By Haydn Brown.
The year is 1906. The age of the car has arrived and James Edmund Vincent, Welsh barrister, journalist and author, has been asked by his publishers to help put together a motoring guide for sale to touring motorists. The feeling is that there exists a potential need amongst car owners for information which would allow them to take full advantage of the open roads of this country. James’s brief, on this occasion, is to write about East Anglia. He is asked, as the very minimum, to concentrate on detailing the conditions of the region’s roads, outlining the topography and history of notable towns and other places en route; and give an impartial account of the hotels and inns visited with regards to their standards of service, cleanliness etc. Being an established writer, James’s is given a free hand to plan his own itinerary, with the only stipulation being that a completed copy of a draft guide should be completed and with the publishers within twelve months of starting out on his first journey. Payment, including reimbursement of expenses for the work are agreed but remain confidential.
Because James intends to make several forays into the region, he has arranged to use his 6-cylinder Lanchester on all journeys except this one, the inaugural trip to Norwich – a city he is familiar with, having been there before. James has planned most meticulously, with the enthusiastic collaboration of his friend, Claude Johnson, a somewhat large broad-shouldered extrovert who is someone of importance with the Roll-Royce Company. Claude will remain characteristically keen on the arrangements, mainly because he sees them as part of his early promotion to the company of his ideas for a new model car, which will eventually become Rolls Royce’s ‘Silver Ghost’. He particularly wants to prove that this unique car is smooth, silent and solid – and the best car that money can buy! Beyond this, he also wants to demonstrate the car’s reliability to the buying public. What better way would there be than to be part of James’s journey; a ‘trial run’ as it were, for his own anticipated 15,000 mile ‘non-stop’ promotional journey around Britain. Claude will of course drive the company car – who else!
James is nevertheless, and unquestionably, in charge of all other aspects of the trip to Norwich – and beyond. It will take his party of Claude the driver, James’s wife and youngest daughter – both of whom will occupy the back seats of the Rolls; James will ride ‘shotgun’ next to Claude in the front. Arrangements looked perfect; everyone loves travelling, and what better than to ride in real comfort to what will be the ‘far end of the region’– perfect! The city of Norwich, indeed most of East Anglia, is still almost unexplored territory to most of the party – and there are no impossible hills of any length to worry about. So, with no worrys worth mentioning – they set off.
We next catch up with the James’s party and Claude’s car as it crawls through the narrow and crooked streets of Norwich, having successfully negotiated those ‘questionable’ roads en route, from Cambridge through Newmarket, Ipswich, Woodbridge, Beccles, Lowestoft and Yarmouth. However, the journey has not been completely without incident for the car; which confidently displayed its engine’s smoothness, reliability and power throughout, but did suffer two punctures – through no fault of its own according to Claude! Fortunately, and maybe by some sort of miracle, a garage appeared closeby on both occasions!
The still proud Silver Ghost, under the nurturing of Claude, now passes close to the city’s central Market Place before winding its way towards and around the Castle Mound before swinging left, around the Royal Hotel, into Tombland. This is a wide and open space opposite the west end of the Cathedral. James continues to take note of the city’s features which will be included in his eventual ‘tome’. But for the moment, he ponders on the meaning of Tombland’s name, but remains uncertain. Later, he is to write:
“We had seen the Cathedral spire rising against the clear sky, glanced through two great archways leading to the Cathedral Church itself, had passed on our left the “Stranger’s House”, though the quaint fact that the faces of the figures of Hercules and Samson, supporting the arch of its door, are adorned with “Imperial” beardlets.”
At the end of Tombland the car finds itself in Wensum Street with the Maid’s Head Hotel, where they are to stay, immediately on the right. Claude steers into the hotel by way of an archway some little way further down the street. Immediately the party finds itself in a covered courtyard. Here, there is such a contrast between the old and the new and James feels that the surviving surroundings are thanks to no other than Walter Rye who had once bought this ancient building and saved it from destruction; thereby winning the gratitude of every traveller of taste who would also witness features as near identical with those of the 15th-century when the Pastons used the “Mayde’s Hedde” and spoke well of its accommodation.
The Bar Parlour on the left, from which an attentive hostess appears to take instructions from the new arrivals, seems also to be of almost immemorial age. Yet in the centre is the most modern thing in this world, Claude’s six-cylinder motor-car. However, staring him in the face is a notice requesting all motorists, to make no unnecessary noise, but to deposit their passengers, or pick them up, as rapidly as possible and then go! He clearly quips that he almost feels inclined to push the car, instead of compelling it to propel itself, onwards through the covered courtyard and into the carriage yard and garage beyond. Claude truly believes that his Silver Ghost is, a beautiful car—and cars can be beautiful he feels. Half the assertions that they are ugly are due to the fact that his generation is not sufficiently educated in relation to cars, have not grown familiar enough with them to know what the lines of beauty in them are. Still, in the courtyard of the “Maid’s Head,” any car is an anachronism, a jarring note and the sooner this one is moved out of sight the better!
