Tag Archives: memories



St Matthew from Cawston Church rood screen (16th century).

The earliest mention of spectacles known in England dates from 1328, when the will of the Bishop of Exeter mentions ‘spectaculum oculo’ (spectacles for the eyes). They were valued at two shillings (ten pence), which I gather was a considerable sum of money at the time. Although Pliny mentions that the Emperor Nero used an emerald to improve his vision, spectacles as we know them were invented in Northern Italy, as is recorded by a Dominican friar who wrote in 1306: ‘It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses‘. A painting in Cawston church (dating from around 1500) shows St Matthew wearing a pair of glasses. At this period these still had to be held up to the eyes, although an early form of pince-nez that gripped the nose had already been developed. By 1600 we have a picture of a Spanish Cardinal (by El Greco) wearing glasses with sidepieces extending over the ears.

The  WORSHIPFUL COMPANY OF SPECTACLE MAKERS is one of the Guilds of the City of London, whose Charter was granted by King Charles I in 1628. They adopted the motto ‘A blessing for the aged’. My father became an optician by studying under the Spectacle Makers Company. He had to go up to London to take the exam, and on qualification he got the letters FSMC (Fellow of the Spectacle Makers Company) after his name. This entitled him to become a Freeman of the City of London. This was superior to being a Freeman of the City of Norwich (which he was not entitled to), and although he never took up the honour he remained proud of the possibility throughout his life. The term ‘Fellow’ did not however mean that he was a ‘Liveryman’ of the Company; that was restricted to a membership 400 (originally just 60) who were prominent London businessmen. Now that all opticians must have a university degree the Spectacle Makers Company is no longer directly involved in education.

Spectacle frame made by Mason and Gantlett.

Most ophthalmic opticians stuck to testing eyes, but my father took this a step further and really did become involved in making spectacles. This side of his business began in the 1940s and continued for the rest of his life. (Sight testing remained his main occupation except for a brief period when had an optical factory.) In spite of the fact that his qualification was from the Spectacle Makers Company it had nothing to do with the actual making of glasses. This skill he had to teach himself. If you wish to learn more of this side of his life I refer you to an earlier blog – FRANK MASON (PART THREE).

Another Norwich man who was entitled to become a Freeman of London was Jeremiah Colman who started his mustard business in 1814. He did take up the honour, in 1838. Although his business skills had nothing to do with spectacle making, it was as a Liveryman of the Spectacle Makers Company that he was enrolled as a Freeman of London. In the nineteenth century the Guilds of London had ceased to have a sole involvement with the industry stated in their title, their ostensible raison d’être.  Already those with no connection with spectacles had begun to be admitted as members, although their interest in the training of opticians shows that some involvement with the industry remained. As far as the choice of Company was concerned, that depended on which one had a vacancy at the time, and in Jeremiah Colman’s case this was the Spectacle Makers. From starting off as just another minor flour miller in Norfolk, Jeremiah had become a very important businessman in London, whither a regular service by horse and cart delivered his product from Stoke mill. A cart-load may not seem very much, but if the amount was two or three cart-loads a week the volume begins to become quite substantial; you didn’t need that much mustard powder to supply Georgian London. Before Jeremiah’s death in 1854 the railway line from Norwich had removed any barriers to trade.

Although things like contact lenses and lazar eye surgery have made spectacles less necessary today, they are still the commonest form of visual aid. Although they had been about for 500 years, glasses did not reach the whole of European society until the 19th century. The earliest type of eyeglasses were for reading. I will not go into the technical difference between these and distance glasses, but these were a later development. By tradition Pope Leo X became the first person to wear distance glasses for short-sightedness in the 16th century. Dr Johnson only had a hazy view of the mountains on his visit to Scotland, and at the theatre in London he could not see the actors’ faces; I assume therefore that distance lenses (i.e concave rather than convex) were still no widely available. This was no doubt because the correction of myopia (the medical term for short sight) requires a sight test and a prescription tailored to the individual, unlike reading glasses. Distance lenses were common enough by the composer Franz Schubert’s time however, because his severe myopia was treated by wearing glasses.




