Remembering one of Norfolk’s most talented 20th century characters

Inspiring teacher and Norfolk dialect champion Dick Bagnall-Oakeley chalks up a few tips about bird

Inspiring teacher and Norfolk dialect champion Dick Bagnall-Oakeley chalks up a few tips about bird-life on his Gresham’s School blackboard - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper recalls the fanastic contribution to Norfolk life made by Richard Percival Bagnall-Oakeley, known commonly as Dick to friends and family

I note there’s been a boom in sending letters blessed with proper joined-up writing among more mature creative souls during lockdown.

A couple came my way to inquire if a grand new-found status might turn me into a full-time recluse on Scroby Island or, more hopefully, spark a riotous round of all-night parties for those who stood resolutely by me throughout all those lean years.

The penny dropped as both missives bore the alluring headline: “Cromer Man Tops UK Rich List”. A clear case of mistaken identity as I haven’t made the top million since rumours circulated during the early 1990s about introducing the Coypew as Norfolk’s very own currency.

It’s been gently downhill ever since despite dabbling with stock markets in Aylsham and Norwich, telling the Inland Revenue I don’t owe them a penny as I live by the seaside and realising if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.

No more begging letters, please, until royalties flood in for my buskin-bending, sackcloth-swirling, weskut-wobbling, titfer-twirling, haystack-haunting, bodice-bursting series of best sellers about Norfolk country life in the 1950s, Far From the Cladding Crowd

Sir James Dyson is the lad with Norfolk roots setting a fair old lick on top of the Sunday Times Rich List. Born in Cromer and educated at Gresham’s School in Holt from 1956 until 1965, he is said now to be sitting on a fortune of £16.2bn

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He built his reputation and resources through inventing the bag-less vacuum cleaner which went on sale in 1993. Almost two decades before he had launched a new type of wheelbarrow with a spherical wheel to make it easier to manoeuvre – presumably while loaded on way to the bank!

Last year Sir James made a £18.75m donation to his old school to fund a new centre for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics education to be unveiled as the Dyson Building. He has regularly acknowledged the school and its then headmaster, Logie Bruce-Lockhart, for financial support to continue his time there after his father died of cancer.

I note how James Dyson’s career at Gresham’s ran roughly alongside the same spell I spent at Hamond’s Grammar School in Swaffham from 1955. Gresham’s featured on a list of Norfolk establishments apparently open to a lad of my 11-plus talents, despite aversions to wheelbarrows and vacuum cleaners.

Hamond’s carried the day because a regular rail service ran between Dereham and Swaffham and I could bike from my Beeston home to Fransham station and catch a train. That was my seven-year routine in all weathers destined to inspire classroom epithets like “Pedaller of Swaffham”.

One of the teachers young James Dyson would have encountered at Gresham’s is still remembered with deep affection. Richard Percival Bagnall-Oakeley simply, known as Dick to family, friends and countless admirers, was one of Norfolk’s most talented characters of the 20th century.

Dick spent about half his life at Gresham’s as pupil and mentor. He was asked to hold the fort for a fortnight as geography teacher. He accepted that invitation – and stayed for rest of his career, a kind of benevolent Pied Piper followed around by constant queries, mainly concerned with nature, from wide-eyed disciples.

Dick was bilingual, equally at home with orthodox speech and our broad local tongue, a facility which helped him get on with folk from all walks of life. There was no hint of mockery or patronising as he unleashed a torrent of Norfolk stories as raconteur, after-dinner speaker and broadcaster.

He represented the county at hockey and athletics as well as rifle shooting. He made himself an authority on migrant birds in North Norfolk and an expert at capturing all wildlife and plant life on film.

Enlightening yet humorous natural history talks on television and at lectures throughout the region made him one of the most popular and instantly recognisable figures of his time.

Dick collapsed and died at 65 at the wheel of his car in April 1974, while driving to Inverness soon after retirement from Gresham’s. He was due to give a talk on ornithology. A key part of the Bagnall-Oakley legacy shone through his old school when I was invited to give a talk about our dialect and humour a few terms ago. Three pupils combined to present a polished version of The Singing Postman’s Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy? I could hear Dick applauding behind the blackboard.


With a few hours to spare the other evening, I wandered back to Norfolk days when roads were quieter, ambitions smaller and habits more durable.

The local pub, usually run by someone who knew every customer by name and what they liked to drink on a datty ole Tuesday night, stood at the heart of a social pattern leaning unashamedly towards the blatantly parochial.

No need to feel bad about making gossip and a pint of mild last all evening in front of a crackling log fire. Indeed, those able to embroider a familiar yarn with fresh colour or, even better, an extra dash of topical juicy scandal, could count on that pint being bought for them in the first place.

That was the deal, especially in a rural hostelry, a kind of rough-and-ready bartering designed to forestall any urge to hire ear-splitting entertainment, fix a huge plasma screen on the wall or chase planning permission to turn the place into a trendy gastrodive.

Cruel economics, and some downright scatty changes in taste, have closed too many pubs and continue to threaten many others as soon as the lockdown is lifted. As one who specialised in eavesdropping at centres of genuine Norfolk culture, I followed that decline with deep concern.

Early years as a press reporter in Thetford, Dereham, Yarmouth and Norwich offered perfect excuses to linger and listen for the sort of titbits you couldn’t harvest at council meetings, magistrates’ courts and annual gatherings of ratepayers’ associations.

No, I wasn’t a pioneer rustic lobbyist seeking to curry favour with or from leading local citizens … just a curious lad ready to find out what might be going on over a casual half. “Now, this didn’t come from me, right, but I heard …”

Years of sorting out genuine wheat from the chaff of dangerous rumour mellowed into treating certain pubs as havens of information with an entertaining edge. My vast collection off Norfolk stories owes plenty to leaning on bars and tuning into gregarious characters with enough material to full a book.

Some of them even feigned flattery when I threatened to put the best bits in my next volume and sell it back to them.