We’re spending a nostalgic month travelling around England in the van, revisiting favourite spots, exploring new places and saying goodbye to friends. It’s spring time.
At 6am we’re asleep in a large public car park in Sheringham, Norfolk, when there’s a loud knocking on the side of the van. I tell John not to answer as it’s probably a parking warden or the Police telling us off for spending the night there. We’ve ignored the large sign saying NO OVERNIGHT SLEEPING. I’m hoping that if we lie low we’ll avoid trouble. But John shows his face and it’s a stall holder from the market saying we’re on his spot! We’re surrounded by white market vans.
We drive down to the beach and make breakfast. A council worker discovers a dead goldfish in a pond, lifts it out and attempts rescue breathing.
Back on the coastal route heading west we come across a sign saying POLICE – TAKE CARE and there on the edge of the road is a large white swan sitting on a nest with its mate alongside.
Next we see the North Norfolk Ornithologists’ car park crammed with cars. Twitchers’ pagers are going off all over the place summoning them to this spot. They’re hurrying down to the marsh in a frenzy. A citrine wagtail has been spotted, a rare vagrant in Western Europe, usually resident in Asia.
As we continue round the coast through Brancaster, the houses change from a flint in plaster exterior to stone. For miles now the pubs have been called the Ship’s Inn and the Lifeboat Inn, and at Hunstanton there’s an old folks’ home called the Driftwood Inn.
We pass large lavender farms in sandy soil and then catch a glimpse of Sandringham Castle behind high walls and huge trees. Following Queen Elizabeth Way to King’s Lynn we see workers out planting strawberries in the fields. It’s completely flat for miles.
At Holbeach there’s a pub called the String of Horses. When I ask a guy in the supermarket if there’s an internet cafe he says “Oh no, this is ‘olbeach!” Every second dog we see is a greyhound and there’s a Greyhound Rescue charity shop. We park on the street under a Norway maple and a walnut, it rains all night, and in the morning the van’s covered in pollen.
I have a look at All Saints Church, a 13th century treasure. It contains the late 14th century tomb of Sir Humphrey Littlebury, topped with a perfect stone effigy of him with his head resting on another head encased in armour. It’s a striking piece of sculpture, much discussed because of the mysterious veiled head. The stained glass windows are in the pre Raphaelite style and there’s a beautiful oak ceiling from the 1800s.
Our car park is outside the library. When a book bus turns up I go on board and talk to the librarian. I’m impressed to hear that there are fifteen buses, three just for schools, some just for preschools, and small ones that visit rest homes and housebound customers.
Then we’re in Lincolnshire and flowering hawthorn hedges line the road. Distant church spires poke through huge trees. Both of us have distant ancestors who came from here.
We pass a pub called the Generous Briton then we’re in Stragglethorpe which has a Gorse Lane, one of the quainter addresses in a country of comical place names.
Next is Yorkshire and we goggle at a massive coal fired power station before making a beeline for Durham.
We park in a quiet street and John lies in the van listening to the soothing tones of the cricket on the radio, broadcast from Chester le Street just up the road. I pay one last visit to glorious Durham Cathedral, our first British cathedral and still numero uno. The woman in the shop tells me that visitors constantly tell her it’s their favourite cathedral. They especially love the soft pink colour. I buy a book about St Cuthbert and the trials and tribulations of the monks moving his body from Holy Island to Durham to escape the Vikings in 875.
Leaving Durham the next day we see a plump young blonde woman dressed completely in pink pushing a pink pushchair. Her hair is blonde on top and dark underneath. We’re back in the north east all right!
The Angel of the North is standing tall as we come into Gateshead. We think back with nostalgia to all the times we dragged our visitors out to visit this enormous symbol of the north, often in bitterly cold weather. After a drive across the Tyne River and corn beef pies at Greggs we spend a few days catching up with old friends in Newcastle.
Out walking at Tynemouth we come across a woman with a dog that becomes agitated and barks at John. She stops to chat and tells us that it’s a rescued dog which has been badly treated. It’s a lurcher. Apparently it used to be illegal for commoners to own greyhounds, so people secretly mated the gentry’s greyhounds with border collies, creating lurchers, a fast and intelligent breed with fantastic eyesight, perfect for hunting, or more likely poaching.
On the way home we pass a horse drawn hearse, always a very British image to us. Our last stop in Newcastle is Morrison’s supermarket, one of our old haunts. We have lunch in the cafe with all the pensioners. A hearty hot lunch with coffee and the bill comes to 1066 (ten quid and sixty six pence). The muzak plays “It’s Over”. It’s time to move on.
We drive west through the glorious Northumberland countryside. A kestrel hovers above the road showing us the way.
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