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A day at Great Yarmouth

Great Yarmouth, or Yarmouth as it is also called, is about 20 miles east of Norwich, at the mouth of the River Yare. It is one of the oldest towns in England, having been granted a charter by King John in 1208, but its origins can be traced further back to a Roman fishing settlement. Near the town market you can still see remnants of the old city walls.

Great Yarmouth has been a seaside resort since the mid-1700s. When the railway opened in 1844 tourism boomed and its two piers, Wellington Pier and the grade 2 listed Britannia Pier, were opened in 1854 and 1858 respectively. With its promenade, pubs, trams, fish and chip shops and theatres the town was and still is still a popular tourist destination.

While we were staying in Norwich we were chatting to the waitress in the pub at dinner one night and she suggested that we should take a drive out to Great Yarmouth before we left Norwich. Finding Great Yarmouth was easy; just get onto the A47, head east and keep going until you hit water. Parking was a bit expensive but we don’t really have a problem with that, the money raised goes towards maintaining the town’s amenities and anyway, when we were there all the car parks near the beach were full suggesting that, despite the price, demand still outstripped supply.

After we parked the car we headed towards the beach and took a walk along the boardwalk, towards the Venetian Waterways and the Boating Lake. Dug by hand using shovels and wheelbarrows, the waterway was built in 1928 as part of a relief program for the unemployed. The walk along the boardwalk, beside the waterways, was a relaxing stroll and we stopped for coffee at a kiosk on the Boating Lake before heading back to the main part of the town.

Great Yarmouth is unashamedly a tourist town and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. There are ice cream parlours dotted along the beach and the main street is mostly souvenir shops, fish and chip shops and restaurants, exactly as you would expect in a tourist town. Although there were lots of people around, there weren’t many large groups, most people wore a face mask in public and everyone maintained a socially distant distance.

One thing we didn’t see on the main street was betting shops and charity shops. Betting shops and charity shops along a main street usually indicates that a town is struggling to survive so their absence tells us that the economy in Great Yarmouth is healthy.

We spent about an hour and a half looking around the town and browsing through the souvenir shops, although we didn’t buy anything, before settling on an Italian restaurant near the town market for lunch. After lunch we looked around the market for a while before going back to the car and back to Norwich.

We enjoyed our day in Great Yarmouth. The streets are clean, there was almost no litter and we didn’t see any graffiti, all of which tells us that the town has a healthy economy and the residents take pride in their town.

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A visit to Norwich

About 100 miles north east of London or two hours by train from London or one hour by air from Amsterdam, on the River Wensum in England’s East Anglia, is the city of Norwich; England’s first UNESCO City of Literature and, prior to the industrial revolution, the second largest city in all of England. Founded in 924 as a market town, Norwich is the most complete medieval city in the United Kingdom.

We had a few days spare so we decided to visit Norwich and were lucky enough to find an apartment just a few minutes’ walk from the castle, at a very reasonable price.

Norwich is an interesting city, you could almost think of it as two cities in one. There is the old city with its twisting lanes, cobbled streets, Tudor buildings and loads of character and then there is a new section, by the river, between the railway station and the football stadium. The new section used to be decaying docks and warehouses but is now being redeveloped with shiny new apartments and restaurant chains springing up everywhere.

After we unpacked, our first job was to get some basic supplies, such as fruit, milk, eggs and breakfast cereal, so we took a walk through the redeveloped area to find a supermarket. We found a Morrison’s supermarket near the football stadium that was open. Everything was very socially distant with a separate entrance and exit, a one-way system up and down the aisles, plenty of hand gel dispensers and nobody gets in without a facemask. All very practical and we felt fairly safe shopping there.

On our way back to the flat we decided to take advantage of a half price meal deal and have dinner in a Weatherspoon pub near the supermarket. Big mistake! The meal was dreadful. Overcooked and dry, the food was almost inedible and the staff couldn’t have cared less. It was by far the worst pub meal we have had in a long time.

