King’s Lynn Surprise

Twenty years ago, I was often guided by Brian Sewell, positively or negatively. He was very keen on the Houghton Revisited show, in his review, and I had it in my list of cultural tasks for months, my complacency increased when it was extended by two months. In my mind it was reminiscent of the English Prize, for which I made a day trip to Oxford in August 2012. Travelling there was fairly straightforward, even with the confused platforms at Reading. Houghton Hall is in the land of Mid-Morning Matters, a 20-minute taxi ride from King’s Lynn station, so it’s something to which a day would be dedicated. Not to spoil the end at the beginning, but it took a whole weekend, rather than just a day.

Entry was timed, presumably to prevent overcrowding, and this meant I had to calculate when to leave from King’s Cross, hoping for a brisk taxi at the other end. First Capital Connect decided that such a simple procession would be too prosaic, so the train on which I and my companion travelled stopped a short distance outside Watlington:


Why is it nothing in this country works

said someone behind us, betraying a somewhat Dacre-esque worldview. Two men wearing tabards, presumably the driver and an accomplice, wandered around outside and wandered up and down the train, while there was a sound a little like hailstones on the roof of our carriage. They were talking on the phone to someone as they tramped, seeking clarification on which part they needed to jemmy.

An announcement said

The original fault has masked a more serious fault.

This more serious fault was with the air compressor, and he told us (with a hint of pleasure) that you

can’t go anywhere without air.

We had to wait for a train to come to use from Watlington, that would pull us forward. Later, the plan changed and a train would come from the other direction and transfer air, to facilitate our propulsion. When this happened, there was a rumbling noise like a didgeridoo, in addition to the normal train whirrs and groans. There was time to take in the fields around the train, with a varying cast of animals:

2013-11-23 15.14.33

The sign in our carriage betrayed the enfeebled state of the train:

Public information

until they could return it to a more useful state. Once we were underway again, it only took a couple of minutes to reach Watlington, meaning we’d only been a short walk away. Hmmph.

Naturally the whole experience reminded me of the Loco Commotion story in The Day Today, when trapped commuters reverted to Paganism and human sacrifice.

Once in King’s Lynn itself, we had a drink in The Fenman, opposite the station, where they kindly decided not to apply the famous London surcharge, while we decided what to do. I still had tickets to see Houghton Revisited, and there seemed a chance we’d still be able to go, if we could explain about the train enormity and persuade them to let us in. That meant we’d need to stay in King’s Lynn overnight and we found a guest house, The Old Rectory. Walking there took us past a car repair shop called Mr. Clutch and another pub called Live and Let Live:

Live and Let Live

I checked what was on at the local cinema, but that wasn’t really what I was after. The local arts centre seemed more promising. There was Robin Ince show, which turned out to be for the following week. Instead, we could go to the final performance of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, put on by the King’s Lynn Players.

The building was lovely, apparently the largest surviving guildhall building in England. Owing to some confusion we went to the Corn Exchange first, and missed the first song. When we entered, some of the cast followed us, waiting for their entrance from the rear of the auditorium. The young choreographer was a few rows to the rear, cheering on the case, as was ‘Showbiz Steve’, who may have been the lighting man. After a few minutes I realised that there was a live accompaniment, when I spotted the bobbing head of the conductor down at the front. I wondered whether some of the regular players had been unwilling to wear the special costumes and whether they’d had to cast from a wider pool than normal. My companion speculated on the social effects on the local population over the following weeks, as the implications of people’s performances sank in. It was really quite an impressive staging of a broad comedy show, the occasional wayward accent not really being a problem. “Better than Punchdrunk” was one well-informed assessment.

Walking back to the guest house, it was clear that something lay behind this rurban idyll:

Lynn News

The King’s Lynn Conservative Club had an odd choice of wallpaper (both colour and design):

King's Lynn Conservative Club

while a wedding party wound down in this building:

King's Lynn hall

The next morning, after eggy breakfast, we took a taxi to Houghton Hall. A little early, we looked at the grounds, which held some other artworks:

Richard Ford

Richard Ford

The little office by the entrance to the car park didn’t really understand our request to enter at a time not congruent with that shown on our tickets, but we continued anyway, rather apprehensive. In the end, a kind lady said that they’d been expecting a lot of people in a similar position and there was no problem at all.

It was soon clear they were using timed entry, because it filled up very quickly, and some of the rooms were a little cramped, because various pieces of furniture were roped off to protect them. The first work to see was a bronze sculpture in the middle of a stairwell, but someone near us said that she

“Didn’t come here to see bronze”

One thing I noticed (and was guilty of myself until I spotted this in others) was that people were spending too much time reading their guidebooks, rather than looking at the art. There was a also a bit of a lighting problem, meaning that you had to move around in order to be able to see some of the paintings without dazzle. There’s not much I can add to Brian’s comments, other than to say that it was an extremely impressive if idiosyncratic collection, one of the most memorable pieces being of a priest or monk whose faith appeared threadbare. I admired Walpole’s lack of restraint in his decorative schemes, not shying away from statues of himself in the classical mould.

The taxi driver who took us to the hall predicted that we might have problems with phone reception, and this was indeed true. Failing to catch him even when borrowing the use of a landline, we managed to grab a taxi waiting for a later fare. He was quite talkative, pointing out landscape features on the way, lamenting that he’d not made it to the exhibition, and telling us about his regular Monday morning journey with Harry the Headache, who travels 70 miles to a boarding school.

Postscript: one of the posters I noticed at the Arts Centre was for Miles Jupp, whom I’d seen in Rev and Alan Bennett’s People. With this in my mind, I went to see his work-in-progress show at the Invisible Dot. He was rather good, in a warm, self-deprecating way, not fazed at all when the microphone packed up.


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