Norwich Wolves

Norwich Wolves. Not a Premier League football fixture (that should happen next season now that it looks less likely that Wolverhampton Wanderers will be relegated) but this year’s opening of the annual Norwich and Norfolk Festival. As with most years, some dramatic street theatre has been employed to kick off proceedings and 2011 sees the return of those wacky Basques, Deabru Beltzak, with the world premier of The Wolves, a  reworking of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

On Friday and Saturday night this weekend, a strange procession started and ended at Millennium Plain. This involved three giant fire-breathing wolves, an ambulant keyboardist inside a giant wolf’s head and several hundred willing followers. Dramatic stuff indeed, and good to see so many Norwich citizens turn out to enjoy this European-flavoured extravaganza.

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Metal Box

There are strange low hills in the vicinity of The Port of Felixtowe in Suffolk. Not the product of tectonic upheaval or Ice-Age earth shifting but man-made plateaus of painted steel. Around what is the largest container port in Britain vast acres of stacked shipping containers afford the local topography a distinct Legoland character. Ugly they may be, but containers can be piled high, safely and efficiently – this is really the whole point of them. Cross the Orwell estuary to the other bank and the mechanics of the terminal seem somehow easier to discern from a distance. Looking north across the water from Shotley Peninsula the enormity of the container ships becomes all too apparent, as does the immense volume of their gargatuan payloads. The juxtaposition of the tranquil saltmarshes, silent but for the piping of waders, and the distant metallic rumble of behemoths docking across the water strikes an oddly unsettling note.

There is something a little inhuman, sinister even, about shipping containers. Perhaps they are too much like a human-sized tin cans for comfort. They evoke fears of incarceration, claustrophobia – a living grave. Such fear affords them considerable dramatic possibilities.  A European shipping container was central to the plot of the second season of the acclaimed HBO production The Wire. In this, McNulty, the anti-hero cop who had been exiled to  Baltimore Docks, found himself involved in a case concerning a shipping container full of dead young East European women, the victims of a people trafficking scheme that had gone terribly wrong. Even the British soap Brookside once invoked a container for criminal purposes when top-dog ‘scally’ Barry Grant locked a business opponent in a shipping container at Liverpool Docks. We never learned of his fate – or if we did, I had stopped watching by then. Containers seem to fit snugly into the lexicon of crime pulp fiction and the threat of tinny incarceration provides a welcome alternative to hackneyed themes of ‘swimming with fishes’  or being concreted into flyovers.

Shipping containers can be found in the most unlikely of places, not just ports. Travel about as far as you can get from an ocean – Central Asia, say – and you’ll still find them in large numbers, not so much as moveable storage but more as make-do business premises. Both of Kyrgyzstan’s two largest markets make extensive use of them, double-stacked in parallel rows to create narrow shopping streets of easily-secured retail premises. In the capital Bishkek, you can find pretty well anything you might need at the Dordoi Bazaar north of the city. While the sellers are mostly Kyrgyz, many of the shoppers strolling the market’s metallic thoroughfares come from further afield – Kazakhstan or even Russia.

Larger still is the market at Kara-Suu right on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border close to Osh in the south. This one really is the largest market in all Central Asia. Kara-Suu is the grey economy writ large. Almost entirely populated by ethnic Uzbeks, this is the place to buy very cheap Chinese goods -clothes, electronic goods, household wares – just don’t expect a guarantee or 6-month warranty. The market is long-established and dates from Soviet times when the meandering Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier really did not mean that much. These days Kara-Suu is closed down periodically by the authorities but most of the time shoppers from Uzbekistan are able to sneak or bribe their way across this the border to buy goods at much cheaper prices than at home.   Sometimes they even bring raw cotton to sell at a premium in Kyrgyzstan.

Bazaars like Kara-Suu are hardly typical. Away from Bishkek, Osh and a handful of small cities, Kyrgyzstan is by and large rural – wild, mountainous and very beautiful. The country may be very long way from any ocean but it does have some stunning high-altitude lakes like Issyk-Kul and Song-Kul (above). No container ships, though.

White City Blues

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event called A Taste of Serbia in London. The evening was arranged by the National Tourism Organisation of Serbia and we were all generously plied with tasty nibbles and a wide range of excellent wines from that country.

