North Norfolk for Michael’s 87th birthday

On the dull overcast journey, across hedge less monoculture fields, we traced Michael’s birthday back in years. Last year in Magnolia house – appropriately his last birthday there, lockdown continued and I’d secretly orchestrated a manifestation of his play unbelievable. He and Gabrielle and the dogs sat in the back sitting room watching, Ben, Juliet x and I perform over zoom. The year before, the year when coronavirus was still an unknown word, we came here to north Norfolk, to Brancaster and the White Horse that he’d scoped out, and he read Salt to me. The year before, our first year, was the great trip to Australia. Before that his birthday history was with Tamsyn, the most memorable for him being his 80th when he rented the house on Conniston and rowed in the style of Ramsden to the island.

At Michael’s good age, birthdays are less certain and so to be harvest for all they are worth. Here he’d turn 87.

Castle Acre our first stop and once again we both have memories, Michael with Tamsyn, I with my mother and then a memory of being here with a friend of Alison Toosey, a woman who had a daughter also in a wheel chair (fell out of an apple tree), details long forgotten. This was once my land, my haunts and now others own it and I feel much easier with this than I did before. The Ostrich was fully booked not a chance, ex pet to prop up the bar with a too swift a half.

We walked into the magnificent earth works, which preserved the outline of the Norman settlement, over the defensive moats into the inner Bailey, and the once grand manor house. This was the work of a great Norman baronial family, the Warennes, founded soon after the Battle of Hasting. The dogs – irrespective of this fragile history ran up and down the grass banks between Michael, below and I above. Walking back to the 2nd motte, which enclosed the remains of the supoortive domestic buildings, the forge, etc I could imagine the hustle and bustle of the trades outside the dominant manor. I was taken back to my first encounter with such a structure with Sister Mary Joseph, who got us all involved in making individual homesteads within the medieval ramparts.

Heacham Manner Hotel. I didn’t know this side of Norfolk, and kept an open mind, when Michael told me the outside rooms at the White Horse not available and that he had booked here. It was his time, and he enjoyed the planning.

It did not take us long – the next morning – to plan our escape. The room although spacious was sparse, one kitch image of a rose on the wall. At Dinner in the corporate style dining room, specialities included battered fish and chips. This was not the gourmet menu Michael expected.
It was all a corporate complex built around a links golf course, the grass around our cottages cut like a golfing green to an inch of its life. Dogs had to be on leads all the time. But the pinnacle of madness was we could not charge our car on one of the 10 outside electric charge points as they were exclusively for golf caddies. Unused at night time, they stood empty, while we had to plan a trip to Tesco’s, 2 miles up the road. The first charge, that first morning gave us a chance to a loiter around Hunstanton – but it failed as I was unaccustomed to the app, forgot to make a critical selection, so 2 hours wasted. But we found a menswear shop in the main street and a red striped sporty shirt for a birthday gift. It was an out of season seaside town, with closed up amusements, ticky tack shops, cafe’s every corner.

We ate fish and chips on the green sword overlooking the sea and beside a statue of Henry Le Strange. It was this very victorian looking man who conceived the idea for building a bathing resort south of the village with links to the important port town of Kings Lynn, including the building of a railway. In effect he moved the village cross from Old Hunstanton to the green where we sat, opposit the first building, The Golden Lion, then called the Royal Hotel. Once this was built, his vision of the railway took hold some 20 years later, linking Kings Lynn to Hunstanton.

Hunstanton won the Hunstanton in Bloom in 2014, which is why Tamsyn and Michael came here, courtesy of the Bloomers, who proudly showed them around the town, and took them on a boat ride to see the famous cliffs – which we did not see as fixed on Tescos charging.

With only 20% remaining, I returned to Tescos early the next morning, and walked along the sea aiming to reach the Hotel, but failed as there was a water course in between me and the golf course, so with view over to the Manor, the dogs and I retraced our walk back to Tescos. An hours charge gave us what we needed for our escape with a little foray south.

After breakfast – overdone scrambled egg, Adelle singing – we drove to Snettisham to a place on the map called the shepherds port. Packed with static vans not a sheep in sight, we turned, and checked into Thornham Life boat, and felt like coming home. (Heacham gave Michael a full refund – he used the reason dogs unhappy on leads, uncomfortable with my pique at no electric offering.

We walked out. Parking at what we learned later was once the coal or grain house, Thornhams talisman building standing alone in the mud flat marshes, we crossed the sluice gate and walked up along the the causeway towards Holme. The two stick man behind, the slanting woman in haste in front, the north wind over the sea water, cold, the dogs both behind and in front. Beside us the calls of the waders, the tide going out on the mud flats to our right, the field still flooded to our left. Oyster catchers, curlews, sandpipers, a few ducks, a few names I found and many I didn’t.

