Galley Hill Farm

“Where did they hang people here?” asked Jack, pleasantly, looking up from his iPhone.

“Mummy, Jack’s being disgusting again!” wailed Margaret.

“Disgusting? I’m showing an admirable interest in local history,” replied Jack. “This was always a big village. There must always have been bad people here, and there must also have been people who wanted to execute the bad people. So there must have been executions. It stands to reason.”

“Ah, there might be other features of local history that are slightly more wholesome, Jack” said the children’s mother, Kathleen, passing through the extremely cramped but otherwise bright and cheerful room, which, alongside an even more compact loo, comprised the entire ground floor of the tiny cottage the family had hired for a week. “Can you not develop an interest in the local fishing trade, for instance? It never ceases to amaze me that back in the medieval times, people used to sail all the way from Norfolk up to Iceland, and caught the cod that swam in great shoals out there, and then salted it all and fetched it back. They sailed everywhere — the Baltic, Spain, Portugal — even Ireland — all from right here. And the ships were miniscule!”

“Like Margaret’s brain?” enquired Jack. 

“Jack …” began Fred, the children’s father, who had only just finished unloading the car and had already twice managed to knock his head into one of the kitchen beams, and even before that, had manifestly been in a uncertain mood ever since they arrived. 

“Sorry, Margaret” said Jack. 

“What I was going to say, Jack, is that the gallows was bound to be on a hill. And probably on a main road, too. So the challenge is to find a road that would have been there in medieval times, preferably one located near to a hill. Then Bob’s your uncle.”

This was a sort of oblique family joke because, as it happened, the children had an actual uncle named Bob, whom they were due to see that very afternoon. In the wake of the covid lockdown Bob had moved up from Cambridge and bought a house in the village, along with some land, which was why the family had come to Norfolk for the half term holiday. 

Jack and Margaret had never been to Norfolk before. 

Kathleen had only been to Norfolk once — and that was to the Broads. The Broads, she reflected, were very unlike north Norfolk, with its endless acres of sun-bleached marsh, its mournful birdlife, the precipitous little lanes flanked with flint — a sort of wind-dried quality affecting everything from the holm oaks and roadside gorse to the ageless, inscrutable yet eagle-eyed local inhabitants. And because Kathleen had grown up in Ireland — Co. Wexford — it was this dried-out, east-facing greyness that affected her most powerfully, at once familiar and unfamiliar. 

As for Fred — and, indeed, Bob — north Norfolk was nothing more or less than childhood, in a form one might literally revisit — or not — for the simple reason that their maternal grandparents had retired to a village here on the coast. As children, back in the 1970s, summer holidays meant Norfolk: boats, rather spartan picnics enjoyed on wind-scoured shingle beaches, sunburn, Gray’s funfair at Blakeney, volatile friendships with local children, and of course the truly terrifying tales told to them by the grandmother’s gardener, who had one eye, very few teeth, and was constantly being sacked then grudgingly reinstated. 

The grandparents were now, of course, long dead — resting peacefully, one hoped, in a churchyard overlooking those stern grey marshes. The family house long since sold. Yet enough remained unchanged, even now, driving through these little villages that he had avoided for so many years, Fred could feel himself becoming younger, less complicated — but also less reliably protected by the carapace of adulthood. 

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