Of course, this being a press event the main emphasis was to promote all that Serbia has to offer British would-be travellers. To serve this purpose a promotional video was shown that featured a Belgrade DJ walking through the city’s streets whilst waxing lyrical about his hometown to chill-out music. The video showed a cool yet ecstatic crowd dancing in a Belgrade nightclub before cutting to our DJ hero walking through oddly unpeopled streets; then it swooped to Kalemegdan Park before cutting to the DJ encountering a dark-eyed beauty in an apparently deserted shopping mall. It told a story, certainly, but it seemed a strangely incomplete one.

I recognised Belgrade alright but the video did little to flatter the Serbian capital. OK, it may not be Prague but the city does have a certain maverick charm that had been sorely overlooked. Maybe it was trying attract a young, ‘cutting edge’ crowd but the promotional film made the ‘White City’ look grey and drab — just like the stereotype.  As someone remarked as we watched it: ‘There’s nothing in this video that makes me want to go there.’ I had to agree. Where was Skadarlija – the so-called Bohemian quarter? Where were the floating splav cafes and restaurants on the river? Where were all the quirky cafes and wacky restaurants? Why was Kalemegdan Park, that wonderful spot above the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, so devoid of people? Where was the Zemun waterfront? Where was the Danube? Ada Ciganlija island? The list goes on. Why didn’t the film crew wait for a spot of sunshine to brighten things up?

Anyway, Serbia has a lot more to it than just its capital city, wonderful as that may be. To me, it’s forested hills, hidden Orthodox monasteries, Roma men driving carts, cartoon-book haystacks in fields, old rusting Zastavas serving as corn stores, solitary men fishing in rivers, storks clattering  their bills on village roofs. It’s the smell of Turkish coffee, grilling meat, roasting peppers and lime blossom. It’s the taste of sljivovica (plum brandy) and kajmak (a sort of cream). It’s tall men and elegant women; sometimes even tall women and elegant men. It’s the sound of violins, accordians and shuffling feet.

Perhaps all these things that I hold dear are considered a bit too backward and Old Europe for the marketing people? Still, at least they noticed the dark-eyed beauties. They got that bit right.

Norwich Underground

Norwich’s network of underground passageways is the stuff of legends. Many of them may be the work of over-active imaginations but others undoubtedly do exist as relics of the city’s medieval glory days when a little subterranean expediency came in handy in times of religious persecution or civil war. Of course, even those that exist solely in folk memory still make for a good story.

The city’s bedrock is pitted with less glamorous tunnels too. Chalk and flint mining was a Norwich tradition for centuries and both materials were necessary for building the extensive city’s walls and numerous churches of what was England’s second largest city in the medieval period. As a result, certain areas of the city have long been synonymous with subsidence problems. A reminder of this came to the fore in 1988 when a double-decker bus was unexpectedly swallowed-up by the earth on Earlham Road close to the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist. Thankfully no-one was hurt. This bizarre event made for some entertaining postcards and even gave the opportunity for the chocolate manufacturer Cadbury’s to promote one of its products using a photograph of the unfortunate bus alongside the slogan, ‘Nothing fills a hole like a Double Decker’.

Walking recently in a formerly unexplored corner of a familiar haunt at the city outskirts I stumbled upon an entrance to this chalky underworld. Long sealed-up with steel to deter would-be intruders, this one had been recently prised open – by shadowy urban explorers, no doubt, keen on charting this unmapped terrain. Resistance was futile – there was no way to turn down such a serendipitous opportunity.

Just a few metres beyond the entrance the absolute darkness is intimidating – the light of torches too feeble to identify much more than where the tunnel floor is and highlight spray-painted ciphers marking dead ends and potential exit routes. The photos taken here with flash were made by simply pointing and hoping for the best: a strange turn of events in which the results reveal detail unseen by dim yellow torchlight at the time of their taking.

A troglodyte world such as this is a starkly alien environment that can bring out the most atavistic of fears. Past underground visits have been to well-lit caverns filled with phantasmagorical stalactites and stalagmites, or tropical caves in south-east Asia populated by strange blind fish and albino insects — beautiful unthreatening spaces. My only previous mine experience was a terrible, yet fascinating, place on the other side of the world: a Bolivian silver mine at over 4,000 metres altitude at Cerro Rico (‘rich hill’) near Potosí, where visitors are expected to bring along gifts of Coca-Cola, bags of coca leaves and sticks of dynamite – the necessities of a Bolivian mining life. The miners in turn offer their own gifts to El Tío (‘The Uncle’), the spirit of the underworld – a pact with the Devil that permits them to scratch a dangerous living from the earth for their short tough lives. Since this visit I have always afforded miners the greatest respect.

