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I visited the Norfolk town of Thetford a year earlier but didn’t do my research properly and the Dad’s Army Museum wasn’t open. The reason was that it is run by volunteers who have jobs to go to and only opens on a Saturday so this year I made sure that we went there on the right day.
This post isn’t going to make a lot of sense to overseas readers because Dad’s Army was an English situation comedy which was first broadcast in 1968 and fifty years later remains one of the funniest and most popular of all BBC programmes. I am a huge fan and will happily sit through endless reruns of the shows.
It is set during the Second World War and is a story about the British Home Guard which was a amateur defence force army made up of local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service either because of age (hence the name “Dad’s Army”) or by being in professions exempt from conscription. Their job was to defend Britain against a German invasion force of Panzer Tanks and battalions of crack Wehrmacht troops. This was most unlikely and is the real basis of the whole series of programmes.
The show called the fictional town they defended Walmington-on-Sea which was said to be on the south coast of England but it was actually filmed in Thetford in East Anglia.
In 2004 Dad’s Army was voted fourth in a BBC poll to find Britain’s Best Sitcom. It had previously been placed thirteenth in a list of the one hundred Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000.
English humour is the finest in the World but doesn’t always travel that well but just watch this little scene which was voted the funniest ever Dad’s Army gag line of the entire series (over eighty programmes) to get a little flavour of the show…
American humour especially struggles to cope with British wit and interestingly a pilot US show based on Dad’s Army was tried and piloted. It was called Rear Guard but flopped badly and never made it into a full series. If you watch this disaster then you will understand why…
The little museum turned out to be a real treasure store, crammed full of memorabilia relating to the series, pictures, video clips, scrap books, newspaper articles and pictures and photographs of all the stars. Kim is not such a big fan of Dad’s Army as I am but enjoyed this place just as much as I did. We stayed longer than expected and then finished with a cup of tea and a cake at the Marigold Tea Room which is a recreation of one of the sets famous from the series.
The star of the show was an actor called Arthur Lowe who played the lead character of Captain Mainwaring. There is a statue of both of them, as it were, in the centre of the town by the riverside (The Little Ouse) so after the museum we made our way through the town and the Saturday market and found the Captain sitting pompously as ever down by the waterside.
It was always going to be hard to follow the visit to the Dad’s Army Museum and so it proved when on the way back to the car park we visited the Ancient House Museum which had a few interesting items but didn’t detain us very long and soon after we were on the road again and on the way to the caravan park destination.
Along the route we chose another National Trust property and forever keen to get maximum value for our annual membership we called in at Ickworth House bear Bury St. Edmunds.
It turned out to be an interesting stop at an unusual eighteenth century stately home built in the Italianate style with a huge central rotunda and two complimentary wings to the east and the west. There are a sequence of rooms to pass through, first the servant’s quarters below stairs and then the largely Victorian rooms of the nobility and upper classes who once lived there.
We stayed for an hour or so and then completed our journey to the village of Kessingland on the extreme east coast of England.
We had intended to arrive first at the caravan so that we could organise the arrival of my daughter and grand-children in an orderly way but we were delayed by supermarket shopping and they arrived before us and by the time we turned up Sally and the children had the place looking just the way they like it – rather like England would have looked like if the German Panzer Divisions had successfully invaded and passed through in 1941.
We dealt with the unpacking as best we could and then in early evening to satisfy the children made our way to the nearby beach and although it had been a very warm day I have to say that I didn’t expect to find myself swimming in the North Sea at seven o’clock in the evening. This was probably my first time in the North Sea for about fifty years or so, since I was a boy on family holidays but under intense pressure from grandchildren…
… the North Sea, let me tell you, is not the warmest water in the World!
A couple of years ago a good pal introduced me to the experience of modern caravanning.
I had taken quite a lot of persuading. I remembered staying in a caravan in about 1970 and I said that I would never ever to do it again. I have consistently maintained that I just do not understand caravanning at all or why people subject themselves to the misery of a holiday in a tin box with no running water, chemical toilets and fold away beds, I could see no pleasure in it whatsoever.
