I’m an Essex man but I’ve got a soft spot for Norwich...well it’s in my genes after all

PUBLISHED: 17:42 14 January 2020 | UPDATED: 17:42 14 January 2020

Norwich's fine helping of old buildings has plenty of appeal for Essex man Martin Newell

Norwich's fine helping of old buildings has plenty of appeal for Essex man Martin Newell


Essex performer and writer Martin Newell now has a good reason to love the Fine City

To Norwich Arts Centre on a wet January night, for a film and a performance. I never mind going to Norwich. I liked it the first time I ever saw it. The fact that I have usually visited there to play gigs or for other work purposes means that I know far less about the city than perhaps I should. Since Norwich is not so far away from my Essex home that I've often had occasion to stay there, I've not really wandered around there as much as I'd like to have done.

Way back in the mid 70s when I was 20 or so, my glam-rock band were given a prestigious slot at Norwich Theatre Royal. We were the supporting act for Cozy Powell's Hammer who'd had a couple of chart hits that year. I recall nearly nothing of the city's fine architecture . Nor did I marvel at its many medieval churches. This was possibly because at that age, I was more intent upon getting my clothes, hair and make-up right: a brave but ultimately futile attempt to upstage the main band. The Theatre Royal was packed with excited young girls, many of them accompanied by parents or older siblings. It was a huge opportunity for the band to show off. Despite us being a lowly bunch of young oiks from Essex, we went down unexpectedly well.

I possibly took it a little too far, announcing as we finished our set that, "We'd better let the support band on now." It wasn't cockiness as such, just exuberance. Nonetheless, it earned me a bleak look from Frankie Aiello, the main band's singer, as we passed in the wings.

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More excitement ensued later at the back of the venue. Having loaded our gear, I had to be dragged into the Transit van with fans hanging off my arm. It was only as the vehicle sped off that I glanced down at my mauled hand and saw that my rings and a bangle had been stolen.

Nearer to 50 than 40 years later, even though I've returned many times since, it's the memory of that gig that floods back whenever I'm in Norwich. I also recall that somewhere down those cobbled lanes, there used to be a taxidermist's shop. It's long gone now but I do remember going in there once and chatting to the taxidermist. He told me that he'd take on all sorts of jobs but drew the line at requests to preserve clients' pet cats and dogs. He said it was too hard explaining to customers, that their beloved pet, in death, even beautifully restored, would not be the same after its life essence had departed. My colleague, John Cooper Clarke, added that somewhere in the Norwich Lanes used to be a shop called Friar Tuck's World of Miniatures. Although I've never seen the place myself, the thought of it has always caused me much laughter.

What I do know is that when you first arrive in Norwich, there's a sign proclaiming, "Welcome to Norwich A Fine City." It is. No one could ever quibble with that. With its stunning city centre, Norwich is the most complete medieval city in Britain. I've always found it to be rather friendly too. It would probably be a much gentler introduction to old England than London, for all those tourists who didn't fancy the ruinous expense and ra-ra of our over-rated capital. What really strikes me, as we arrive in the city centre, is the sight of all those medieval buildings. In my callow early 20s I wouldn't have been interested. Now, however, with most of my three-score years and 10 frittered away, I need to make up for lost time.

One cause of this has been the DNA test which I recently took. Having discovered that I was over 70 per cent eastern English plus about 19 per cent Scandinavian in the mix, I followed up with a cursory check on my actual ancestry. Here came a surprise. I discovered that several other families of rather keener amateur genealogists had already done the homework. This enabled me to quickly trace my ancestors on both sides. Both the Newells and the Wrights (my mother's side) go back in rural Norfolk two or three centuries, in almost unbroken lines. Within days I discovered that the Newells had lived mainly in Weeting and Feltwell. The Wrights were from Necton and East Rudham. It was a lucky hit. I hadn't been planning to find all my forebears. I was instead attempting to confirm or refute a suggestion of my late father's that there had been an Irish-Spanish great-grandmother in there somewhere.

I found no Spanish at all though and very little Celt. It transpires that my ancestry is almost pure Norfolk, going back at least two centuries, possibly further. It was slightly spooky for me, studying these long lines of my ancestors.

What next? No idea. More trips to Norfolk, probably.

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