It might seem odd that a short excursion beneath the ground just a mile or so from home can feel almost as alien an experience as a visit to a Bolivian silver mine – even without a cheek-wad of coca leaves and the necessity of appeasing ‘The Uncle’. There again, the juxtaposition of a jarring new experience in a wholly familiar setting is always going to be disturbing.

Crossing the Bridge

A little south of Ipswich, the vast concrete span of the Orwell Bridge stretches across the eponymous river like a conveyor belt to Hades. Well not Hades exactly, but the Port of Felixstowe. A constant rattling procession of lorries shunt to and fro the port, their drivers barely aware of the river they are crossing or the county town they are skirting by. The ciphers that identify their payloads have become household names — Maersk, China Shipping, Cosco – those magic metal boxes that contain the necessities of 21st-century life. Well-travelled, and more often than not coming from the Far East, the containers are the camels of the latter day Silk Road: a trade route, which, as any historian will tell you, was about a lot more than just silk.

The bridge might appear to be no place for pedestrians, but they are tolerated, and walkers intent on completing the Stour & Orwell Walk between Languard Point and Cattawade, and wishing to avoid the extra six or so miles of the alternative ‘Ipswich Loop’, are obliged to cross it on using the walkway on its southern side. The approach on foot from Orwell Country Park is intimidating – the noise, speed and volume of traffic all contributing to the inevitable feeling that this is an unnatural place for hikers to be setting foot. The 30-metre drop to the Black Ooze (yes, it really is called that) of the River Orwell below is held at bay by just a concrete ledge a little more than a metre high. This is certainly not comfortable strolling territory, nor a place to suddenly become aware of a hitherto undiscovered acrophobia.

Steps lead up sharply to the bridge walkway, past a Samaritans sign that bears a short but kind message and a phone number. Like steps to the gallows, the certainty that you are shadowing the last steps taken by some desperately unhappy souls is chilling. At the top is a free phone, proof that someone cares, although the lorries flying by seem wholly indifferent. The views along the Orwell estuary are pleasing – green fields, houses snuggled in woodland, little boats bobbing in silver water – but the constant thrum of the traffic, and a tangible sense of alienation, do not encourage lingering. The walk across takes around 15 minutes.

Bridges are powerful metaphors for the journeys of life, for transformation. The novelist Ian Banks wrote an entire novel – The Bridge, no less — using an enormous industrial super-complex of a bridge as the dream environment of his comatose crash victim protagonist. Religion and mythology make good use of the bridge as metaphor too and the crossing of a body of water — the River Jordan, River Styx — is ascribed a spiritual meaning. Most of the time though, our concerns are more mundane: if crossing the Orwell Bridge on foot is disturbing then it is because of its height and heavy traffic as much as its psycho-geographic imprint.

Elsewhere in the world, where health and safety concerns are not held as sacred as they are here in the West, dodgy-looking footbridges have been used daily for generations without much fuss. The one illustrated here is over the Hunza River in the far north of Pakistan. To be honest, it is a little nerve-wracking to traverse, especially when local villagers join you and the bridge sways nauseatingly above the rapid rock-filled glacial river beneath. More alarming still is to cross halfway only to discover a missing slat and the necessity of making a jump to the next complete one.

In contrast, this footbridge feels much safer; nurturing even. Perhaps it is its solid organic nature that reassures, and also the surprising realisation that it hardly sways at all? This remarkable feat of bio-engineering, which resembles something that Frodo might have encountered in The Lord of The Rings,  is one of many living root bridges found in the deep, rain-washed valleys of Meghalaya, northeast India. Fashioned from the living roots of fig (Ficus elastica) trees that grow alongside the region’s turbulent monsoon streams they take decades to build but last for centuries. You can read my article on them in Geographical magazine here.

Returning closer to home, to the Waveney Valley in fact, here is a short extract from Slow Norfolk & Suffolk that describes an encounter on the bridge across the Waveney at Mendham on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. Perhaps bridges do affect us psychologically more than we might credit?

This is classic Waveney Valley scenery — the sort of thing Munnings might have painted if he had not concentrated on horse fairs or attacking modernism quite so much. It’s the kind of landscape that brings reverie. The iron bridge crossing the Waveney seems like a giant staple attaching Norfolk to the Suffolk mainland. Brown cows wandering the meadows contentedly graze and flick flies away, keeping their eyes on a pair of locals fishing beneath the trees and catching nothing. As poplars rustle in the breeze, the very English sound of an accordion drifts down from the Munnings pub. It could almost be the 18th century, if it wasn’t from the fishermen’s car parked by the road. As I am taking all this in, a man who is clearly the worse for drink ambles down the road towards the bridge. He stumbles exactly halfway across, pauses for a moment, then goes back the way he has come. It is as if he is fearful to place his feet on Norfolk soil, or there is some sort of invisible barrier. Two minutes later, a sleek Jaguar arrives from the north to pick the man up. Then it turns around and ferries him back across the bridge… into Norfolk.

