The Small Boy Wonder (SBW) went on a school trip this week. A rapid visit to the First World War battlefields in Belgium. He’d been looking forward to it, and it was clear just what effect studying the horrors and tragedy of that most awful and misguided of conflicts has had on him. Because for him it all boiled down to one simple question. Just one thing he needed to know before he left on this potentially very moving journey.
Do they have nightclubs in Ypres?
Good luck with this lot, we thought as we handed him over to his teachers, along with two coach loads of his peers at half past four on a bitterly cold morning. Yes, you did read that right: half past four in the freakin’ morning! We were at least pleased to see that it wasn’t just our darling heading off to the big freeze of continental Europe with feet protected by nothing more than a pair of light, canvas shoes and an aversion to wearing anything remotely uncool (like a couple of extra layers).
More on this later. In the meantime, the Beautiful Armenian and I headed off to Norfolk for a couple of days of rest and relaxation.
Now I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that we live on what has been described as the most beautiful island in the world. The kids always look at me as if this is final proof, if any such proof were needed, that I am completely demented when I say this. I suppose most people hear the phrase “beautiful island” and imagine some tropical paradise with coral beaches and clear blue sea. But what makes the British Isles stand out so much is its sheer variety. Yes, the weather may be lousy at times, the infrastructure creaking, and many urban areas drab and over-crowded. But the countryside is diverse and often spectacular. Particularly if you know where to go.
North Norfolk is one of those places. It’s an area of very typical English villages, where rolling countryside meets a coastline of vast marshlands, sandy beaches and big, big skies. It’s become very fashionable in the last 20 years, a little too dominated perhaps by banker bonus money. But you soon leave the bankers behind if you head for the wilder beaches and the more remote countryside.
“Why do you two always go away when I do?” the SBW asked the day before we all left. “Oh I know why.”
I pointed out that with the house to ourselves we didn’t need to go away for “sexy time” (his words). He didn’t look convinced.
Maybe he’s got a point. But something else we like to do in Norfolk is to catch the little coast bus a few miles east or west and then walk back. A couple of years ago we walked from Wells-next-the-Sea to Brancaster Staithe – this has got to be one of the best walks anywhere in the world. Amongst many other things, you cross this ridiculously over-crowded beach.
This time we went the other way, catching the bus to Stiffkey and walking back to Wells.
Back at Wells, I was able to indulge in the supreme afternoon luxury of sitting in a bar, drinking a couple of pints of local beer, and reading some blogs. In a busy life, a little moment to be treasured.
Later that evening I had one of those “how am I ever supposed to get things right” incidents which I assume afflict all married men from time to time. The BA would not deny that the intensity and pressures of her course has pushed her weight upwards a little over the last three years. But more recently, she’s lost a few pounds. That evening she put on a dress which made her look as good as she has done in a while. She looked fabulous and I told her.
“So you’re saying I’ve been looking rubbish up to now?”
No, that’s not what I meant.
“Are you just trying to get inside my knickers then?”
Obviously, but only because I always am. Again, you’ve misunderstood.
What’s a man supposed to say?
Norfolk is also one of the best places in Europe to watch birds and we came home via the reserve at Titchwell. Boy, there are some serious bird-watchers around. We felt quite out-of-place without 3 telescopes each, camouflage clothing and an obsession with the length of our bird list. But we did get a good long look at a marsh harrier quartering the reed-beds – they’re fairly common in those parts, but we thought it was exciting.
So back to the Small Boy Wonder and his foreign excursion. When we picked him up (different time of day, same freezing weather) he seemed in good spirits. Most of his chatter was about mucking about and banter with “the lads.” But I think the battlefield experience had had some impact. He thought the reconstructed trenches were cool (high praise indeed) and the fact that they still stop the traffic and sound the last post every day in one of the cemeteries quite impressive.
They’d also each been given a cross to place on a grave, and he had found around 30 graves with the same initial and surname as his. I don’t know exactly what he thought of that, but it made me well up when he told me.
I do find things related to the world wars very moving. I cry at Remembrance Day parades, and also at the lyrics of this song. There are many different versions, and this is just one. The leaders of Israel and Iran, or (sadly) even the UK and Argentina, could do worse than listen to it and reflect as they consider what they do next over the coming weeks.