There have only been Lord Mayors of Norwich for just over a century; before then the position was Mayor plain and simple. That was established in 1404 under the Charter of Henry IV. The first Mayor was William Appleyard, a prominent citizen whose house in Bridewell Alley is now the Museum of Norwich. Some famous names have been Mayor down the years. In 1846 for example the founder of the famous mustard business Jeremiah Colman held the position. The first Lord Mayor was Ernest Blyth, whose title was conferred mid-term in 1910. The current Lord Mayor is Martin Schmierer, leader of the Green Party in Norwich since 2016. He was born in Germany but came to Norwich as a seven-year old. Martin is the second member of the Green Party to be Lord Mayor of Norwich. At 31 he is probably the youngest councillor to become Lord Major of Norwich (I don’t think anybody has taken the trouble to research this thoroughly). He attended the Norwich School, where he was a contemporary and friend of my son Peter. Peter has returned from London to attend the Mayoral ceremony on July 7th. After attending the afternoon tea party with Martin he joined the Mayor on his Procession through the City centre. The theme this year was The Circus.

Some other Lord Mayors of Norwich have included the notable author Ralph Mottram, who was appointed for the year 1953/54. Sir Arthur South was another Lord Mayor; he was a prominent Labour Party politician who was also appointed during the 1950s. The South Stand at the Norwich City Football Club has nothing to do with the points of the compass – it is named after Sir Arthur. What is now less well remembered is that he also had a business in the city; it was a shop selling furs. This is now a very non PC business – so much so that such establishments (called furriers) no longer exist. Fake fur may still be purchased, but even this is frowned upon by many. Poor Sir Arthur lived into this period of severe dislike of fur. For some reason people will still tolerate leather goods to a certain extent, but merely to venture a millimetre further to the fur that grows on the animals’ skin is to bring the whole weight of popular disapproval down upon your head. Unless they are vegetarians people will happily eat animals, but are shocked at wearing their fur.

The book The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich by Phyllida Scrivens was published earlier this year (2018). It covers the 17 women who have held the position since 1923, when Ethel Colman became the first. She was the second daughter of J. J. Colman, nephew of Jeremiah. He  it was who brought mustard making to Carrow. (She commissioned the pleasure wherry Hathor, which we saw moored outside Howe Hill on the river Ant on the 2nd June 2018.) Ethel Colman was obviously a powerful lady, being one of the first female deacon at Princes’ Street Congregational Church, among other things. She was unmarried, as was the second female Lord Mayor – her name was Mabel Clarkson and she was a member of the Liberal Party like Ethel Colman.

Mrs Ruth Elsie Hardy, Lord Mayor 1950-51.

The third Lady Lord Mayor, Ruth Hardy (née Peachey), was the first to be a married woman. She had risen from the lowest level in society (unlike her two predecessors). Her father earned a living catching rabbits, and she worked her way up from the bottom, beginning as a pupil teacher. She was a forceful character and became a leading light in the Independent Labour Party before the Second World War. I was too young to remember her period of office in 1950, but I met her many times during the twenty-five years thereafter. This is because she was my great-aunt.

Local government has a long history in Norwich. It has developed, particularly in the 20th century, first in the title of the senior member of the council, and then by including people of both genders in that role. The payment of expenses is a relatively recent feature. The 19th century mayors had no need of remuneration, being such people as brewers, architects and insurance magnates. Those of a humbler station in life (such as my great aunt) had more need of financial support. Although in her time she was granted few expenses, there were other subtler ways of gaining from the position. Until the end of her life I continued to benefit from Marks and Spencers’ shirts which she passed on to me. These were returns from which the labels had been removed, but were otherwise perfectly serviceable. It wasn’t much, but this was one of the perks of having been Lord Mayor! No doubt there were others.





WATERMILLS, WINDMILLS; none illustrated here are now in a derelict condition. Some have been restored, some have been demolished and some have been burnt down by accident. 

Old Buckenham Mill, 1970, before restoration.


Jeremiah James Colman purchased the tower mill at Old Buckenham in 1862. This was the year that the firm left the site at Stoke Holy Cross. The production of mustard was transferred to Carrow Works in Norwich, and Old Buckenham was used to produce starch. It was an astute business practice to use his mills to produce high value commodities like mustard powder and laundry starch. These could be sold at a far higher mark-up than bread flour, although the process of milling it was very similar. The railway network enabled Colmans to sell these specialised products across the country. The nearest station to Old Buckenham was Attleborough, three miles away. By 1877 the starch business had been transferred to Carrow, so all the firm’s activities were concentrated on one site.

COSTESSEY MILL before it burnt down in the 1920s.

