News from Norfolk

Norfolk

Here’s a question. What’s the flattest county in England?

Norfolk, you might well answer — but you’d be wrong. The answer is, of course, Cambridgeshire.

What’s the second flattest county in England?

Norfolk, you might answer — but again, you’d be wrong. The answer is Lincolnshire, although before 1974, the answer would have been Huntingdonshire — followed by Lincolnshire.

Norfolk, in other words, isn’t as flat as all that. Nor does Norfolk offer much in the way of fens. Fens, in general, are a Cambridgeshire thing. Norfolk does have some fens — but then it also has some coastal cliff formations, at Hunstanton, Sheringham, Cromer and so forth. It has a lot of coastline, but in places it is not particularly close to the sea. It has rivers, obviously, but in recent years, it has had far fewer serious problems with flooding than some counties one might mention. And if there are no mountains in Norfolk, how many English counties can claim anything approaching a mountain? Unless I’m missing something here, post-1974, only Cumbria has mountains — and not many of those, either.

In short, there is nothing particularly astonishing about the altitude of Norfolk relative to the rest of England. Or to put it another way, Norfolk really isn’t very flat, whatever Noel Coward’s not-very-reliable heroine in Private Lives might have claimed to the contrary.

Yet the canard persists. Read the rest of this entry »

On native and non-native bluebells

Earlier this week, I did something very stupid, if very human, which I now regret. I posted a photo of some flowers on Twitter.

They were blue, pink and white flowers, growing up a bank, interspersed with cow parsley. The reason I shot the photo, and later posted it, is that I thought the flowers were rather good. They are, in effect, the view from our west-facing bathroom window right now, following on from earlier snowdrops and aconite. The bank, under an old beech tree, tends to be dark. Framed against its grave shade, the flowers looked delicate, cheerful, happy. Surely no one could object to a photo of happy flowers?

Not for the first time, however, I had underestimated Twitter. Within 48 hours, someone I don’t even know — a follower of a follower — launched an attack. How dare I post a photo of non-native bluebells?

For such the flowers were, and indeed are. Well, I knew that our blue, pink and white flowers were Spanish bluebells, not native ones. I’d never claimed anything to the contrary. Soon, however, I was being furnished with links to websites — there are plenty of them out there — decrying Spanish bluebells. Apparently Spanish bluebells, characterised as ‘coarse’ and ‘scentless’, come over here, pollinating our innocent native Hyacinthoides non-scripta, crowding our bluebell woods with horrid half-caste bluebells. Read the rest of this entry »

On open fires

An old jazz standard — the recording I know attributes it to W. C. Handy — starts with these lines:

Love, oh love, oh loveless love
You’ve set out hearts on goal-less goals,
From milk-less milk, to silk-less silk
We are growing used to soul-less souls.

I’m reminded of this song every time I sense the warm, scentless, practical yet uncharismatic presence of a wood burning stove. Fire-less fires, eh? Where’s the fun in that?

At one level, of course, one can see the point. The arguments in favour of wood burners are well rehearsed to the point of exhaustion by now. The best amongst these is fuel efficiency. Open fires, apparently, send 70 percent of heat up the chimney. Even here, though, the fire-lover in me chips in: ‘Really? Doesn’t that rather depend on the type of fuel and fire, the shape of the fireplace, the presence or absence of an iron fire-back?’ Let us accept the statistic. Where heating and fuel costs are the main points, to the exclusion of anything else, then wood burning stoves make sense.

Infinitely more revealing, however, are the objections based on, if you like, the fire-ness of actual fires. Read the rest of this entry »

On darkness

The first thing to understand is that the Old Rectory is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a ‘light’ house.

In the beginning one might have blamed the darkness on the Old Rectory’s state of repair. When we first went to look at it, on that blustery spring morning, we were forced to borrow the estate agent’s wind-up torch to get as far as the first leaf-strewn kitchen corridor. The electricity had failed — years ago in the kitchen, perhaps decades before in some of the more far-flung rooms — whilst the water running down walls and standing in dank, black puddles on the floor suggested it might not be back any time soon. Here and there, damp wintry light found its way in through dirty leaded windows in an apologetic way, like a half-hearted tresspasser. It never got very far.

Later on, however, once we had installed all-new electric wiring, cleaned the glass and done much more besides, some of which will be described here, this line of argument was exposed as unsustainable. Read the rest of this entry »

On white

Colour is out of fashion at the moment, as happens from time to time. White is back.

Even people who could not really explain the difference between colour and tone — even people who don’t realise that tone is actually just colour, but thinned down with varying amounts of grey, the variation in the amount being the point — would, at the moment, probably prefer a cool, Gustavian space, full of massive pieces of Edwardian brown furniture arbitrarily slathered in Farrow & Ball All White, to the same space furnished with the un-modernised brown furniture and dressed with deep colours such as emerald, azure or Farrow & Ball’s own Picture Room Red.

