Despite my frequent weekend forays into Yorkshire in recent years, probably the county where I’ve spent more of my vacation time than any other during my lifetime has been Norfolk. Since first being introduced to these eastern flatlands in the early 1960s, I’ve enjoyed many a happy holiday there in the company of family, friends and various girlfriends (not all at the same time of course), sampling its glorious beaches, leafy lanes, and fish-filled waterways, and of course its pubs. I’ve a host of memories which I won’t bore you with, other than to list the first three things that come to mind when I reminisce – Radio Noordzee, Space Invaders and Watney Manns cask-conditioned Norwich Castle Bitter – a heady cocktail indeed!
To be honest, that Castle Bitter wasn’t too bad a beer, coming as it did after a period when a huge swathe of Norfolk was classified by CAMRA types as a ‘beer desert’. Most of the company’s Norfolk pubs had a stab at selling it, and with it invariably being the only cask beer on tap, the quality was usually OK. It wasn’t to last, however, and with the advent of national brands it soon disappeared from the bar. And Space Invaders got too complicated and I suppose Radio Noordzee went the way of all the off-shore pirate stations.
Nowadays my visits to Norfolk tend to be day trips for football purposes, and with some keenly-priced rail fares from Nottingham courtesy of East Midlands Trains, any opportunity to endure the three-hour train journey is still eagerly anticipated. Today I’m heading for East Dereham, a town where I would undoubtedly have stopped off during one of those interminable slow-motion 1970s car journeys (in the days before parts of the A47 were finally dualled) when everybody was trying to avoid the notorious bottleneck around King’s Lynn. Happy days.
After much research, I reason the best way to get to Dereham will be via a bus from Norwich, and by good fortune the KonectExpress 8 picks up right outside the city’s rail station, subsequently setting down just a couple of hundred yards from Dereham Town’s Aldiss Park stadium; although with time on my hands, I decide to get off in the town centre, a mile or so further down the road. Courtesy of CAMRA’s ‘What Pub’ website I’ve identified a couple of hostelries which deserve to be investigated, the first of them being just to the south of the main shopping area. The Royal Standard looks a bit staid and unloved from the outside but this is deceptive as it hides a very welcoming interior.
It sells four cask beers including Bateman’s XB, plus a brew from the local Beeston Brewery. Today it’s Village Life, a 4.8%abv dark brown bitter which is malty and full-bodied – my kind of beer! From here I walk past the local Wetherspoons – no time today – and visit the George Hotel, just to the north of the town centre. It’s a traditional hotel bar where the staff have you marked as a potential food customer – I’m asked the inevitable “are you eating with us today sir…” question – but still caters for drinkers with four hand pumps, three selling Adnams beers and the other Woodforde’s Wherry. I plump for Adnams Old Ale which splutters worryingly as the lass attempts to pour it. To be honest it does taste a bit ‘end-of-barrel-ish’ but I persevere anyway.
Then it’s back to the Market Place bus stop and the KonectExpress 8 starting the return journey to Norwich, from which I alight five minutes later at the Windmill Lane bus stop, just a few minutes from the ground. Although Aldiss Park opened in 1996, it still smacks of ‘new build’ and boasts one of the best playing surfaces I’ve seen for a while. The stadium is dominated by a large clubhouse/changing rooms complex on one side, with flat standing all round, save for a longish covered stand with two rows of seats on the opposite side, and a ‘kit’ terrace behind one goal. The clubhouse bar is very well presented, has sports TV, a separate snack servery (just chips for the veggie) and two hand pumps on the bar, serving Woodforde’s Wherry, and Blackwater Brewery Hair of the Dog, about as citrussy as you will find, and hailing all the way across the country from Shropshire.
Today’s game is an FA Trophy tie, with Dereham Town – from the London-centric Isthmian League despite it’s geographic location – taking on London side Hanwell Town, who ply their trade in the Southern League. You might have thought it would be the other way round. I have a special interest in today’s game ending in a draw, with the prospect of a replay at Hanwell on the following Tuesday night, when by coincidence I will be in the ‘Smoke’ having transported my son down for him to see Chelsea take on Maribor in the Champions League. My days of paying £41 to watch footy at Stamford Bridge are now over!
And for a long time it looks like my dream result will happen with both sides trading early goals before contriving between them to miss a hatful of chances in a generally entertaining game where no side appears to have the edge. That is until 10 minutes from the end when an astute through ball puts the home striker in on goal and the net bulges. Hey ho, best laid plans up in Smoke!
An OK game but not especially memorable. So it looks like when I think of Norfolk, I’ll still be clinging on to those thoughts of Radio Noordzee, Space Invaders, and Norwich Castle Bitter for a bit longer. Which reminds me, talking of beer, there’s just time for a pint before the long train journey home….
Programme: On the turnstile, not sure of price: Chunky at 60 pages but when I add that just over 40 of those pages comprise advertising, you can tell the amount of reading matter is restricted. Full marks to the fella who sells the advertising though…
Floodlight pylons: 8
Birdlife: very little despite the rural location
Club Shop: Seem to recall merchandise on sale but for the life of me can’t remember where!
Toilets: Side of the clubhouse
Music the players run out to: none
Kop choir: a largely geriatric crowd behind the appropriate goal. Repertoire limited.
Away fans: several in evidence in the seating area.
What’s in a name: Interesting that Hanwell have four Duffy brothers on their books, and their dad is also the manager. Shades of ‘Football Family Robinson’ in the old Jag comic (circa 1968 – remember?)