Lincolnshire had slid past as we cycled along. The view had been endless over the green sea-flat land, the whole of the county seemed pretty much just three quarters sky.
We now descended the Lindum Road, the old Roman route that if we stayed on it long enough would take us down Nero’s old road through Peterborough, through one of the Roman gates of London, down modern day Tottenham and Stoke Newington high streets, and ending us up in Bishopsgate. But we choose instead to just free-wheel down into Lincoln town centre. Saddle sore, we swing off the bikes on the cobbles outside Lincoln Cathedral. Girstroula looks at the large information slab erected outside the monumental cathedral – sat on seemingly the only hill in the county – with its three torments of hell: lust, sodomy and avarice, carved frighteningly into buttresses.
“1092…” she reads out loud. Then cranes her neck to look up at the 100 meter towers. “…Malaka!” she exhales with a quiet awe.
Giristroula likes to crow endlessly how, when her people were building the Parthenon and the Delphi temples “You were all still monkeys up a tree.” It seems a thousand or so years later though, she concedes we came down the trees and built something of worth. We walk round the grounds and the old streets surrounding Lincoln’s crowning glory. An old woman stands with her hard-of-hearing friend at the top of Steep Hill.
“This was voted England’s loveliest road,” she hollers. “The LOVELIEST!”
It is a sharply elevated street of timbered twee shops and tea shops. We sit in one of the latter and order a pot. Giristroula looks around at the only-late-middle-aged-women clientele here. She’s a little confused.
“But, well, you know, I guess it’s good to see so many women in a café. In Greece it’s just men. Old men. Sitting in the kafeneos with their big balls, dominating everything.”
Oddly enough a woman behind us is talking about how she once took a holiday in Greece.
“Oh it was so hot… At 2pm, you know…we went to sleep!” She says this with a small smile and bite of her lip and a little dip of her head, as if she’d done something terrible naughty.
“But it was so hot in the evening too. They open their shops there very late you know…”
Lincoln’s shops, though, seem to be getting ready for closing shortly before 5pm. We go out to have a look at Lincoln’s castle. A ‘Park & Walk’ bus passes. Giristoula laughs out loud at the sight of the passengers – the bus full of white haired old ladies – just a forest of dandelion heads visible in the window, passing us by. In the grounds of the old castle, again there are just women. Women and a few children clattering each other with plastic swords.
“What’s going on?” says Giristroula. “Where are all the men in this town? Is there a war on?”
On the grass we find a gnarled old stone obelisk. The marker on the floor tells us it’s the first of the Eleanor Crosses. Put up in 1291 by King Edward I to mark the start of the funeral procession of his wife, Eleanor, who had died in Lincoln but was to be buried in Westminster Abbey. 12 of these elaborate stone crosses were erected at each halting place the procession stopped at for the night on their 12 day journey back down to London. The final one in Charing Cross. Some still stand tall now, some are just a weathered piece of stone. The grand one currently outside Charing Cross station is actually a Victorian replacement but it marks the very centre of London which all distances are measured from. We could have followed these crosses all the way back home. But we’re not. We’re heading down Steep Hill into Lincoln’s shopping centre to find somewhere to stay for the night.
Everything in the town is closed up already. There is just one man standing on a bench in front of the shut shop windows. He wears army fatigue trousers, a vest and has tall Mohican haircut.
“Arseholes!” he shouts out at regular intervals at nobody in particular, with a strong rustic accent.
“Arseholes!” He boots his big plastic bottle of White Lightening cider skidding down the street.
An empty town centre can quite quickly feel a fairly dangerous place. The rhythm of British everyday life is different to the London one I grew up with. And very different again to the Greek rhythm of life I have now got used to. Britain’s towns buzz with shopping in modern centres – or shops wedged under historic old buildings – until 5pm. Then the town empties completely and everyone seems to go home and eat in front of the tv, coming out again at 8 for drinking in bars, or new pubs built into historic old buildings. In Greece the bustle of the morning is replaced by the stillness between 1pm and 3pm, when the smell of cooking hits you from every open window, the clack of backgammon from every cafe. The shops and the offices opening up again to throw light out on the dark streets once the sun has gone down.