Simon Wilkin

In 1810 the mill at Costessey – a previous building to that shown above – was owned by Simon Wilkin. He lived in the mill house in Costessey, but he was not himself involved in the dusty business of milling corn. His interests were much more intellectual. He travelled widely, and had a private tutor to teach him Greek! He should have been a student at Cambridge, but as a Baptist he was then ineligible to attend. He lost the mill at Costessey when some incautious investments had him declared bankrupt. He restored his finances through setting up a printing business that was still going in Norwich in the 1970s. He established the Norwich Museum in his house in the city centre; it moved to Norwich Castle later in the century. While still a fairly young man he retired to Hamstead to edit the first edition of the collected works of Sir Thomas Browne. As I said, he was an intellectual.

Taverham paper mill 1839


Richard Mackenzie Bacon owned the paper milling business at Taverham for about ten years at the beginning of the 19th century. He was a journalist all his life, and continued to edit the local weekly throughout the period he was trying to establish the first machine-made paper business in Norfolk. He was not himself a hands-on paper maker, but he worked very hard in the business organisation. When his efforts failed he turned his full attention back to journalism. Besides continuing to edit the Norwich Mercury he published the first music magazine in London. He was also instrumental in setting up the Norwich Festival.

TAVERHAM PAPER MIL circa 1898. It produced paper for the Times.

Taverham mill went on to successful operation after Richard Mackenzie Bacon’s doomed efforts. When the railway opened from London to Norwich it became possible to supply paper to the capital. The editor of the Times’s father bought the mill at Taverham (which had again fallen on hard times) and the Norfolk village went on to produce much of the paper used to print the journal for over fifty years. The mill was made uneconomic by the development of wood pulp as the raw material for paper. The  problem with wood had been the chemicals used to bleach the pulp. When this difficulty was solved the whole industry went into a period of change; because the wood was sourced in Scandinavia the import made coastal paper mills the way forward. Taverham mill was a casualty of this change.

Bawburgh mill,

J. H. F. WALTER, owner of the Taverham paper making business from 1884.

J. H. F. Walter was a cousin of the owner of the Times newspaper. He inherited the paper mill at Taverham in 1884 and acquired the mill at Bawburgh to produced pulp for Taveham. The existing structure was built for Walter in 1886, the previous mill having burnt down some years earlier.

Bawburgh mill had ground flour for most of its existence. The first record of a mill there comes from the Domesday Book. In the early years of the 19th century it was occupied by the Colman family in the days before they began producing mustard. After the paper business ceased in 1899 the mill reverted to grinding flour, and continued making animal feed until 1967. Water power had been supplemented by steam engines since the 19th century, and latterly it was replaced entirely by the internal combustion engine.

Horsey mill was in fact a wind pump. One of many on the Broads, it belongs to the National Trust. It has recently been renovated.

HELLESDON MILL (from a postcard of about 1910). This was also at one time a pulp mill for Taverham. It later reverted to flour milling. It was demolished after WW1.

Cley mill.

Hindringham mill

Hindringham mill; this tower mill was built in the middle of the 19th century to replace a tower mill on the same site.  At five stories tall it stands high in this North Norfolk village. The mill was severely damaged in a storm in 1860, and this appears to have led to the bankruptcy of the miller. By 1937 it was derelict. The mill was restored for residential use in the late 20th century. This picture shows the mill in the early 1990s when my wife and children spent a summer holiday there with her parents. The mill is no longer available for short-term lets.

Oxnead mill.

The mill at Oxnead was a paper mill in the early 19th century. It never converted to machine-made paper  and by the late 19th century it was milling corn. The mill was by-passed by the Upper Bure navigation, which gave wherries access to Aylsham. This waterway was made impassable by the floods of 1912.

SAXTED mill, 1962. This preserved mill is in Suffolk.

HEMPSTEAD MILL, 1963. At that time it was still operated occasionally as saw mill.

On entering Mundesley from Bacton on the coast road, this mill is the first thing you see.

LODDON MILL, at the head of navigation on the RIVER CHET. In the 1980s the mill was a restaurant and I took my fiancee there for a meal.

Woodbridge tide mill. It had been working commercially until a few years earlier, and was being preserved in 1971 when I took this picture.

Reydon mill near Southwold in Suffolk, before restoration. It has a brief career as a wind pump before a gale put it out of action permanently.






The stock on the railways includes the fixed assets like the permanent way, bridges and buildings. Rolling stock covers all the wheeled vehicles. More specifically the term is often used to distinguish the stock that must be moved around the system from the locomotives that provided the motive power. In modern times the use of coaching stock that is integral with the power source has removed this distinction from passenger traffic.