Walking the Edge

The latest issue of Geographical magazine has a feature by Alastair Humphreys on walking around London following a route as close to the M25 orbital as possible. The focus here – other than the testing of outdoor clothing and equipment – seems to be that of ‘micro-adventures’ in one’s local area: a worthy notion in this information-bloated age where, if truth be told, there are few exotic places left to explore. The adventurers of yore usually had an ulterior motive anyway – empire carving, resource procurement, trade – and so latter-day explorers, unsponsored by king and country (and usually publishers) and wishing to find something new, have to look instead at the finer detail, examine the way countries have changed, focus on the small print of ‘place’.

The writer Iain Sinclair has already written about the M25 at length in his book London Orbital where, instead of sleeping in a bivvy bag in green belt fields (and tweeting about it) as Humphreys has done, the author completed the circuit by way of day-long excursions from his Hackney home in the company of a handful of friends. Sinclair’s clockwise plod reveals a twilight zone where megalopolis begins to morph into leafy shires. Most revealingly, he identifies a ring of vanished mental hospitals and institutions that trace the course of the future motorway with uncanny accuracy. Like plague pits located beyond medieval city walls, it appears as if it was decided in Victorian times that illness – especially the mental kind – had to be kept at arm’s length and well beyond the city’s grasp lest it infect the metropolitan populace. The distance necessary for this physical and spiritual separation seems to coincide almost exactly with that of London’s orbital racetrack.

Turning to a more rural setting, here in East Anglia both Norfolk and Suffolk may be circumambulated (more or less – let us not quibble about precise boundaries) by following a series of long-distance footpaths. In Norfolk, begin with the Angles Way in Great Yarmouth, follow it along the Waveney Valley almost as far as Thetford in Breckland and then take the  Iceni Way along the River Great Ouse and across the Fens north to Hunstanton where the Norfolk Coast Path can be picked up to continue east. At Cromer, the meandering Weaver’s Way can then be followed through the Broads to arrive back at Yarmouth. In Suffolk, the Suffolk Coast Path can be walked from Lowestoft to Felixstowe before continuing around the Suffolk estuaries by means of the Stour and Orwell Walk to Cattawade. Here, the county boundary may be traced west to by means of the Stour Valley Path, straying occasionally into Essex and Cambridgeshire, as far as Sudbury before continuing to Bury St Edmunds along the St Edmund Way and Icknield Way path to Breckland  from where the Angle’s Way completes the circuit back to the Suffolk Coast.

Last year I had a notion that it might be interesting to split the Norfolk boundary circuit into four seasonal portions, four lengths of the county rectangle that would be walked around each of the year’s cardinal points: the Angle’s Way in mid winter; the Iceni Way in spring and so on, completing the circuit to arrive back at Great Yarmouth around the autumnal equinox. Starting out with good intentions, I walked the length of the Angles Way in late December 2009 and early January 2010. Plans for setting out on the next section, the Iceni Way, were abandoned however – or, rather, put on hold – when a commission to write a guide for Cicerone Press on the three long-distance walks within the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB turned my attention to trails a little further southeast. My forthcoming guide Suffolk Coast and Heaths Walks: Three Long-distance Routes in the AONB will be published in November this year.

Time and Tide

Great Yarmouth’s excellent Time and Tide Museum continues to fly the flag for that town’s half-forgotten herring industry. Located near the old town walls just off South Quay in a former herring smokehouse, the museum informs and charms in equal measure. With mock-ups of 19th century ‘rows’ – the tiny terraced back-to-backs that once housed Yarmouth’s men and women of the sea – and with plenty of newsreel and black and white photographs of whiskery sailors and itinerant Scottish fishergirls it transports the visitor back to a time when the herring was king and Yarmouth served as his palace: ‘the fishiest town in all England’ as Charles Dickens once observed. Such erstwhile fishiness is tangible: the very walls of the museum are still redolent of smoked fish — rich, evocative, appetising. Once, the whole of South Quay must have smelled like this.