“Come out! Come out! Where are you all hiding?” Giristroula shouts up at the windows above the shops as we walk through Lincoln’s deserted centre streets. “Arseholes!” comes a distant call from somewhere back down the pedestrianised high street.
We find a place to stay for the night. A student’s room that’s been left empty for the summer in the modern university built on Brayford Pool – the old Roman deep port lake, right in the centre of Lincoln. The cathedral looks down on us here from its hill. It glows in the night, colossal and up high, close to God, with its lit ramparts of heaven. It is huge and must have scared the peasants down here in the muddy streets shitless, as I’m sure it was meant to.
There are bouncers on the door of the Wetherspoons pub. Inside, the pub is empty, just two eastern European men in black hoodies, vaping their e-cigarettes. We walk on, over the bridge over the Witham river, with its ancient timbered buildings built right on top over the water. I am desperate to drink in some English sights, thinking how I only have a few days left in my home country before I am to leave again. A fox, or something, has ripped open a bin liner of donations left outside a charity shop, clothes scattered along the dark street. Two white t-shirted men square up to each other in a kebab shop as we pass. Jostling. A drunk punch-up. A bus’s lights flick on and off inside its belly. The final bus of the night. Unlit, it moves off up the hill, leaving the empty city quiet and alone. We go back to our student room for the night.
Next morning we are at Lincoln’s station, boarding a small, one-carriage shunter train. Our bikes stacked by the door. A woman apologises to us for not being able to get by. “Lovely day…” an old man says to us from over the aisle. There is hardly anyone else on this 11.44am train to Newark Northgate. The bald driver climbs on board, holding his flask of tea. The sun shines through the windows. A butterfly flaps around outside. Peace sits heavily over the whole scene. But the driver still has to go through his whole routine though – as laid down by his train company bosses on some training session day at some bland head office building:
“If you see anything suspicious….”
I look around at the smiling white haired old man, the apologising woman in her florally dress, Giristroula looking up at the train tannoy with a scrunched face unable to quite understand what the man is saying.
“See it. Say it. Sort it,” the driver finishes. And our three-quarters empty carriage rattles away down the sun-drenched line.
Lincoln had seemed a good place to me. The centre was being improved in a tasteful enough way. Money was being spent. But we had also cycled round the edges. Edges of the city that you could see clearly if you climbed even halfway up the cathedral hill: the city just stopping, defined like a circle below, and the countryside given the go-ahead to start.
These edges of Lincoln felt very different from the centre. Broken down tyre & exhaust garages. Homes with flags rather than curtains. Homes that have been divided up by ruthless landlords – thin partitions of cardboard halving or quartering rooms, migrant workers sleeping in living rooms. Posters were up advertising food banks (“Helping local people in crisis”). People looking either furious or disappointed. There were no streets that would be voted loveliest here. In a window I saw a purple and yellow UKIP card and an old ‘Vote Leave’ referendum poster. Of course. The referendum.
In the two years since Giristroula and I had left this country for Greece, a massive land-shuddering change had hit Britain. 17 million people had voted to shut the door on the European Union and for Britain to pull up a drawbridge on the continent. While I have had little chance to feel anything but grim reservations about the European Union – the way Greece and its people had been treated by a seemingly uncaring, unwavering, punishment-driven EU which I had seen first-hand and which everybody I ever spoke to in Greece fiercely reiterated to me at every given opportunity – I really wasn’t sure Britain was doing the right thing now by leaving.
Lincolnshire was the area in the country with highest percentage of votes for leave. These broken down edges gave good reason for the dissatisfaction of course, as did the farmlands we had passed, now worked on by cheap temporary labour, not local labour, foreign labour usually from the eastern regions of the European Union. But leaving? Was this really the thing to do? As someone who had chosen to leave the country myself – but for love rather than for any feeling of enmity in my case – I’m sure people would say who was I to judge? But I couldn’t not feel something huge had changed in the country I’d returned to. Some things needed to change of course – seeing foodbanks in a town like Lincoln seemed utterly, depressingly, surreal to me – but was this the really the answer? And why the household still had their ‘Vote Leave’ poster up, I had no idea. Clinging on to a good-time victory I guess. Perhaps there might not be so many more feelings of triumph to come.
