Thursday, 19 December 2013

Drayton: the ghost of a great poet

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IN the middle of a heath, an incongruous clump of pampas grass. Look closer and you might be able to see that the land is suspiciously flat between the pampas and the copse. It’s the site, the exact footprint, of the old David Rice Psychiatric Hospital. It was built in the late 30s of the last century and demolished in the mid-noughties of this one. Who would have thought that an ornamental plant would outlive the buildings it was designed to grace?

Now owned by The Lind Trust, this 33 acre site was going to be home to a massive new church. Plans fell through after an acrimonious row with many neighbours. Its future is still uncertain but in the meantime the Trust is more than happy for us walkers to explore its gentle contours. Locals can probably see it returning to nature almost month by month.

It’s been much in my mind this week after discovering a little bit more about the David Rice’s most famous patient. According to the experts, Francis Webb (1925-1973) was one of the best poets Australia has ever produced. But he suffered from terrible mental health problems, so much so that he spent many months here, accidentally getting to know the Wensum valley in the process.

Thanks to the good old Millennium Library I’ve now borrowed a 1969 collection of his poems (It’s an inter-library loan all the way from Bucks, smelling beautifully of second-hand book shops and complete with loan dates stretching back decades. Excellent.)

I thought it would be his poems on named Norfolk places which would get me, instead this vision of a lonely night inside the David Rice knocks you sideways with its raw, melancholic power:

“The side-room has sweated years and patience, rolls its one eye

Skyward, nightward; hours beyond sleep I lie;

And the fists of some ardent Plimsoll have laboured this wall

Clear of its plaster beside my chosen head.

Someone murmurs a little, dithers in bed,

Against that frail call

Are imminent the siege-works of a huge nightfall.”

There’s much more, but you get the idea and I better be careful of copyright. His great champion in this country is Cameron Self of Literary Norfolk fame. Cameron knows his stuff. Read his summary to get a proper idea of what a big name Webb is in Australia, but also how Norfolk should claim him as one of our own.

I found it slightly eerie walking across this site even before Bucks came up trumps. The demo guys have done such a thorough job that there is very little evidence left of the hospital. But nevertheless the odd drain cover – and pampas grass - means that you somehow feel the absence of a building.

Throw in the “siege-works of a huge nightfall” and it’s safe to say you probably won’t find me up here after dark.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Picture Post: Sunrise on the Wensum

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TOP tip for lazy photographers: don’t get up at 4am in the summer when you can get a good sunrise at just gone 8am during the winter. This is the Wensum at Drayton yesterday, looking south-east from the old railway bridge over Marriotts Way. Sunrise 051

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Drayton: Who was EBR at the DOL?

Drayton Old Lodge

THIS is Drayton Old Lodge, a lovely wedding venue overlooking the Wensum Valley in the village of Drayton. It was a nurses’ home until roughly the early 1990s and then spent a decade or so as a conference centre. Today I would call it a hotel, but the website fights shy of that term. So “venue” it is.DOL 026 sq I thought it had been built in 1914 as a purpose-built nurses’ home, but now I’m not so sure – and that’s where I need your help. Take a look at this crest. it doesn’t feel “corporate” to me. There’s some suggestion that the building didn’t become a Home till 1917. So I’m wondering if this was a posh old pile where perhaps the owner perished during the First World War. But that’s complete speculation at the moment.

It’s a great spot, one of many along the Wensum where I have the sacrilegious desire to chop down dozens of trees. Without the woods on the hillside, you would have a gorgeous view down onto the river valley below. But I digress. Who can EBR have been in Drayton in 1914? And how was he (she?) related to HR. If you can help, please email me at

December 15th update:

It probably closed as a nurses home in the 1970s rather than the 1990s. Documents at the Norfolk Record Office talk of it being the home of the Norwich Health Authority between 1975 and 1993. The NRO also has some great black and white photos of nurses at the home taken in the late 1930s. The photos of Sister Parr, Nurse Fincham and Nellie Burton were handed in anonymously in 2009. If that was you, do get in touch. Sadly though, the NRO had nothing to help me work out how the building started life.