Vibrant village ventures have been lost in lockdown

St Michaels at Flordon

Tucked away from the A140 Norwich-Ipswich road, the small village of Flordon is justifiably proud of its parish church and setting. St Michael's and All Angels has Saxon origins, medieval additions and Victorian refurbishments - Credit: Trevor Allen

One of my regular tonics to revive flagging hopes of a flourishing  future for our smaller communities has gone missing from the medicine shelf.

In fact, it hasn’t been tasted since last March when the curtain fell on what had served as general practise for nearly 60 years on my  rounds as chronicler, broadcaster, entertainer and nosy native.

Such gallivanting left me on nodding terms with most of Norfolk’s 700-odd villages. From Acle to Yelverton, I could usually come up with a couple of anecdotes or facts about a certain place. I was a curious child. I became a curious grown-up  

“What’s that over there?” proved one of my constant travelling companions  Much easier for me to pick out oddities as a non-driver. I could gaze across meadows, through clumps of trees, up and down busy streets and into churchyards large and small while others concentrated on the road ahead. 

Sadly, all meanderings, many of them with a refreshingly rural flavour, reman off limits while virus restrictions continue to eat up so much mileage of our daily lives.

Hopefully, we won’t be too many laps into 2021 before purposeful  ramblings can resume.

I recall how plenty of time and a patient wife at the wheel some years back allowed me to loiter and scribble to prepare Hidden Norfolk, a book dedicated to our quieter corners and lesser-lauded personalities.

Among my favourite “discoveries” were names of Zulu origin given to homes in Cley, the poetic Wordsworth connection with Forncett St Peter, a single tree nature reserve at Hethel and the glorious isolation of little Quarles on the edge of the Holkham Estate.

Real surprises continued to crop up in city, town and country. A metal mile-post near Raveningham Hall, sculptured tombstones at Ashby St Mary, a garage with a holy history at South Walsham and a limestone pyramid in Attleborough cemetery were among more unlikely offerings on a later list of notable curiosities.

While I spent many days renewing acquaintance with bits of the area holding special memories, there were still little voyages of discovery. It was with a tinge of guilt that I nodded for the first time towards a shoal of parishes in the Fakenham-Wells-Hunstanton triangle. Waterden, Bagthorpe, Choseley and Tattersett asked where I’d been.

Well, Norfolk is a big county and it’s impossible to keep in constant touch with all corners, even in an age of speed and mobility. It seems the coast claims our attention at any time of the year while scores of inland villages hardly ever see a stranger or even an old friend.

Sport used to build a host of local bridges with cricketers, footballers, bowls and darts players piling into other neighbourhoods. Out came the roadmap for a hazardous trip into the unknown – probably only a few miles away.

Women’s Institutes and a few other travel-hungry organisations have done their bit. Even so, it seems strange to assume more people in Stoke Ferry have been to Ibiza or Malta than to Ingham or Mileham. Even stranger to suggest the majority would find it hard to pinpoint those Norfolk villages. I could have settled for Stow Bardolph, Itteringham and Mautby and been fairly sure of a similar number of blank faces. It’s the sort of exercise designed to push missionary zeal to fresh heights if and when barriers are lifted later this year.

With so many holiday plans likely to be squeezed this summer by financial  restraints and any lingering global health concerns, there’s bound to be an extensive take-a-break boom closer to home. Vibrant village ventures can thrive. Even the odd cross-border sortie into Suffolk could be encouraged. Don’t all go at once. That is what spoils bigger targets from seaside to city centre.

Try a wander and a wonder in or near a parish you haven’t visited before. Let me offer a couple of suggestions for starters .,, Honeypot Wood, a mile north of the bypassed village of Wendling, near East Dereham, and the deserted village of Egmere, sandwiched between the Creakes and Walsinghams.
Honeypot Wood, a delightful reserve run by the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust, formed part of the base for the USAAF Bomb Group during the Second World War. Bunkers and concrete rides built for bomb storage now create additional habitats.

Egmere is made up of one farm, a few cottages and a bold beacon to the past  ivy-clad ruins of St  Edmund’s Church.

Skip's Aside: I have felt the urge many times when it comes to encouraging more village ventures in Norfolk.
Perhaps the most notable episode unfolded in 1984 when my brightest idea of that year came to fruition on a chilly December night in the tiny parish of Ovington, near Watton.

I launched what could well have been the county’s first official twinning project between Ovington and Bodham, near Holt, communities with whom I had relished social links and arranged meetings over the microphone on BBC Radio Norfolk’s Dinnertime Show.

Over 20 enthusiasts from Bodham, 40 miles away, arrived by bus at Ovington where their hosts turned on the style with stirring home-made entertainment. A sing-song soon broke the ice although it was nippy going for performers changing in a tent at back of the small village hall.

Other cultural exchanges and sporting fixtures immediately took shape to emphasise how this brand of mutual missionary work could be fun as well as worthwhile. Yes, I gave these cheerful get-togethers plenty of publicity but organising zeal and genuine enjoyment were entirely home-made.

My thinking behind this exercise was largely based on an anomaly surrounding many Norfolk places being twinned with locations in Europe or further afield and yet having no idea about other settlements on their own home patch.

Bodham, notorious then for madcap Nights of Squit, and Ovington, similarly getting used to the challenge of mixing native know-how with newcomers’ enthusiasm, did their utmost to light a new lantern to togetherness.

One of the positive offshoots to push through current pandemic horrors has been a vital reawakening of old-fashioned community spirit, not least in smaller parishes where it makes obvious sense to get on well with each other in a crisis!
I recall Bodham and Ovington residents from what seem to be fast becoming the “good old days” emphasising how both gnarled natives and naïve newcomers had benefited so much from finding out more about each other, home and away.

“We had far more in common than expected, especially when it came to a sense of humour” admitted a Bodham veteran.. Then he added with mock ruefulness: “Except when they kept asking if we used to be twinned with Gomorrah”.

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