Probably taking advantage of this distraction, James’s wife and daughter quietly break away to explore the hotel. They soon ascend a very ancient and charming staircase of real oak, really black with real age and found someone who was delighted to show the two around “Queen Elizabeth’s Chamber”. James, downstairs, is soon handed a message telling him to visit them there and on arrival sees that the visit is, in his words, “more than worth paying for”. It is a spacious room, if one considers the floor area alone; but of course, the ceiling is very low and the dark beams supporting it still lower. He sees that one great bed is of carved oak, relieved with gilding, whilst another makes no impression on him at all. But not so the long and low windows, the shining planks of the ancient floor, which boasts its own hills and valleys, slopes and hollows, along with the cleanliness and brightness of everything; these make a very vivid and pleasant impression on James.
Nevertheless, he understands that Queen Elizabeth I never did sleep in this chamber, or indeed in the Maid’s Head itself when she visited Norwich in 1578 – he had heard that she had stayed nearby in the Bishop’s Palace, at a time when weird pageants were displayed in her honour. No, the “Maid’s Head” was an old inn even in 1578. Edward the Black Prince entertained here after a jousting competition at Gildencroft and Queen Catherine of Aragon (King Henry VIII’s first wife) was entertained here. So, it is reasonably certain that the chamber named after Queen Elizabeth was also there. James then thought the room to be ideal for those who hanker after the old world, but do not yearn for that dirt which seems to have been an all-pervading characteristic of the lives of his forefathers. But this room, together with the hotel is certainly spotlessly clean!
After this small interlude, the rest of the party disperses elsewhere whilst James sets off for a half hour stroll into the city before dinner. But at the foot of the stairs he sees quite an imposing person, whose presence is a happy coincidence for him. James remembers his first visit and the “Royal,” where Lord Kimberley was found to be a guest. Now, at the foot of the stairs of the “Maid’s Head,” is none other than the 15th Duke of Norfolk and his wife, the Duchess; both were about to become guests of this ancient hotel. Heavens! he thought; what a contrast to a similar visit some two centuries ago in 1685, on which Macaulay quoted:
“In the heart of the city stood an old palace of the Dukes of Norfolk, said to be the largest town house in the kingdom out of London. In this mansion, to which were annexed a tennis court, a bowling-green and a wilderness, stretching along the banks of the Wensum, the noble family of Howard frequently resided, and kept a state resembling that of petty sovereigns. Drink was served to guests in goblets of pure gold. The very tongs and shovels were of silver. Pictures by Italian masters adorned the walls. The cabinets were filled with a fine collection of gems purchased by that Earl of Arundel whose marbles are now among the ornaments of Oxford. Here, in the year 1671, Charles and his court were sumptuously entertained. Here, too, all comers were annually welcomed, from Christmas to Twelfth Night. Ale flowed in oceans for the populace. Three coaches, one of which had been built at a cost of five hundred pounds to contain fourteen persons, were sent every afternoon to bring ladies to the festivities; and the dances were always followed by a luxurious banquet. When the Duke of Norfolk came to Norwich, he was greeted like a king returning to his capital. The bells of the Cathedral and of St. Peter Mancroft were rung; the guns of the Castle were fired; and the Mayor and Aldermen waited on their illustrious fellow citizen with complimentary addresses. In the year 1693 the population of Norwich was found, by actual enumeration, to be between twenty-eight and twenty-nine thousand souls.”
What a contrast James felt! Now, on the 9th of March, 1906, the present Duke of Norfolk enters a city of approximately one hundred and thirteen thousand souls; the bells of the cathedral and St. Peter’s Mancroft are not ringing. No guns are being fired. No mayor and aldermen waiting upon the Duke in his Palace, because there is no Palace. All that is happening is that this quiet, bearded English gentleman walks, limping slightly, with a lady into the courtyard of the Maid’s Head Hotel and, after a parley with the hostess, vanishes up the stairs, to be seen no more. It is pure luck that James sees him, and that he is able to recognise this Premier Duke and Earl, the Hereditary Earl Marshal and Chief Butler of England. He was received with precisely the same courtesy of attention that had been shown to James and his party, but without servility. The Duke received all that he wanted, and in a manner which, James thought, really did him credit.