Yarmouth has had to reinvent itself several times over the past couple of centuries: prosperous periods as a boatbuilding hub, fishing port, herring processing centre and seaside resort have come and gone, overlapping one another as palimpsests of industry. These days, although a vestige of low-expectation tourism still clings on, it is more an ambience of low-rent charity shops, Portuguese cafes and boarded-up businesses that characterises this urbanised sand spit on England’s easternmost shore.

The Time and Tide Museum is struggling a little despite numerous plaudits since its establishment that include becoming a Gulbenkian Prize Museum of the Year finalist in 2005. Recently the Silver Darlings cafe in the museum courtyard was forced to close through lack of funding – a soft target for funding cuts in this penny-pinching era. The vending machine that has been installed is scant compensation. To Yarmouth’s credit, there was widespread dissent about this. People here are proud and do not like to see the ongoing decline of their town, especially considering that it once held such an elevated position in Britain’s maritime heritage.

Nowhere is this proud heritage better displayed than at the Britannia Monument at The Denes a mile or so south of the museum. The monument was erected in 1819 as a memorial to Admiral Horatio Nelson, Norfolk’s most famous son (give or take Stephen Fry or Delia Smith). Standing 44 metres high, just eight metres short of the Nelson monument in London’s Trafalgar Square, the column appears anachronistic towering above the humdrum low-rises of an industrial estate: a weather-stained monolith to past glory and the red-jacketed hubris of empire. Over less than two centuries, a booming herring trade, bucket and spade holidaymakers and lacklustre industry have all had their place in the sun here beneath Britannia’s unwavering gaze: such has been the drift of Yarmouth’s cultural topography.

But there is an undeniable glory to it too: a thick-set Doric column topped by a pergola framed by six caryatids that in turn supports a figure of Britannia atop a globe inscribed Plamam Qui Meruit Ferat (‘Let him who merits it take the palm’), the motto of Nelson’s coat of arms. All is not quite what it might first appear: you cannot tell from the ground but Britannia and her caryatids are modern fibreglass replacements of the stone originals — if you come here hot-foot from the Time and Tide Museum then you will already have seen the original head of Britannia there. I mentioned hubris; one might assume that Britannia would be facing square-jawed out to sea warning continental upstarts not to mess with the Royal Navy but no, she faces inland — towards northwest Norfolk and Nelson’s birthplace at Burnham Thorpe, some say.

W.G.Sebald, In Memoriam

The UEA-based German writer, W. G. (‘Max’) Sebald, died just over nine years ago in a car accident close to his home south of Norwich. One of his most famous books, and certainly the one most closely connected with the East Anglia region, is The Rings of Saturn, published in 1999. Superficially a post-illness walking tour of east Suffolk, this labyrinthine unclassifiable work delves tangentially into deep history to discuss episodes as wide ranging as the import of silkworm cultivation into Europe, the writings of 17th-century Norwich polymath Thomas Browne, Nazi concentration camps in Croatia and the scurrilous private life of the Suffolk-based translator of Omar Khayyam.

Focusing unhealthily on the dark, isolated and horrific, Sebald’s writing is hardly what one might describe as ‘feel-good’; indeed, it is often gloomy to the point of verging on the morose. His literate, hang-dog style can almost seem self-parodying on occasion, especially when it circles down to earth to confront the quotidian as in the case of an hilarious description of a disappointing dinner in Lowestoft – only Sebald could disparagingly describe the ‘breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish’ and sachet tartare sauce ‘turned grey by sooty breadcrumbs’. Although he veered towards the hyper-melancholic, his writing was always elegant and elegiac, not to mention meditative, lapidary, dream-like and solipsistic. Interweaving memory, fiction and observation along the course of his walk, there is a Proustian quality to his writing that questions the transience of life and suffering.

Clearly, The Rings of Saturn has sufficient devotees for others to want to walk in Sebald’s footsteps, seeking out the Suffolk landscape that inspired such beautiful gloom along the eastern reaches of the Waveney Valley and the Suffolk coast between Lowestoft and Dunwich – a landscape that seems oddly devoid of people in Sebald’s book. Aldeburgh Music at Snape Maltings recently held a weekend devoted to a celebration of Sebaldia that involved the American rock chanteuse Patti Smith no less. It remains to be seen whether the film Patience (After Sebald) by Grant Gee that was also screened during the weekend will be available to general view in the near future.

Here’s a short film and a piece in the Guardian.