I am pleased to be able to report however that modern caravans are much improved and imagine my shock then when I tell you that I was so impressed with our holiday caravan accommodation which had all of the facilities of a modern home with central heating, hot and cold running water, a bathroom with a shower, electricity and a fully equipped kitchen.
I instantly became a caravan fan.
Earlier in the year my daughter invited us along on a camping holiday. Not being a fan of tents and not even willing to try it I turned the opportunity down but offered the alternative of a modern luxury caravan. She didn’t take a lot of persuading, it turns out that she is not such a big fan of camping either!
So, when the day arrived we packed the car and headed south to the county of Suffolk in East Anglia. Traditionally in England families took one week holidays from Saturday to Saturday and my Dad used to like to travel on a Friday to avoid the traffic so fifty years later we did the same. I thought that this was a good idea but it seems however that holiday habits have changed and now everyone travels on a Friday!
It was only a short journey of about one hundred and fifty miles but we had to use the A17 route which is a major English road which takes almost all of the traffic from the North of England into East Anglia and consequently some days it can become horribly congested. This was one of those days.
Find an easier way I hear you say but sadly there is no way of avoiding the A17 because of the topography of the region. To get into Norfolk from Lincolnshire it is necessary to pass close by to a stretch of water called The Wash which is a large chunk of water in the coastline of Eastern England that separates the north-east coast of East Anglia from the wetlands and the Fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Building roads over bogs is difficult it seems.
Four major rivers flow into The Wash, The Witham, The Welland, The Nene and the Great Ouse and except for the most northerly, The Witham, which is relatively easy to get across, the other three are crossed by the single carriageway A17 and there is simply no sensible alternative route so all of the traffic converges close to Boston in Lincolnshire and then crawls along the A17 for about thirty miles or so until it gets past King’s Lynn in Norfolk. It makes for a dreadfully frustrating journey.
When you finally get past King’s Lynn the A17 ends and joins the A47 which is another horrible road which brings all of the traffic into Norfolk from the East Midlands and everyone going for an East Coast holiday from the cities of Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Peterborough so even though there are no more rivers to cross there isn’t a great deal of improvement in traffic flow.
As a consequence of this our journey into East Anglia took considerably longer than anticipated and we were about two hours behind schedule by the time we finally arrived at our first planned stop, a National Trust property called Oxburgh Hall which is situated into the village of Oxborough. I’m afraid I have no explanation to offer as to why the spellings do not match.
Oxburgh turned out to be a fabulous place, nice gardens, woodland walks and a moated Medieval House in a good state of preservation. So we walked the grounds and visited the house and looked out for the highlight feature of the property, a Priest Hole, open for visit and inspection.
A Priest Hole was a hiding place in Tudor and Stuart times for Catholic Priests during the religious persecutions of the Reformation. Several important members of the Nobility and their families remained defiantly but secretly true to the Catholic faith and in large important houses provided these hiding places for resident priests and various items of Catholic paraphernalia. The penalty for being discovered and captured was severe with the certainty of horrible torture (almost as bad as driving the A17) and the liklihood of painful death so these Priest’s Holes had to very cunningly designed and built.
A man called Nicholas Owen is famous for carrying out this work in a number of great houses and so crafty were they in their planning that even today it is suggested that they may not all have been found. At Oxburgh he came up with a sort of sunken pit concealed in the solid interior brick work of the house and with access through a false floor and just a tiny corridor.
The really interesting thing about this one is that visitors are allowed to go down through the floor and narrow entrance and go inside to have a look.
I sent Kim down first to check it out…
It is quite a tight squeeze but once inside it isn’t so bad although I wouldn’t want to spend a few days down there in the dark with no bathroom facilities.
Nicholas Owen was captured in 1606 and taken to the Tower of London where he was mercilessly tortured for ten days as the authorities sought to discover all of his Priest Hole stories. He never gave in and eventually died and all of his secrets went with him. Owen was canonised as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
Today, Catholic stage magicians who practice Gospel Magic consider Saint Nicholas Owen to be the Patron Saint of Illusionists and Escapologists. His Feast Day is celebrated on 22nd March.