No more is left of the pomp and dignity of the 17th-century Palace than that of the city’s clothing trade. The Duke of Norfolk has become, in the interval, an Englishman first and a great power in Sussex next, and the clothing trade of Norwich is no more. The city of 113,000 souls is now subsisted, as James is told during his walk-about, on the proceeds of boots and mustard, the latter industry founded by one of whom a correspondent of the Norfolk and Norwich Notes and Queries wrote:
“The original Colman [the name means “free man”] was a jolly old fellow who used to give me sixpence and direct me to the house for refreshment”; it subsisted also, as I learned for myself next morning……. as one of the largest agricultural and pastoral centres it has ever been my good fortune to witness. Times were indeed changed; but he would be a rash man who should say that they were changed for the worse in all respects.”
James writes up his notes after Dinner, which has been taken in the coffee-room of the hotel, and everyone in his party thinks it is very pleasant there. James includes a further thought that the room also has an air of antiquity, and its deep fireplace certainly charms the eye. The ‘cookery’ is, in his opinion, distinctly good and the attendance quiet and prompt ‘as that in any well-ordered private house’. The Dinner was also the time for him to reflect on some of the other famous associations with the hotel. For instance, the Pastons had used and commended it, and their words of praise, blazoned on the outer door, seems right and proper; but it was a pity, James thought, to have placed newspapers near to them! He also thought that sitting in this same hostelry on the morning of his last fight with Kett and his rebels, Warwick had breakfasted, and had then led his men, who were camped on the market-place, to victory. It is also certain to him that Margaret Paston’s horses were seized here. Then, in the time of the rebellion, the Royalists stayed, despite being scarce in the eastern counties. But Royalists were also Freemasons and held their lodges in the “Maid’s Head” as early as 1724; James understands that on one occasion a Mrs. Beatson hid behind the wainscot of the lodge-room and heard all their mysteries!
As James writes, he is pleased that all this information is decidedly enhanced by the fact that this visit had provided further insight and confirmation. Undoubtedly, its value will also be fully appreciated once ‘his’ Motoring Guide is published – next year?. But his pleasure does not end there. James is also proud to be able to say that the Maids Head, this very building in which he sits, was built on the site of Herbert de Losinga’s first Palace, which once stood on Gothic arches; also, that an Assembly Room was built over the courtyard to become a minstrel’s gallery. The carving in the smoking-room represents a fish – possibly a ray? If this is correct, it probably accounts for the title of the hotel; for it was certainly mentioned in the 1287 Norwich Court Records as the ‘Myrtle Fish Tavern’ where “Robert the fowler stole goods from the said innkeeper at Cook Rowe.” Again, if this fish is a ray, then another difficulty vanishes, for the sea-fishermen of Norfolk call, or once called, the ray, “Old Maid.”
Certainly, the hotel did not take its new title on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth I’s 1578 visit, for John Paston had, in 1472 confirmed the hotel’s name change to ‘Maids Head’ in a letter, recommending the inn as a good place to stable horses:
“if he tery at norwyche ther whyls, it were best to sette hys horse at the Maydes Hedde.”
The hotel is also mentioned in a curious petition to Wolsey, again unearthed by that man Walter Rye. James again blesses Mr Rye for having bought the lease of the Maid’s Head in the 1890’s – and saving it! James also remembers him acquiring property next door on Tombland and building the frontage with the ‘Mock Tudor’ look, but keeping the Jacobean snug and bar. This was the moment when Rye quoted:
“I had been myself a customer of the house for 20 years and more and some of the most pleasant parts of my life had been sent in and about it. It was rumoured that when Mr Webster left the Maids Head, the whole scope of the old Tory house – the nearest approach to the typical old hostel that I ever saw – was going to be spoiled and no longer to be a refuge for those who like peace and quiet and old surroundings. I heard what the new rent was to be and took upon myself the burden…..I will try and keep on trying to make people as comfortable as I was myself.”
The next day James, his wife, daughter and Claude the driver, complete packing in anticipation of an early departure soon after breakfast. James gathers up his notes of all he had witnessed and heard during what had been a short stay; but he knows that he will return. His final accolade is saved for the hotel itself; after settling the account he is very pleased that the final bill is ‘quite moderate—for England’ The party eventually departs Norwich for Cromer and James took that moment to note some further useful information which will eventually be passed to the readers of the proposed Motoring Guide Book:
“As with arriving in this city, great care should always be observed when leaving Norwich, for the streets are narrow, crooked and full of risk, and directions difficult to work out…… Roads here are gerally fair, some good – especially to Cromer”.