Modern train in the country where it all began

In its most basic form the rolling stock of a railway at first consisted of trucks alone. These were operated by gravity, so no locomotive was required; these trucks included the wagons that were used to carry the slate down from the mine at Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales to the harbour at Porthmadog. Workers had to perch precariously on the wagons as they began their long descent, to apply the brakes. When the train was eventually brought to a halt and the slates had been transferred to the waiting ships the empty wagons had to be returned uphill. This was done by a horse, who had also made the perilous journey down in a truck at the back of the train.

Puffing Billy was one of the first locomotive to haul trains in 1815, and the rolling stock was exclusively mineral wagons. Richard Trevithick’s Catch Me Who Can steam engine ran round a circuit of track in Euston Square in London during 1808, and the rolling stock on that ‘Steam Circus’ was for passengers. The first paying passengers to be carried on a railway line were loaded into coal trucks, which may (or may not) have been modified by the provision of seating. The earliest railway coaches made to carry people looked very much like the stage coaches that travelled the roads. These were for First Class passengers, and Third Class travellers were still squeezed into open wagons. This ended in the 1840s, as public outrage at transporting the poor in such uncomfortable conditions grew too loud to ignore. Passenger carriages were all more or less the same, with only the level of internal luxury distinguishing them; that is once the lowest class of passengers got a roof over their heads. Originally there were three classes of passenger, but the Midland Railway abolished Second Class in 1872, and the other companies soon followed. First and Third classes remained until 1956, but by then standard of Third Class carriages was amazing good. I well remember the compartments where all the seats had antimacassars (which were regularly changed). There were pictures behind every seat – coloured reproductions of  paintings, photographs of beauty spots along the line – or else mirrors. They were all kept spotlessly clean by the army of railway workers that were then employed – modern rail companies please note.

Freight demanded numerous different kinds of wagon. As the working of the railways rapidly progressed all kinds of traffic developed their own specific kind of wagon – horse boxes, oil tankers and bolster cars, to name but three. With the modernisation of the railways in the 1960s this variety was simplified somewhat; the mixed freight trains disappeared and livestock was no longer carried on the railways. Short wheel-based four-wheeled rolling stock was replaced, and long wheelbase container flats became the main goods rolling stock. This container traffic predominates in East Anglia, carrying import from the docks at Felixstowe, although there are trains of open wagons for sand from Kings Lynn, and tanker wagons from North Walsham for North Sea gas distillate. Many lines now carry no regular freight services; there is for instance no goods service from Norwich to Ely. In the mid twentieth century freight was still a massive user of the railways. This transfer to carrying people is the major change on the railways, which were originally built to carry freight with passengers as an awkward afterthought. The track maintenance trains for leaf cleaning and line replacement, and the special technical vehicles that carry out the checking of the line are another kind of rolling stock. Naturally these are used over the whole network.

Wheels are what makes rolling stock roll, and I can remember the railwayman walking along a train with a long-handled hammer and banging it on the wheels as he passed. This was to check for any flaws, as a cracked wheel would not make the same ringing sound. This is far too unscientific a process to be used today, but it was undoubtedly effective.

That is my overview of railway rolling stock, from the earliest primitive trucks of the eighteenth century tramways to the sophisticated carriages of today. Everything has changed, but rolling stock still needs wheels. Eventually, if magnetic levitation ever moves from the drawing board to practical use, we will have to adopt a new terminology. Until then we will continue to refer to rolling stock.





Depression is widespread in the modern West; common certainly, and an affliction it may be, but I don’t see it as a mental illness, as many claim it to be. Why? Well you could say that it seems quite logical to be depressed about our prospects, both on an individual level and as a species. We ultimately have no future, on this earth at least; ages after we have all passed away the whole world will be destroyed, along with everything we know. For what reason is being depressed about this fact seen as abnormal?

Before you regard me as a very sad person I must make one thing crystal clear; I am almost never depressed myself. In this respect I think it must be me rather than the rest of you who is acting strangely. Why am I so happy in the circumstances? I will come to that, but first I have some more observations to make about depression. You only have to run through some of the unpleasant side effects of antidepressants to wonder if the cure is worse than the disease; nausea, constipation, weight gain and drowsiness (or alternatively weight loss and insomnia) are just some of them. The loss of sexual appetite is sometimes also cited as an undesirable side effect, but in the circumstances I would call that a positive boon. I have no problem sleeping, and I am of about normal weight, so as you might have guessed I have never taken antidepressants. It is not these pills that keep me so jolly, but without them there would be a lot more depressed people about.