Through this remote corner of England we chug along in the small train. We seem to be on the very edge of the known world. Flat lands and Dutch canals shooting off in straight lines for miles into the distance, through green thick grassland. Eventually a few houses start to emerge. High foreheaded houses. A road. The roads and houses start building up. A city starts to form out of the countryside. We pull into Peterborough station.
More so than Lincoln or Hull, Peterborough seems a more mixed multi-cultural place. A bit more relaxed with the changes going on within it. Three hijab wearing girls lounge on the grass in front of the impressive Anglican cathedral taking selfies. A middle eastern man in a long white thawb and fez with a long grey beard sits on a bench in the main square, he smiles into the low sun as he watches two young black girls laughingly run through the fountains that spray up from ground at irregular intervals, hoping to be taken by surprise and squealing when they are. A tall man, bald as an acorn, sits on a café table next to us laughing at something his friend has told him with a wide, open mouth, but utterly silently. He takes off his glasses and wipes them with a sighing, wistful amusement. Another man makes his way back from the toilets.
“You been in there 12 minutes, Ian,” says his wife. “12 minutes!”
Ian retakes his seat looking suitably shame faced.
“I know somewhere I’d like to go to,” I tell Giristroula.
It’s not often we’ve actually had a reason, somewhere to aim for, on our whole tour around Britain, we’ve usually just moved forward in a kind of unthinking perpetual motion. But this time there is something I’d like to see.
The only other people getting on the 37 bus to Spalding are two old ladies and a young, overweight, goth with purple hair, black t-shirt and a pentangle necklace. One of the old ladies – badly dyed jet black hair and thick gold jewellery – buttonholes the driver. She’d clearly suffered some sort of accident on this bus route before.
“If I hadn’t been knocked out, I would have called the police,” she says. “But I’m going to sue. Oh don’t you worry about that, I’m going to sue alright.”
The bus driver sits with his arms resting on the large steering wheel, gazing out of the window.
“There was something wrong with that bus. ‘Oink, oink, oink’ it went. Oh it was horrendous. Wasn’t it Joan?”
“Horrendous,” replies Joan, absent mindedly. She seems to have as much interest in all this as the driver, who just stares out at the smokers in the bus station. The smokers are all standing within painted lines telling them where they can smoke. Giristroula, sat next to me at the back, finds this incredible: people keeping in their boxes, smoking hungrily, but staying in their designated spots. Imagine this happening in Greece… We watch a man sitting in his covered invalid scooter smoking a cigarette through the tracheotomy pipe in his neck.
The stuffy bus drives through the Peterborough suburbs. A special detour round a long roundabout of a Sainsbury’s superstore. The sun shines and comes through the gaps in someone’s fence, zebra-ing a pattern on their front lawn. The housing estates start to thin out, and we’re into countryside. The small windows of the bus are open in the hot, drowsy afternoon. A wasp flies in and rattles on the glass to get out again. Joan’s friend seems very agitated by it. “Hit it with your shoe!” she commands the driver. The bus pulls over at a bus shelter by the side of the country road and a huge, stoned-looking Rastafarian gets on. Joan and her friend stop talking and watch him closely, twisting their heads as he passes down the aisle, all the way to the back. Eventually the bus rolls round a pretty old bus shelter in the middle of a death-quiet village.
“Come on, we’re here” I nudge Giristroula. She looks utterly taken by surprise “What? Here?” she says as she gathers her stuff.
We have come to Crowland.
I wanted to see Crowland as, when I was a few years old, and my father had walked out on my mother, sister and me in our home down in London, an uncle had set my mother up with somewhere to live here in this small town. We must have descended here in 1976 or 1977. There are photos of us waving Silver Jubilee Union Jacks here, sat at trestle tables of sandwiches in the street, later to be left out in the rain. My mother took up with a man in the village. A man who sold tropical fish. It was the scandal of the place, hugely embarrassing my socially circumspect family. The man – Mr Fletcher – had lost his wife and was bringing up two children on his own. My mother was bringing up two children on her own. It seemed the perfect solution I suppose: a ready-made family for everyone. Except, of course, life doesn’t go like that. Mr Fletcher died of lung cancer a year or so after we moved here, ny mother was asked to leave the family house by his sister. A long trudge with our packed things, onwards to the next place for us. But for a while, this small town was my home. It could have stayed my home.
