OPINION: Holt Hall saga symbolises big current issue in Norfolk

A decision on the future of Holt Hall, which could be facing closure, will be made next month.

A decision on the future of Holt Hall, which could be facing closure, will be made next month. - Credit: Archant

Closing Holt Hall just doesn’t make sense to Keith Skipper

A predictably heartfelt campaign against planned closure of learning centre Holt Hall sums up all too sharply one of Norfolk’s biggest dilemmas of our age.

How can so much lip-service being paid to proper protection for the county’s precious character and environment be translated into enough genuine action to prove something really is being done?

What price a torrent of gratitude and golden memories stretching over 70 years, plus thousands of petition signatures, up against a cash-strapped county council with a poverty-stricken record when it comes to green-tinged priorities?

Holt Hall, an impressive Victorian mansion standing in 75 acres of woodland, gardens and lakes, fully deserves a glowing reputation for introducing and nurturing appreciation of the great outdoors among generations of Norfolk schoolchildren on one-day visits or residential courses.

This emphasis on “environmental concerns” now assumes truly prophetic proportions as a climate change crisis demands acceptance and action across the globe. We should be proud to acknowledge Norfolk pioneering efforts in alerting young minds to the importance of where and how we live.

I must declare a keen family interest in recent history and potential fate of Holt Hall. My wife, in her role as Scout leader, and our sons, two of her willing recruits, relished outdoor glories on camping trips. I preferred cosy sessions inside on extensive Norfolk mardling rounds.

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It was a regular pleasure to answer cheery calls from George Carrick and Theodore Fanthorpe to join them for weekend courses on their own busy patch. These events extended from the end of one century to start of another – and a fresh millennium. A bridge built largely out of home-grown material.

I shared passions for Norfolk current affairs, dialect, humour, literature and history, several lively debates culminating in a “do a local-flavoured turn” around a roaring log fire. Holt Hall in deepest autumn and early winter offered an even warmer welcome than usual.

One of my favourite indoor get-togethers as grey squirrels bounded across silent but beautiful parkland found a party of weekend guests arriving to search for The Heart of Norfolk. Sounds like the start of another intriguing case for Miss Marple …

How I wish now I’d recorded sufficient deliberations for a package to present to current local MPs and councillors on “care for your community” It’s clear a ragged mixture of apathy and ignorance bedevils many attempts to sort out what Norfolk needs most.

Our Holt Hall reflections from a few years back have matured into much more than a handy treatise on how things used to be. Yes, we sized up days dominated by vibrant vernacular, closely-knit villages, quiet lanes, bobbies on bikes and delivery men who piled smiles and banter into cardboard boxes.

We could have covered ourselves in sackcloth and ashes befitting remnants of a lost race, an ethnic minority in our own backyard, bucolic left-overs tied together by passion for the past and fear of the future.

I am pleased to report a far more worldly-wise approach, despite a tranquil backcloth so at odds with much of the Norfolk we left behind for two days. We gave sincere thanks for the spirit of survival where it still flourished.

The big bonus, though, had to be a warts-and-all appraisal of our county – there were representatives from all parts – with questions and views too many would prefer to shove aside. For example, two of our party happy to be described as in the full flush of eventide led a lively debate on the growing number of old folks’ homes concentrated in coastal locations.

As well as strains on medical resources and serious imbalances of age groups in communities, there was the little matter of trying to treat institutionalised elderly people with the dignity and interest they deserve.

A tour of ”shabby Yarmouth” was prompted by a long-time east coast resident who admitted he hadn’t felt any need to visit the Golden Mile in years. That will sound like heresy to councillors and tourist chiefs who bridle at every criticism instead of asking for honest reasons behind it.

Village vandalism, market town sprawl, city crime and traffic congestion. Hardly the sort of menu you’d associate with weekend guests chewing the cud in a lovely old mansion.

Just a thought... if Holt Hall has to shut, why can’t Norfolk County Council take it over and pledge to hold more meaningful meetings inspired by such a glorious host environment?

Skip’s Aside: In the good old days, when we had proper winters, I suffered from chilblains. Too much toe-toasting in front of a blazing coal fire followed by bedtime bliss with a hot-water bottle aggravated the ailment.

One of our neighbours, far more concerned about the health of his vegetable plot, betrayed his priorities when he exclaimed :”Cor, blarst me, if I hed radishes like that, I’d win first prize at the local show!”

Various ointments were tried but the majority of more sympathetic relatives and friends assured me the only real solution hid under my bed Dipping chilblains in a chamber-pot of fresh urine became a regular means of easing the pain.

I don’t know if taking pot luck brought genuine curing qualities to the surface but earnest advice came from too many quarters to dismiss it as a load of old squit. And my toes really did seem to be soothed by this bedroom exercise.

In his memoirs, Full Circle, published in 1991, popular Anglia TV presenter Dick Joice included this treatment for chilblains: “Cut top off onion, dip into salt and rub well into affected parts. Paraffin or turpentine could be similarly used”.

Gabrielle Hatfield’s book, Country Remedies, confirmed that the commonest cure for chilblains was to dip them in the chamber-pot, although wealthy 18th-century members of the Harbord family at Lowestoft used wine instead. (Perhaps I should have compromised and settled for dandelion and burdock).

Thrashing chilblains with holly until they bled was a drastic but widespread remedy while another idea from Essex also involved use of holly, but this time as an ointment. The berries were powdered and mixed with lard.

Elizabeth Harland’s No Halt at Sunset, The Diary of a Country Housewife, published in 1951, features this excerpt from snowbound December when she was asked if there was anything the wretched stuff was good for:

“Chilblains on the feet. All you have to do is run barefoot in the snow until your feet glow; about five minutes.

“Have not been plagued with these for years myself as, in defiance of all the wisecracks, I make a practice of sitting with my feet in the fender whenever possible, and, while writing, have them on a hot-water bottle or within scorching distance of an electric fire”.