13 Beauty in the hands of the beholder

by Malcolm Redfellow

There are still a few well-produced books which are covetable in their own right.

This is one of them.

The dustcover alone is a major work of art (front above, rear below).

In 200 pages Rice takes us patiently through the whole spectrum of Norfolk buildings and types — from the Great Houses at Holkham, Blickling, Houghton, down to the humblest cottage and barn, old and new.

Malcolm reached it down when he found himself wondering about the Dutch connection. Rice sees it at Blickling:

Rice discounts detailed Dutch influence in an important chapter, Going Dutch:

How Dutch is Norfolk building? Many of its characteristics are attributed to Dutch influence: the early use of brick, pantiles that began to usurp thatch as the roofing material in Norfolk in the eighteenth century, the ubiquitous Dutch and stepped gables, Dutch master builders and architects, and buildings specifically influenced by models in Holland like the customs house in King’s Lynn [as right].

But a trip to the Netherlands rather refutes some of the strength of these links. Vernacular building types in the equivalent towns in the Netherlands are very clearly different from any found in Norfolk or in any other English county. For example, the large pyramidal roofed farmhouses, the strange combination of pantile and thatch in one roof, and the frequent use of a large central dormer in the roof of a single-storey house are all building types that are absent in Britain. Brick sizes and bonds, church types, the high-necked gable that so characterises the short façade town houses of Amsterdam, Haarlem or Hoorn are all so different from their English counterparts.

He then rattles through the circumstances:

  • brick types (why did Malcolm not previously appreciate the Brick Tax was the reason for the size of English bricks?);
  • the Hanseatic League and relationships [which] existed between the merchants of the Hanse and the conveniently eastward-looking towns of Lynn, Yarmouth and Norwich;
  • the immigrants from the Low Countries in the 16th and 17th centuries, hard-working Protestant refugees from the unbending Catholic rule of Spanish regents who became at one time nearly 30 per cent of Norwich’s population;

and so on. Even so:

Norfolk’s buildings are not Dutch. Different street plans, narrower façades and different brick sizes and bonds all make them distinctive.

Rice borrows a humorous touch, which could come from the slighter efforts by Osbert Lancaster. Lancaster tended to the satiric while conveying a remarkable quantum of information (and prejudice).

With Rice it is the little touches in the near-asides which add enchantment as well as conveying proportion: there’s that Fougasse-like lady with her pooch before Blickling (above), the hoodies propping up Westwick Old Hall, the pheasant on the ridge of a barn, a peacock at Beeston St Lawrence, sheep at Gunton Park, the occasional bit of doggy business.

For reasons close to home there are two of these vignettes which particularly endear themselves to Malcolm: the beshorted summer visitors outside the grocers at the top of Staithe Street, Wells; and this one:

Wells has its chavettes, lurking with a fag at the entry to that alley, which leads down to Church Plain.

It’s filled cover-to-cover with remarkable information and painstaking detail. It is finely-produced by Francis Lincoln to a quality rather than to a price. It is fun. So —

Malcolm cannot praise this book too highly.