I take a slightly bored, slightly distracted Giristroula to stand outside number 17 South Street – no longer a tropical fish shop – where my sister had told me we lived back then. And where she told me I once sank to the bottom of a fish pond in the garden, pulled out by one of Mr Fletcher’s children. Saved by a surrogate sister I would never know again. My red wellington left in the mud at the bottom. I look around the town. It seems quite beautiful to me in the mid-afternoon sun. A 14th century three-way stone bridge sits just off the main road, crossing nothing. The whole place is just centred round one crossroad really. There’s a butcher, a baker, a hardware store, two pubs. Nothing unnecessary, nothing superfluous. Just the traditional essentials for basic simple village life that they must have had for centuries (a tropical fish shop was always going to be a step too far…) I didn’t know a place like this could still exist.
I look at the kids cycling from a recreation park. I think how that could have been me. They are living what could have been my life. I wonder how I would have turned out. I think how happy I could have been here. Or perhaps how utterly bored. Would I have ended working with the slow-witted boy I buy a packet of cheese and onion crisps from in the grocers? Serving in the local shop for local people? Mollocking around the town. Seeing something nasty in the woodshed? We walk to the abbey. A towering church, built in the 10th century, half ruined by Henry VIII in the time of the reformation, ruined again by Cromwell in the civil war. The immense shattered skeleton remains of the monastery buildings clinging to the working church. We sit under a tree in the graveyard, eat our sandwiches and crisps, and in the dull throb of the sun, I suppose we must have dropped off into a doze.
I open my eyes, blinking into the sun, to see a little old man standing above me with a shock of white hair and wearing a suit jacket several sizes too large for him, the sleeves hanging down well past his hands.
“Is there anything I can help you with?” he says. He has a very kind face.
I tell him no, we’re just passing through. Then I have a second thought.
“I don’t suppose a Mr Fletcher is buried here is he?” I call out to the old man.
He turns and walks quickly back, his suit sleeves flapping down near his knees. Clearly happy for something to do.
“Mr Fletcher… I don’t know about that. Come,” he says beckoning me towards the church with a waft of his dangling sleeve “Come, come. We have records in here….”
And so I stand in the cold stone church, as this man pours through books of all the people buried in this ancient church yard for centuries. No Mr Fletcher ever turns up. I was christened in this church, so I’m later told.
We walk back towards the old bus shelter in the middle of the empty village. Crows actually sit on the houses roofs and watch us. They caw and gossip with each other as we pass. sCrowland. It’s a funny name. A funny and rather sinister name for a village so clean and amiable. It sounds like the title of a Ted Hughes poem.
The sky split apart in malice
Stars rattled like pans on a shelf
Crow shat on Buckingham Palace
God… pissed Himself.
The kids are still cycling around. The fun I’d seen in their faces when I first saw them and pictured myself as one of the gang, starts to look more like dead-eyed ennui on closer inspection. A war memorial stands. I think of how the men of Crowland, stuck deep in the rain-flooded trenches of Belgium must have thought back to this little town. These four roads, the broken abbey and the bridge that crosses nothing. This is what they pictured when they thought of England and what they were fighting for. This was what was worth defending.
The bus judders us back towards Peterborough. Two different old ladies sit behind us. Thick wobbly arms resting on the metal bar above the seats.
“Why do they call us British?” says one. “We’re not British, we’re English!”
“No one has manners anymore,” says the other, starting her own conversation quite independently of what the other had said. “Kids all walking round in nappies. If you’re old enough to walk, you’re old enough to be out of nappies. But they’re all in nappies…”
“I’ve never been British. I’m English…”
I can see Giristroula listening to this, tensing up in these post-Brexit days as to where the old woman’s conversation may be heading. She twists round a few times in her seat, gearing up for conflict. But they don’t see her. We travel on in a dead silence.
“That was where my old dentist was,” eventually one of the women says.
The bus coughs through the Peterborough suburbs again. We’re aiming to get back to the station, pick up the bikes, get a train eastwards into East Anglia.
