The Norwich pub that will be forever linked to the stars
Boarded up with steel shutters, its car park empty, The Firs pub in Hellesdon looks a sorry sight. But the pub which has closed, sparking rumours it is to become a supermarket, has enjoyed some halcyon days as PETER WALSH reports.
If the rumours are to be believed and a Tesco store is to be built on the site of The Firs then future generations might not ever know that a pub was ever there in the first place.
And that would be a crying shame because for all the problems the pub has had in the recent past with a drugs raid earlier this year and a succession of closures and different landlords, it was once a vibrant and popular venue.
Built in 1933 the Firs pub was closely linked with the Firs Stadium that played host to the Norwich Stars speedway team and attracted tens of thousands of visitors every week.
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The Norwich Stars raced in the National League Division Two between 1947 and 1951 before joining Division One.
The stadium, which was based opposite the pub where the Meadow Way estate in Hellesdon is now located, attracted thousands of people every Saturday to see the likes of four-time world champion Ove Fundin and Billy Bales in action.
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A speedway full house also meant that the Firs pub itself was rammed to the rafters, with many popping in for a pre or post-meeting pint or two.
Some say that the pub was named after the speedway stadium which was sold for housing in 1964, bringing the Norwich Stars team to an end, meaning that, for many, The Firs was a lasting reminder of those great days.
Noel Barrett, 70, who owned a fish-and-chip shop in Hellesdon for more than 30 years, was a regular at the speedway in his younger years and remembers the pub being a popular venue.
He said: 'The pub was very busy, like most in those days. The pub was probably named after the stadium. They went to the pub for a drink before they went to the speedway. They were absolutely bursting at the seams – you had a job to get in the car park. It's a far cry from these days.'
Mr Barrett said it was a shame that the pub had closed but hoped that its association with the speedway track would never be forgotten.
He said: 'It's all part of the history of the place isn't it? You go past these places and would start to think back to what it was then. If you'd have said to anyone at that time that the pub wont be here or would be closed down in several years time you wouldn't have been believed.'
Another who remembers the halcyon days of the Firs and the speedway track is Des Jones-Blackett. Mr Blackett, 70, a Hellesdon parish councillor for more than 20 years, said he was too young to go in the pub when he went to the speedway – although plenty of others did.
He said: 'It was fairly busy at that time. It was so close to the track that a lot of people used to pop in there first. It's a shame it's closed.'
In recent years it was console games and not speedway racing that drew punters to The Firs, with former landlord Tony Bennett installing a Nintendo Wii games console in the bar.
The games nights proved popular but Mr Bennett, who also had plans to open a hotel on the site with 30 bedrooms, was forced to close the pub in 2009 due to financial difficulties.
There have been repeated attempts to revive the fortunes of the pub since then, but it has continued to struggle while rumours of a Tesco store being opened on the site have continued to gather momentum.
There is still no official word from the supermarket about the speculation and Broadland District Council has yet to receive a planning application.
Enterprise Inns, which owned the pub, would only confirm that the pub had closed and that 'an agreement has been reached with a third party for alternative use'.
It is the end of what has been a tumultuous time for the pub with a drugs raid by police in March which resulted in two people being arrested.
The Firs did reopen, with bosses vowing to work with police and the local community but it closed again, temporarily, in August before shutting again last month.
Pub historian Derek McDonald admitted: 'The pub has never been the same since they took the speedway track away. It's not a grade II-listed building, but its a beautiful building and perhaps it would make a very good bed and breakfast, especially being so close to the airport.
'Tesco sounds a good possibility. I haven't heard anything to that effect, but it wouldn't surprise me.'
Have you got happy memories of The Firs or pictures of the pub from the past? Call reporter Peter Walsh on 01603 7772436 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Queen of Norwich speedway. Turn to page 12.