For my week in North Norfolk, I was staying with Jess, an old school friend who was living with her parents between overseas teaching jobs. I rocked up at the village of Erpingham and was warmly greeted by all three. I got a suitably formal “How do you do?” and a handshake from her father, whilst her mother greeted me with a hug and “Ooh, you’ve aged.”
Erpingham is an extremely well off village about 8 miles inland from Cromer. After dinner, Jess and I went for a walk to the pub, taking the long way round to see the whole area. The village is arranged around a large area of common land, sodden from winter, low-lying and lush. I was immediately drawn to the commons notice board.
“Thwaite Common Toad Patrol 2018.
Toads moved to Safety – 1509
Frogs moved to safety – 414
Common Newts moved to safety – 256
Great Crested Newts moved to safety – 7
Total number of amphibians moved to safety – 2186
Our number of Common Newts saved remains relatively high, being 256 set against a combined total of 287 for all twenty-one of the other Norfolk toad-watch sites.”
The church is lonely and distant, behind a low hill, the top of the tower just visible over the crown, so it is the commons that forms the spiritual heart of the village. As we walked around the perimeter, Jess gave me the gossip. I heard about the naturist vicar, who was neither a naturist or a vicar, the ongoing spat about the lady with 20 cats, whose neighbour installed a large sign saying “Sorry there’s no beautiful flowerbeds, the cats have shit on them.” before installing electric fences to stop them worrying the wildlife. These were removed after they cooked a number of hedgehogs. I heard the controversy over the incomer who immediately built his own helipad. A compromise was reached which limited his total number of permitted flights. He has a particularly large and neon windsock, not thought to be in keeping with the usual flagpole material.
The circuit continued. Gardens boasted impossibly perfect tulips, verges were thick with the softness of yellow primroses. Pastel red brick and flinty knobbled walls. Dutch gabled thatch barns and pan-tiled roofs. Each with a story. It seemed to me there was a minor scandal to every house. Not so much Midsomer murders as Midsomer post-it-notes. The village was largely a retirement community. Reasonably affluent people from all over had bought in to spend their later years here, and each had arrived with a grim determination to be heavily involved in community life. With people from all over the UK, there was a wide range of views about how things should be done, and the commons represented a cauldron into which all these competing visions were mixed. The result being that every time someone arrived and joined one of the numerous village committees, a new faction was born. The parish boundary was the event horizon. It was another world beyond that, alien and incomprehensible. The community focused inwards, and relentlessly moved ever greater volumes of amphibians into their midst.
At the end of the walk, we made it to the pub, the Alby Horseshoes. We were greeted with a single welcoming bark by a bear of a dog, grown sturdy on discarded pork scratchings. The pub served a good pint of Wherry, the celebrated local ale, and decades of back-issues of MG owner’s club magazine were available for the drinkers to peruse. On the notice board, there was an advert for a function band. There were two contact names and numbers given, but one was scribbled out with a biro. I wondered if it was a falling out, or a deceasement.
In the other room, the local vocal group were practicing. The landlord told me they were “The Wherrymen”. About half a dozen old men and a synthesiser, their repertoire consisted of wartime songs and music hall material. For the first time, I heard the Norfolk accent clearly, most noticeable in the phrasing rather than the pronunciation. Soft and languid, taking its time but always getting there. The synthesiser player decided to break it up, and followed ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ by hitting the ‘Disco’ button and playing a spirited version of Abba’s ‘Mamma Mia!’ to the backing track.
“They’ll be as old as us now” I heard afterwards. “Have to go on stage with their walking sticks too!”
They packed down. I asked them if they were practicing for anything in particular. They said they had a gig in an old people’s home on Thursday. It was 9:30pm and being the last customers in, we drank up and let the landlord take an early night. The walk back took us down a narrow path, a ‘loke’ in the dialect. The trees were fat with pigeons. Our passing in the dark put them up, sudden bursts of feathers against branch, awkwardly lifting bodies grown plump on so many bird feeders in so many floral gardens.
The village had recently celebrated the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, meaningful because Sir Thomas Erpingham, Lord of the manor, had been in charge of the archers who proved so decisive. It had been a good career move, and he’d been able to invest considerably in the village and church. In honour of the anniversary, a new village sign had been commissioned, with the central picture designed by the local school children. They had gone for the direct and historically accurate approach, as their approved design featured captured and executed French soldiers hanging limp and lifeless from branches. ‘Welcome to Erpingham’, it said underneath.
I attended coffee club, something of a village institution. On Wednesday mornings for an hour and a half, it’s coffee, cake, and chat in the village hall. Everyone mucks in on a rota, and what profit they make on it goes to various good causes. It is hugely popular, with around 60 people attending each month. They were nearly all retirees, with just a few young mothers and children. I joined their table. It was a jolly mess of stickle-bricks and colouring books. A young boy was removing the heads from the stickle-brick characters, and placing them disembodied on a large yellow sheet, like captives buried in sand, smeared in jam and awaiting the release of the killer ants.