Cromer New Year, 2011

Many of us feel a need to mark the turning of the year in some way other than simply customary overindulgence on the eve of the old year – an outing to some favoured spot on New Year’s Day perhaps? For those of us who live in Norwich, the North Norfolk coast usually fits the bill. It is not just a matter of blowing cobwebs away or walking off the previous night’s hangover, although certainly that may be an element of it, but more a way of welcoming the New Year and bidding farewell to the cultural interregnum that is the week after Christmas. The last week in December may not strictly be a month of Sundays but it can sometimes feel like it.

Christmas and New Year have long been syncretised with ancient rituals that used to mark the winter solstice, the turning point of the year that heralds the long-awaited lengthening of days. The trouble is these days, as with any public holiday, the Christmas break (should that be ©hristmas?) is largely seen as just another retail opportunity to sell you stuff you really don’t need. New Year’s Day seems different though – especially now that the ‘January sales’ tend to begin on Boxing Day – and has the feel of a day with a tad more community spirit than most. It may be cold January but, venturing outdoors, you get the impression that families are more likely to go out for a walk together on this day than any other in the year. Naturally enough, this phenomenon may also have some connection with New Year resolutions that involve fitness, family togetherness and fresh resolve to avoid couch potato blight. Personal New Year favourites tend to be a walk along the shingle bank at Cley-next-the-Sea, a five-mile circuit centred on Horsey that takes in Horsey Mere and a seal-friendly stretch of the northeast Norfolk coast, or the cliff walk between Overstrand and Cromer. This year, we chose the latter: a seaside amble along the beach from Cromer to Overstrand then a return to Cromer by way of the cliff path.

On a dull winter’s day the north Norfolk seascape can appear almost monochromatic. It is necessary to make adjustments in order to fully appreciate its understated, charcoal-sketch beauty. Scandinavians, fully at home with cold northern light, are good at this; Brits, however, our eyes forever enviously half-cocked on the promise of Mediterranean sun, are not so adept. Whatever the time of year, the north Norfolk coast is a liminal landscape: just sea, sky and sand. Head due north from here and there’s nothing but cold dark water until you reach the Arctic pack ice – nothing but notional maritime territories: Humber, Dogger, Forties, Viking. Horizontal layers of grey stratify the landscape: murky water; shining banks of cloud that weigh heavy on the horizon; sand and pebbles in the foreground. Look behind you and the cliffs behind are crumbling: too soft to win the fight in any sea versus land standoff. The aural landscape is hardly brighter: just the usual coastal din of argumentative gulls and overexcited dogs, the swash of waves and the grate of pebbles.

Crunching east along the pebbles, keeping a casual eyen open for the ochre glint of amber (never found), a steely blue jewel  nestled in seaweed reveals itself. The object, a detached lobster tail – or, rather, thorax – is so intensely blue that it seems to suck in light like a tiny dead star fallen to earth. The cerulean richness seems unworldly in this colour-bleached landscape. Separated from carapace and succulent flesh, its isolation renders it all the more precious. Precision-engineered to allow the most delicate of movements, it is a tail designed for swimming, dancing and mating displays, a tail for lobster love.

Returning along the cliffs next to the golf course the path is lined with thickets of sea buckthorn. In other years these have been so weighed down with squishy orange fruit that they dazzle the eye but this winter the berries, following a savagely cold December, are little more than a withered memory, with few to be seen on the bushes, thinned by frost action and hungry birds. Archaeological evidence suggests that sea buckthorn berries once played an important role in man’s diet but the truth is that, while they may be nutritious, they are also unbelievably astringent eaten raw, like bitter acid on the tongue. Freezing and cooking are supposed to reduce their unpalatable quality so we must conclude that Norfolk’s early settlers made some sort of jam out of the fruit.

Since the millennial year, Cromer has staged a New Year firework display that is said to attract at least half the town’s population and the same again from the county beyond. This year, we stayed to watch. By well before the time that darkness fell, it was impossible to find a seat in the Rocket Cafe above the Lifeboat Museum – the perfect viewpoint for the event. Instead, we stood among the crowd by the seawall facing the pier, while others positioned themselves up the steps that lead up to the main promenade. The display, when it finally began after what seemed like a long, cold late-afternoon wait, was a wonderfully explosive affair – a lengthy and varied display that made the annual Lord Mayor’s Procession event in Norwich look like a damp squib in comparison. As the last cracks of pyrotechnic thunder echoed against the sea wall, and the final salvo of rockets stabbed at the sky, I wondered what Cromer’s offshore crabs made of all this unexplained cacophony. Were they all scurrying northwards along the seafloor heading for the relative peace of Dogger Bank?