Back to my roots - a trip to Norfolk.

May 28, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Last week I went back to the "Land of my fathers" - Norfolk. I was born in Norwich, as was my father but the previous seven generations were all born in the villages surrounding Fakenham, up in north Norfolk. I wanted to spend time at the premises of the Norfolk Family History Society (NFHS) investigating their records of "all things Norfolk" and to soak up a bit of atmosphere by visiting some of the villages associated with my forebears. I also planned to go south into Suffolk, to Ipswich where I grew up and went to school; and finally to return home via Essex and call in on my cousin Judy (on my mother's side and one of my few living relatives). Four nights away, five days and a round trip of nearly 600 miles.

Travelling over on Monday, a fatal accident at 3am had resulted in the A11 still being closed at 2pm and total chaos on all surrounding roads. I therefore headed much further east to avoid the area and visited a little village on the Suffolk/Norfolk border where my mother's family hail from. Her father owned several farms in and around Mellis, whose main claim to fame is that it has the largest area of unfenced common land in England. Its iconic old mill buildings are also where respected British furniture maker, Multiyork, started up over 30 years ago. This also put me not far from ace model car maker Toby Sutton, whose beautiful 8" long walnut re-creation of the iconic 1958 Lister-Jaguar "knobbly" sports-racer takes pride of place in my study. (Genuine Listers with full provenance now change hands at auction for £1m - and are still raced). I had never met Toby but, having spoken on the phone, I knew we had much in common. Fortunately he was in that afternoon and we spent two hours chatting about all things car-related. He did his apprenticeship at Longbridge ("The Austin" as it was known in the 1950's) and remembered the Lickey Hills well. Small world!

After spending Monday night at the Travelodge at Cringleford on the southern edge of Norwich (only a few miles from Hethersett where my mother lived for many years. Her bungalow seemed virtually as I remembered it.) I spent time reading other people's research into the "Dodman" name, then in the afternoon headed north. The curator/librarian at the Gressenhall Museum of Rural Life (see photos) wasn't in but I now have a contact name for further research. I was aware that in the small village of Horningtoft was a "Dodman's Lane" (see photo) and I wanted to see/photograph it and hopefully find someone who might know of its history. A resident mowing his lawn directed me to the local historian a mere 50 yds down another track, a charming lady whose curiosity I aroused and she insisted on getting out all the old tythe maps. We established that a man called Dodman had lived in a cottage (long since demolished) by the lane. Her husband was from East Rudham, the village I was heading to that night and insisted on ringing a few relatives still living there to check on a few facts. More of this tomorrow!

I then drove the few miles to Weasenham to check out "Dodma Road" and see if anyone knew its derivation. As it is only a few miles from East Rudham, I reckon it is a corruption of "Dodman" - but could I prove it? I called at a B&B opposite the end of Dodma Road, but the lady there admitted they were "incomers" and had only been there 12 years. Her accent was definitely not Norfolk - possibly London/Home Counties. Two other locals also shook their heads. I called at the village pub but the licensee was a Londoner and there was no-one in the pub who could help. I drove away, then spotted an elderly lady watering her front garden and asked her. "No, but I know who will" was her comment. "Walk with me to the end of the lane and I'll point out his house". As we walked and chatted, I mentioned being born in Norwich, to which she replied that she was a Freeman of the City of Norwich. I replied that I was honoured to be talking to her. "Oh, it's nothing these days", she replied. "I think it gives me the right to graze my goat somewhere within the city walls!". On the edge of the village green lived the church warden so I knocked on his door. His wife explained that he was out but invited me in anyway as she was curious about my research and she gave me the phone number of someone else in the village (who I still have to make contact with) and it turned out that her husband is a retired RAF Victor bomber pilot and had been based at Marham, one of the many RAF bases in Norfolk.

And so on to East Rudham, the village where my grandfather was born in 1881. The Crown Inn is an old pub, but the restaurant was busy ("It's gone rather up-market", Mrs. bomber pilot had told me) and they have obviously hit on a winning formula. Dinner was excellent, the bed was comfy and I slept well till 5 am. That was when the heavy lorries started thundering past, on the main Fakenham-Norwich road! After breakfast, I strolled the village in glorious sunshine and talked to a lady at the church. She called over one of her colleagues to join in the conversation and this lady knew of my visit, her brother being the person the Horningtoft man had rung the previous afternoon. You can't keep any secrets in these small villages! I photographed the building (now a private house - see photo) which was formally a shop run by a "Dodman" and which sold saddles and all sorts of items made from leather for the farming community - and sweets, remembered another old local I spoke to later. This chap, who had lived in Back Lane (where my grandfather was born)(see photos) all his life, had been a truck driver, worked for a Fakenham haulage company and several times each week drove produce from the local farms to markets in Derby, Nottingham, Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Evesham. A 330 mile round trip, which "we had to do in 14 hours". No motorways, no tachographs then! A hard life I suspect, he looked older than his years. Another resident told me most of the properties were originally farm cottages, tied to two local farms. Like many of the local villages, quite a few residents are now "incomers". Londoners "discovered" the north Norfolk coast some thirty years ago and property prices rocketed; that same process now affects these more inland villages with many being "second homes". I could have spent all day talking to people there and just soaking up the atmosphere but I needed to get back to Norwich and further research. Two different people told me that Back Lane used to be called, by the villagers, "Cindermuck Lane" - now that is the sort of information you don't find on the internet -  that comes from talking to the locals!!!

Wednesday night was back at the same Travelodge (and I have to say that Travelodge do seem to be investing a lot of money in re-furbishing their premises. A few years ago Les and I had spent a weekend at Okehampton on Dartmoor. The bed was comfy but the premises were really so shabby and facilities non-existant). What was also very interesting was that the Norwich site also had a Manager who was there in reception in the morning, talking to guests as they checked out and asking for feedback. After more reading at the NFHS on Thursday morning, it was off to Ipswich, 40 miles south. I quickly found Sidegate Lane (see photos), the house where I grew up (see photos) and the first school I went to (see photo) a few hundred yards down the same road. I still recall the standing joke that the children who were always "late" were those who lived in the houses opposite the school! I then visited the crematorium where my father's ashes were scattered in 1958 and retraced the route I used to cycle from my home to Ipswich School. (No being dropped off by Mum in those days; you either walked if local, went on the ordinary bus or by bike). Considerable redevelopment has taken place since I left in 1963 but, by chance, a cricket match was taking place on the School Field (see photos) which brought back many happy memories.

After a night at another Travelodge just south of Ipswich (No food facilities other than a Starbucks which closed at 6pm but this meant that I could head into a local village and a lovely steak at the Bull Inn in Brantham), I headed down into Essex, to visit Judy and her husband Clive, a retired agricultural engineer, in the small village of Gosfield. I spent most of the day there; we had much catching up to do! - and then set off for home about 6.30pm. Total mileage 570 miles. The Audi is now nicely run in!!


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