We don’t get Norfolk characters like we used to

Broadland reed-cutter and marshman Eric Edwards in his home-made museum at How Hill passing on his knowledge and...

Broadland reed-cutter and marshman Eric Edwards in his home-made museum at How Hill passing on his knowledge and enthusiasm to visiting schoolchildren. - Credit: Contributed

It’s easy to fall into romantic raptures over the great Norfolk outdoors while you’re stuck inside to cogitate at length for best part of a year.
Perhaps those weaned on delights like bountiful hedgerows, leafy lanes, buttercup acres, echoing ponds, whistling cyclists and harvest suppers are even more susceptible to that rural idyll.
Never mind tied cottages, long hours, meagre wages, knocking and topping sugar beet coated in ice and mud and long waits for electricity and indoor toilets. Just remember being so close to nature and a brand of self-sufficiency long gone over the headlands of yesteryear.
Of course, mechanisation and agri-business marked demob for a massive land army and brought a new set of priorities to our countryside. Those quaint little tied cottages were transformed into pricey bijou residences while many villages sprawled into bland dormitories.
Fields previously full of workers gave way to lone tractors and then giant vacuum gleaners making short work of Coronation of the Year traditionally called corn-harvest time. All wrapped up now in the space of a weekly shop in the nearest town supermarket.
Meadows previously flooded in clover and munching cattle were filled with ”attractive view” dwellings for well-heeled newcomers “Affordable homes” for young couples seeking to stay close to Norfolk roots, some going back well over a century, remains a pathetic joke.
Meanwhile, loss of too many village schools, pubs, shops, bus routes and other facilities during the last 60 years, mostly on basic economic grounds, continues to mock that vibrant brand of community colour and self-sufficiency once beating at the heart of life in the sticks.
“We don’t get characters like we used to” is as much an indictment of undue haste surrounding too much rural life built around car dependency as it is a result of sweeping changes in all areas. Hard now to find the right kind of climate in which individual character can flourish.
It was vibrant enough as sons and daughters of the soil turned fertile furrows during my formative years. Admiration didn’t stretch as far as wanting to join them or take over when the sun set on their fresh-air stints. Too much like hard work for my puny frame.
Same for all other outside workers like fishermen, foresters, fruit-pickers, lifeboatmen, naturalists., gardeners and roadmen befriended and interviewed over half-a-century as press reporter, local broadcaster and constantly curious native.
Marshman and reed-cutter Eric Edwards immediately swishes his way to the fore whenever I reflect on figures I’ve encountered patently at ease in their jobs and environment. The bucolic buccaneer of Broadland died at 71 in 2012.
I met him often at How Hill, that ruddy-faced smile and busy scythe pinned to a backcloth that could have been ordered by Constable or Turner. Employed by the Broads Authority from 1967 to mange reed beds and grazing marshes, he retained remarkable enthusiasm in all weathers for hard graft.
Eric took the gamble of his career by taking me on as a doubtful apprentice for a cutting safari. A windmill stood guard under a bold blue sky as he coaxed me knee-deep into the water. I made a brave attempt to scythe and lay the reeds but had to borrow from my mentor’s row to thump on what I gathered was a drouncing board.
“Comb out all the rubbish and tie ‘em up if they’re dry enough” he instructed. “I told you mowing was hard graft … come and have a rest in my shed” smiled this natural communicator who enlightened hundreds of visiting schoolchildren each year.
His shed was an instant museum it had taken him 30 years to create. We clambered over rat traps, coypu catchers and wire sparrow cages to reach a collection of tools used over a century before.
The crome was employed to drag plants out of the dyke. A didle scooped up the mud. Inevitably, he came back to the scythe, caressing it like an old friend. Leather reed cutters’ thigh boots glowed with pride.
Eric’s final reflections on that memorable outing still hold a special place in my Norfolk Characters Notebook: “ I love chatting to people about the magic of this place. This a natural paradise and I want to leave something of interest for the next generation.
“Places like this will become even more important as life goes faster and we yearn for the gentler pace of old ways and old days”.

<separate panel: Skip’s Aside>
Well, I’ve had my first vaccine jab as a sort of softening-up to send the NHS a Valentine’s Day card … “Nicely Handled Sensation! .xxx.”
I nearly asked for a sticker to show how brave I’d been rolling up my sleeve, screwing up my eyes and pretending my needle phobia had been left mouldering at the door.
The two ladies in waiting saw through my silly bravado from the start at North Walsham’s Rossi Leisure Centre. They suggested I would emerge from my ordeal in good enough shape to cartwheel my way out.
They confirmed my follow-up injection date is April 23rd – St George’s Day. A hardened regular by then, I may well turn up on a horse in shining armour – that’s me, not the horse - to slay the virus dragon. What stirring symbolism!
Just need a nurse to play a damsel in distress and we’ll have a fitting tableaux to inspire the nation on our patron saint’s day to complete what’s left of our vaccination programme.
A sincere word of thanks to my voluntary driver from Cromer and back for the first round. Kevin Abbs is well known for his kindly acts in the north Norfolk community, I told him it was a rare privilege to be part of the “Abbs for Jabs” service.
Talking about this enchanting part of the world, we can do without property market stooges claiming to know far more about it than us by dishing out selective titles based on little beyond cheap meddling.
A television programme I will not name - because obviously that’s what the producers are after - has voted Cromer “North Norfolk’s Seaside Capital”, thus upsetting Sheringham in particular and East and West Runton, Beeston Regis, Weybourne, Overstrand, Sidestrand, Mundesley and a few more in general.
I have lived in Cromer for over 30 years. I relish healthy rivalry with all our closest neighbours, some of whom do need the odd reminder about where superiority begins and ends. Sheringham acquaintances have been known to do the same.
Most of it is good clean fun played out between spirited locals who know how they feel and what they’re talking about some of the time. They don’t require national interventions from headline-hunting fly-by-nights.
They’ll be pitching Norfolk against Essex next.