Coming into the centre, we pass a branch library.
“I don’t know why they keep these libraries open,” says one of the old ladies. “I’ve never used a library in my life…”
“Some people do though, don’t they?” says Giristroula out loud.
The two old women look shocked. They put their heads together and I can hear them whispering, offended. We pull up at Peterborough station. The women turn their heads glare at Giristroula as she steps down from the bus.
“What did she say to you?”
“It’s a disgrace…”
At the end of Platform 4 a collection of men are stood with camera on tripods, holding notebooks and pens, looking down the line. This is Giristroula’s first introduction to trainspotters. She is understandably a little taken aback.
“So… what are they doing?” she keeps repeating as I try to explain this simple British pastime.
The train clatters us towards Norwich. We cross a busy A-road and look on the ridiculous sight of people picnicking on the hard-shoulder by the roaring traffic. I guess they would have been resting cow herder once upon a time, sat at the very same spot, taking their animals to market, stopping for a rest. In a grim looking pub’s car park, an athletic middle-aged German couple have parked their sleek, modern, camper van. They’re outside with rackets and they clack a ball back and forth between themselves, both in very short shorts. A fat British family watch them, unimpressed, from their pub bench. The bald father smoking grumpily, the mother with her arm in a sling.
We must have crossed into Norfolk now. The train slows and stops. Sitting in a field of corn. It waits on the line. Idling. Ten minutes goes by. The only sound the birds chirruping outside, the gentle scratch on the window of a branch blown outside in the breeze. Every so often there’s the long dull warble of a fat wood pigeon.
An intercity train rockets by on the line next to us. The coach walls of our train feel as if they bow inwards, the rivets straining. For a moment I think all the windows will cave in. The silence afterwards is as if a bomb has gone off. A white noise of silence. Slowly, with a creak, a moan, our small train – misleadingly called a ‘Sprinter’ – starts up again on its slowly journey to Norfolk’s capital city.
The breakfast room at Norwich’s City Travelodge is on the first floor. We stand outside its open door waiting to catch the lift down. Inside, near the breakfast bar with its small packets of rice crispies and coco pops sitting in bowls all cleared away and stacked up, a business meeting is taking place. Men in identical tight blue suits, ties on, lanyards and lapel badges. A flip chart sits by the gurgling orange juice maker with the words ‘Team Building’ written on it. Giristroula looks at the scene, as confused as she was when watching the trainspotters. It is not a regular Greek practice.
“…and Steve Harris has been transferred to the Southampton branch…” the lift is coming down. “Quarterly Reports…” It’s on floor 2 now. “…and congratulations to Jamaal, top salesman this month…” The lift is here.
“Boo-ya!” says Jamaal, with a small pump of his fist, as the doors close on us.
Norwich bores Giristroula.
It’s correct and ordered and has perfect shopping facilities. It has its 365 pubs and 52 churches, so they say: a pub for every day of the year and a different church to repent in every Sunday. Giristroula comments on how it’s like a Greek town, with seemingly a church round every corner, down the steps, over the bridge… Except these are dark stone medieval churches, with names like St Etheldreda’s. Many of Nowich’s churches – centuries of faith in flint and stone – have been forgotten and overlooked, now housing a puppet theatre, a pregnancy centre, a taekwondo gym. Big red cardboard thermometers outside show the citizens of Norwich’s slow rate of financial interest in the plight of St John the Theologian’s roof.
My mother had lived in this city once. Another one of her stops. We go to see her house, opposite the old Colman’s mustard factory with its old stone walls closing in acres of thick woodland round the factory. All been sold off now. I don’t recognise the riverside at all, a whole new city of flats and shops have been built there. My mother’s old house looks tired and grubby. In fact, the whole of Norwich seems a bit stale. More dishevelled than how I remembered it. I hadn’t been here for 15 years or more. Was it my memory or had it really changed? The medieval lanes with their bowed and twisted shop front windows are still there of course. Subway and Greggs have taken their prime positions under them. We sit in the centre square, next to the multi-coloured striped canvas tents of Norwich market – a huge, impressive outdoor market that has been here 900 years, now selling cheap leggings and chips. I asked Giristroula if she thought Britain had changed much since she first came, seven years ago.
