will happily eat burgers, the mere thought of which leaves me feeling rather queasy. These minced beef rissoles were originally called Hamburgers but to make sure the ignorant did not assume that they were made of ham the producers called them Beefburgers. Now they are simply burgers. Whatever can all this possibly have to do with a town in Germany?
Kippers too make a nice fish dish, and can even be bought from some supermarkets – tinned and boneless of course. Kippers are more commonly available than bloaters and can be bought freshly smoked from such places as Whitby and the Isle of Man. Dabs may occasionally be on the fishmonger’s slab at the supermarket Morrisons but you best bet is to meet the inshore fishermen as they come in with their catch and buy them straight off the boat.
As you get closer to the Wash the smaller shell fish become available. Cockles and mussels and particularly whelks are popular and sold from the quay at Wells, but these latter are rather chewy for me. The fishing boats at Kings Lynn go after shrimps – pink ones – which they boil on the way back to harbour from the fishing grounds.
Although in the middle-ages carp ponds provided a succulent meal on meat free days, the only freshwater fish that we eat today are eels. These are sold as jellied eels and were popular with Cockneys. Now that Cockneys are a people of the past and East Enders are immigrants or their descendants from across the globe I rather fear for the jellied eel. Not that I particularly like jellied eels; far nicer to my mind is an eel freshly fried for breakfast. But even the eel is something of an endangered species in the rivers of England, or so I understand. I don’t know (and nor I think does anyone else) if the problem lies in our country or somewhere between here and the Sargasso Sea, where these animals breed. So I am resigned to never again having a fresh eel; to taste them you had to catch them for yourself.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
FISHING, DUCKLINGS & ORGANS
Letheringsett is the next village to the town of Holt on the Fakenham Road, and it was a simple cycle ride from Gresham’s School to get to it. My bike was brand new in 1961, and I was a cyclist who had only learnt to ride the year before. The bike I had learned on was a blue BSA with roller lever brakes and no gears, but my new bike was a Raleigh Palm Beach with Sturmey Archer 3 speed gears, and it lasted all through my school career and into university.
My earliest memories of Letheringsett go back to to 1961 when I was exploring the neighbourhood on my new bike. We were allowed to go fishing in the triangular lake off Garden Lane in the village. I think permission had been given by Beryl Cozens-Hardy of Letheringsett Hall. I don’t think we had anything like a fishing licence, but the water bailiff didn’t have a lot to worry about because we never caught any fish. Anyway, do you need a licence to fish in a private lake?
Another recollection concerns the river Glaven below Letheringsett mill. It was summer Speech Day weekend and my parents had come down for the occasion. It was a Saturday and this involved the speeches of course, and the school play, both of which were held in the open air theatre in the school woods. There was also tea in marquees on the cricket pitch while the CCF drum and bugle band marched about and the bandmaster (Drum Major) tossed his mace in the air. Although it was the CCF band, on Speech Day they didn’t wear dull khaki battle dress but a improvised uniform of blue school blazers with white cricket trousers. I thought It looked very smart. But in the dead times between such entertainments we had to find something else to do.
On this occasion when I was in my early teens we took a picnic down to the river Glaven at Letheringsett near the mill. There is (or there certainly was 50 years ago) a ford where we stopped on the bank to eat our sandwiches. There was a family of ducklings playing in the water who came over to investigate us, and we shared our meal with them. The ducklings were still very young and trusting, and also very inquisitive . Their down was still yellow and their beaks as they took crumbs from our hands were still soft. With the summer sun shining down it was the perfect contrast from the formality of Speech Day.
My last memory of Letheringsett comes from a few years later, near the end of my school career. The rector of Letheringsett was by then the Revd Gordon Paget, a great character. He was seemingly a great age but lived over 20 years longer, dying at the age of 96 in 1989. He was a bachelor but he lived in the rectory which was in those days still a large property, although the Old Rectory was by then the home of Sir Roy and Lady Wilhelmine Harrod. You may imagine how lost he seemed in the house, he a single man, while the building was built for a family. Huge black cobwebs hung down from the ceilings, and the walls had not been painted in the last 50 years at least, or so it seemed. But Gordon Paget was apparently oblivious to such things. His house was full of organs; obviously the smaller types of portable organs, because the house, although spacious, was not large enough to be filled with church organs. His organs included barrel organs and harmoniums. He was also a lover of all sorts of ecclesiastical furniture and could not bear to see anything go to waste. The church at Hedenham, where he was rector from 1933-1958, provided a home for many pictures, woodcarvings and metal ornaments from various redundant or refurnished East Anglian churches.
