Radio Norfolk mardle has always been a monthly highlight
- Credit: Radio Norfolk
One of my regular treats in recent years featured a monthly mardle with old friend Matthew Gudgin on BBC Radio Norfolk’s Teatime Show.
A step up the culinary ladder, some might say, after spending most of my 15 years at the station from its much-heralded opening in 1980 as host of the parochial-powered Dinnertime Show from Cell 33.
Remember, real dinnertime for many in Norfolk still means seeking fresh sustenance around midday. Many listeners used to tune in while enjoying refreshments down on the farm, on a building site or delivery rounds parked in a layby or relaxing in the kitchen.
Young Matthew soon made his mark around the corridors of Norfolk Tower, the station’s first home in Norwich’s Surrey Street, rising to the role of sports editor in 1995, the year I left.
We kept in touch, mainly on the boundaries at Lakenham and Horsford to share a mutual interest in Norfolk county cricket.
As his skills as a broadcasting all-rounder blossomed, he and producer Paul Hayes provided a cheerful platform for me at The Forum as well as a perfect excuse for renewing acquaintance with good chums and old haunts in the city every month. Strange how so many involved bookshops and market stalls!
Teatime topics on air included many meant for constant reflection and renewed inspection on all local wireless stations. I heard reassuring echoes from my own full-time era at the mike chatting to much-admired Norfolk characters and celebrating our county’s unique qualities and differences.
Matthew, of course, turned devil’s advocate at opportune times to slow down indulgent gallops on my favourite hobby-horses called Dialect Derision, Countryside Carnage, Traffic Trauma and Building Blitz. Oh, mustn’t forget Fervent Phoney and I’m On The Train.
We found time for fresh appreciation of important but neglected figures from local history. Step forward Tom and Kitty Higdon, defiant teachers at the Burston Strike School; Mary Mann, unflinching novelist who highlighted rural poverty in Victorian times; Sydney Long, doctor who formed the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust; and WG Clarke, the man who gave “Breckland” its name.
Listeners rang in to add choices they claimed went missing all too often from any pantheon of Norfolk notables.
Lines were also busy when Matthew and I spent a year’s worth of mardles on taking the pulse of local community life, especially in rural areas.
It is exercises like this where audiences mature enough to make telling comparisons are an essential. Those lucky enough to live, work and play in one location or nearby for many years are first in the special memory queue. Thankfully, useful rations of such stickability remain.
I especially enjoyed our session about local entertainers with some truly colourful turns from the past urged briefly back into the spotlight. Some were travelling troubadours on the village hall trail, a bit like my Press Gang on the road for 25 years from 1984.
Now we prompted encores for Heydon Minstrels with Jim Howard and company, Sam Fowle and Baden Dew, founder members of the Cigarette Concert Party in the 1930s, Odds and Ends from East Dereham and Mirthquakes from Litcham.
Some of the biggest changes in a comparatively short time have transformed our farming scene. Horses were still pulling their weight during my early years on the harvest field. Mechanisation now rules with Coronation of the Year reduced to a quickfire hoovering operation.
A lost army of land workers have long gone over the headlands. Perhaps too much community bindertwine stringing them together through so many seasons went with them. Agri-business has little scope for pastoral togetherness. We reaped a poignant little crop of regrets.
Monthly chinwags took on a vastly different guise from last March when the first coronavirus lockdown found Gudgin tones transferred to Sunday evenings for a while. He made calls to my “candlelit bunker” in Cromer to exchange news and views.
Now, following a major shake-up at The Forum, Matthew’s versatile talents occupy an early-Sunday spot. Stalwarts Chrissie Jackson and Keith Skues have departed while Wally Webb has announced his impending retirement. More big changes in Radio Norfolk format and personnel seem inevitable.
Cutting costs means cutting corners across a local network hardly a priority in the current BBC drive to tackle demands of a cruel economic climate.
I fear four-hour slabs with one presenter and more shared regional programmes could seriously dilute Radio Norfolk’s hard-earned ranking as a distinctive local voice.
Skip's Aside: Several years ago, when I had a full five minutes to spare, I set out to find the local community with most appropriate names to go with a country parish flavour.
I think top place went to Stanfield, between Brisley and Mileham in mid-Norfolk, when Eric Minister recalled Sid, Bird, Jimmy Partridge, Billy Fowle, Reggie Pigg and Harry Hogg among village characters.
Then there were Jack Minister Tom Parsons and Mr Priest at Willow Cottage to complete a colourful roll-call. Perhaps they used to text each other.
I also heard the railway station at Holme Hale, five miles south-east of Swaffham, was once nicknamed The Aviary because the three porters working there were called Bird, Sparrow and Eagle.
I’m still waiting for Mr Stamp the postman, Miss Wise the schoolteacher, Mr Last the cobbler, Miss Teak the lady who read tea-leaves and Miss Judge, who awarded prizes at the local produce show.
Seriously, a special correspondent for the London Evening News stumbled “on what must surely be the strangest village in England” in 1932. He had landed in Gimingham, one of that delightful bunch a few miles inland from Cromer.
He dutifully reported the village was without a baker, butcher, draper, tailor, fishmonger, bootmaker, doctor, chemist, dentist and resident policeman. (He’d find about 700 companions for Gimingham if he came back today).
According to parish records then available, at no time had any person bearing the name Brown, Smith, Jones or Robinson resided within its borders.
Then the fun really began. One farm owner was named Crowe and his predecessor was Rooks. The churchwarden was a member of the Owles family, who lived next door to the Starling clan. Mr White was the blacksmith, Mr Grey was the carpenter, while the schoolmistress was Green.
The London scribe also spotted “a youthful old man” leaning on the gate ”intently watching my car as if it were the newest thing angels of sin had devised to invade rural peace”.
I suspect that rustic sage covered most of the county on foot to extend a similar welcome to others bent on vital missionary work. One or two descendants continue the twin acts of leaning and staring.