“Well, the middle class seem to have fallen a bit lower. But the poor…well it sort of feels like they’ve completely given up. They’ve got nowhere lower left to fall.”
We watch as, even in well-to-do Norwich, a group of bedraggled characters – one man with a spider’s web tattooed across his whole face – torment a livid dog outside the 15th century guildhall. A can of Tennents Super flung high in the sky soars like a sputnik reflecting and glowing in the sun as it hangs in the air for a suspended moment, before it lands with a frothing explosive clatter on the City Hall steps. I tell her I agree. It does seem a bit like that in Britain nowadays.
“Oh, Britain!” she says. “I thought you asked me about Greece…” She thinks for a moment. “I don’t know how Britain has changed. I’m just passing through, aren’t I…”
Will Kemp was Shakespeare’s great comic actor. He was the most famous clown in Europe, until he had a falling out with the great writer. In 1599, to prove he was still the people’s favourite he decided to dance from London to Norwich. In front of cheering crowds he danced along the road that we’ll be following back home. It took him nine days. ‘Kemp’s Men of Norwich’, a group of middle aged men still pay honour to his feat. Outside St Peter Mancroft church we watch as they jig about, ruddy faced, some in rather un-Elizabethian tinted glasses, clacking their poles together, dancing with their handkerchiefs, leaping in their britches and flowered hats. It’s like the Morris dancing Giristroula saw in Hastings on our very first or second day – I can’t remember now – on this long, long tour of Britain.
I turn to see if she remembers all this British merriment and parading jollity. It seems she does.
“Come on,” she sighs, gathering herself up. “Let’s go.”
I have a theory that the areas of Britain have their equivalent sister areas in Greece. Scotland I thought was just like Crete: rugged, hard, mountainous, full of historical tragedies of clan fighting and blood feuds. Wales is perhaps the northern lands of Epirus in Greece – mountains and music. Although in Epirus it’s usually the women who sing, not the moustached male voice choirs as in the Welsh valleys. Cornwall must be the Aegean islands – rocky, bare, sun-splashed, full of well-heeled tourism, and in somewhere like Andros, full of art. Which means Devon must be its rival, on the other side of Greece, the Ionaian island – richer, greener, creamier lands. Cyprus has to be Ireland. Not really Greece, not really Britain. Divided, and in places – so I’m told, never having been to either – a little old fashioned and stuck in the past.
I tell all this to Giristroula. She stands arms folded. Unconvinced.
“So where would the Greek equivalent of east England be then?” she says, thinking of this part of Britain we’ve been trailing through.
“I thought perhaps the Peloponnese…” Her area of Greece.
“It has the oldest history. You know England’s capitals were here once upon a time? Like Nafplio before Athens. And I’m sure the Easterners think of themselves as the real English, like the Peloponnese think of themselves as the real Greeks… And Norfolk, well that would be your county of Elia: Flat, fertile, agriculture… Although I’m not too sure they grow water melons here…”
They say Elia has the reputation of having the worst people in Greece. ‘The very best man in Elia murdered his brother’ so the saying goes.
“Same again!” I say to Giristroula “They’re all meant to be inbred in Norfolk!” I nudge at her. Her face remains one of poker-straight disapproval.
“I don’t think much of your theories…” she says.
The train out to North Walsham has a very pleasant mid-morning crowd. All the men dressed in linen jackets. Bottles of real ale and plastic cups at 11am. These aren’t problem drinkers though of course. This is civil heavy drinking. The train clacks through the heat-blurred land. Grooved yellow fields. Churches, of course, seen from miles off over the flat land. What would the wide East Anglian skies be without church towers to recognise them by?
Talk on the train all seems to centre round Brexit.
“Why wouldn’t people trade with us? We’re Britain!”
“What did we fight the Germans for in the first place, eh, if this is what we end up with…”
One man goads his friend as they sit in a group round the train’s table of four.
“Still happy you voted to stay?” he says in a high mocking voice. As if his friend chose the wrong seat and now everyone’s laughing at him. It’s the voice of the bully.
