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Compelling slice of history on hamlet’s many characters

PUBLISHED: 10:29 23 October 2018 | UPDATED: 10:36 23 October 2018

This Catholic shrine in Spread Oak Wood in Bittering was built by Paul Hodác to give thanks for finding refuge from the Nazis after they invaded his native Czechoslovakia. He discovered Norfolk on holiday, spending time in Bittering from the early 1960s. The chapel, dedicated in 1975, is already beginning to be lost among the leaves and trunks

This Catholic shrine in Spread Oak Wood in Bittering was built by Paul Hodác to give thanks for finding refuge from the Nazis after they invaded his native Czechoslovakia. He discovered Norfolk on holiday, spending time in Bittering from the early 1960s. The chapel, dedicated in 1975, is already beginning to be lost among the leaves and trunks

Archant

Keith Skipper’s been reading about the village of Bittering, which once fuelled his childhood imagination as he grew up in neighbouring Beeston

Joan Norton at 5Joan Norton at 5

I spent many a childhood hour trying to imagine what might be going on in Bittering, a small, remote and scattered community next door to my mid-Norfolk village home at Beeston.

Strangely, my regular biking adventures readily embraced the neighbouring leafy lanes of Litcham, Longham, Wendling, Mileham, the Franshams, the Dunhams, as well as Gressenhall in the fruit-picking season, while poor little Bittering remained off limits.

The fact we were joined at the rural hip by the name Beeston-with-Bittering did nothing to lure me beyond inventing a cast of outlandish characters to go with nerve-tingling escapades worthy of a Romans v Iceni warriors fixture down a lonely rutted lane near the gravel pits.

Yes, I sort of scared myself away and so the place became far more tantalising for my not paying a visit. I had no friends or relations there although I knew Reggie Purple, who formed a highly effective partnership with Gerald Burton in the Longham cricket team bowling attack, lived in Bittering.

Now, over 60 years and several bike safaris and local derbies later, I can stop imagining and inspect a rich cavalcade of real country characters sharing home truths and hard lives so similar to those unfolding on my own little canvas nearby during years of stark austerity.

A fascinating new book, Bittering, Norfolk, Lost and Found, has been knitted together by someone born there in 1942 and a publisher intrigued by her vivid memories of “a vanished world”. Joan Norton and Tim Cawkwell pay local history a big favour with their talking and listening partnership.

They first met when Tim and wife Maggie moved to the county in 1986 and he was selected to run the newly-formed Norfolk Rural Community Council from his Hingham base. Joan had lived there since 1967 after spending the first quarter-century of her life in Bittering.

The Cawkwells switched to the city when Tim was appointed Chapter Steward for Norwich Cathedral. On retirement he went into self-publishing – and knew it was only a matter of time before old friend Joan was offered her chance to burst into print.

Most of their joint efforts take the form of revealing conversations prompted by Tim’s gentle probing and answered by Joan in her proud Norfolk accent. Her friendly inquisitor describes the exercise thus: “Her mind is like a billiard ball fizzing across the green baize and continually bouncing in new directions. In editing her words I had to create some semblance of a narrative without destroying the liveliness of her train of thought”

Born Joan Warmer in 1942, she tells her Bittering story of spartan conditions, long hours and few trimmings with searing honesty leavened with old-fashioned family values and an inbuilt respect for others of all classes and types.

Her father was gardener at Bittering Hall , long since demolished. Joan went to work there after school hours and during holidays, taking on a full-time role with the Napiers when she left school at 15. The demanding job lasted until June in 1967 when the Napiers moved to Spain and Joan’s mother and father died within a few days of each other. They are buried in the village churchyard.

The Warmers’ cottage had no electricity or water laid on, 
So they had to use an old pit-hole in the garden or, for drinking water, a well down the road. 
If the well dried up, it was off to Manor Farm with a milk churn on a pram

Almost inevitably, there’s a story about a ghost in Bittering Hall starring Joan and a local policeman. Making friends with gypsies, helping father at harvest time, raiding hedgerows for food and Church and Chapel experiences also take their turns in the homely spotlight.

At times it’s a bit like trying to piece together a rural jigsaw without a lid to the box holding Bittering pieces.

Even so, that fragmented flavour lends lingering charm to a compelling slice of local history about a scattered hamlet and a Norfolk mawther’s part in revealing it.


Bittering, Norfolk, Lost and Found, by Joan Norton and Tim Cawkwell, costs £9.99 from Jarrold books department in Norwich. Also available 
through Amazon, either as paperback or e-book. For further details about this and other Sforzinda Books email cawkwell200@gmail.com

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