The local school has pioneered a form of teaching called ‘Flexi-schooling’ aiming to be a halfway house between formal schooling and home schooling. So many children are home schooled in Norfolk that the school was on the verge of closing with just a dozen pupils remaining. Now providing the option to come to school on a split basis, it’s completely full again and thriving, some children even reverting to full time as they enjoy the laid back atmosphere and outdoor focus it provides.
I made my way round other tables. I was introduced to all kinds of people, including the ebullient Dr Harrison (retired), who, peering over his glasses, expressed astonishment that I could possibly have been to a mixed comprehensive, and a couple who had recently been beneficiaries of the coffee club, as the Gentleman was travelling to Cambridge for essential medical treatment, and couldn’t otherwise afford the travel. They were genuinely emotional about the support they’d received.
Speaking to so many retirees, I was struck with how busy they all were. With a plethora of village committees and clubs to join and manage, open garden competitions, maintaining the common, indoor bowls, walking football, amphibian patrol, they were all operating at capacity. “I know it’s a cliché, but I don’t know how I had time to work.” I heard again and again.
Wealthy, successful people with a history of getting difficult jobs done were retiring here in numbers, and focusing their considerable talents and drive on the minutiae of village life. There were retired bomb disposal experts, successful businessmen, head teachers, people from demanding and stressful jobs, bringing a lifetime’s experience in dealing with complex issues to bear on the village hall cleaning rota. Their drive was not being switched off, but diverted to the mundane. It risked producing petty rivalries, factionalism, and conflict where there was no need, but also the organisation and commitment to work as a community to support those who most needed it. And there was no denying that the village was also exquisitely attractive throughout, perfect gardens and neatly trimmed hedges crowning the central wildness of the common land, tall grasses and the nervous pinpoint gaze of deer.
Late that afternoon, I drove to the church of St Mary. Now alone, the village was reputed to have surrounded it before the plague came, when the fearful residents abandoned their houses and re-founded a mile away around the common. It’s a strange sight, an unpulled tooth on a hummock of higher ground. I let myself in. The considerable tower and much of the insides were built by Sir Thomas Erpingham in the aftermath of his unlikely away victory in the European cup. His father is buried here, with an exquisite brass effigy over the tomb. You can make a rubbing of it for a “minimum donation of £5”.
I let myself out and wandered round the back of the graveyard to see if I could spot any evidence of the missing village. The fields were deep ploughed and featureless. The ground beneath my feet had that graveyard softness of deep greens and long unturned soils. Bees passed my ears. Late afternoon sunlight fell through air where rain had been an hour before, landing on saturated ground and dancing on new green leaves. I stood at peace and took it in.
A car came spitting up the gravelled driveway in a hurry. I knew immediately what was happening. Somebody must have phoned the church warden to say there was an undesirable looking character poking around. I was well hidden, in the jungle at the end of a barely tended graveyard, and he did not see me as he rushed into the church, no doubt bracing to confront a ruffian. I saw him, though. It was the larger than life Dr Harrison (retired) from coffee club. Excellent. I made my way quietly down the side of the great flint tower, and as he emerged, relieved to seemingly be alone and undisturbed, greeted him with a hearty “Good afternoon, Doctor!”
It wasn’t fair on him, but he took it in good grace. After all, politeness dictated he could hardly say he’d thought I’d come to steal the lead.
Erpingham is one of hundreds of little places, out of the way, off the main tracks, down a thousand twisting lanes across Norfolk. You learn to navigate by church towers. From any one church, you can routinely see five more, and each tower has a character and a place in the cloth of the land. Later, I tried navigating from Holt to Erpingham by church tower, and managed easily. The land was starting to open up to me, and I felt the rhythm of it. When you are about 8 miles from Erpingham, you start seeing the road signs for it, which continue until you are maybe 3 miles away. Then, you only see signs to places further down the road. It’s as if when you get close, there’s a collective loss of confidence about exactly where it is. ‘It’s around here somewhere. The rest is up to you.’ I allowed myself the fantasy of believing this to be to do with the movement of the village after the plague, and the concept of Erpingham as a vague area that the village would be within, although nobody could ever say quite where at any given moment. Each time the mist lifted, you’d have the learn the roads again.
On my final evening here, Jess and I walked the fields towards two of the other churches in the Benefice, Alby, and Thwaite. The churches are so old as to feel timeless, but the hedgerows have long fallen to the plough, opening up the gaps between each tower to deep, curving views, speckled with clean, rain-washed flints, brought to the surface in the till. It’s spring and the fields are still mostly low, fresh ploughed or seedlings in dense industrial lines. You can be a giant or a mouse as you wish between the rare boundaries. The sky is just as big either way.
In every direction, picture-postcard villages, with their churches and round, flinted towers, populated by brilliant and successful people, spending their retirement and still considerable energies and faculties on creating a community whose sole unifying feature is the insistence they should create a community. Under the vast sky, an invisible and densely knitted matrix of committees, clubs, societies, and Parish councils furiously move the earth, one primrose at a time, back and forth, in an unfinishable quest to sculpt their Eden on earth.
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