In my last but one blog I was a bit grumpy about the looming black cloud that is Christmas. It’s not the day itself, I quite like that, but the hype in the run-up – it’s so difficult to escape. There are times, and this is one, when the life of a lighthouse keeper seems very attractive. Sadly there are none left but not that many years ago this hardy breed had the perfect excuse for an escape from reality whilst performing a truly magnificent service to those at sea. This brings me to my Xmas quiz question and if you’re lucky I might remember to give you an answer in a later blog. Where on the UK’s inland waterways might one find a working lighthouse?
Christmas itself this year will be, for me, much like any other day. I am off duty but on-call and the dearly beloved is working so in the morning I will be delightfully home alone. I suppose I could send a letter to Santa wishing for a new train set to play with to while away the hours but sadly the prospect of that is as remote as me climbing Everest. I always had half a mind to build a model railway when I retired but as that looms nearer I am faced with the reality that I am actually going to be quite busy and modelling uses skills I just do not possess. There is a worry about Christmas Day, certainly until Mrs W comes home, that my old black dog might just get out of his kennel. I have written of this mood before and it is akin to that which Churchill called his “black dog” so if it’s good enough for him who am I to argue. This dark and foreboding mood may be triggered by distance from loved ones and that ever onward march of time that none of us can do anything about. My grandson will be many miles away (oh how I hope Skype is working) and my own father now in his mid-80’s even further.
The weather at Xmas is a very relevant factor. I would love to see a sprinkling of snow and for it to be cold and brisk although Sue would probably disagree as she has to be out on her rounds from 7 in the morning. We also have dinner to think about; despite my protestations of competence it would appear that we are going to eat out again. This sounds grand but is not easy to organise as we have to find somewhere that will still serve us when we turn up around 3pm after Sue’s work. This despite the fact that experience has taught us that even the best places can cock-up a Christmas Dinner – I’ve never really had a good one yet at the time we can get there. This year we’re trying somewhere new to us but there’s a bit of travelling involved so I don’t want too much white stuff.
On Christmas morning, if I drag myself up in time, I might take a run along the river (before your chins hit your chests I don’t mean that in a literal sense) particularly if it’s crisp and cold. If there’s any daylight left I might also attempt Cromer Pier after dinner, that appeals to me greatly.
101 years ago would have seen the navigations last Christmas and many of the wherries would have found their way to Aylsham for the holidays. Sadly the staithe is now a housing estate but they would have moored there and unloaded their cargoes in anticipation of some family time and rest. I suspect that the canny would already have on board the back load for Yarmouth so that they could get straight underway after the holidays. The route taken by these wherries no longer exists at the Aylsham end as it has been filled in as part of the earlier building and the construction in the 1970’s of the by-pass that now flies over the Bure at a great height. Had things turned out differently, which they could have done if the Navigation’s Commissioners had recognised the value of recreational cruising, they treated it as an irritating aside rather than the business opportunity it actually turned out to be, then Aylsham could be the centre of a hire boat cruising business. The thought of actually hiring a boat and crusing the Navigation as a means of escaping the season, now that really would be a great Christmas ….
Last Sunday Mrs W and I did a circular trip taking in the closing down sale at Comet in Norwich. You can have no idea how guilty I felt about going there – I don’t for one minute know why but it made me distinctly uneasy although Sue had no such qualms and purchased a kettle and a toaster both very reasonably. Anyway I digress as our ultimate destination was Tesco where another inordinately large sum of money got spent on cat food but I suppose that’s the price of having 5 of the little darlings. Between the two we went for Sunday lunch at the Mrs Potts café in Aylsham which for those that don’t know it is at the opposite end of Red Lion Street from the market. We were virtually the only ones in there at the time which is a pity as the food was good and reasonably priced. Aylsham is blessed with eateries but this one is just a little away from the centre and you have to walk to it. It’s a clean, friendly establishment and you can sit there and watch the world going by or not as it happens on a Sunday when things are very quiet in this part of town.