“I don’t even know how many meters there are in a mile… And I don’t care!” someone else says. As if this was the full-stop on the whole argument.
Talk turns instead to golf. Good golfing land round here, so it seems.
“Driving well lately…” Swings improving…” “Handicaps gone down…” “Might be Club Chairman next year…”
Golf, golf, golf.
“So what car you driving these days..?” says someone.
These are all London voices. A great emigration trail took place for these sort of Londoners. Londoners who had made their money and moved up to Norfolk: the salesmen or taxi drivers of east London swapping their crowded London lives for the restful complacency of Norfolk. Now ordering commemorative dinner plates from the back of the Mail on Sunday magazine to hang in their commodious bungalows and tinker on their driveways or sit on their rideable lawn mowers and cut perfect lawns. Interlopers who have even corrupted all the “I in’t goin’ to Narrich at this toime a night” accents of Norfolk, with their dull cockney burrs
We reach North Walsham. The train clears. The empty plastic glasses of real ale – Norfolk Nog and Nelson’s Revenge – sit on the tables with soapy foam sliding down the sides.
It’s nice to cycle through this sleepy market town, past the market cross, out into fields of corn. The coast isn’t far. Mundesley. People sit lined up on benches in a thin wind, watching the waves dribble towards land. Staring out across the sea. Checking on their moat against the envy of less happier lands. The blue skies have shifted and Giristroula and I stand on the sand under a new sky: grey and so low it’s like our heads are brushing the ceiling. We look out at the white wind generators caught bright in the strip of retreating sun, miles off towards Holland.
Lunch must be being served at the hotels, as the seafront clears of all the old timers almost at once. Women in wheelchairs who had been wheeled to the sea edge to be left to stare are now whisked back to The Grand or The Manor as the hotel gong goes. We are left in the sudden empty seaside road, posters advertising The Mundesley Players and their performance of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. It all seems very different to when we were in Blackpool, and the two – or was it even three? – Roy Orbison impersonators being advertised that same night. This is a higher class seaside holiday. Less common. And less fun. We cycle off, leaving the residents to their herbaceous borders, their “proper weather”, their gooseberries and cream. I see a discarded toilet brush has been left in a hedge by the side of the road.
It seems impossible to follow the Broads on a bicycle. We first get a glimpse of water and reed and boat at Wroxham – the Piccadilly Circus of the Broads. It is packed, crowded, men are trying on captain’s hats in the gift shops and roaring with laughter at themselves in the mirrors. Other men, now wearing their bought captains hats – and quickly grown into the style, taking themselves very seriously, no hilarity now – standing proudly in the wheelhouse of their rented boats, severely surveying the scene of chocker-block white boats choking the Broads.
There is no towpath by the canals, so we are thrown out onto the road and cycle along under the trees, past red pillar boxes put up in the time of the monarch before the ancient monarch we have today, and only at Horning can we join the Broads again. It’s even worse here than it was in Wroxham. Hen parties are whooping it up under the holiday skies on ‘Bride On Board’ boats. An inflatable penis sticking like a cannon out of the ship’s broadside. There is Southern Steamer-type paddle ship filling up with old men and women coming out unsteadily from The Swan Inn, straight into the boozy lounge of the boat. Horning itself is remarkably pretty little village – the old post office glares at the crowds it has to deal with now. We push off again. A glowing sun has reappeared and follows us down sun-splashed deserted back roads cutting through fields and wooded copses. At Ludham, the Broads have quietened down. The water runs freer, in blues and broken greens. Just a twenty minute cycle ride has taken us out of range of the boating day trippers. We walk our bikes through a thinly marked path with thick reeds and grasses up to our chin, to a broken down windmill sat on the Norfolk flat lands.
The sun, sauntering slowly above, accompanies us past fields and hedgerows to St Benets Abbey – a ruined monastery, by the River Bure, that a thousand years ago would have been teaming with monks. Just an archway now. And a disused Georgian mill. Lone memorials. The sails of boats glide by on the water, but no boats can be seen – the sails ghosting along, miles away. A note is tacked-up advertising that the Bishop of Norwich is to do a service here one Sunday. It seems ridiculous to imagine him climbing through the wet mud with his colourful cassocks held high up over his knees, doing his sermons and psalms to the broken down stones and sheep.