Why is this prevalence of depression such a factor today? In spite of what I have said it is a mystery to me; life has always been depressing if you let it be, but everything is so much more comfortable now in every way. The lack of anaesthesia, infant mortality, no retirement for most people, even widespread hunger; things really were grim in the past. Yet depression was not a major problem back the days of yore, or if it was no one talked about it. Perhaps people were far too busy merely surviving to bother about anything else; and this brings me to my recipe for avoiding depression.

In my late teens I was in danger of being deeply depressed. I remember lying in bed one morning, and I was not merely depressed but positively terrified at what the future might hold. Those awful things have indeed mostly come to pass; many of those who I loved have died, and I myself have been quite severely disabled. All those years ago I resolved to ignore anything that I could not alter, for what is the point of worrying about the inevitable? Living for the present has worked well for me, and it is a much better way to resist depression than medication or visits to the psychotherapist. Also it costs nothing, neither to one personally nor to the National Health Service.

The other way to avoid depression is to laugh a lot; I defy anyone to feel depressed with a smile on their face. The two things are incompatible; even a wry smile will do. People have often remarked how I laugh a lot, and sometimes they complain that I laugh when there is nothing (in their eyes) to laugh about. But if you didn’t see the funny side of life it would really be a tragedy. As I said in the beginning, it is quite rational to see life in tragic terms, and maybe it is mad to laugh about it; nevertheless, it is infinitely preferable to see the ridiculous side of things. Would you rather laugh or cry?





I am showing my age when I say that it all seems like yesterday, though 1980 was nearly forty years ago. In political terms in the UK you can sum up the ten years in just one word: ‘Thatcher’.  She was PM throughout the decade. Although she was a constant feature in parliament, in my personal affairs it was a time of great upheaval; in 1980 I was living in the home I had always known, happily walking my dog every morning and hoeing my flower beds before I went to work. It was a solitary and uneventful life, and my sole source of income was the family firm that I had inherited. By 1990 my world had changed; I was a semi-professional musician, a medic in the Territorial Army and had become a freelance journalist. I even had a Union Card! I was shortly to work as a researcher on programmes for Anglia Television. At the end of the decade I wasn’t living in my old family home anymore, but in my current house. No longer a confirmed bachelor, I was married with two young children. You might say that it was a completely different lifestyle, and you would be right.

I had a couple of canal holidays in the ’80s

The Swinging Sixties or the Dire Seventies were eras that had a certain unity of direction, but can you place any theme on the 1980s? Maybe you can, but I can’t. That is not to say that nothing happened during the period, but the events appeared to be unrelated and came out of the blue. Take the deep recession and the doubling of VAT that marked the first years of the decade; the family business, which had been doing quite well until then, never really recovered from the shock. Then, while I and many others were licking our financial wounds and vowing never to vote for that Thatcher woman again, we were plunged into a war thousands of miles away. The resolute precision with which the Task Force was assembled and dispatched to do the job of recapturing the Falkland Islands produced a deep sense of pride among the nation. After that Mrs Thatcher could do no wrong. Even the deeply divisive Miners’ Strike could not shake our faith in Mrs Thatcher. The effective destruction of our coal industry seemed terrible at the time, but who would now support the widespread use of this dirty and carbon rich fuel? Things have moved on and now we are told that renewables are the future of energy production. Mrs T never lost an election, and her downfall was a result of Tory party in-fighting; the Poll Tax was widely regarded as a debacle, but the tax was abandoned without ever being put to the people in an election. Her attitude to the European Union was broadly supportive, but increasingly reluctantly so. She clearly had major doubts about its ultimate destination.

In  weather terms the memorable event of the eighties was the great gale of the 15/16th October 1987. We were living in a flat in Norwich that was close to a copse of trees, but luckily we did not experience too much damage. Others were not so fortunate. Every decade seems to produce its exception meteorological event; in the fifties it was the East Coast Flood, in the sixties it was the Big Freeze and in the seventies it was the Long Hot Summer of ’76.

