Book me in for a world of discovery

PUBLISHED: 18:40 01 November 2019 | UPDATED: 18:48 01 November 2019

Scanning the far horizon for Vikings or  cockle women at Stiffkey

Scanning the far horizon for Vikings or cockle women at Stiffkey


Keith Skipper says there are a whole host of stories just waiting to be re-read, when there is time - plus he pays tribute to the late, great Duncan Forbes

It's so easy to be seduced by yesterday's news through papers smoothed into the bottom of drawers and boxes.

I recall how such impromptu reading brought solace to childhood chores to those of us instantly diverted from overdue sorting operations around the house.

The malady lingers on when comes the call for another attempt to conquer the north face of a mountain of books, magazines and documents blocking a path to my cluttered study desk.

A tinge of guilt and a tingle of excitement surface together as the first minute reveals old friends left to fade and gather dust along with more recent fancies awaiting proper attention. Least I can do is give them piles of their own.

So begins my latest chapter in an endless scaling of literary ranges in search of knowledge, inspiration and useful companions to help make sense of a world in which real books and joined-up writing can be reduced to bit-part players.

I bought a crumpled edition of The Land of the Vikings by HV Morton several years ago. It was first published in 1928, shortly after his best-selling In Search of England, a volume worthy of establishing him as one of the leading travel writers of the age.

Henry Vollam Morton's style is too flowery and jingoistic for many tastes. But he did evoke stirring images and values of a time and an environment hard to scoff at in this era of reckless destruction of our countryside, too much polarised opinion and massive concerns over climate change.

As wind howled and rain banged on the window, I renewed acquaintance with the Vikings and that part of England known to our Saxon ancestors as the Danelaw between the Thames and Humber.

Possibly anticipating the vagaries of "local" television services with outstretched 
arms, the Danelaw embraced today's counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Morton claimed over 90 years ago that 
it formed one of the most interesting and least exploited districts in the country.

Some will suggest that he and fellow journalist Clement Scott, who prised open the petals of Poppyland some 40 years earlier, did their best - or worst - to rid Norfolk and close neighbours of innocence and isolation in readiness for a brash and seemingly insatiable tourist industry.

It depends, of course, where you stand over the old conundrum of discovering somewhere enchantingly different. Is it right to spread the word or reasonable to keep the secret to yourself? Scott lived to deeply regret his effective "selling" articles.

Writers like him and Morton certainly carried a lot of weight and painted enticing pictures, the latter pitching a claim for a cosy seat on the East Anglian Tourist Board of directors with gems such as "I do not know another part of England in which the history and romance of this country leap more readily to the mind".

Morton's chapter on How to Enjoy Norfolk betrays more than a whiff of patronising and subservience to the sort of comments already qualifying as clichés before the Second World War. We have been "remarkable for shrewdness, carefulness, blunt honesty and suspicion" ever since I started reading and ruminating.

He noted how "Norfolk people take their time" and their dialect was "full of words you will hear nowhere else", while Norwich was sought out by "only the most critical and intelligent tourists" A holiday on the Broads could feature "a wherry seeming to glide on air between two star-spangled skies" on still nights in summer.

I was tempted to give him top marks for describing Cromer as "the most fashionable watering place on the Norfolk coast" before alighting upon a tribute to "a part of Norfolk almost unknown and never mentioned in the ordinary guidebook".

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He refers to about 30 miles of "meal marshes" between Sheringham and Gore Point deserted except for a fowler or stray naturalist. They are cut across with little creeks and rivulets and every tide sends salt water running up through sea lavender and samphire.

Flocks of wild birds soar over dead seaports. The sea has retreated from the land over centuries. "And there, far away, outlined against the yellow sand-bar, black dots - the women of Stiffkey, great baskets on their heads and skirts pinned up above bare knees, gathering cockles".

Viking ships beaching on the distant strand with big red-bearded men wading to the shore. Ne'er a tourist board official among them.


I feel obliged to add a personal postscript to a dug-out full of heartwarming tributes marking the final whistle on the life and times of Duncan Forbes.

After all, we shared several bookings when it came to shameless performing on the team bus or in hotels where one of his favourite ploys was to convince complete strangers they had met before..

Several fellow Canaries were impressed at the number of friends he had made across the country. Unlike most football club "humour", Duncan's offerings were sparky, often funny and totally without malice.

He used the same old jokes throughout his Norwich City years, about half of them at the expense of fellow defender and long-time friend David Stringer. Apparently, he once broke into a pound note - but was let off as it was his first offence.

Duncan invariably called me a "bad man" when I employed words and phrases with which he wasn't familiar in match reports. I had to work overtime to convince him "ebullient" and "efficacious" both meant he was always quick to get the first round in.

The only time he showed anything like annoyance towards the press came with questions about his disciplinary record, summarised by one national wag as showing "more bookings than Fred Pontin". For all that, Duncan was never sent off in his Canary career.

"I was carried off, both in agony and in triumph, and served the odd suspension. But I never took an early bath at the invitation of the referee" boomed the proud Scot.

I suspect his stentorian tones and the gentle Irish lilt of Norwich Theatre Royal boss Dick Condon were among most instantly recognised sounds in Norfolk throughout the 1970s.

A gritty and uncompromising leader on the field, Duncan Forbes, below, was a key figure in Norwich City's rise to the top flight and reaching a Wembley final for the first time.

I'd love to call him "gregarious" off the pitch -

but that would risk another "bad man" chastisement from one of the most likeable characters I encountered on my Carrow Road beat.

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