News from Norfolk

Killing places: memory and money in a Norfolk village

bootscraper

This is an iron boot-scraper. For the better part of a century, it stood outside the front door of a Church of England rectory in a Norfolk village perched on the cusp of the eastern England, a liminal place where a vastness of greyish-lavender salt marsh softens the edges of the North Sea.

The rectory sat on a hill above the rest of the village. Next to it was the late medieval ex-rectory it had superseded in 1924, and which its design very consciously echoed. Across the way and slightly to the north, on the highest ground in the village, was the parish church, a 13th century building altered by major rebuilding campaigns in the 15th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Nearby were the old schoolhouse and the newer, early 19th century parish school with modest 20th century additions. Another neighbour was a house called Highfields, a modest Victorian farmhouse that had been enlarged and re-ordered in the 1930s by the same architect who built the rectory — a local man named John Page, who lived in or near the village for nearly all his long life. John Page had also worked on the older rectory, just as he would go on to work on many other houses and buildings in the village.

Anyone traveling to the village either from the nearby market town of Holt, or indeed from the fine cathedral city of Norwich, necessarily passed between the buildings listed above. The rectory was, more or less, the southern-most bulding in the village. As such, its tall chimneys and distinctive 1920s Queen Anne roofline provided visitors with their first impression of the place they were about to experience.

In 2016, however, the rector decided that the rectory in which she had lived, apparently happily, for a few years was no longer wanted. The diocese agreed. In 2017, the ex-rectory was sold to private owners for £1m. After local objections that went all the way to the High Court, all the necessary planning permissions were obtained.

And so it happened that a year ago today — 21 January 2019, at 3.14 in the afternoon — a lone hydraulic excavator tore down the central tall chimney of the rectory. As holes were smashed into the distinctive 1920s Queen Anne roof, throwing its red sand faced Hartshill rooftiles everywhere, a strangely sweet, fresh smell settled over the area. It was the resin, suddenly released from all those 1920s softwood battens, making contact with the sharp damp air of a winter evening on the north Norfolk coast. It persisted for days, and was actually very pleasant, as long as one tried to forget the act of senseless, irreparable violence that had created it.

demolition
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Two Oaks, Kelling: the case for saving an ‘unremarkable’ interwar house

Two Oaks, Kelling

At present, the modest, interwar building shown above — Two Oaks, in the village of Kelling, Norfolk — is threatened with demolition. The planning application requesting demolition is here, on the website of North Norfolk District Council.

North Norfolk District Council has form for allowing the demolition of interwar buildings, including my own village’s New Rectory, an important early work from 1924 by local architect John Page.

I have, needless to say, sent a letter of objection to the NNDC’s Planning Committee, for their consideration, but in the interest of making the relevant case more widely, I reproduce my letter of objection below. (In the version below, I have also provided web links absent from the original document, as not all the enterprises mentioned, while presumably familiar to council members, will be known to the general public.)

___________

To the Planning Committee of North Norfolk District Council

I write to object to PF/19/2071 — Demolition of detached dwelling and change of use of site to agricultural land.

Two Oaks, Kelling is an extremely attractive house, compact and pleasing in its simple symmetry. It is also richly evocative of the interwar period in which it was constructed, and of the wartime period which it survived intact. As such it should be preserved, renovated and cherished as an important part of the North Norfolk Coast’s built heritage.

North Norfolk sometimes makes much of its links with the Second World War. The Muckleburg Collection, established in 1988, is now visited by thousands each year. Langham Dome has received awards as a successful educational enterprise and tourist attraction. Private initiatives such as the successful Control Tower B&B in North Creake trade on nostalgia for interwar design as much as the desire to experience a site of wartime interest. North Norfolk Railway’s 1940s weekend goes from strength to strength — drawing thousands to the Holt/Sheringham area, offering everything from 1940s jazz to vintage vehicles, it is now one of the largest such events in the UK. At the other end of the spectrum, people from all over the world make private pilgrimages to visit the places where loved ones served, and sometimes died, amongst our Norfolk airfields and along our coast.

Yet those in charge of North Norfolk’s heritage can be casual to the point of negligence when it comes to preserving precious reminders of ‘the greatest generation’ and the world they inhabited. Astonishingly, seriously important 1920s and 1930s buildings — in good condition, often with their internal fixtures and fittings intact, sited prominently in their villages — are still demolished without question or comment.

This is not only grotesque on environmental grounds (the embodied carbon in these buildings means that their demolition is invariably far less ‘green’ than preservation and retrofitting would be) but also on historical ones. A building from the 1920s or 30s is clearly not ‘old’ in the sense that a building from the 1820s or 30s is — but if the younger building isn’t cherished and protected, then it will never have the chance to become old. In a century’s time, our descendants will scratch their heads and wonder why our generation did not fight harder to protect this part of their historical birthright.