The next morning we took a walk into the old town via the castle which, unfortunately, was closed due to the coronavirus. Fortunately strolling through the area around the castle is still a very pleasant walk.

Underneath the castle is a shopping mall called, not surprisingly, Castle Mall. It is fairly typical of most multi storey shopping malls anywhere in the world with shops, a cinema complex and a food court but the idea of building a mall underneath an important heritage building without damaging it proves that with good engineers you can build almost anything almost anywhere.

Being over 1000 years old, Norwich has grown organically over the years. In other words there are lots of heritage listed buildings and little lanes and streets coming off other streets at odd angles. You can see that in days gone by Norwich was a very prosperous city with several department stores, Victorian arcades, fine jewellers and a bustling city market. We spent most of the morning exploring the shops up and down the little streets although we didn’t buy anything. We could see that the city is still mostly quite prosperous.

In contrast to the newer, redeveloped part of Norwich, a lot of the shops in the older part are independent owner operated businesses. There are a few chains but there is a healthy mix of franchised and independent establishments. In the redeveloped part however, independent businesses are conspicuous by their absence.

While exploring the shops we eventually arrived at the city market. Although reputed to be the oldest outdoor market in the UK, it is nothing like other markets we’ve seen and, to be honest, it was disappointing. It was remodelled in 2006 so that, instead of a collection of temporary and semi-permanent stalls, Norwich market is now a series of neat rows of concrete and steel retail pods. There are lots of different sellers selling different things but, with each stall being identical in size and shape to every other stall, the market doesn’t have a soul. There is almost no opportunity for a stall holder to stamp their personality on their stall so, unless you are looking for something specific, browsing is boring.

After visiting the market we walked through a nearby arcade to find a café for coffee and cake, before going back to our flat for lunch. While ordering our snack we were chatting to the café owner (as we do) and she told us about a secret garden hidden away in the heart of Norwich.

That night we went to a pub that was just around the corner from our flat for dinner called The Last Pub Standing. Conventional it is not, but in a good way. The wait staff wore interesting outfits that looked like they were trying out for a fringe theatre production, the beer was served in plastic cups and meals were served in cardboard takeaway boxes with bamboo knives and forks. That said, they made us feel really welcome, the beer was good and we had a delicious Caribbean goat curry. We should have gone there the previous night instead of that other place.

We mentioned to our waitress that we were visiting Norwich for a few days and she suggested that, since we had travelled this far, we should go a little bit further and visit Great Yarmouth. Great Yarmouth is only 20 miles from Norwich so we decided that we would visit it before we left.

After dinner we went for a walk along the river to explore Norwich by night. Starting from the railway station, a walk along the river bank can show you both the old and the new Norwich. Heading south-west towards the football stadium takes you through the redeveloped areas with shiny new apartment blocks and franchised theme restaurants. Although a big improvement on what used to be along the river, the new buildings still feel sterile and the lack of independent businesses is striking. However, if you like canned entertainment and mass produced reheated food then it’s probably fine.

If, instead of heading south-west from the railway station towards the football stadium, you head north-east along the river bank, you will find a peaceful walk that takes you past several historic landmarks such as Pull’s Ferry, a restored 15th century water gate and ferry house, Bishop Bridge and the Adam and Eve Pub; reputedly the oldest pub in Norwich.

The next day we took a drive to Great Yarmouth for the day; but that’s another story.

The day before we left Norwich we visited the secret garden that the owner of the coffee shop had told us about.

The secret garden’s real name is “The Plantation Garden” and it really is almost in the centre of Norwich. Next door to the Catholic Cathedral, it is only a short 15 minute walk and less than a mile from the city centre. If you didn’t know it was there you could walk past it and not even notice. Originally a chalk quarry, it was turned into a Victorian town garden when the chalk ran out, nearly 150 years ago.

