OPINION: Does Dereham need a kick up the backside?

How it used to be in the middle of Dereham on a bustling market day

How it used to be in the middle of Dereham on a bustling market day - Credit: Keith Skipper Collection

A weird mixture of sadness and relief greeted news that Dereham custodians have been summoned to the headmaster’s study for a sharp dressing-down:
“Now, just take a long hard look at yourselves and try to work out where all this might be going. Pull up your socks, roll up your sleeves and sort this lot out. Time is of the essence!”.

Sad because the nearest I have to a home town has been criticised so severely and openly for failing to look after itself. Relieved at the possibility such a wake-up yell could spark a revival of old-fashioned community spirit.

It’s clearly much needed after accusations the town is “unwelcoming” in many ways while the market place also earns a “dreadful” label from a working group formed to size up major problems and offer bold ideas for a brighter future.

Perhaps a few comparisons with how it used to be could help along with fresh commitment to looking after the towns central offerings ahead of obsessive preoccupations over which bits of remaining land on the fringes should or shouldn’t be built on.

My connections with Dereham are deep and meaningful. I made countless visits on Carter’s buses for shopping and entertainment during my growing-up stint based in Beeston, just over seven miles away. I spent best part of two years as a local press reporter on the town beat in the early 1960s.

I still have relatives and close friends living there and in nearby settlements. A fondness for my native mid-Norfolk patch lingers on despite all the changes and challenges to which it has been subjected over the last half-century or so, Development plots thickened as Dereham industries like Jentique furniture, Metamec clocks and Crane Fruehauf trailers disappeared.

A house-building boom is still going strong, particularly round the edges, spurred on by an apparent impression among speculative developers that Dereham Town and Breckland District councillors and their officers are “fair game”.

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Same goes for most surrounding villages clearly putting on too much weight … Swanton Morley, Scarning, Beetley, Gressenhall and Yaxham for starters. I can’t include Toftwood on any list as it has long been stripped of any individuality and forced to be part of straggling Dereham.

Environmental and social cohesion damage aside, a vast majority of these new “desirable dwellings” go to anyone other than to local people anxious to stay in the area where parents and grandparents found chances to put down roots. “Affordable housing” is now a laughable line simply added to attract favourable votes in council chambers.

Perhaps opening of Dereham’s bypass in 1978 lured decision-makers into a more self-analytical mood over an uplifting path forward exposing an inevitable problem of showing respect for the past while welcoming the future. A familiar dilemma for all Norfolk towns now sharpened by post-Covid hopes of igniting a new surge of support for high street shops.

Dereham has long endured traffic congestion in the middle –“heart of Norfolk suffers cardiac arrest” goes the old jibe – and current descriptions like “unwelcoming” and “dreadful” hardly nurture recovery ambitions.

A lot of yesterdays come out of hiding as I recall council meetings, public inquiries and agitated debates down the pub nearly 60 years ago when I was a young reporter covering Dereham affairs. Protests were few despite clear risks to precious character and heritage.

A mooted overspill deal with Birmingham and the urban limit map were key issues while the town was urged to be bold and square up to continuous growth and so avoid turning into an industrial backwater.

Now, it could well be a case of going back to find a positive step forward. A wish-list compiled by the working group includes pedestrianisation of a market place which “has become little more than a large roundabout for buses” It should be paved with seats and trees and become “a pleasant place to shop and to meet friends”.

I remember a bustling Dereham centrepiece with market stalls hunched in front of buildings on either side, a magnet for cheerful customers living in town joined by busloads of bargain-hunters from all over the district.

There are plenty of other items asking to play parts in this “very radical revamp”. One particular target caught my attention as an indicator of just how ambitious this overhaul could be.

“More green spaces in Toftwood” does strongly hint these revival rangers are fully prepared to go for miracles.

Skip's Aside: Big flocks of visitors heading for Norfolk this summer from “foreign” parts like Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Essex and Cambridgeshire must reawaken debates over “correct” ways to pronounce certain place-names.

As one who lives near Elmerton, Hazeburrer, Munnsley, Porlin and Webbun, I feel reasonably entitled to join in the fun. But you are not obliged to take my word for anything or anywhere along the way. After all, my home town of Cromer has been known to turn out as “Crummier” on the computer spell-check.

We get our own back by calling a nearby inland town Halt during the week and Howlt at the weekend when there are more posh people about. They’re the sort who enjoy a good blow on Hokum Beach and buy serious hats in Barnum Market.

They don’t get as far as Darsinum, Hunstun or Snettsum unless the charabanc takes a wrong turning on the road to Sarndringham

Visitors and newcomers must take their share of the credit for confusing natives who knew where they stood when Vikings dropped in to set fire to signposts and ask for bawd and breakfast.

Happily, there’s fair mileage yet in the likes of Alburgh, Guist, Hautbois, Postwick, Salle and Skeyton and a few choice abbreviations . Garboldisham and Inglesthorpe top that list. Some folk still talk fondly of Hindol – they are referring to Hindolveston – while Hunny can make it sticky going for strangers around the pretty parish of Hunworth.

Norfolk’s delight in dewin diffrunt gives Gillingham a hard ‘G’, unlike its much larger Kent counterpart. Colourful local corruptions not far from Cromer call up Nordrepps and Sudrupps

In some cases, older residents are best judges of the proper way to pronounce the name of the place where they live – although there’s no guarantee they will share such wisdom with nosey outsiders.

Nor are matters helped when polite inquiries about the identity of the oldest resident are met with a heartfelt: “Oh, we hent got one now. He went an’ died last week”. I have heard Cley veterans arguing vehemently whether it rhymes with obey or deny.

I once went to Worrum, Wifton and Woodorlin’ all in the same day. Scotter, Stanner and Study called the following week.

You can’t win. You can’t lose. Norfolk’s gift to the world.