I do not remember what exactly the occasion was, but a group of us were entertained to tea in the rectory. It was after some of us had given an orchestral concert in the church. Several of my contemporaries from Farfield were very much involved with organs, either as organists or, in the case of Richard Bower, as organ builder (Richard Bower later rebuilt the organ at Letheringsett church as part of his organ building business) so they got on very well with the rector. He was of course an excellent organist himself, although as parson he was unable to play at his own services; at least I assume he could not suddenly leave the pulpit to play, but never having attended one I am not positive about this.
John Betjeman was a visitor to Letheringsett and in his younger days had even proposed to Lady Harrod (then ‘Billa’ Cresswell). He wrote a poem on the deceased 1st Baron Cozens-Hardy and his mausoleum at Letheringsett; John Piper even did the artwork to accompany the verse. Lord Cozens-Hardy was real enough and so was his connection with Letheringsett, but the mausoleum was a piece of poetic licence, and no such structure has ever existed in Letheringsett. In fact Lord Cozens-Hardy is buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
David West was my piano teacher. I was not a good pianist; there is no doubt I would never have been a good pianist, although I might have been better if I had practised more. I got as far as grade 5 but was scratched at the last minute from taking my practical exam because I would have failed. But I was good at theory, passing my exam with 100 per cent.
David was a member of the Sheringham fishing family. Downtide West is a name that springs to the lips. Another was Joyful West – the epithets were an essential part of their names because both were in the lifeboat crew in the 1960s and both were called Henry. David however had no nickname as far as I am aware, but I may just be ignorant. David West had a connection with shellfish that I will mention later on, but his main activity was playing music. Perhaps his main instrument was the cornet, and when I remember him he was the conductor of the Sheringham Salvation Army band (besides being fishermen the Wests were also all staunch Salvationists). He was an excellent pianist as well, having been trained by Miss Phillips.
Miss Phillips was still teaching the piano at my school during my time, and taught my friend Bill Wragge. Bill was a much better pianist than I was but no better at practising; he was very good at playing by ear and would launch into flights of fantasy, only loosely based on the music before him. He can still play medleys of Gilbert and Sullivan tunes for instance without any music at all. As for actually reading the notes he was meant to play however he was quite frankly incapable of doing this, a fact that drove poor Miss Phillips to distraction. The amber pendant which she always wore would heave on her ample bosom as she remonstrated with her wayward pupil.
To return to David West; my first contact with him involved neither crabs nor cornets nor even the piano, for he was also an accomplished magician and a member of the Magic Circle. When I was still in Crossways he gave a show in the dining hall at Kenwyn to the whole junior school with all sorts of tricks. One of the most memorable was playing music on a Theremin. I doubt you have ever heard of a Theremin, but it is an early electronic instrument invented by a Russian (Professor Léon Theremin) in 1928. You produce the sounds by waving your hands about with no physical contact with the instrument, which is simply a plain box. It is very good at doing glissandi and produces a weird atmospheric sound, very effective for science fiction film score. It was amazingly magical to 10-year-old. David West was also very good at more conventional tricks too. He would break off my piano lessons to demonstrate some musical device. Once he placed two soft balls under each of my hands while reciting some musical fact. When he had finished he asked me to reveal what lay under my hands, and when I did so both balls were under one hand! This delighted and puzzled me and still does, half a century later. Needless to say I have utterly forgotten the musical point behind the trick.
I should say that at the time I did not have him as a teacher; I was still trying to learn the violin which I was taught by Mr Gould, the leader of the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra. At that stage I think I was being taught as one of a group of six; I never got beyond the first position on the fingerboard. It was a long time before I eventually found my instrument was the double bass, and on that I could play in any position you could name!
David West’s venture into the fishing business occurred in the early 1970s, well after I had left school. He set up a small factory in an old building in Sheringham selling potted crab paste. If a modern jar of crab paste contains as much as 30% crab meat you are doing well; the bulk of what you are buying is starch. West’s crab paste was 100% crab meat and made a superb tea time treat on hot toast. I called on him one day- he would have been somewhere near the West family’s tea shop – and he conducted me on tour of the factory and ended it by giving me a box of jars of his paste. Incidentally another of his activities was taping light piano music for playing to the customers as they sat drinking their afternoon tea.
I don’t think I saw Mr West again for about 40 years by which time he was quite an old man – too many birthdays, he said. He was still in the family shop which had moved from Sheringham to Alby, a few miles inland. It was no longer a tea room and the crab meat business had long since folded, squeezed out by the likes of the Cromer Crab Company which has also recently been closed. Although it now concentrates on selling caravans the Alby enterprise was mainly a boat selling business run by other members of the family including I believe his sons, but it also has a section selling musical instruments which of course was his department. Amazingly Mr West remembered me and even that my father was an optician in the City.