OPINION: Remembering Lord Robin Walpole as an amusing aristocrat

Skip with Lord and Lady Walpole at picturesque Mannington Hall, He failed auditions for any chauffeuring posts!

Skip spends mardling time with Lord and Lady Walpole at picturesque Mannington Hall, He failed auditions for any chauffeuring posts! - Credit: Keith Skipper Collection

He might have lived quietly and comfortably in the shadow of one of our biggest names in British history – but this Walpole had a mind and a way all his own.

Yes, he was a direct descendant of our first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and given the same name. Pointedly, perhaps, he became widely known and liked as Robin.

Yes, he enjoyed stately surroundings at Wolterton and Mannington and other privileges that went with his title. Even so, he much preferred down-to-earth Norfolk humour to pulling rank.

Yes, he went to Eton and Cambridge but knew how to get on with all kinds of people as Norfolk parish, district and county councillor as well as a cross-bencher in the House of Lords. He was a canny bridge-builder with a dash of eccentricity rather than a posh demolition man barking orders.

Many passions included the arts, especially theatre, agriculture and our precious environment. I recall him turning chauffeur to collect me from Cromer one Saturday evening for a harvest supper mardle in Itteringham Village Hall. We spent last lap of the journey spotting white owls in and around the verdant Mannington Hall estate.

To be fair, I should point out how Lady Laurel Walpole has also served cheerfully as my driver on several occasions for social and business duties in the locality. She shared her husband’s relish in putting all sorts of organisations and causes in the spotlight.

I asked Lord Robin at a Mannington fundraising fete why he mucked in so readily at such events. “Well, it’s relaxing after the House of Lords and other places where ceremony and protocol rule … and I can show people I’m not all airs and graces”.

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Then he added with a grin; “They don’t go down too well in Norfolk in any case!”. He appreciated the “dew diffrunt” mantra embodied in wholesome squit with its dry humour, ability to prick balloons of pomposity and size up many matters with stunning logic.

He shared a favourite story about two plumber brothers, one tall and one short. When asked how they decided on the height of new urinals fitted at the entrance to Mannington, back came the reply: Thass easy, guv ’nor … he dew the men and I dew the boys”.

This amiable aristocrat, who died recently at 82, enjoyed an occasional bout of leg-pulling. I referred to Mannington Hall as his “council house with a moat” and penned a cheerful tribute poem in broad Norfolk for his 70th birthday celebrations at Sheringham Little Theatre, where he served as president for nearly half-a-century.

My biggest reason for admiring and thanking the Walpoles however, sprang from a determination to mark a new millennium with vibrant proof that wholesome Norfolk squit knew no boundaries. Surely it could be just as appealing in a stately home as on a village hall stage. Wolterton Hall, a handsome Georgian country house, built for the Walpoles, seemed the right spot for my brght idea. I wrote to “the great and the good” of the county to find out who would be prepared to do a turn. Lord and Lady Walpole readily agreed to play hosts in the Grand Saloon.

So, on a warm evening in July, 2000, The Aristosquits stepped forward for the first time in the name of charity. Three local MPs, John McGregor (South Norfolk), David Prior (North Norfolk) and Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) played ball. Jonathan Peel, Vice Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, offered serious songs with his wife Jean at the piano.

A full house lapped it up to raise a handsome sum for the EDP We Care Appeal Charismatic chairman Paddy Seligman, ever the good sport, shared compering duties with me amid loud calls to play it again. It was obvious people more used to cutting ribbons and making formal speeches really enjoyed presenting their party pieces

Two more Aristosquits extravaganzas followed at Wolterton to boost We Care funds and show how the upper crust could use their loaf when it came to bringing in plenty of dough for a worthy cause.

The Walpoles set a grand example in the second show with Robin showing off his mastery of the Norfolk dialect and Laurel excelling with a Pam Ayres poem. As my wife was brave enough to buy a ticket and come along to protect me from groupies, I had no need to cadge a lift back to Cromer.

Skip's Aside: Norfolk, so often the butt of metropolitan witticisms about bad roads, flat vowels, noisy turkeys, biking farmers, truculent tractors and inbreeding, is stirring to the exciting possibility of becoming seriously stylish.

At least two households just outside the Burnhams have cancelled The Land Worker and Methodist Recorder from their newsagents and requested introductory offers to The Field, Vogue, Tattler and Chelsea-on-Sea Chatter.

A dozen former wherrymen from the Dilham area are pooling redundancy monies to invest in a yacht marina, restaurant and floating nightclub venture in Old Hunstanton. Nine ex-trappers are forming a consortium to arrange coypu-hunting safaris across grazing land at Brisley.

This is just the start of a “Nouveau Norfolk” campaign destined to blow away cobwebs of suspicion and dust of insularity besetting the scene since surprise visits by Vicious Vikings, Dastardly Danes and Capital Castigators.

This fresh spirit of ambition, styled largely out of economic necessity in parts of the county the NDR cannot reach or where decimal currency has yet to be fully accepted – Winfarthing and Quidenham lead resistance – is a key plank in building Norfolk’s reputation as a truly appealing quarter.

Of course, it’s a dual-carriageway to this Promised Land and those who would be correctly addressed after fleeing from London and its sprawling tentacles must travel in the same direction and at roughly the same speed as their new provincial partners.

This means an end to traditional warring over street lighting, sparring over nominations for the parish council and tarring all natives with the same brush.
Weekenders and second homers, so often targets of misguided abuse when property prices soar and bingo sessions are cancelled through dwindling support, must make themselves available for new challenges. Like carol singing down rutted lanes, clearing tables away after bridge tournaments, running a coconut shy at the church fete and organising petitions against too much development, too many incomers and closure of the local delicatessen.

This brand of give and take can only enhance Norfolk’s right to be taken seriously as a member of the smart set. Too much take from either side could throw a shadow over the plumpest partridge and any new wallpaper range inspired by Bacton’s Gas Terminal lit up at night or sunrise over any roadworks in Norwich.