Why this is the case is a question for those who enjoying staring thoughtfully into the shifting deep currents of mainstream taste. There have been points — perhaps most recently in the 1980s — when colour ruled. There have also been other points — the 1970s, the 1990s — when cool white interiors, enlivened with the most subtle of tonal interventions — were far more acceptable. Perhaps this iteration suggests that change itself is what we seek, the freshness of transformation and renewal, the occasional decorative climacteric?

For the moment, though, colour is out. Read the rest of this entry »

On bathrooms

Browsing through estate agents’ particulars, there is no surer way of working out whether an old house has been ‘done up’ than by comparing the number of bathrooms with the number of bedrooms. The higher the ratio, the more radical — ‘brutal’ might be a better word — the renovation.

For a very long time in England, the vast majority of houses got by without any bathrooms at all. A jug of warm water and a basin, coupled with a chamber-pot and perhaps an outside privy, ensured that all the relevant biological and social needs were fully met.

Then something happened. Bathrooms appeared, their technology was gradually refined and they began to work their way down the social and economic scale, until it became vanishingly rare to find a living space without some sort of functioning bathroom.

As rooms go, bathrooms are, however, fairly modern. Read the rest of this entry »

Old Rectors

Our house is an old rectory, which means that for hundreds of years, the people living here were clergymen, their families, colleagues and servants.

Often I think of them, trying to imagine them living in what are now our rooms. First, perhaps, came tonsured priests, presented by a Praemonstratensian house in the Norfolk Broads. I know little of them except a few names, some of which raise questions. For instance, was Henry Curson (1395) the man who shows up elsewhere, as rector of another nearby village, taking the leading role in a local affray, heading up a gang of armed men? If so, he sounds distinctly un-meek. Read the rest of this entry »

On bedrooms

Of all the books that have ever been published on English home decoration — I mean the ordinary everyday sort, not monographs on Inigo Jones’ schemes for Wilton House — the greatest is the not-quite-a-series published in the 1980s including ‘The Englishman’s Room’, ‘The Englishwoman’s House’ and, not least, ‘The Englishwoman’s Bedroom’.

The genius of this latter book lies in the realisation that, while bedrooms usually have something to do with privacy and sleep, these are really the only limitations on their diversity. And so begins a magical mystery tour round social and sexual mores, wealth, class and perhaps most of all, personal taste. The greatest joy of the tour is the way in which the woman depicted in ‘The Englishwoman’s Bedroom’, through their starkly-differing decorative choices and explanations thereof, provide remarkably frank, revealing if not always entirely conscious autobiographical profiles.

‘Ralph and I both like playing, and this is our set’ proclaims Hammer Horror actress Virginia Wetherell coquettishly. ‘The atmosphere is sensual and warm.’ And indeed, the room depicted is a cluttered, crepuscular, airless ‘love nest’ festooned with Victorian lace, curled ribbons, artificial flowers, fringes, frills, an infinity of pointless little cushions, and a fireplace filled with dusty gypsophila. ‘I feel that the bedroom serves three basic purposes: to sleep in, to make love in, and to be ill in.’ Well, quite. Read the rest of this entry »

On kitchens

Something strange has happened to British kitchens over the past generation or so — they have, apparently, become ‘the heart of the home’.

This is a departure. Of course, there have always been homes in these isles wherein life revolved around the kitchen — but only because the kitchen was the only heated room, and hence perforce was required to play the roles of dining room, parlour, office, bathroom and boudoir. The inhabitants of such homes doubtless wished things otherwise. No one really wanted to live in a Jan Steen painting, any more than they wanted to live off roots or see their infants die of cholera. Like illiteracy or rickets, a lack of specialised living spaces indicated the absence of all the other things that make life comfortable, convenient and civilised. No one chose to live that way.

For even the moderately rich, a generation ago, the kitchen was not so much the heart of the home, as a serviceable limb. Read the rest of this entry »

On decorating magazines

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
Nescio. Sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

No one has ever captured the experience of buying British mainstream decorating magazines more perfectly than Catullus’ elegant little couplet.

Why do we buy them? I don’t really know either. The one thing we can be clear about is that no one really buys them in order to solve actual decorating problems.

Like all the best fantasies, the world of decorating magazines is governed by clear rules, is marvellously consistent and has very little whatsoever to do with real life. Here, after all, is a world where ‘trends’ apply to the sort of furniture that costs thousands of pounds. How often do you ever hear anyone say ‘I bought my kingfisher-blue sofa from Heals this summer, and I thought I liked it, but now it seems that the autumn trend is for mulberry-and-gunmetal, so I had better buy a new sofa instead?’

Read the rest of this entry »