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“Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” – John Adams (Second President of the United States)
After four nights it was time to leave our luxury caravan holiday home and return to Grimsby so after we had cleaned up and made sure everything was spick-and-span I took a last look around to make sure we had left it in good order before locking the door and moving on.
I had really enjoyed it here in Great Yarmouth and I was already looking forward to my next cheap caravan holiday in Whitley Bay in Northumbria the following month.
We had a full day ahead of us now so whilst in East Anglia we planned a day which took in both eastern counties of Suffolk and Norfolk.
My pal wanted to drive into Yarmouth but I didn’t agree that this was such a great idea through the morning rush hour traffic so after visit to McDonalds for breakfast buns we abandoned that part of the plan and drove directly west which was generally against the flow of traffic making its tedious way into the bottle-neck town.
We drove now to the Suffolk town of Framlington which is a small, rather unremarkable place except for the fact that it has an impressive medieval castle with imposing walls and towers which was once the home of the Dukes of Norfolk who were forever scheming and stirring up rebellious trouble in Tudor England.
It is a good castle, not the best, it reminded me of Richmond in Yorkshire, there are no internal buildings left, all long since demolished but there is an impressive stone wall and 360° walk around the top of the castle walls and defences from which there are fine views of the town and the surrounding countryside.
After stopping briefly for a drink in a nearby pub where my pal almost caused a riot by asking the local drinkers what made them different from Norfolk people we moved on directly back to Norfolk and the town of Thetford which is only just across the border in the neighbouring county.
Thetford also has a castle but we weren’t looking for that today, instead we were interested in the two most famous things about the town – The revolutionary philosopher Thomas Paine and the television comedy programme, Dad’s Army which was filmed around these parts.
We looked first for the riverside statue of Captain Mainwaring, the officer in command of Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard and found it which will mean nothing to readers from outside the UK but which is one of the most successful sit-com programmes from the BBC in the last fifty years. I had a row with my pal here because he seems to be incapable of taking a straight photograph, always excusing himself with the explanation that what he is doing is art. Every picture on a slant as though I was standing on the side of a hill.
We found the hotel where the cast of the TV series used to stay when filming and then the ‘Dad’s Army’ museum which was sadly closed today but only make me promise myself that I would plan a return visit to this very fine town.
As we wandered around the attractive town centre we came eventually to the statue of Thomas Paine, the most famous son of Thetford and arguably of Norfolk and all of East Anglia, perhaps even of all of England.
Paine was a radical revolutionary, a sort of proto-Marxist, a latter day Leveller, a real trouble maker, an all round (excuse the pun) pain in the ass to the establishment of late eighteenth century England and he didn’t come from London or Bristol, not even Ipswich or Norwich but from sleepy little Thetford.
He published a pamphlet called Agrarian Justice exploring the origins of property, openly challenged the concept of monarchy, introduced the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, supported the abolition of slavery and questioned the very concept of Christianity, as a consequence of which only six people attended his funeral.
How wonderful it is that history often delivers theses delicious little curve-balls and reminds me that I am privileged to live in the greatest country in the modern World.
Paine supported both the American Revolution (one of the Founding Fathers no less) and the French Revolution and his most important work was The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by the law. In 1792 he was elected to the French National Convention. The Girondists regarded him as an ally, the Montagnards, especially Robespierre, as an enemy and eventually he was arrested but escaped the guillotine and was allowed to travel to the USA
The Declaration is included in the beginning of the constitutions of both the Fourth French Republic (1946) and Fifth (1958) and is still current. Inspired by the philosophers of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire and Rousseau, the Declaration was a core statement of the values of the French Revolution and had a major impact on the development of freedom and democracy in Europe and Worldwide.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is considered so significant that it is considered to be as important as Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the United States Bill of Rights and inspired in large part the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That I suggest is a fairly important legacy and it is rather smug to sit here and think that an Englishmen shaped the American Revolution and the Constitution of the USA except of course we now have Donald Trump and poor Thomas Paine in his grave somewhere in the state of New York is probably on a permanent Hotpoint spin-cycle
A year ago my pal introduced me to the experience of modern caravanning.