In terms of culture this was the decade when the cinema enjoyed a renaissance. The musical became the dominant theatrical experience, largely through the popularity of the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The hold of atonal music on Radio Three was loosened, and the works of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, which had been regularly performed, are now almost never heard. The 80s saw the beginning of this trend. In the graphic arts postmodernism continued to spread its baleful influence. The food we ate at restaurants  grew in international diversity, but the price could be high and the quality mediocre, at least when contrasted with my wife’s excellent cooking. Literature may have developed in all sorts of important ways, but if so it passed me by. You must forgive me; as you can tell, it was a busy decade for me.





POSTWICK GROVE. Woods near Norwich/ (John Crome)


THE FIRST ROTARY PRESS 1814; in Norwich.

BRAMERTON. Looking towards the Woods End, early 19th century, (Norwich School).

The Medieval bridge over the RIVER WENSUM at Attlebridge

Taverham paper mill 1839

Norwich cattle market, 1871.

Yarmouth sailimg smack

Whitlingham Reach (A. Sandys 1860)

CANARIES were a Norwich speciality

Whitlingham church, 18th century print

Stoke Holy Cross Church, by Ladbrooke.

SANDLIN’S FERRY, the site is now known as PULLS FERRY

Costessey Park by John Thirtle, 1814

OXNEAD HALL as it was in the Paston family’s time

Boulton and Paul’s factory in Rose Lane, Norwich, circa 1890



29 is to the right.

It is a year since I last wrote about the house at 29 Surrey Street that used to belong to my family. Let me remind you; it was used as commercial premises in my family’s time, but until my father bought the house it had been in residential use. Latterly this was commercial hotel called the Angel, followed by a prolonged period of disuse.

Of the rooms on the other floors only the butler’s pantry (that opened onto the former dining room on the first floor) still had its built-in furniture. This must have been refitted in Queen Victoria’s time, because it was all done out in teak, not a wood used in Georgian times. It also it had a stained glass panel in door which was similarly of a later date.  In the butler’s pantry the superior tea service, the silver and wine glasses would have been kept, together with the current bottles of port and sherry.

The kitchen in the basement was also preserved in its original condition when we moved in during 1959. A late addition to this room was a cast iron range with an oven on either side of the central fire. My sister and I did attempt to light the fire on one occasion but it filled the room with smoke; after years of disuse it would have needed at least a month of permanent fires to dry out the chimney. The basement was never cold anyway; the thick walls kept it at an even temperature winter and summer. (We did use the scullery chimney for a Tortoise stove that burnt smokeless fuel.)

There were four rooms in the basement; a store-room under the stairs (maybe for linen), a large pantry (larger than most of today’s double bedrooms) a scullery and the kitchen itself. There was a wall cupboard about three feet from the range, which probably held the cooking utensils. On the opposite wall was a huge pine dresser with open shelves up to the ceiling, to hold the crockery. Below were two huge cupboards at one end and a smaller cupboard at the other, with two drawers above for the cutlery. There was an enormous pine worktop, three or four metres long and more than half a metre wide; it was made from a single plank of wood. There was a gasmeter on the dresser that took shillings; one lasted for months. We used the single gas ring for making cups of tea or coffee.

THE SCULLERY (WORKSHOP); see the roller for a towel still sits on the wall!

Instead of the range, the scullery had a huge open fireplace. From the stone overmantle projected a hook on a swivelling bracket, from which huge joints would once have hung on a clockwork spit. In this room the washing-up would have been done, and the laundry (which would have taken up much of the servants’ time); two servants would have lived in, probably the butler and his housekeeper wife. The attic provided the domestics’ sleeping quarters. Others would have lived out, in the city.

From the kitchen one door opened onto the corridor that led to the stairs, and the other door opened onto the scullery. The walls in the basement were nearly a metre thick. The floor in the scullery was partly of large flagstones, and the rest of the basement was paved with red pamments, about 25 cms square. (All  these measurement were of course in imperial feet and inches; the house had been built decades before the French Revolution that had ushered in the metric system.)

Although I have referred to this floor as the basement, it was only slightly below ground level at the front, and all the rooms had windows. The interior doors in the basement were half-glazed, because although there were windows to the daylight they were relatively small, and the doors helped spread the limited light round the working area. In the window to the scullery was a large shallow earthenware sink which must have been put in when the house was connected to the water and drainage systems in the nineteenth century. The house still used many of the original lead pipes.

