Trying to sum up what’s wonderful about Norfolk

'Norfolkness' is a far subtler concept than the 'big skies' stereotypes of visiting artists and writ

'Norfolkness' is a far subtler concept than the 'big skies' stereotypes of visiting artists and writers. - Credit: Eastern Counties Newspapers

In his final feature for the EDP, Trevor Heaton reflects on what makes Norfolk different to anywhere else - and reveals the three things he's learned about the county.

If your heart sings when you start heading home and see the 'Welcome to Norfolk – Nelson's County' sign, then what follows is for you.

But if your heart doesn't fill with joy when you see the signs, then maybe you should be reading on anyway. There's always scope to recruit another to the Norfolk cause, after all.

When I was a teenager (sometime shortly after the dawn of recorded time), I remember a very clever advertising campaign for one of David Bowie's albums. The rock chameleon had the tricky task of launching his new album right at the excitable heyday of punk and new wave music. The solution? The brilliant marketing slogan 'There's Old Wave, There's New Wave, and there's David Bowie'.

Norfolk's a bit like that. There's English Counties, and there's Norfolk. It really isn't like another other place. For a start, we've not been blessed – yet - with a motorway. Yes, and I know that means interminable journeys, especially along the A47 and the A17, and equally interminable journeys back. But it makes those Welcome to Norfolk signs all the sweeter when they do arrive.

Until the last couple of decades, Norfolk was one of England's best-kept secrets. You had to want to come here, really want to come here. Now, especially in the North Norfolk honeypots, you could almost be in some posh suburb of London. And what were once humble fisherfolk's cottages are now the 'boltholes' of the rich.

But the real Norfolk is still out there, defiantly untrendy.

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Thinking about when I first became aware of Norfolk's 'otherness', I think it had to when I was a child and taken to the then-enormous Tuesday Market in King's Lynn. In those days the market place's elegant two acres would be crammed with traders, and strange accents. For Tuesday was the busiest day in what was the biggest town for nearly 40 miles.

Even though the market visitors might have come from only a few miles away, from the likes of Wisbech or Sutton Bridge, that short geographic distance was matched by a vast linguistic one. It wasn't until decades later that I learned that there was an 'isogloss' in this outlying part of Norfolk. That's the invisible divide where accents change - a reflection, I suppose, of the many centuries when fen and marsh were very real barriers.

Here, then was the edge of Norfolk. But what about the rest of the county?

Sadly, I was born too late to have taken advantage of the spider's web of rural railway lines, although I have a dim (very dim) memory of travelling from Lynn to Hunstanton.

And in a household where money was tight and car ownership a very occasional treat (the summer when we had a £40 Ford Consul being a particularly memorable one), even Norwich seemed a very long way off too. It wasn't until I was 11, on a school trip, that I made the journey along the A47 to go 'up the city'. After that, it was a case of buying Eastern Counties' Wanderbus tickets to help me do my tentative exploring.

Gradually, so gradually, Norfolk opened up to me. Buying a bike, and then my first car, gave me the freedom to push out further into the country lanes, to appreciate vistas stuffed with church spires and ripe barley, flint cottages and sea views.

If you were to break a typical Norfolk view down to its bare elements, it's only sky, soil, buildings and water like everywhere else. And yet, we all know there's something intangible and wonderful about it, don't we?

Which brings me to trying to actually define what it is that does make the county special. To help me, at this point I decided to have a go at writing down what is best about Norfolk. Thirty-five minutes later my list looked like this:

Strumpshaw Fen swallowtails, the first Cromer crab of the season, flint, the Saturday auction on Swaffham Market, the snails on Great Yarmouth's Joyland, Edith Cavell, 'squit', old boys in boiler suits on tractors, a Norwich City cup run…

Looking out over the Wash from Hunstanton pitch-and-putt course, 'Caister Men Never Turn Back', samphire with butter, the Royal Norfolk Regiment, the 'Slow Yew Down' signs at Wiveton, the rhododendrons of Stody and Sheringham Park, the roof bosses at Norwich Cathedral, Norfolk Churches Trust Bike Ride, Peddars Way…

Lynn Custom House (the most perfect building in Norfolk), a field of poppies near Great Massingham, the view from Mousehold Heath, Horatio Nelson, stone curlews, Ted Ellis, the call of the oystercatcher, Sarah Hare's effigy in Stow Bardolph church, Black Shuck….

