Do you remember what Norwich was like in the 60s?
Michael Cole reminisces about life, work and love in Norwich – and Barbara Cartland
There was always something in the air of Norwich 53 years ago. On Shrove Tuesday, 1967, it was a hint of Spring.
My fiancée, Jane, and I were enjoying after-work drinks with six friends in a flat in Bracondale when someone stupidly suggested a pancake race.
Batter was quickly whipped up, frying pans were found and eight of us ran madly up and down the middle of the road outside for half an hour, until the laughing tired us out and it was time for another drink.
The point being that there was: NO TRAFFIC. At 6.30 in the evening, everyone had gone home. Norwich had gone to sleep. Not one vehicle came along Bracondale, the main south-east route out of the city, to spoil our silly stunt.
For a whole 30 minutes.
Norwich was a different place then, not sleepy exactly but certainly a county town where life proceeded at a stately pace. I had just joined the Eastern Daily Press, its offices then in Redwell Street. I would look out of the reporters’ room window at the church opposite, one of Norwich’s 52 churches, for every Sunday of the year, it was said.
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The church has a handsome clock. Its blue face bears words: “FORGET ME NOT”.
Norwich took that warning to heart because everything seemed to happen with a steady regularity. Every morning at 11, the air would be heavily scented with chocolate. The Rowntree-Mackintosh factory, now the site of the Chapelfield Shopping Centre, was concocting its latest consignment of confectionery for the world, another 500,000 Kit-Kat fingers rolling off the production line.
On Wednesdays, the heady aroma of hops and malt barley trumped chocolate. Norwich Brewery was producing its latest batch of beers, sending up a fragrant cloud that hung over the entire city like a drunkard’s dream.
But social habits were already changing and the beer trade was feeling the draught. The city’s two biggest breweries, Bullard’s and Steward & Patterson’s. had recently closed down. I later covered the last brew in Great Yarmouth at Lacon’s brewery, the name recently and happily re-born, and the final mash at the S&P brewery in Ely.
Norwich had once boasted 365 pubs, one for every day of the year, which made me wonder what happened on Leap Years. A drought?
Pubs were closing but The Norwich Club seemed to be a fixture. It was hidden at the end of a narrow passage off London Street. Alfred Munnings, my favourite painter, had once been a member.
Playing snooker one evening, Munnings heard a visitor spouting what in Norfolk had always been called, “a load of old squit”. The man was loudly asserting that it was impossible to create art unless conditions of calm and silence prevailed.
To prove the man wrong, Munnings ripped down two of the club’s black-out blinds and, using his billiard chalk, rapidly drew two animated scenes, one of a prancing white horse and the other of the circus with clowns, two of his favourite subjects.
Years later The Munnings Blinds, complete with the stitching down the sides, were sold for a lot of money.
Diagonally opposite the Norwich Club was Austin Reed, where you could have your hair cut while considering swatches of cloth for your new bespoke suit, as I did.
The veteran barber had worked for decades in the fabulous Art Deco barber’s shop in the basement of Austin Reed’s Regent Street HQ in London. As he worked away, he mentioned the rich and famous men whose locks he had trimmed and whose chins he had shaved. I wrote up The Celebrity Barber of London Street for the paper.
I applied to join About Anglia as its staff reporter. Auditions were being filmed on the Castle mound. Somehow, the briefing notes had not reached me. No matter. I busked some information I had recently gleaned about the plans to create a bigger and better museum within the castle keep.
I got the job. I started on Whit Monday. I took the train to Norwich from Lowestoft, where I was living in a flat above “Jane Gowns”, Jane’s charming dress shop next to the station. I walked up Prince of Wales Road to begin 22 years as a television reporter.
The news editor, Jim Wilson, handed me a piece of paper with a name and address on it. “Now Michael”, he said, “For your first job, I want you to go there and interview that man.”
I read the note, screwed it into a ball and threw it into the wastepaper bin. “What are you doing?” asked Jim, clearly thinking that he had hired a lunatic.
“Well”, I replied. “You’re winding me up, aren’t you? To test the new boy. This address is the building in Lowestoft I left an hour ago, to travel 27 miles to start this job. And of all the places in East Anglia, you are really sending me back there?”
He really was. It was also the address of the Lowestoft Chamber of Commerce. Its chairman was complaining about all the bridges being closed whenever a prisoner escaped from Blundeston Prison, which was often, Lowestoft being geographically on an island, namely the Island of Lothingland.
I returned to Lowestoft and conducted my first television interview. When it was transmitted, Dick Joice, the West Raynham farmer who became the face of Anglia when it was launched in 1960, walked across the studio. “Don’t stand with your hand in your pocket like that for the wide shots”, he said. “It looks ugly”.
It was the only advice I was ever to receive on how to be a television reporter. I never put my hand in my pocket on television again.
If you worked for Anglia then, you were truly a Prince of the City. Presenters like Bob Wellings, Dick Graham, John McGregor were huge stars in East Anglia. Colin Ewing’s farming programmes set the agricultural agenda. Romper Room transfixed the nation’s ankle-biters. John Bacon, white hair parted with a ruler, presented the regional news with all the gravitas of the family solicitor reading out the will of the dear departed.
Anglia was licking its wounds from the failure of Weavers’ Green, its TV attempt at The Archers, but it remained a full-service regional station. Its drama was popular. The pioneering wildlife series Survival was a huge and prestigious success, the brainchild of Anglia’s chief executive, Aubrey Buxton, major Essex landowner and pal of the Duke of Edinburgh.
Mr Buxton spoke to me only once. It was Sunday. I was on duty alone when the shocking and entirely unexpected news came over the Press Association wire. Anglia had lost its transmitter at Belmont, serving Lincolnshire and Humberside. The Independent Television Authority had awarded Belmont to a new company to be called Yorkshire Television.