A door in the scullery opened to the back area, and this gave access to the vaults. One was the wine cellar, and an earthenware flagon from some long-forgotten cider company remained when we moved in. Next came the coal cellar, with a manhole cover to the yard above, down which the coalman would have emptied his sacks. Finally came the longest cellar, which took a right angle bend and then descended a step or two to yet another arched vault. The use to which these last cellars had been put was not apparent; they were too damp to store anything that would rot.





It was a decade of change across the land, and Norfolk was no exception. For us though, the change was slower than in the rest of the country. Although I spent nearly all the 1960s away from home at boarding school I was still living in Norfolk; it is a large county after all. After growing up in South Norfolk and going to school in Suffolk in the 1950s, I changed to being a North Norfolk boy. Being an East Anglian still meant a lot, and being a ‘Norfick bor’ meant even more. This distinctive character is something that many other parts of the country have lost long ago and even in Norfolk it has been diluted. My school had the great Dick Bagnall Oakley (known county-wide through his television appearances) with his authentic Norfolk dialect, which he would occasionally lapse into, and this kept the school firmly on Norfolk lines. That significant voice has long gone alas, but it was there in the sixties.

Stooks of corn in south Norfolk, 1960s

So what was Norfolk really like back in the 1960s? For one thing there was much more sea borne cargo coming to Norfolk (Suffolk is a different matter thanks to the growth of the Port of Felixstowe). There were flourishing ports at Wells and Norwich, where grain was traded and coal imported. The port of Kings Lynn had abandoned South Quay, but the Alexandra Dock saw a lot of trade. There were many more fishing boats too. The herring industry in Yarmouth had collapsed right at the beginning of the decade, but the trawler caught white fish were still plentiful just down he coast at Lowestoft. I was living less than four miles from the sea as a schoolboy, and with a few hours to spare I could go to the seaside. There I could witness the thriving inshore fishing fleet, with crab boats on the beach at Cromer and Sheringham. This inshore fishing industry still survives, but it is under increasing pressure; what does the future hold I wonder?

Things like the shrinking of the railway network affected us all in the sixties. This happened all across UK, and the change was not for the better either. It is popular to blame Dr Beeching for this, but it was basically our own fault; our love affair with the motorcar meant the railway was doomed. If we didn’t use them, the railways were bound to close. (Now with the impossibility of parking in our big cities we need the railways once again, and we have lost many of them.) In Norfolk the roads, which should have benefitted from the transfer of traffic from rail, did not have any money spent on them in the sixties. Even the main roads snaked through the centres of all villages and towns they came to; the narrow A11 (the main road to London) threaded its way through the medieval streets of Wymondham and crossed the narrow bridge over the river Tiffey, but this was normal for Norfolk at the time. Heavy lorries were routed straight through the centre of Norwich. London Street was pedestrianised in 1967, but this was a revolutionary development. Cycles were still used to carry workers to Carrow and the many shoe factories in Norwich, but elsewhere they were giving way to the motorcar.

Change was gathering pace everywhere else in the UK, but not here; there were still conductors on the buses in Norfolk, but elsewhere drivers were already issuing the tickets. Motorways were being built, jet airliners were taking to the skies and electricity began to take over as the tractive power on the remaining railways (steam had ended in 1968). However here in East Anglia we were again overlooked. None of these improvements in transport affected us. Norwich Airport opened in 1967, but no jets used it for years. My father flew to Guernsey from Norwich, but it was in a 1940s Douglas Dakota!

The old ancestral homes that had clung on by their fingertips after the war fell by the wayside; many were demolished and others were left to decay. The richest of aristocrats survived, like the Earl of Leicester at Holkham and the Earl of Cholmondeley at Houghton Hall, but many of the less elevated families had already succumbed to the changed times. The nouveau riche Colin Chapman of Lotus Cars lived in a large house in Hethel, but despite its Georgian appearance that was a new build.

Among the lower middle classes the housing situation was quite different; the home-owning democracy was taking off for them. My own family ceased to be tenants in 1960 when we bought our bungalow; we were not alone. The rent control environment made being a private landlord an unattractive proposition; you retained responsibility for letting the tenancy but could not recoup your expenditure. No wonder the rented cottages were sold off as soon as their otherwise irremovable occupants died. In Norwich the upper floors of shops were left vacant – there was little demand for city centre dwellings and no appetite to provide them. Why complicate things when you were getting a good income from the ground floor retail space?  Slightly beyond the shopping centres council housing was still available to provide decent accommodation for the working class, and those who could afford it moved to new bungalow dormitories in the suburbs.