Red Lion Street is part of old Aylsham and I doubt if it is much changed visually (apart from the traffic) this last 100 years. The wherrymen of old would recognise it still but they would find a street that, and I’m sorry if this is controversial, now looks more than a little sorry for itself. Many of the shops are empty and others appear tired all of which gives a depressing air and I for one would love to see it rejuvenated. The nearer you get to the market square the more economic activity there appears to be but even here there is decay and nothing could be done, for example, to save Clarke’s. Two things would help I think and the first of these is to restrict the traffic although that would also create its own dynamic in other ways and I mustn’t forget that it is on a bus route. Far too much traffic, some large, use this street and the pavements are so narrow that even the hardy can feel threatened. Deliveries are also a problem as a lorry or van parked can create a jam in double quick time. The second thing is an economic imperative and this falls in to the realm of personal opinion but I would like to see a lively selection of niche market shops that draw their own clientèle and offer attractive goods and services. If it was in my ability I would subsidise this type of business until they were established and provide economic support in the form of rate and rent holidays. Of course had the Navigation survived it would undoubtedly be different as the footfall along Red Lion Street would be much greater as the tourists plodded their way to the town centre from the staithe.
This photograph shows Red Lion Street in 1965 and an earlier site for Clarke’s. It’s changed little in the intervening 47 years and I suspect that it was much like this 53 years earlier at the end of the Navigation. As an aside the Plunkett family have given their permission for their fathers photograph to be used by me here and there are many more of his pictures at the dedicated website including some of the Broads and the boats that sailed on them. It’s well worth a look if you’ve got the time. There is one picture in particular that I like of the ship Rotterdam photographed in 1934 in Norwich which reminds us that until relatively recently Norwich was an inland port visited by coasters and these low bridge class of short sea traders capable of riverine traffic in Europe and the UK. As usual I’m now digressing but the history of Norwich as a port is a fascinating one.
After my musing about Red Lion Street I got to thinking about how much the wherrymen would recognise along the way, not just in Aylsham and I came to the conclusion that there’s quite a bit that is unchanged on the surface or at least by the river. Buxton and Aylsham are probably the most changed with Brampton and Oxnead the least. The last mile in to Aylsham doesn’t actually exist as it did for the wherrymen but if you can suspend time for a minute and take a walk from where the staithe was to the market square there is more than enough that those of old would recognise. I suspect it would become more familiar the nearer they got to the town centre.
On that wonderful programme Countryfile last Sunday, in the evening after we had got home and I had enjoyed my customary snooze, there was an article debating the reintroduction into the UK of the European Lynx. As a cat lover I would support this and it would help keep the deer population in check but only if it’s done in the wilder areas as I doubt that Lynx and domesticated farm animals would mix well..
It would have to be understood of course that the cat food purchased in our household was for our own small felines. It’s bad enough that sometimes we feed the interlopers that sneak in through the cat flap including one very cunning but engaging feral with whom we have had a running battle for many months. Bonny, the kitten, hasn’t had a mention for some months and that is because she has decided that she is Sue’s personal lion guarding her lap at each and every possible occasion. I am not here as far as she is concerned except for those rare times when Sue is at work, I am on rest day and Bonny wants a fuss- then she comes and jumps on me demanding strokes with menaces. We have 5 cats but try as we might not to there are individual favourites; mine is Poppy our ginger Siamese, the product of a champion queen and a feral domestic. She is referred to in this house as the Norfolk Rex as she does have very pronounced stripes around the face. She sits here with me as I type; I should explain that normally I sit down and pour out whatever rubbish comes in to my head and then upload it straight away but sometimes I’m a bit more organised and prepare these ramblings in advance and this is just such an occasion. She is sat with the sun coming through the window catching her beautiful colouration and she simply shines like gold. She’s beautiful and knows it but clever too and always knows which buttons to press with me to get her own way. Anyway I have rambled far too long so until the next time – bye bye …….
Now don’t get me wrong I absolutely love Christmas but I can’t stand the build up which seems to start earlier every year. For me Christmas should start about noon on the 24th and be over by the close of play on Boxing Day. I don’t even want to start thinking about it until the middle of December and then only as a passing thought. I absolutely hate shopping at the best of times so Christmas present buying is a serious no-go area for me although I have had to pay it some early attention this year as I now have a grandson to consider and there are some serious family logistics involved which means I’m likely to see him in early December and then not at all over the festive period – it’s a thought which saddens me as Christmas (religion apart for a minute) is a time for family and in particular the children.
The ability to shop online is a real boon for me as I don’t have to face the crowds and jostle and the purchases are delivered to me rather than having to struggle home with them. Half an hour, or so, on the computer has replaced several desperate afternoons shopping in town and that makes me kind of happy. However I can’t get out of my mind that I am contributing to the change that is slowly coming over our cities and towns. At least by shopping people have to be employed to serve me and to carry the goods to the shop etc. The cafés and restaurants benefit from my frustration when I just have to have a cup of tea or a steaming latte to escape however briefly in to my own little world. Now I can make my own tea and press a few buttons. True somebody in an anonymous and highly automated warehouse has a job that didn’t previously exist and the courier trade does very well but I suspect that margins there are very tight due to fuel prices.