Finally across the dunes kept by marram grass clumps, to a glorious empty beach. The walk here disuades the many, and gives the isolation. Tide going out. Here I picked up a few old razer and oyster shells – recalling how I once had these on the dash of my various cars – to use for Michael’s birthday. Back we walked, now seeing at the moss growing in the dunes, thick and and moist, the first establisher, catching and keeping moisture in to feed the other earth hugging, boundary plants.

We checked into Thornham, and settled at a table at the bar to do the business we came to do, write our Wills and Last Testaments. A surprisingly pleasant task to think of our legacies and turn our minds to this unthinkable – life after us.

Dinner at the Orange Tree, stylish, and well found by Michael. We got into conversation with a couple from inland Kettering, curious about Michael’s life. And what is your favourite play? she asked.

Wednesday – Michael’s 87th birthday

It began as the day continued around the subject of food, and I suppressed my nauseous over full feeling embracing breakfast of eggs Benedict. Table decked out in shells, Jeremy Fisher book, and lux sweets, to the enjoyment of the fellow breakfasters. A server, over hearing us talk Molly dancing, said she was a Molly dancer in desire, and left us by bidding Michael happy birthday ‘and when your full of breakfast we’ll come back and give you the bumps’ .

We walked in light drizzle to Thornham church with the intention of banking all passed churches – we failed. But started well. Thornham, a stump of a tower, a quaint door within a door which we had to step over into the nave. Inside heavily restored 1860s. Light with a clerestory, interesting looking heads evidently reused from an earlier church. We were puzzled by the rood screen which the guide describes as usually showing Old Testament profits rather than twelve apostles. Lazarus? St Barbara? Eyes scratched out in such visceral anger. Missed the bench ends representing anger drunkenness and sloth! A … made of iron gave a story. In Thornham Edith Eliza Armies Lyde dedicated her life to the village welfare after her husbands death and started the iron works, including a forge. It was finally closed after Ediths death in Shanghai 1920 .
Outside a well clipped yew hedge leading to the lynch gate, where we found another story.
Above the stone benches that sit opposite each other within the structure is an inscription that reads, ‘To the memory of Nathaniel Woods, 1862-1936. The last merchant to use the port of Thornham. Mary Agnes his wife 1863 -1937. Charles William their son 1897-1918 killed in action in France.’ ‘And to commemorate the Jessie Mary the two masted sailing cargo ship of 100 tons owned by Nathaniel Woods which entered Thornham harbour after her last voyage in 1914.’
Nathaniel Woods, described as a coal merchant, operated from the port at Thornham for several centuries. He and his ship, the Jessie Mary, would leave with grain and come back with coal. The coal barn he used is the building still standing at Thornham harbour. The story is well told here in anothers blog

St Mary’s Church Brancaster, another heavily restored by Victorian, had a notable font, it’s medieval gothic front cover held in place by a metal modern arch in the gothic style.

In search of cream tea Michael had picked up knowledge of in Cley, so to Cley we ventured, photographing the windmill painted up by his brother. Some walkers there did not know of where in Cley had cream teas and recommended Blakney so it was we ended up at Blakeney hotel the place I had always looked in, and finally I looked out. We avoided their formal cream tea of 19 quid and had scones jam and cream.

Dinner at our White Horse. Gone are the Czechs and that unexpected cosmopolitan out reach. Staff friendly enough, food tasty – muscles followed by duck, then classic lemon cake – but a sparkle missing or am I just too full and overdone? Michael was content. Brandy back at Thornham.

I will not be the man who, after retirement, devotes
His life to conservation of the land, repairs the
Boardwalk across the dunes.
I am not the one who knows or will know now
The names of wading birds, as once I had that hope
Introduced by David O’Neil – long dead now.
I will not pull the pints behind the bar of the life boat inn
Nor double up as the evening waiter
Then sort out the woman with the electric car
Who wants to run the charge cable to an inside plug.
Will I ever walk 20k a day again? Unlikely.
More like settle at 10 comfortably and be pleased with that.
Will I keep my mother’s belly I now find as I look down
No longer seeing my feet!

Morning walk to across the salt marshes, all the way to the sea, to bid farewell for another year. Car fully charged, we motored back to Suffolk, and I to the Elders in the wood.

In the car on the way home, Michael tells me he’s booked to return here next year. He’s got the court yard room, and booked for one dog. Kali is not certain. Nor are birthdays, but hope is glorious.

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