Has it all changed in the last fifty years? In some respects we have joined the modern world, but in others we are still at the bottom of the heap. It has taken half a century for us to get just one complete dual carriageway road, and the nearest motorway ends miles short of Norfolk. There are flats now above all the old shops – it is retailing itself which now is feeling the pinch. Instead of rent control we have greedy landlords everywhere you look. We got electrification on the Great Eastern main line relatively early, but that was done at the disadvantage of making the Wensum bridge single track. Here as elsewhere the property-owning democracy is a distant memory, except for us favoured baby boomers. Those who can afford to join their numbers must squeeze into new three floor terraced houses with a tiny footprint and next to no garden. Bungalows, so useful to house the elderly, are hardly ever built today. Yet in most respects we all have untold wealth – personal computers, smartphones, cars, clothes and so much food that we will all soon be too obese to move. It’s a funny old world.





I used to love words. This delight must go back to my very earliest days, when I first learnt to speak. What my first word was I don’t know (I was naturally far too young for consciousness to have dawned), but it was certainly ‘Ma’; this is how almost everybody start to speak, and it is always taken to mean ‘mummy’ ‘mama’ etc. My son was a slow starter in learning to speak, and an exception to this rule; when he did utter his first word he went straight into saying ‘marmalade’. That too must have meant ‘mummy’, but I like to imagine that he really did mean the orange conserve!

Be that as it may, he has grown up to be better at words than his old Dad; besides having a great command of English, he is also a fluent speaker of Polish and French; in any of these languages he can deliver a speech to an impressive audience of academics, so he must be doing it right.

Many people dream of using words to write a great novel, and perhaps get literary fame and fortune in that way. I am not one of them; I have never wished to write a novel. It is true that when I was about six or seven I did write a story in an exercise book, but that was a complete crib of R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island, which was the first full length book I read. Since then I have never wanted to write any more fiction. I hardly ever read it either these days, although as an adolescent I read volumes of the stuff. George Orwell, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley to name but few; I threw my net wide – much wider than I have the space to tell you about here.

Poetry is another matter entirely; at one time I considered poetry as the highest form of art. My attention span will still just about run to a limerick or two, but today I look on words not as an art form at all; to me they are a means of communication. I have just had a book published, and in discussion with my editor I said I was not concerned with the words I used; she could alter them as she saw fit. All I wanted was to make sure that I got my meaning across. You can see my attitude to words has changed.

From the point of view of a foreigner there are far too many words in English. You can say the same thing by using a completely different vocabulary and yet still be intelligible. This is due to the different terminologies than make up our hybrid language. Each new wave of invaders added their own words to the mix. The blunt Anglo-Saxons laid the groundwork for the modern English language. This was composed of words of few syllables; all the common things like cats and dogs, cows and hogs, fish and fowl are all Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. The Viking invaders added some similarly brief Old Norse words that remain in the language, like fog, egg and knot. Next the Normans came and tried to impose their brand of French on the whole country, but instead just made English even more complicated. In the early modern era the educated elite came along and placed words derived from Latin and Greek into the stew. Finally words from across the world were added as the language followed the flag to remote areas, particularly India; the colonists returned with words like hullabaloo, veranda and bungalow. The result is that we are inundated with synonyms, all of which have a slightly different usage. This makes for a language of great richness but also one of great complexity.

The difficulties in English do not end there; there is also the matter of strange spellings, which often bear no relationship to pronunciation. Logically there should be one letter for each sound, but that is not so with English. ‘K’ and ‘C’ can have the same sound, although ‘C’ can also sound like ‘S’. Other sounds have no letter to represent them; although in theory there are only six vowels in English (and two of them, ‘I’ and ‘Y’, have the same sound), in fact vowels have multiple sounds. These can also merge into each other in dipthongs.  Other sounds have no letter to indicate their use. Take the words that use the letters ‘T’ and ‘H’; this digraph represents not one sound but three. Thames, thanks and thought all appear as if they should be spoken in the same way, but they aren’t. Take the last word in the previous sentence; Aunt and aren’t look if they should be spoken differently but sound the same. Who would guess that sauce and source sound identical? That ‘wait’ and ‘freight’ and ‘great’ all rhyme but ‘splint’ and ‘pint’ don’t? I could go on and on. The reason why English is so widely spoken across the world is all to do with the spread of the British Empire and nothing at all to do with it being an easy language to master; it isn’t. Quite honestly it is a crazy way to use words.