Opinion: What makes Norfolk so special

The early morning sunlight over the River Yare on the Norfolk Broads, near Cantley. The early morning sunlight over the River Yare on the Norfolk Broads, near Cantley.

Lucy Benedict
Friday, April 25, 2014
4:33 PM

I am a Norfolk woman, and Glory in being so (sorry, Horatio). I’m from Norfolk. Go on. You know you want to. Yes. I have six fingers. And webbed toes. Gills, too, if you want to have a look?

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My sister is my mother, my aunt and my daughter. I wave at passing aeroplanes. Norwich is ‘THE City’. I’ve been as far away from home as Diss. Once. I do not communicate but in grunts. Grunts in dialect, bor. I regard anyone not born to triple generation Norfolk stock as an outsider, and refuse to engage with them. I shun anyone not from my village. I get dizzy when I stand on a molehill. Delia is our queen. Alan Partridge is a god. A-ha.

Trust me, if you’re from Norfolk, you get used to the jokes. Very quickly. And, if I’m honest, if you’re from Norfolk, then you smile inwardly to yourself. Because we’re in on the joke. I think we make some of them up ourselves, just to dissuade people from coming here, because ‘Norfolk is like that’.

‘Norfolk is like that.’ I heard someone (not from Norfolk) say to someone else (also not from Norfolk). By ‘like that’ they meant that Norfolk people are petty, suspicious, mistrustful of outsiders, liable to bear a grudge for generations.

‘You either get Norfolk, with its wild roughness and uncultivated oddities, or you don’t. It’s not all soft and lovely. It doesn’t ask to be loved.’

Stephen Fry

Nailed it, Mr Fry. Nailed. It. We don’t ask to be loved. We’re content. Happy. Secure in the knowledge that, despite what anyone else may think, we live in one of the most jewelled corners of England. Someone far wiser than I once told me ‘Norfolk’s a special place. If you end up here, it’s because you’re supposed to.’ Geographically, this is true. We are on a road to nowhere. No motorways in Nelson’s county, and the A11 and A47 are often stretches of single carriageway. The A149 – the coast road – could at times be mistaken for a country lane. We are off the beaten track in more ways than one. Psychologically, we are apart.

‘If the rest of Britain sank beneath the waves, and Norfolk was left alone, islanded in the turmoil of the seas, it would, I think, survive without too much trouble.... Norfolk has always stood alone and aloof from the rest of England.’

James Wentworth Day

Aside from the tiny city of Norwich, there’s no urban sprawl here. No great new architectural wonders. Our landscape isn’t dramatic like the Peak District. No stunning panoramas like you’ll see in The Lakes. Not chocolate box pretty like the Cotswolds. Norfolk is flinty, rolling, remote, and yes, in places, it is flat. But flat (ish) lands make for big skies. And big skies give perspective, open minds, let you see all that is before you. And as a result, there’s not much that is private in Norfolk. So what privacy we do have, we hoard and guard obsessively. That might make us seem taciturn, and uninterested in you. Actually, it’s a form of respect. Honest.

‘...this corner of England which once it holds your heart is more lovely than any place on earth. Beautiful with a hint of secrecy which haunts it, as the memory of a dark and tender sadness clouds the brilliance of a summer day.’

Lilias Rider Haggard (Norfolk Notebook)

Norfolk people won’t seek you out, or jolly you along if we don’t know you. It’s not what we do. Marooned, as we are, jutting out into the North Sea, we don’t do introspection. We don’t really care if that makes us seem unfriendly, either. It’s more that we can’t be bothered to find out if you’re interesting or not. If you are, we’ll find out soon enough. If you’re dull, we’re not going to waste our time being bored. In such a rural environment, it’s impossible not to be aware of the changing seasons and the passing of time. And nowhere is this more neatly illustrated than with our churches.

‘For the traveller in search of the English Heritage, the county is a paradise. It has great cliffs and chalk downs, a history far older than any written documents, delightful rivers, unique still waters, low-lying fens, captivating towns, a historic roll of famous folk and a group of Saxon, Norman, and medieval churches crammed with beauty that makes England the matchless country in the world.’

Arthur Mee

Norfolk has over 650 medieval churches. I’ll say that again, just in case you’re speedreading. Every town, village, green verged hamlet seems to be studded with them. Some small, some obscure, some glorious and soaring, majestic above yellow fields. There’s no escaping them on the Norfolk horizon. And these churches are what make Norfolk so special to me. Because they tell their own story. Norfolk wasn’t always a hidden little secret. It was once rich and important, Norwich was second only in size to London, and the people of those times reflected their wealth in these buildings.

That’s why Norfolk is as it is. This breathtaking kaleidoscope of buildings, landscape and sky survived, because Norfolk rose to prominence, bedecked itself in the fashions of the time and then... the world moved on. Moved north, to the industrial revolution, far away from our bucolic splendour. Can you blame us for being a bit chippy? Bit reticent when people spring forward to embrace us. We’ve been down that road before. We’re not going to risk getting our heart broken again.

We do aloof really well. But don’t mistake aloofness for disdain. We don’t dislike you*. Don’t mistake a certain kind of bolshiness for dislike. We’re just suspicious of pretentiousness (IRONY ALERT). Don’t think we begrudge privilege. We just prefer to focus on what a person is, rather than what they have**. Don’t mistake our instinctive respect of your privacy as rudeness. Just accept us as we are. We are Norfolk. You won’t change us. But hang around long enough and Norfolk might change you. And encourage you to do different too.

*Unless you drive a Chelsea tractor and have a second home in the Burnhams.

**Unless you drive a Chelsea tractor and have a second home in the Burnhams.

• Lucy Bendict’s blog can be found at putupwithrain.blogspot.co.uk

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