OPINION: Playing the fame game in Norfolk, then and now

Gateway to Poppyland in north Norfolk -- where celebrity-spotting blossomed In Victorian times

Gateway to Poppyland in north Norfolk -- where celebrity-spotting blossomed In Victorian times - Credit: Submitted

We’ve all done it with a smile bordering on a smirk: “You’ll never guess who I saw sitting in the cafe corner munching a burger – and I’m sure he winked at me!”

I recall nudging my wife as our honeymoon plane lifted off from Heathrow for Southern Ireland in August, 1983. “Look, there’s Curtis Strange and Seve!” I exclaimed as quietly as possible.

I couldn’t say Severiano Ballesteros in those days. Then I got in a fair bit of practice when he carried off the Irish Golf Open crown a few rounds later. I should have taken first sight as an omen and put a few bob on him. Curtis Strange finished equal 19th.

My wife exacted a sort of revenge a few years later when her teatime greetings were spiced with news she was sure my favourite film star had passed her in a Cromer shop that afternoon. She remains adamant James Stewart had come within touching distance.

Well, the Hollywood star flew out of Tibenham and Old Buckenham in Norfolk during the Second World War and made several return visits. He might well have fancied a drop of sea air on at least one occasion. In any event, it’s a stirring thought - The Man from Laramie in Poppyland!

Ah, it’s a wonderful life reflecting on brushes with the famous, real or imagined. You can dine out on them and garnish fading tales with fresh titbits safe in the knowledge you’re unlikely to be challenged by listeners anxious to share their own adventures.

Mind you, I did become a bit wary of too much celebrity palaver after being mistaken for the referee after a Norwich City football fixture against Hull City at Boothferry Park in the early 1970s. I politely declined requests from home fans for autographs despite warm assurances I had enjoyed a good game with the whistle.

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Some admirers were slightly less flattering on working out who I really might be during my extensive social rounds over many years .”You sound taller on the wireless” and “Can I have a signed photograph for my granny?” were closest I came to ego-massaging plaudits.

Titter ye not, seasoned watchers, as another captivating celebrity canvas prepares for post-lockdown unfolding from village pub to city catwalk. All legends in their own imaginations must be taken seriously if Norfolk wants to maintain a reputation as a safe house for those of an impervious condition.

We have moved on from spotting dainty debutantes on weekend release at the church garden fete or guessing the identity of a mystery benefactor behind free dumplings for all during a particularly hard winter. Fame and fortune now assume far more homely garb. Anyone, it seems, can request a fitting.

Read More: Council carousel is still spinning for the ego trippers

Why, a chef’s hat set at a saucy angle or a pair of dancing shoes pointing towards open-mouthed judges can spark instant rapture in the lokes of Norfolk’s more fashionable quarters. Who can forget that buzz of intrigue greeting a “Major road ahead” sign when a former prime minister found a costal retreat in a settlement not far from Sheringham …?

Local historians based at the Strictly Come Factual Academy in Sidestrand claim this is the most fertile era for spotting really important personalities from “foreign” parts since the rise of Poppyland in the 1880s.

That is the evocative name pinned on the clifftop area just south of Cromer by roving London journalist Clement Scott. He knew the value of a flowery label. Poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and writer Theodore Watts-Dunton led the charge of artistic callers.

A building boom, with impressive mansions shooting up, was spearheaded by Lord and Lady Battersea. Overstrand became known as the Village of Millionaires. Souvenir industries blossomed. Eat your fluttering hearts out, Chelsea-on-Sea!

Other prime locations renowned for attracting the cream of modern society, much of it trying hard not to curdle under probing television lights, occasionally hint at a minor blip in the system. Southwold, still referred to by some of my superior friends as “Cromer with an A Level”, is a telling example.

The town’s Orwell Bookshop closed a decade ago. As usual, a lot of people bemoaned loss of an independent high street outlet while a list of “celebrity browsers” was paraded as part of the last rites.

I would suggest “celebrity buyers” makes a much more comforting headline in any survival campaign bringing the fame game into play.

Skip's Aside: Close encounters of the royal kind may be common, especially in a county where the royal family are such regular visitors.

However, as I found out on launching a brush-with-the-famous feature on my BBC Radio Norfolk Dinnertime Show several accumulators ago, not all follow orthodox lines.

Tom Church of Brumstead, about seven miles from North Walsham, outlined his big incident from August 1940. It was harvest time and Tom had been home for his dinner.

He set off back to work with fourses bag on his back.

As he pushed his bike he cast a cursory glance towards the corner about 30 yards away to make sure nothing was coming. He spied a group of locals with a military policeman standing in front.

“He shouted something as I mounted my bike but I thought they were just expecting some brass-hat. I’d only gone about 100 yards down the road when I heard a roar behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw four motor-bikes followed by two cars and then four more motor-bikes.

“They sounded their horns and I pulled in as close as possible to the side. They continued to hoot and this rather got my goat. How much room did they want? I was seriously tempted to give them what I would give any impatient road hog”.

Tom continued: “I extended my right arm – but at the very last second I changed my mind and offered a series of jerky thumbs-ups instead. As the first car drew level I saw the royal standard and sitting in the back was the uniformed King George V1.

“He was touring east coast defences. He briefly raised his hand as he passed and there was a ghost of a smile on his face as he spied my upturned thumb. All I got from the second car full of coppers was a frozen stare”

A charming little story passed on by her grandfather to Eleanor Small of East Dereham starred a band of farm workers busy in the Sandringham region when a party of regal ladies came walking along.

As Queen Alexandra was about to step along a narrow path, a patriotic worker intervened with a timely cry: “Howd yew hard a minnit, Mum. Less git them brumbles out o’ the way….”