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OPINION: Green issue has long been a part of Norfolk life

PUBLISHED: 17:41 20 September 2020 | UPDATED: 17:55 20 September 2020

Great Moulton’s parish church of St Michael and All Angels anchored in a sea of green. Picture: Trevor Allen

Great Moulton’s parish church of St Michael and All Angels anchored in a sea of green. Picture: Trevor Allen

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Before we look at saving the world, let’s take a look at the green issues in our own back yard, says Keith Skipper

I’ve been digging deep into my memory patch for reminders of how various shades of green seeped into Norfolk lives long before it became fashionable to wear them.

Brightest of us knew the Green Belt had nothing to do with karate. Many have yet to appreciate it was designed to save precious strands of our countryside from the chop. Norwich outskirts for starters.

We accepted something nasty could happen if we didn’t eat up all our greens. We counted ten green battles hanging on the wall and any amount of rushes adorning our village ponds.

Anne of Green Gables and How Green Was My Valley lurked on shelves of the mobile library as useful grooming for compelling novels by Graham Greene. That’s right, brother of Sir Hugh Greene, BBC director general for most of the 1960s.

Talking of television from a more innocent age, we plodded the police beat with Dixon of Dock Green, hid in the forest with Richard Greene as Robin Hood and tried to double our money or hear opportunity knocking with the ever-effusive Hughie Green.

Musical treats included Frankie Vaughan emerging from Behind the Green Door and Tom Jones rolling on The Green, Green Grass of Home. Green Goddess could be a funny drink or a fire-fighting machine. Little boys with hankies had to hum Greensleeves.

Just a bit of fun to prove we were in the green groove way back when bartering down country lanes turned into daily festivals of flowers, fruit and vegetables. In fact, there’s nothing new under the sun or blossoming hedgerow.

After all, the pastoral impulse in Victorian England is being echoed uncannily in some of the forces and feelings of our current green movement, not least in worldwide concerns over climate change.

Our green debate has been elevated to loftiest political levels. Victorian high priests in their back-to-the-land pulpits, John Ruskin, William Morris and Edward Carpenter, merely had to put up with being called sandal-clad eccentrics who spouted slogans like “The plough is a better backbone than the factory” and encouraged young ladies to dress as Alpine peasants.Perhaps the lasting value of their “alternative” pursuits was to urge future generations to question a deep-seated belief in untrammelled progress. Even in the late 19th century, market forces, working through a process of evolution to balance supply and demand, brooked no intervention.

It would be foolish to suggest too many analogies between that era and this one – but certain similarities are most striking. The late Victorian years brought a dramatic flowering of societies for protecting and preserving parts of old England from urban and industrial onslaught. We owe much to these pioneers who really meant it when they talked of saving something for their children’s children.

On a purely local track, there may be a strange sort of comfort to be gleaned from discovering complaints we’ve come to take for granted were being aired well over a century ago.

Bygone Norfolk, a volume edited by William Andrews in 1897, included this swipe at so-called progress: “Of late years many interesting birds and animals once plentiful in Norfolk have come either rare or extinct. This is owing partly to better drainage of the marshes, the introduction of better guns and to the invasion of cockney visitors.

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“Steam launches, numberless yachts, popping revolvers and champagne corks leave no peace to modest denizens of the reed beds. Fowling guns destroyed the splendid bustard that once roamed the western heaths. What a magnificent bird it must have been and how short-sighted its destroyers!”

In his History of Norfolk, published in 1885, Walter Rye pushed his prolific pen into critical waters as he came up to date … “It is painful for one who has known and loved the Broads as long as I have, in common honesty, to say their charms have been greatly exaggerated of late.

“To read some of the word-painting about them you would think you only had to leave Yarmouth and sail up the North River to get at once into a paradise of ferns, flowers and fish … the first few miles will effectually disillusionise any stranger who has been taking in this Swiss Family Robinson sort of rubbish”.

Before we’re overwhelmed by global green issues, and the new earnest posse of vote-seeker who know they must tackle them, let us take another quiet look around on our own back yards.

Skip’s Aside: One of the most elusive qualities in Norfolk humour to commit to print is a stunning use of understatement.

The best example I’ve encountered came from Dick Bagnall-Oakely, inspiring teacher, naturalist, broadcaster, dialect expert and one of the most sought-after public speakers of his time.

Dick spent about half his life at Gresham’s School in Holt as pupil and mentor. He was asked to hold the fort for a fortnight as geography teacher – and stayed for the rest of his career. He died aged 65 in 1974.

He recalled a scene from the notorious winter of 1963 when he was making a film on the changes of habit imposed upon seabirds by prolonged exposure to hunger and severe cold. Dick chose a spot on the coast near Salthouse as the ideal view for a long background shot on which credits for his film could be superimposed. He arrived a little early on a bitter February evening with the temperature reading eight degrees of frost. He stood in the lee of a small cliff for the sun to sink to the right angle.

“One other person went down to the cold and desolate stretch of coastline that evening. He was an old beachcomber, raggedly but warmly dressed, wheeling his bicycle with him, on the off-chance that a plank might be here among the driftwood washed up by the freezing tide.

“For about 20 minutes I stood in such shelter as the cliff provided. But the sun had still not descended to the angle I wanted before the beachcomber had completed his tour and started his return.

“He passed me, still standing in eight degrees of frost, immobile in the same position as I had been in when he passed before. This time he spoke as he passed, and in the one word he uttered I heard all the plain speech, the avoidance of the play of ‘polite ‘ conversation , the laconic brevity and the shrewd humour I have come to know and love in Norfolk people.

“Not a shabby, anonymous beachcomber, he summed himself up in an expression echoing all the ironic humour and the unanswerable understatement of a true Norfolk character …

“Sweatin’?”


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