“You can always tell a Norfolk man, but you can’t tell him much.” — Sidney Grapes
The Norfolk coastline was the first part of Britain settled by early man. At that time, 1.2 million years ago, what is now Norfolk was connected by a land bridge to mainland Europe. The earliest known British settlement is in Happisburgh, Norfolk. The site was found thanks to a local man who was taking his dog for a walk by the sea. He spotted a hand axe lying on the mud and called the Norwich Castle Museum. The axe was made 700,000 years ago, some 200,000 years earlier than any previously discovered artefact.
The first hand axe ever to be recognised as a hand axe was found by a Norfolk man named John Frere (1740-1807). At the time no one really believed him when he said that the rock was a tool made by early man. In those days the things we call hand axes were known as “thunderbolts” because people couldn’t explain them.
Norfolk is one of very few counties that doesn’t contain any stretches of motorway. Before the railway was built it was quicker to get from Norwich to Amsterdam by sea than to London by road. Despite this isolation, Norwich was England’s second biggest city for more than 700 years, and Norfolk England’s most populous and prosperous county, largely as a result of the wool trade.
The county was hit hard by the Black Death and subsequent episodes of plague, though – a third of the population of Norwich died in an outbreak in 1579. Norfolk is one of very few counties where the population is lower today than it was in the early 14th century.
The prosperity of Norfolk meant that more than 1,000 medieval churches were built across the county, 659 of which still survive – the highest concentration in Europe. Of these, 125 have round towers – more than any other county in Britain. At 23,000 square feet, St Nicholas’s Church in Great Yarmouth is the largest parish church in the country.
The spire of Norwich Cathedral is 315 feet high – second only to that of Salisbury. Given that most of the county is fenland or chalk, the stone for this church-building spree was unavailable locally; but such was the wealth of medieval Norwich that they were able to import honey-coloured Caen limestone from Normandy.
Normal for Norfolk
The Norfolk accent is very hard to imitate. You have to come from Norfolk to capture its many nuances naturally. Fond (Friends Of Norfolk Dialect) was formed in 1999 to record as many of the county’s traditional words and sayings as possible. Norfolkese has a particular rich animal vocabulary including jasper (wasp), dodman (snail), pishmire (ant) and hamser (heron), although kewter for money and to pingle, meaning to play with food, are also useful to know.
The northern pool frog, England’s rarest amphibian, has its own unique Norfolk-accented croak. This frog – a native of the fens – became extinct in England in the Nineties, but was reintroduced into Norfolk from Sweden in 2005, after recordings of mating frogs were analysed and the distinctive Norfolk inflection in their calls was identified.
The Reverend Harold Davidson of Stiffkey in north Norfolk was unfrocked in 1932. Known as the Prostitutes’ Padre as a result of his tireless efforts to save hundreds of vulnerable girls from a life on the streets, he divided his time between his sleepy Norfolk parish and the seamy back alleys of Soho.
The Bishop of Norwich hired a private detective to follow Reverend Davidson around London, but found little credible evidence against him. Nevertheless, Davidson was found guilty of five charges of immoral conduct.
His response to the withdrawal of his clerical stipend was to turn himself into a seaside performer, protesting his innocence in bizarre ways such as conducting a hunger strike in a barrel at Blackpool, pretending to be roasted on the spit by the devil and appearing in Skegness as Daniel in a den of real lions. This went horribly wrong when he accidentally stood on the tail of one of the lions and was mauled to death. The present priest at Stiffkey, Reverend John Penny, is attempting to clear Davidson’s name and believes “today Harold would not have been convicted”.