The evening is starting to leak down the sky in reds and oranges as we reach Reedham. Sweating, horny handed, hard bummed, we stop for a lemonade at the Lord Nelson pub. And stare at the sailboats going past on the River Yare. On the next table a man and woman are drinking. The man has deep-black curls, a face that seems to have been left out in the sun for too long, and a grubby white t-shirt. A shaggy black dog rests at this feet.
“Where yer cycling to, boy?” he asks me.
“Aiming for Broome,” I tell him.
“Heh heh,” he chuckles “Long way…”
“Do you think we’ll make it tonight?”
“Might do… Might do…”
His wife seems more concerned. “You could give them a lift in your van Al, couldn’t you?”
“I could, yarss…” Al says in his hard country accent. “But I been on the piss all day, in’t I?”
As his wife tells about the surrounding land, how to get over the river, Al lifts a leg in his short black shorts and lets go with an extraordinarily long fart that rattles the plastic pub chair.
“Alan!” his wife says. But in a weary way, like she’s heard it all before.
“Where you from?” says Al.
We tell him.
“Corfu!” he says. “I was in Corfu once. 1978 it were. I rode my motorbike all the way down there. Met some Albanians. I t’aint got a clue what happened then really… I ended up in Sharm El Sheikh selling hashish…” He turns to his wife “Course this was all pre-you, love…” He taps reassuringly on her arm.
“I liked Corfu. Are there still Albanians there?”
We stare at the orange glow over the fields on the other side of the river.
“The dark side over there, that is…” Al nods at the land over the water. “Suffolk. Strange place… They say they still burn witches over there…”
I don’t like to tell him that over the river is still Norfolk.
We catch the Reedham ferry. A chain ferry taking us over the river to the ‘dark lands’ beyond. There is no Charon with eyes full of furnace fire to take us across here. Instead there’s Dave. I place a 50p coin in his hand and he sets the mechanism in motion and we’re clanked slowly over the water.
“Have you been doing this job a long time?” Giristroula asks Dave.
“Yarp,” he replies. Giristroula pauses for a while to take in what that might mean.
“Must be cold in the winter?” I take over.
Dave is a man of few words.
Over on the other side we cycle through more and more miles of fields, as the last orange gleams fall over parked combine harvesters. Blocks of wheat stacked up. We come across a rare house and I ask the woman on the path – a cat madly circling her fat legs – the way to Broome.
“Oh,” she says, gathering her thoughts. “Well. You know Mr Wilson’s house down the road…”
“Ah, no,” I say. “Sorry. We’re not from round here. That’s why we’re a bit lost…”
“Oh. Well you probably know the butchers in the next village then? I’d go left there…Or is it right?” She looks down to the cat for help.
We finally find Broome. A tiny village set on one road. I had booked a room for the night. Bad planning of course – Broome being just the bit too far for us to comfortably do in the one day. We arrive, very tired, as the night is arranging its skirts readying itself to sit down heavily for the night. The old red telephone box of the village has been turned into a unofficial lending library, books donated by the villagers to be picked up and read. We are staying in the old coaching inn, an ancient signpost outside pointing the way to Loddon, to Ditchingham. We sleep the sleep of the dead.
Next morning, back in the saddle, we cycle the few miles to Geldestone. The sky is a deep blue. The heat of the sun gearing itself for the hottest day of the year. At Geldestone Lock we catch another ferry. Just one man and his boat. We load on with our bikes and he takes us down the River Waveney. The very southern end of the Broads. It is quiet, no other boats here. Just herons, plopping otters slipping into the water, trout below us, so I’m told, weeping willows… Gangs of swans leave a feathery wake behind them as they swim towards us. Our boat shattering their reflection on the water as we pass.
The boat heads us towards the town Beccles and the county of Suffolk, in almost silence. This river being the true dividing line between the two counties. Beccles old town, and its church with its dominating 16th century bell tower appear from between the trees as we approach.
“See the clock tower?” our ferry man breaks his silence.
“See how it has a clock on each side? South, east, west… But not north. Not facing this way…
Suffolk people you see, ” he says. “Won’t even give Norfolk the time of day….”