Two Oaks may not be ‘remarkable’, in the sense that it is recognisably a normal interwar house, but it is certainly part of Kelling’s history. For some of its time it was apparently the village police house. And for many long decades, it has occupied a prominent position along the busy coast road. Its handsome silhouette is clearly visible, for instance, from Kelling’s War Memorial. And there is something poignant about this. How many troop carriers passed by this house? How many wartime aircraft overflew it? Did Churchill himself drive by on one of his various visits to the area? To anyone who knows or cares about 20th century buildings and happens to drive past Two Oaks today, all these questions are very pertinent. And they may matter even more to those passing by in 100 years, or in 500 years’ time.

There is, after all, a great deal more to North Norfolk’s history than the lazy cliché of flint-built, pantile-roofed fishermen’s cottages. At some level, local government takes account of this. The parish summary for Kelling on the ‘North Norfolk Heritage Explorer’ website expends two long paragraphs on still-extant wartime defensive structures and other built legacies of the Second World War including pillboxes, gun emplacements and anti-aircraft batteries. Increasingly, however, the public understands the history of that war not only through its explicitly military heritage, but also through reminders of the Home Front, civilian experience that underpinned and enabled it.

Two Oaks is very much a part of that Home Front history. In its modest way, it is a monument to Kelling’s wartime experience, and a reminder of that pivotal moment in our region’s history. To demolish Two Oaks is to show contempt, yet again, for the vanishing past, no less significant for being relatively recent.

Please insist on the preservation of Two Oaks, and please reject this planning application.

[Signed etc.]

On May’s Brexit deal

[This article also appears as a guest post at the excellent Paul Burgin’s Mars Hill blog.]

Brexit, even after all these months, is still capable of surprises. A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a couple of old friends. They’re both Leave supporters. I’m a Remainer, as was my companion. We had met each other — all four of us, actually — through the student politics of the late 1980s. None of us is shy about expressing a point of view. And yet this dinner, which by rights ought to have ended either with a flaming row or, perhaps worse, with a display of ever-more-icy contempt for each others’ abject wrongness, was — from my point of view, at least — an extremely happy occasion.

It says something sad about today’s politics that I found myself, afterwards, picking apart why this conversation — unlike so many conversations about Brexit, both online and in real life — had been so interesting, constructive and friendly. For one thing, as we had all known each other for so long, it was possible to appeal to a corpus of common assumptions. It probably also helped that, as we all genuinely like each other, none of us immediately assumed, the minute someone said something with which we disagreed, that the speaker was either a monster or an idiot — that there was quite a lot of good faith on show. Indeed, the climate of mutual respect was powerful enough that I found myself thinking, at various points, ‘that’s not the way I see things, but if X sees things that way, maybe it’s worth considering’. Finally, there was a pervasive sense, hard to pin down but expressed at all sorts of points, that it wasn’t worth falling out over this.

Did the conversation change my mind? No, but it probably did help to remind me that conversations about Brexit are not only possible, but perhaps also necessary. Read the rest of this entry »

On Sir Roger Scruton

Were our present government marginally less aimless, abject and impotent, it might almost be possible to believe that the appointment of Sir Roger Scruton to chair the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ commission — a public body which, according to this Guardian piece, ‘aims to expand on the ways in which the planning system can encourage and incentivise a greater emphasis on design, style and community consent’ — was an amusingly cynical attempt to pick some sort of culture war scrap, just as all of us are coming down off our various Vegangate high horses, if only to distract us from the national howl of puzzled existential despair that is May’s Brexit. As it is, however, it’s probably just a fascinating, entirely avoidable and indeed rather tragic mistake.

The attempted appointment of Toby Young to the board of a new university regulatory body, followed swiftly by his resignation once our ever-helpful Twitter had unearthed his considered views regarding breasts, has set a precedent. Perhaps, as with many precedents set in the course of the development of our unwritten constitution, not everyone wanted this to become a precedent. But that isn’t how unwritten constitutions work, is it? At present, Twitter represents the review body for HMG’s own internal due diligence procedures. Based on that insight, I am by no means certain that Sir Roger’s appointment will end happily, either for the man himself or for those who appointed him — certainly not for the built environment. Twitter, on the other hand, may enjoy it all enormously. Guido Fawkes, Tom Holland, Niall Ferguson, David Icke and, err, Toby Young have already piled in, supporting Sir Roger.

As often happens, the first salvo in this spat is possibly better as tracer-fire than meaningful attack. Is Sir Roger a friend of the deeply unsavoury Viktor Orbán? Read the rest of this entry »

On the Ben Uri Gallery

There is something distinctive and, yes, slightly thrilling about the sound made by an auction house catalogue being pushed awkwardly through the letter-box then falling, cushioned by its soft plastic envelope, onto the worn-out coir matting beneath. And indeed, this morning I was glad to discover a Sotheby’s catalogue arriving in just such a way.

It was only when I extracted the pleasingly bulky softback catalogue from its plastic that I felt a lurch of alarm.

The cover image was, surely, David Bomberg’s great [Woman] At The Window (1919). It’s a work that’s been in the Ben Uri collection since 1920. I last encountered it in the brilliant Bomberg show that took place earlier this year at Pallant House in Chichester, organised in conjunction with the Ben Uri Gallery. Read the rest of this entry »

Old Tom: a ghost story

When I was a little child, not more than four winters old, my mother used to sit up with Parson Poynter, when he was dying, in his chamber upstairs at the parsonage. Sometimes, she would take me with her. This was in the year before the old king died. I mean King James.