Go back 200 years and a not dis-similar situation existed although it was delightfully slow and immediacy didn’t happen. There you are sat in your cottage in Brampton, Burgh or Oxnead as an example. A new piece of furniture would have been a very significant purchase but delivery was a nightmare. Never fear – buy from a Great Yarmouth store or maker and they will deliver. Actually the wherryman would deliver as the courier service of the day. The wherry would wind its way up the Bure and through the locks to your village staithe and from there it would, one assumes, be barrowed to the grateful recipient. The carriage of consumer goods was a secondary trade for the wherries and I doubt if much money was ever made from it but it would have made a real difference to those living in the villages along the Bure.
My interest in the Aylsham Navigation was first triggered by just such an event. My wife who had lived here for many years before we met had an old couple as friends now sadly no longer with us. One day I was in the small front room of their one up – one down cottage (well it was originally but by then it had a kitchen added) and remarked on the grandfather clock bearing the name of a Great Yarmouth maker that sat in the corner of the room. The old lady very matter of factly remarked that it arrived in Brampton by wherry. My interest was roused and the rest, they say is history.
Christmas must have been a difficult time on the Navigation as winter cargoes, except for coal and burning timber, were few and far between but somehow they had to keep going. It would seem that somehow they transpired to be home for Christmas day but they would be sailing the day before and the one after. My sort of Christmas really ………
The staithe in Brampton was very near the Island and that reminds me to point out that, contrary to indications on the ground, there is a 1 metre wide footpath through that location running parallel with the river. The landowner lost a public enquiry over this issue and the County Council having very little money are not jumping to the defence of local walkers here. It is your right to walk through the island, don’t lose it by default.
It’s been a funny sort of week with paid work dominating my time although I have managed to get to both an antique and collectors fair and also an auction on my day off. Auctions are things I love and after a while non-attendance becomes an itch I just have to scratch. The fair was mixed as the dearly beloved Mrs W came with me and was responsible for emptying my wallet but I did manage a couple of purchases for myself and for some reason they developed a theme. Firstly I purchased some Cunard ephemera including a programme of daily events aboard the Queen Elizabeth during an Atlantic crossing in 1955 and very illuminating of the times that proves to be. Also included in this ephemera is a Cunard QE tie which I might even get to wear later this week. Then there was a full set of menu cards for a cruise on RMS Canberra in the mid 1990’s towards the end of her life. I did manage to beat the price down a bit which is just as well as the seller was adamant that it was for the Canberra’s last cruise but a little bit of research when I got home proved that this was not the case.
Fast forward to the auction and the only thing that caught my eye and pocket was a limited edition print of the Queen Elizabeth departing Southampton by the artist Simon Fisher. It’s a nice thing and I think I got a bargain but now I’ve got to find room for it.
All of this liner based buying got me to wondering about hotel boats. This musing came from the undeniable thought that the Cunarders were 5 star floating hotels as well as a transport medium from the days when they were the only way of getting to the other side of the world. They were not however the only floating hotels as the narrow canals have their share. They are however very different beasts to the liners of Cunard. They are mostly converted working boats taking very few people but in some comfort although by the very size of the craft the space is very limited. Guests are positively encouraged to help with locks and navigation and can even be found peeling the spuds but this doesn’t detract from their enjoyment of holiday pleasure. I can’t imagine somehow being invited on to the bridge to drive a Cunarder (although it would be lovely). All of this however got me wondering.
The Norfolk Broads would be an ideal area for hotel boats – they have them on the continent on similar systems so why not here. They are compact enough to provide the customer with a great cruising experience mooring somewhere different every night. Now I may be wrong but I don’t think that the hotel boat concept has ever been embraced on the Broads. The pleasure wherries came close but they were more skippered yachts than a “hotel” experience. Had the Aylsham Navigation remained open I do know that it would have made a spectacular extension to any cruise, hotel or otherwise. Who knows it could have hosted a home base for a working hotel boat.
I’ve noticed that the latest Euro-millions lottery draw is approaching obscene levels again so who knows some lucky winner might even invest in a new take on Broads tourism.