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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

19 April 2024

Malcolm Guite attends the opening of a pub steeped in Norfolk’s tumultuous history

THERE is a first time for everything, and last week was the first time that I was actually present for the opening of a new pub. It seems to me a rare sign of hope and recovery, that someone has the optimism and can-do spirit to buck the trend and open a pub when so many have been closed by Covid and recession.

Perhaps this is part of the contrarian spirit of Norfolk, whose county motto is “Do different”: the spirit that showed in the Peasants’ Revolt and in the revolutionary writings of Tom Paine. In fact, this particular pub was named the Peasants’ Tavern, in a direct allusion to the revolt.

North Walsham has a strong connection to the tumultuous events of 1381, when John Litester, from the village of Felmingham near by, aided and abetted by a North Walsham man with the name of Cubitt (still a well-known local name), led a rebellion of many thousands and seized the city of Norwich itself, killing the mayor.

It didn’t end well for the peasants. Henry Despenser, the Bishop of Norwich, was that contradiction in terms a “Warrior Bishop”, with extensive and brutal military experience. He raised an army, and drove the rebels back to a last stand at Bryant’s Heath, just outside North Walsham.

There was a battle, a rout, and a massacre there, and the survivors fled into North Walsham, hoping to seek sanctuary in the church. Unfortunately for them, it was unfinished and had not yet been consecrated. There was further bloodshed, and Litester was taken prisoner. The Bishop remembered that he was a bishop just long enough to hear Litester’s confession and grant him absolution; then he had him dragged across the cobbles and publicly executed. Those were different times.

The remains of three stone crosses on Bryant’s Heath commemorate the fallen, but, since last week, they are commemorated in North Walsham itself in a different way with the Peasants’ Tavern. The crosses speak to the judgement and the hoped-for redemption of all our violence, political or otherwise; but the Tavern speaks of just that conviviality, that ease and plenty, that community spirit for want of which the oppressed peasantry found themselves in rebellion. They might prefer a thriving tavern to a forgotten battlefield as their memorial.

On the great day itself, an expectant and thirsty crowd gathered outside the closed door, our local MP knocked loudly on our behalf, and we were all ushered in and refreshed with excellent ale and good conversation about the times and seasons, the comings and goings, in our little corner of England.

I enjoyed the whole thing immensely: just a little bit of ceremony and a great deal of conviviality — and, more than that, a sense for a town that has had some hard times that perhaps a corner has been turned and things are looking up. As I supped my Blackberry Porter in the comfortable little snug, I prayed that it might be so.

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