Yellowhammers singing 'a little bit of bread and no cheeeeese' on hot summer days, mussels, Walsingham snowdrop walks, 'On the Ball, City', the Royal Norfolk Show, Jarrolds, Keith Skipper, seal trips, Norwich Castle and its treasures (especially The Seven Sorrows of Mary, the mummies and Spong Man), Henry Blogg…

The hiss of the sea on Cley shingle, the Boy John, the view from the top of St John the Baptist RC Cathedral, 'pightles' and 'plains', Hickling Fen boat trips, Reedham and West Lynn ferries, the Norfolk accent, Banham Zoo's annual Zoo Do, the ladies who make the teas at village fetes…

Diss Mere, the Captain Mainwaring statue at Thetford, the traditional opening of Lynn Mart, Cromer New Year fireworks, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, milestones, the angels of St Mary's Church in South Creake, the stripes of Happisburgh lighthouse... and Norwich Market stalls, Blakeney Point, Woodforde's Wherry (and wherries)…

Singing 'In The Bleak Midwinter' at a village carol service, True's Yard Museum, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Burgh Castle, Roys of Wroxham, Kett's Rebellion, Cromer pier (and the show), St Benet's Abbey, Blickling Hall – and its bluebells - Pull's Ferry…

The roodscreen at Barton Turf church, Roys of Wroxham, travelling the Bittern Line, Sir Henry Rider Haggard - and his daughter Lilias - the boom of bitterns, running round Castle Rising moat, seaside fish and chips, Thursford's Christmas Spectacular, our bone-dry sense of humour, the Red Mount chapel….

Those old 'Norfolk CC' signposts, Warham Camp, Wash brown shrimps, Norfolk Cricket Week, Bawsey Ruins, village Remembrance Sundays, North Norfolk Railway (and all the other heritage lines), the Nelson monument, Peter's Bookshop in Sheringham, the Babingley river…

Salle church, Norwich Puppet Theatre, Sculthorpe Moor nature reserve, Bob Davey (the hero of Houghton-on-the-Hill), Castle Acre and the Nar, the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, the smell of smoked herrings at Time and Tide…

And that's just a few. But 'but what about ----?', I hear you cry. Or 'how could you miss ----?' I know, I know – guilty as charged. I realise now, too late to save a good deal of typing, that I could have just said 'all of it'.

You see, all of these point to something else, too, that idea of a special 'Norfolkness'. It's something that's always been hard to define, which in its way is both its strength and its weakness.

If we gave a spot fine to those 'furriner' artists and writers every time they rattled on about our 'big skies', then we'd be able to pay off the National Debt in three weeks.

True Norfolkers know it's a lot more than that: it's a taste, it's a smell, it's a feeling, it's an inner warmth, it's a knowing-deep-down-inside that in dear, old-fashioned Norfolk something is still right with the world.

But because Norfolkness is there all around us, it's so easy to have it slip through our fingers in a changing world too.

And if one day we wake up, look out of our front doors and realise, with horror, that we now live in Anywheretown, Anywherecounty, well, that'll be up to us. We can close those same front doors, go back to watching Antiques Road Trip and think that we can't make a difference. But we can, you know.

It's about being proud to support our village or community, and not just saying that we do. Rolling up our sleeves to make sure that the village hall or local church or chapel doesn't close its doors. Helping out at the fete. Supporting the local shop or post office. Doing our bit, in short. And being proud to speak with a Norfolk accent too - especially that.

But enough of these musings. 'He run on', as one of those old boys on his tractor might well say. It's high time I answered the question I posed right at the start, to reveal the three things I've learned about Norfolk.

Oh, that's easy: I love her, I love her, I love her.

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