I took quite a lot of persuading. I stayed in a caravan in about 1970 and I said that I would never ever to do it again. I have consistently maintained that I just do not understand caravanning at all or why people subject themselves to the misery of a holiday in a tin box with no running water, chemical toilets and fold away beds, there is no pleasure in it whatsoever.
To be fair I suppose it was good fun when I was a ten-year-old child but I remember thinking that I never really wanted to do it ever again. Caravans as I remember them simply had no temperature control, they were hot and stuffy if the sun shone (so that wasn’t too much of a problem in England, obviously) and they were cold and miserable when it rained, which I seem to remember was most of the time. So they were either pizza oven hot in the day or Arctic freezer cold at night.
I am pleased to be able to report that modern caravans are much improved and imagine my shock then when I tell you that I was so impressed with our holiday caravan accommodation because it had all of the facilities of a modern home with central heating, running water, a bathroom, electricity and a fully equipped kitchen.
A year ago my pal took me to a caravan park in Borth in Mid-Wales and I agreed to go with him because I remembered going there on family holidays fifty years ago when I was about ten years old.
I was delighted to discover that this place was indeed a part of my never-to-be-forgotten childhood and somewhere that I had spent a week or two with my family.
As I get older I appreciate more and more what my parents did for me. In Wales, in Borth they took us to the seaside for a holiday in a tiny caravan and I can only imagine that they hated it, it must, after all, have been mind-numbingly boring, spending endless hours in a biscuit tin with only the popping of the gas lamp and the smell of calor gas for evening entertainment, especially when it was raining.
This year he persuaded me to go again, not to Borth in Wales this time but to East Anglia and to Norfolk where I also remembered going on family holidays fifty years ago.
We set off early on a Monday morning and after stopping for breakfast in Kings Lynn made our way directly to the North Sea Coast of Norfolk and the small seaside village of Walcott-on-Sea.
The memories returned as soon as we arrived. They stuck to me like Velcro, so sticky that I had to brush them away like cobwebs from my face.
We found it straight away – Seaview Crescent – it was a crescent sure enough and every year that we went there were a few cottages missing as they had fallen over the cliff into the sea during the winter storms. Luckily ours, which was owned by a man called Mr Bean (he was an old man and dad used to call him Mr Has-Been – well, he thought it was funny) was furthest away from the cliff edge so each year before we left mum and dad could always book a week there the following year with some degree of confidence that it would still be there and they wouldn’t lose their deposit.
I liked it there, we slept on blue blow up li-lo beds in the sun room as the wind whistled around the gables at night, there was a big open green space which was safe so long as you didn’t go near the edge and fall over the cliff, where we played football and cricket and flew cheap plastic kites that raced against the clouds in the North Sea wind.
An interesting fact about Walcott is that this is the only place in Norfolk where the road runs adjacent to the sea and it is possible to stop the car and look out over the sea defenses that were put in place after the great flood of 1953 that washed half of the village away and out to sea. They are not especially attractive it has to be said, a great sweeping landscape of Soviet style concrete but the North Sea can be harsh so the defences have to be strong!
I remembered this place immediately and after we had stopped for a while we carried on to the nearby village of Happisburgh (pronounced locally as Haysborough).
My sister Lindsay had challenged me to find a flint and cob built church where we had had our picture taken in about 1965 or thereabouts and I wasn’t confident about this because there are over three hundred churches in Norfolk but like Indiana Jones or Howard Carter I found it straight away and some more memories washed over me like North Sea surf in a storm.
It had been a good day so far and it got even better when we arrived at Cherry Tree Holiday Park just a couple of miles or so outside of Great Yarmouth because we had been allocated a Gold Star Superior holiday home and after we had moved in and settled down we congratulated each other on our extreme good fortune and enjoyed a first evening in the late sunshine in Norfolk.