My father didn’t like it. He knew what everyone said about Parson Poynter and, more to the point, what everyone was likely to say about a young woman — for my mother was still young then, better-looking than some, and sharp-witted, too — who sat alone with Parson Poynter, in his chamber, even though he was almost dead by then, or at any rate so feeble and diminished in his powers as to be past much mischief. But in any event, my mother, who in many matters would defer to my father, would simply take up her things, grab me by the hand and set off up the hill toward the parsonage, as if my father had said nothing at all.

Be quiet, said my mother. We were in the kitchen. It was a long, low room. Two massive oak beams ran the length of it. On one of the long walls there was a huge brick hearth, surrounded with pots and cooking irons and so forth, with a bread oven in the wall to the right it. The kitchen smelled of smoke, meat, fat, spices, ale, cats and warm bodies. Be quiet. Just sit down and don’t bother Gartreud and for heaven’s sake don’t bother anyone else, either. Just sit down and be quiet.

There was a bench along one of the short walls, near enough to the fire to be very warm, so I sat there. Don’t you worry, little one, said Gartreud, once my mother had gone up the kitchen stairs. Read the rest of this entry »

Incomers: a ghost story

Of course, when an ‘incomer’ arrives from London and moves into the big, old, rambling, tumbledown house sitting deep in its grounds on the landward edge of a Norfolk coastal village, the first thing that local people do is to make sure that she’s fully informed about all her neighbours — in particular, the resident ghosts.

‘Oh yes, Peggy’s round here all the time,’ said the lugubrious handyman who used to look after the house back before we made our offer for it, when the developer was seeking planning permission to turn it into a boutique hotel. ‘Often I’m in the kitchen here’ — to be fair, at the time it was one of the two dry rooms in the house — ‘and I see her looking in at me from across the way’. He gestured vaguely in the direction of an acrid-smelling room across the corridor, all peeling lurid wallpaper and abandoned plastic garden chairs, that used to be the old servants’ parlour. ‘Trouble is, ma’am’ — and here I could see where the conversation was going — ‘Peggy’s been lyin’ in the churchyard twenty-odd years now. But I know it were her, because I see’d her as good as I see you now.’

Perhaps I ought to have shivered, but instead I smiled politely, and turned the conversation back to the return of some keys, because even by then I had learned all there was to know — or so I thought — about the tales that local people tell just to frighten the incomers.

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On reading about Nazis

For a long time, I had no particular interest in reading about the Second World War.

History, per se, always mattered a lot, which is how I ended up with a doctoral degree from Cambridge University, the odd insight into how the Tudor reformations did or didn’t play out in the flatter parts of west Norfolk, and a lasting aversion to academic infighting.

But because I was born in the mid 1960s, WW2 somehow never registered as ‘history’. Like my parents’ dated taste in music, their books, indeed the blind-spots of their politics, WW2 was simply a generational experience which I could regard with a sort of semi-detached bemusement. It wasn’t my own experience, true, but it never really seemed like ‘history’ either, if only because when I was growing up, every middle-aged person I met spoke of those wartime years with absolute familiarity. ‘The war’, as everyone called it, was both too far and to near to me to come into easy focus. Hence I ignored it.

Of course, like the rest of my generation, both in the USA where I grew up, and in the UK which is now my home, I also grew up in a world where ‘the war’ was omnipresent. Read the rest of this entry »

Why I’m voting Liberal Democrat tomorrow

On Thursday, 3 May — tomorrow — I am planning to vote in the local elections. As a resident of West End Ward, Westminster, I’ll be voting for the Liberal Democrat candidates. I will be doing this in order to make the strongest statement I possibly can against the self-induced disaster that is Brexit.

In the unlikely event that anyone wants to follow my thought process in doing so, my reasoning is explained below.

For many decades, I was a Tory. I am no longer a Tory, though, for reasons mostly if not entirely related to Brexit, set out at absolutely shocking length here.

There are many reasons, of course, not to vote Tory in these local elections. In Westminster, specifically, there are almost countless reasons to challenge the Tories’ hegemonic and apparently eternal control of the local council. Read the rest of this entry »

The Old Road: a ghost story

Some things just aren’t meant to be. And other things are, basically, inevitable.

He’d had doubts about re-locating to Norfolk. It had been his wife’s idea, because her parents still lived there, and also it would be cheaper for the kids to go to a good school in Norfolk than it was in London. Before long, they all had friends there, who liked exactly the same things as they did. So it seemed reasonable to stop renting the little cottage and to buy a house instead. And because he’d made some money along the way, he not unreasonably wanted a house that said everything there was to say about himself and his family.

They looked for a house but couldn’t find what they wanted. In case you don’t know this already, the houses in Norfolk are terrible. Most are old and dark, with small kitchens and no room for a gym or a home entertainment centre. Soon, they realised they’d have to build something. And eventually, they thought they’d found the perfect spot. Read the rest of this entry »