The garden is the perfect place to relax and spend a few hours reading a book or just sitting, meditating and enjoying your surroundings. Heritage listed and spread across three acres, the gardens are maintained by an army of volunteers. Although they charge a £2 admission fee, it is an honour system with a coin box at the gate and on Sunday afternoons they serve afternoon tea for a small fee and sell homemade jars of jam. Personally we think that a person would have to be particularly mean spirited to not pay the £2 because the money raised, plus donations, sponsorship and occasional functions, goes towards maintaining the gardens.

We were chatting to one of the trust members and he said that before the lockdown they were struggling to find enough volunteers to keep the gardens maintained. Now they have a waiting list. It sounds like, while people want to stay safe and not spread the virus, they are also tired of being idle and really want to feel productive again.

We stayed in Norwich for nearly a week and generally speaking we enjoyed our visit. It wasn’t our first trip to Norwich and it won’t be our last because each time we visit Norwich we find something new. This time we found the Plantation Garden.

Looking back, we might have been a little harsh with our criticism of the redeveloped area by the river. There’s no doubt that the area needed redeveloping and in time it will settle down and become an integral part of the Norwich landscape. Our only real criticism is that we didn’t see any independent venues; all of the venues are franchised chains. Besides, just because we like old things doesn’t mean that everyone does. We like Norwich because, with its mix of little streets, old buildings, boutique shops and department stores, there is always something for us to find. Who knows what we will find when we visit Norwich next time.

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A visit to Cambridge

Since the coronavirus quarantine restrictions are starting to be lifted and all we’ve done since March is wander around the village, we decided to grab our face masks, throw caution to the wind and treat ourselves to a day trip to Cambridge.

About an hour north of London by train, on the River Cam, is the city of Cambridge, home to the prestigious University of Cambridge. The university dates from 1209 and hosts several famous colleges including King’s; famed for its choir and towering Gothic chapel, Trinity; founded by Henry VIII and St John’s; with its 16th-century Great Gate.

With its theatres, shops, markets and university museums, you could easily spend several days exploring this city. It has lots of independent cafés and restaurants, boutique clothing shops and imaginative gift shops, plus punting, parks and a vibrant city market. When it’s fully alive it is almost guaranteed that there is something for everyone in Cambridge.

Being a university city, Cambridge has very good public transport links. A regular train service from London and several park & ride carparks coupled with a comprehensive bus network, makes getting to and around Cambridge easy.

Last time we visited Cambridge, before the lockdown, it was a hive of activity. The streets were full of people, kamikaze students on bicycles rode up and down the streets, restaurants and cafés overflowed with diners and the city centre had a vibrant atmosphere. Well the lockdown put an end to that! Now most of the people have gone. Although the shops have started to reopen you cannot just browse and the city centre is a pale imitation of its former self.

We drove to Cambridge and parked in the Madingley Road park & ride, which is just over a mile from the American Cemetery. The cemetery is dedicated to American servicemen who died during World War II and is worth a visit but we didn’t go there this time.

The good thing about the park and ride is that it is close to the city and you can park your car for free. The idea is that you park your car for free and pay for the bus ride into the city but at Madingley Road a local bus route runs along the side of the car park. You can park your car then skip through the fence and get a local bus into the city. Not only is the fare cheaper, the bus will drop you nearer to the centre of Cambridge.

The bus dropped us in central Cambridge so we walked north, past Corpus Christi College and Kings College, towards the city market. The absence of people was striking. Unlike a few months ago, the streets were almost deserted.

Many of, the smaller independent cafés and boutiques were open but the souvenir shops and restaurants were mostly closed, I guess that’s because there aren’t enough tourists for the restaurants and souvenir shops but Cambridgites still need to shop and buy takeaway coffee in paper cups.

Almost every open shop had a sign out the front asking for only one person or only two people in the store at a time to comply with social distancing rules. The buskers and walking tour operators didn’t appear to be doing much business. In fact they looked quite lonely. Disappointingly the museums were also closed but that’s probably also down to a lack of foot traffic and the difficulty of enforcing social distancing rules around exhibits.

