OPINION: Brilliant duo’s stirring salute to West Dereham

Retired head teacher Chris Young (left) and lifelong farmer Peter Starling

Partners along the village history trail. Retired head teacher Chris Young (left) and lifelong farmer Peter Starling get set for another cheerful session of memory-stirring in West Dereham - Credit: Jemima Peach

I’ve heard it so many times: “Oh, if we had only bothered to get all those golden memories down for future generations!”

So much deep regret packed into one wistful line usually reserved for loss of a colourful character who had lived, worked and yarned in the same location for an entire allotment of years.

Thankfully, there’s a growing band of enthusiasts and experts alive to a constant need for turning some of our yesterdays into a rich seam of entertainment and information for tomorrow’s world.

A prime example plopped on my doormat to underline how comparatively small villages can take on bold challenges and prove again how hard graft and community commitment can inspire such valuable projects.

A retired head teacher and a lifelong farmer have combined homespun talents to produce a stirring salute to West Dereham, a village soaked in history a few miles from Downham.

For example, Hubert Walter, who died in 1205, stands out as a country lad who went on to attain highest honours of Church and State. One of this country’s greatest administrators returned home to buy land and set up a monastery. It’s still possible to trace remains at Abbey Farm.

No-one in West Dereham today has ploughed more furrows than Peter Starling, 87, who still lives in the farmhouse where he was born in 1934. He teamed up with Chris Young, fellow villager and headmaster in Stoke Ferry schools for 26 years, to weave precious memories into a rich tapestry of rural existence.

Most Read

They met regularly for fireside chats with Peter “jumping from one mental shelf to another” with his stories and Chris “making sense enough to put them down on paper”.

Result is a lavishly illustrated book saluting the enduring appeal of country characters and life close to the land.

Chris told me “It has been a pleasure to sit with him once a week and gradually build up a picture of his life in West Dereham. Inevitably there will be details with which his contemporaries will disagree. But if it stirs others to add their accounts to this tapestry, it will have been worth all the time taken.

“Peter lost his wife Dorothy a couple of years back – they’d been married for 62 years – and this journey into the past clearly helped fill that big void. He has dedicated this uplifting volume to her memory”.

The large number of thanks from this model double-act on heritage duty emphasises ,the way family and friends play important parts along the local history trail. For instance, Chris’s granddaughter Jemima helped with lay-out of photographs and maps and general tidying of the script and pages.

At a time when too much agricultural land across Norfolk is being surrendered to development, especially to keep up with the housing bandwagon, a veteran son of the soil’s heartfelt testament to joys of his calling deserves close attention.

Peter Starling, a rare bird with just the one nest to call home, reflects enthusiastically: ”Some may think my life on the farm has been a lot of hard and continuous work. But it doesn’t really seem like work when you are doing it for yourself and your family.

“After all, you are your own boss. Any mistakes you make are yours, but equally the successes are yours too. The land you walk across as you plan for next year’s crops is yours – and that’s a great feeling.

“It wasn’t until I had to stop that I realised how much I had enjoyed my years of farming. I found great pleasure in making the very best of all possibilities that could be achieved on my 80 acres. Location is also important to well-being.

“West Dereham continues to be the pleasant village in which I was born and have lived and worked. There have always been generous, friendly and helpful folk here. There still are if you are willing to be generous, friendly and helpful in return”.

This home-grown delight costs £10, with proceeds, after costs, going to the organ fund at St Andrew’s parish church in West Dereham. For more details email: chrisyoungoutdoors@gmail.com

I side with those who insist that the town at the heart of Norfolk should be properly addressed as “East Dereham” despite a tendency to dispense with the “East” prefix. This article is a reminder that our county has another Dereham, albeit smaller with a few more green spaces.

Skip's Aside: Rabbit pie and jugged hare used to be familiar items on our Norfolk menu, especially when the corn harvest boosted culinary supplies.

Sadly, introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950s put me and many others completely off the idea of eating rabbit meat again.

This disease, brought in and spread deliberately, wiped out countless animals. It was painful to spot them with their heads swollen to twice the normal size and their eyes closed. They suffered at side of roads as I biked past on my way to catch a train to school pretending not see them.

Part of our staple family diet disappeared. Although new generations flourished after the epidemic we simply could not stomach rabbit at the meal table.

I was set off down this grim trail by a letter from a well-seasoned reader recalling “an annual event in a boy’s life before the last war when a lad with the much-treasured shutknife became very popular”.

My correspondent “Bronickle” refers to the Norfolk words “hulk”, to skin and gut a rabbit, and “huddle”, to pass the leg of a rabbit through the sinews of the other to enable it to be carried easily.

I must admit to being conspicuous by my absence when these practices were employed in our locality before myxomatosis. Despite a country upbringing I was most squeamish about the preparations of certain foods.

You wouldn’t have found me in Elizabeth Harland’s kitchen as she sorted out an old recipe for her book No Halt at Sunset, The Diary of a Country Housewife, first published in 1951: “First cut up a rabbit, boil in vegetable soup until tender. Put meat twice through mincer, then put into saucepan, add quarter pound of butter (margarine), a chopped onion, salt and pepper if necessary, a teaspoon of paprika. Mix in a little of the liquid into which a little gelatine has been added, put in a long mould, place in fridge to set. Eat cold, cut in small slices”.

Norfolk dialect words for a hare include Sally, Sarah and Sukey. There can be scope for confusion when it comes to “bunny” , our dialect word for a bruise or swelling, and “rabbit”, which in carpentry means to rebate or cut grooves.