Fakenham was famously declared the most boring town on Earth by the ‘Knowhere Guide’ a few years ago, giving it a magnetism that I found irresistible. I always park up on the outskirts of town and walk in, to get a feel for a place. In Fakenham, you couldn’t help but notice the number of properties undergoing renovations and improvements. Boring or not, Fakenham was certainly in the middle of a boom of sorts. As my walk took me towards the church tower overlooking the market place, the path became shared by many others, busloads of pensioners pouring into the town like the match-day crowd heading to the ground for the big game at Geriatric FC. The turning circle was jammed with busses and minivans, and more were arriving every minute. Fakenham market certainly wasn’t boring, filling the square and spilling out into the side roads, high quality fare too, food and drink, flowers, crafts. The sun shone, and Fakenham charmed me.
One old man walked past, jangling as coins fell from his trouser leg and into the street, clearly the result of a pocket with a hole in. I gathered them all up and chased him, handing them back. He reacted as most people do to an unexpected conversation with me, with deep concern, before realisation set in, and his face turned into a broad grin.
I picked a busking spot just down one of the two main shopping streets off the market place. It was a good pitch, and just as well, as the rain in Cromer had seen me behind with my expenses for the week. Pound coins formed a pleasing scatter in my fiddle case. There wasn’t much shrapnel, it was either a pound or nothing here.
In a lovely moment of karma, the Gentleman whose money I had rescued earlier came by and returned the whole lot to my case with a big thumbs up. The sun shone, and I played with freedom, risking more complicated pieces, finding my zone with the fiddle. Some people stopped for conversations. The pace of life was good. After a couple of hours, a man emerged from the coffee shop across the way, and marched purposefully towards me. ‘Here we go’ I thought, expecting to be asked politely to go away as I was turning the ham or something. Instead he told me how much he was enjoying it and would I like a coffee on the house?
At lunchtime, I repaid the faith and bought a sandwich from them, before heading to Fakenham’s most important attraction, the Museum of Gas. I’d read it was only open on Thursdays, but unfortunately, the information I had been lacking was that it was only some Thursdays and generally only till midday. Which was a great shame, as I knew from a previous visit that it is England’s only fully preserved town gasworks, containing the last surviving retort, and a unique room showcasing the history of the Geyser boiler.
It’s not that long ago that every town would have had a gasworks, where trainloads of coal were cooked to release the gas that households demanded. They were part of everyday life. The rise of North Sea Gas in the 1960s put them all out of business, and in a generation they were swept away, wiped from the map and completely forgotten. Fakenham’s is the last standing in England. When I visited previously, my appearance at the door caused a sharp intake of breath and a panic to work out where the till had been put after the previous customer, weeks ago. It’s the same problem with Queen Street Mill in Lancashire, the last fully operational cotton mill. It’s just too close to home, and rather than historical interest, for many, it’s still that place where Grandma lost her hearing and her fingers. Visiting it before its most recent closure, I’d been the only punter all week.
We are a country so full of history we don’t really know how to deal with it. Who decides what counts as important? Recent or unfashionable history struggles to find a space. People don’t feel sentimental about more modern history yet, just resentful. Things have to survive a generation of being what people want to forget and put behind them before they become what people want to remember, and a great deal is lost before it gets there. I take my hat off to those who recognise and preserve that which hasn’t made it to the second stage yet. I often wonder which is to be England’s first heritage motorway. The gas museum struggles to find its place.
As the weather was fair and I was behind, I opted to continue busking. Picking the other shopping street, I played on, as the market finished at 2pm and was dismantled. For an hour and three-quarters I played, before vowing to finish if a tune went past where nobody gave me anything. Even as the footfall dropped away to almost nothing, I kept receiving generous donations, and finally at 3.30pm, I called it a day. I’d made a solid £19 an hour throughout the day, had some good conversations, and enjoyed playing.
I wandered for a while to see what I could find, but Fakenham was sleepy now, and without the energy of the market, perhaps the Knowhere guide had a point. I had clearly seen it on the right day. There was nothing left to do here, so I drove North to the coast and Wells-Next-The-Sea.
The thing about Wells-Next-The-Sea is that it can’t decide if it’s any good or not. Cheap amusement arcades stand alongside restaurants recommended by the Times. The main street was a mixture of high end and junk. I passed a shop called ‘Never-ending Dreams’. It was closed.
The other thing about Wells-Next-The-Sea is that it isn’t next to the sea any more. All the land eroded from the Cromer area has been gradually re-allocated to here by the tides, meaning that the sea itself is now over a mile away.
Whilst medieval villages might have moved and rebuilt themselves, the modern world is too rooted and invested to do that, so vast resources are spent to keep channels open through the mud banks so that the water still makes it to the quay. So after the obligatory row of rock shops, arcades, warehouses, the quay, the row of boats, there’s a mile of land with channels cut through. It’s bizarre and artificial. I had an ice-cream, and watched the tide arrive in chunks. It’s a sign of the modern world, where rather than react to the changing face of nature, enormous resources are expended to deny the change and keep things just so. How far out would the coastline have to go before they stopped? Wells-Not-Very-Near-The-Sea? Wells-Miles-From-The-Sea? Wells-Well-Inland?
The next day I went to King’s Lynn for a couple of hours on my way home. It feels like a big place, although the population is only 42,000. It clearly benefits from being the only large town in the region. There were already several buskers at work. I watched one man play his guitar, in the shade of a doorway of one of the few empty units in town. After a couple of songs I gave him a coin. He was friendly.
“Do you want this pitch? I’m not here for long. I’ve got my mental health review at 1pm.”
I said I was happy to find my own pitch but maybe I’d be back near 1pm. He rolled a cigarette and I carried on round the corner. The best pitch in town was taken by a singer called Richard, who had the works, a full PA, a table of merchandise, and a series of wicker collecting baskets. He was wearing sunglasses and singing light classics with an operatic voice. He was very good, if you like that sort of thing. Clearly many did, and he was doing a good trade. He told me that his sort of performance wasn’t really busking as he had to apply for licences for the PA and the CD sales, and he saw himself as a performer rather than a busker. He’d been doing it for years and had built up good relationships with the people who run town centres all over the UK. He claimed to have sold 20,000 CDs on the pitch over the years. He told me tastes had changed, and these days people wanted renditions of film songs and the like, as opposed to the light classical repertoire he used to perform. He felt it was a dying trade though, as fewer people carried cash, and even fewer bought CDs these days.
I headed well down the road and busked outside Nandos. It wasn’t open yet, but a queue started to form at the door. At midday, when it should have opened, there was still nobody present, and people became quite agitated, and lots of phone calls were made. I moved on, and found the guitarist heading out. He said I could have his old pitch, so I jumped in quick and did another hour, before heading out and away back home.
I’d be returing to Norfolk in a week, to visit Norwich, before heading south to Essex.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!