Mr Buxton rang the newsroom. I broke the bad news that Anglia would now lose a third of its viewers. I must say he took it calmly, seasoned perhaps by wartime service in Burma where he was awarded the military cross.
I was proud to be a small part of Anglia TV. There was not a part of the region I didn’t cover, racing at breakneck speed back to Norwich to get the film processed for broadcast at six.
In the whole of East Anglia, there was then not a single mile of dual carriageway, if you didn’t count the divided seafront known as Great Yarmouth’s Golden Mile, which I didn’t.
I was always in a hurry but not everyone was. The newsroom would usually be deserted at lunchtime. Journalists had their own stools at the bar in the Royal Hotel, opposite. This permitted the young woman in charge of ‘Grams’ – music used with ‘mute’ film – to play her favourite records, very loud, on the expensive equipment in the rafters of Anglia House where the newsroom was located. She loved Sunny and would dance to it, all alone, as I once chanced to see.
Anglia’s live music was provided by Peter Fenn and the Fenn Men. He was chairman of the Norwich branch of the Musicians’ Union and spent hours trying to convince me that Communism was a good idea, without success.
The Royal still took guests but Norwich really had only two hotels of note: The historic Maid’s Head, opposite the main gate of the cathedral, and The Castle on Castle Meadow, the businessman’s rest.
The nearby Bell Hotel was an historic coaching inn but it didn’t meet the demands of the 1960s. The playwright Arnold Wesker had toiled in its kitchen and captured it all in The Kitchen. His play Roots drew upon his time working on a farm near Harleston.
Bonds, at the top of Timber Hill, closed all day on Monday. Half-closing was Thursday in Norwich. And most shops closed for lunch. Life was ordered and time moved slowly.
Norwich was 99% white. The only place you would ever see brown or black faces was at The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, then just beyond the old city walls on the Newmarket Road, or at the new university. Golfers were still bitter in 1967 that the grandiose student residences had been built across the fairways they loved at Earlham Golf Club.
It had been an historic mistake not to build the University of East Anglia in Norwich. It could have filled the big vacant site between King Street and Ber Street, creating an instant Cambridge feel with students bringing new life to the city. What happened ensured that most Norwich people are unaware of the university and many students never go into Norwich.
Most early students, like Selina Scott, lived in the converted RAF barracks at Horsham St. Faith’s, on the other side of Norwich, and spent half their time on buses going to and fro. Norwich Airport wasn’t even a pipe dream then.
Jimmy Crampton, who later founded Norfolk Airways together with local flying legend ‘Wilbur’ Wright, flew me and my camera crew around East Anglia in a single-engine Cessna 172 aircraft. Jimmy, who had flown Wellington bombers during the Second World War, would arrive for our take-off, from the former fighter station runway at St. Faith’s, riding his bike and wearing an overcoat and bicycle clips, which he kept on while he flew. Sometimes we landed on the beach at Cleethorpes. I was thrilled.
Norfolk Airways became Air Anglia and then Air UK – ‘Britain’s right-hand airline’ – opening up routes to Leeds-Bradford, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, on the east side of Britain, and then to Rotterdam and holiday destinations on the continent.
Air UK was later taken over but not before Jimmy and Wilbur had proved that Norwich Airport was a great idea. They had started their partnership flying holidaymakers on sight-seeing trips over Yarmouth.
The Bishop of Norwich, Lancelot Fleming, had been a rower in his youth. One evening, idling with friends at The Wood’s End pub at Bramerton on the River Yare, a rowing eight came past, the Bishop pulling well. Another of the oars was the editor of the EDP and my former boss, Alf Jenner. We cheered bishop, editor and other Norwich worthies on their elegant way.
There was not much vice in Norwich then. Rose Lane was a low-voltage red-light district, because it had few shops and even fewer neighbours to complain to the police. A few battle-weary prostitutes would take up position at dusk, spaced like parking meters, although Norwich was one of few cities not to deploy those silent sentinels of local tax collection, then a fairly new urban nuisance.
Cash-for-sex transactions tended to take place under the railway bridge at Trowse, within sight of the new Norfolk Police Headquarters, which showed a bit of insouciance on the prostitutes’ part.
Norwich City Police had recently been subsumed in the new Norfolk County Force. One of the City Police inspectors had secured the job of ‘security’ at Anglia House. His name was Mr Tester. He made my life hell, going out of his way to reprimand me if I ever parked in the wrong place or entered through a door marked ‘Exit’.
To say that Mr Tester was a pompous martinet would be like saying Prince Andrew has a poor choice in friends. And Mr Tester certainly regarded me as the lowest form of Anglia life.
One day, I was in reception, waiting to meet an interviewee, when Barbara Cartland arrived in her Rolls Royce, to appear on the afternoon show aimed at women at home. Miss Cartland, a veritable pink meringue in a large matching hat, sat and waited, majestically, on the sofa provided. When nobody came to welcome her, I sensed her impatience, even though I was 20 yards away.
At that moment, Mr. Tester happened to walk across reception with his customary military swagger, the brass buttons of his uniform tunic gleaming. Spotting this imposing figure, Barbara Cartland called out: “Porter, Porter, come here!”
Mr Tester froze. “What did you call me, Madam?” he asked. “Porter”, she replied. Mr Tester visibly shook. “Madam”, he said, “I am the Head of Security.”
“Then why are you dressed like a porter?” she asked.
It was my best moment at Anglia, until Monday, September 11, 1967, when Jane and I were wed at St. Mary’s Church, Somerleyton. We married on Monday because Saturday was too good a day for trade. Film of our wedding ran on About Anglia.
It must have worked because we are still together, 53 years later.