One of the benefits of the restrictions is that, if you look, there are some very good bargains to be found in the smaller independent stores. While we were mooching our way to the market Rosa spent some time inside one of the boutiques and came out with a lovely dress that was very reasonably priced. Of course, being a woman she has nothing in her wardrobe that she can wear so she desperately needed a new dress. (I’m not complaining; the only reason I didn’t buy anything was because we didn’t pass an open menswear shop.)

The city market was trying to put on a brave face but the foot traffic hasn’t come back yet so about two thirds of the stalls were empty. The fruit and veg stalls and an artisan bread stall looked like they were doing a reasonable trade but they certainly weren’t rushed off their feet. Similarly the florist was open but we didn’t see anyone buying.

The clothing stalls haven’t reopened yet, same for the bric a brac stalls, coin dealers and other nick knack stalls, so browsing was a bit of a disappointment. They probably think that there’s not enough tourists and foot traffic in general to make opening worthwhile. I can see their point, there are few things more depressing than sitting in your shop all day and nobody comes near you. But, if you don’t open people can’t browse and if they can’t browse they won’t buy.

We spent about half an hour looking around the market including waiting in the queue to be served at the fruit and veg stall and waiting in another queue to buy a loaf of bread. Other than the time we spent waiting in queues, we only spent about ten minutes, tops, looking at the rest of the market. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t anything to see so we headed off to find somewhere to have lunch.

Meet Carolina, the greeter at the Eagle pub in Bene’t Street. With a big smile on her face and wearing a shield to protect her from the virus, Carolina took our name and phone number, just in case it was needed, and explained the one way system inside the pub. Then she escorted us to our socially distanced table and left us with a menu each.

The dining area had six tables, each at least two meters from the next table and patrons were spread out to maintain a safe distance between diners. Whenever a customer finished their meal and left, a staff member immediately wiped down the table, chair back and chair seat with disinfectant, ready for the next customer.

The Eagle is a Greene King pub that serves standard pub grub. A few minutes after we sat down, a masked staff member arrived to take our order. I ordered bangers and mash while Rosa ordered a beef burger and chip, then I went to the bar to order drinks from the unmasked bartender standing behind a big Perspex screen. After about fifteen minutes our meals arrived.

While the meal wasn’t gourmet food, it was certainly edible and, unlike some of the other places, at least the pub was open and it served food and the prices were reasonable.

The Eagle

After lunch we took a walk down to the river. The punting business was open and there were a few boats on the river but nothing like the number of boats or people that there was this time last year. The ticket sellers were working hard trying to sell to anyone who walked past but, unfortunately, the people just weren’t there. On the plus side, although the weather was a bit overcast, the river bank is a lovely area for a leisurely stroll. We spent most of the rest of the afternoon enjoying the peace and quiet of the river before walking up to the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Unfortunately the Fitzwilliam Museum, like all of the other museums and most of the tourist attractions in Cambridge, was closed. It’s a pity because the Fitzwilliam Museum is a must see place if you visit Cambridge. It is doubly disappointing that the visitor destinations are closed because if other businesses can work out how to open safely and socially distance their customers then it must be possible for a museum to introduce a one way system so that visitors are socially distanced.

Since the museum was closed all we could do was wait at the bus stop for the bus that would take us back to the park and ride, and hence our car, to arrive.

On balance our visit to Cambridge was a pleasant day out although we were disappointed that more places haven’t opened yet. With a bit of imagination and effort social distancing can be managed but if shops and venues don’t open because there aren’t enough people and people don’t go there because not enough is open then it creates a vicious circle.

We understand the need for the restrictions and we fully support the very slow, cautious way the restrictions are being lifted. We always wear our facemasks in public and we are careful to keep a safe distance from other people. But it does take the fun out of shopping when most of the shops are shut and all you can do is window shop unless you intend to buy something. You daren’t go into a shop that is open to browse because you will be stopping someone who wants to buy from entering the shop. While we fully support the restrictions and do our best to comply with them, that doesn’t mean that we like them and we are really looking forward to the restrictions being just a memory.

Hopefully Cambridge will be back to its former self by Christmas, once the restrictions are lifted. But in the meantime, we all have to be patient.