News from Norfolk


“At this time the king began to be haunted with sprites by the magic and curious arts of Lady Margaret, who raised up the ghost of Richard Duke of York (second son to King Edward the fourth) to walk and vex the king” – Francis Bacon, The History of the Reign of Henry VII

Robert Poxwell turned in his bed. Or at least we may imagine him turning in his imagined bed, unwilling to rise but unable to sleep.

That surname, Poxwell, tells us that his people came from the West Country. On this particular night, however, he was not in the West Country. He was on the north coast of Norfolk. Under the sea to the north of him — or in front of him, rather, when he turned onto his left side, hoping to find rest there that he could not find on the right — lay that hard long spine of submerged land, still larded in its watery exile with the remnants of human business, that used to connect East Anglia with Denmark. And above that vanished causeway sailed the king’s ships, similarly sleepless, keeping watch against an invasion fleet.

Or at any rate, Parson Poxwell believed that the king’s ships were keeping watch against an invasion fleet. That, after all, was what James Hubbard had told him, or at least implied. And it wouldn’t be like Mr Hubbard to be ill-informed, would it?

Read the rest of this entry »


Remembering Tony Blair

I only ever saw Tony Blair twice.

The second time — less interesting, more easily summarised — took place standing next to the push-chair occupied by my long-suffering two-year old son. We were coming home from the sandpit in St James’s Park, and I needed to get back soon for a Cadogan Tate delivery, but it was the day on which Tony Blair, who as prime minister had won four elections and served ten years, was going to the Palace to resign. How often does it happen that one can elect to be present for a (relatively benign) moment of history, just by delaying a journey back from the sandpit? So I stood in a little huddle of press photographers, bemused tourists and politics geeks. In time we were rewarded by the onrush of the sleek black car, the glimpse of a familiar face, our own tiny crumb snatched from beneath the table of world-historical significance. My son doesn’t remember it, of course, but he claims to be glad that he was there.

The first time mattered more.

The date eludes me, but it must have been quite early in Tony Blair’s premiership. But someone could, I suppose, work it out, because it had to have been a year when 11 November fell on a Saturday. I was down in Westminster and, on a whim, went to take part in what was, at the time, a fairly low-key observance at the Cenotaph. Read the rest of this entry »

On gardening badly

Far and away the most successful thing in my garden is the deer population.

We have at least two types of deer — sturdy little muntjac, rapacious in their strangely shy, apologetic way, plus a tiny herd of roe deer, whose defence strategy when confronted by a human is to flash a pale bottom  in the hope that this spectacle will somehow be so terrifying as to drive all foes away. I suppose we ought to prefer the roe, as they are natives, but the diminutive exoticism of the muntjac, like labrador retrievers with cloven hooves, is not without appeal.

Whatever anyone may tell you to the contrary, deer are fussy eaters.

Consider the roses. Read the rest of this entry »


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 »