Wednesday, 1 March 2017

An Afternoon in Diss

By Wiggia

Before our last house move, Diss was our nearest town for shopping, banking etc, so a weekly trip to this old market town was the order of the day during that period. A true market town with as mixed a population as one could find, no group nor class dominating, basically a Tory safe seat it none the less was for Brexit and that fits in with the area in general.

There is no doubt that this area of South Norfolk, known locally as “indian country” does have a leaning towards being a backdrop for the League of Gentlemen and in many of the retail outlets being asked “are you local” would not come as a surprise.

The town also has some interesting areas such as the Mere a large six acre lake in the middle of the town that when the council feel they have enough money has a spectacular (for Diss) water fountain in operation in the middle of the lake. It also has a comprehensive Tourist office, slightly puzzling as Diss is hardly the gateway to the east but they do get bonus points for trying.

It does have some fine buildings mostly with a Georgian or Edwardian facade and a 16th century oak beamed property on the town square called Dolphin House, formerly a rich wool merchants house then a pub and now home to several small businesses one being an Indian restaurant that was raided recently and several illegal employees arrested. That probably accounts for the extreme range of reviews on TripAdvisor the food quality depending on which staff they have managed to retain at any given moment in time. No one can call Diss dull !

Or maybe you could. The town joined Cittaslow in 2006, an Italian inspired movement based on the Slow Food movement to promote in the case of Cittaslow a better environment, alas obviously did not think it needed any international cooperation in that field and left shortly afterwards. The slow food movement might have been a better bet having so few decent eateries means there would have been little to argue about, but a slow town that is already operating at snail’s pace is rather pointless.

It has a railway station on the London – Norwich line and a main road through the town that is the standard bearer for the worst that town planners can inflict on their long suffering tax payers. Always an appalling bottleneck during rush hours, they managed to make it worse by allowing endless estate building on it, a supermarket with its own roundabout and several other businesses all of which mean that anyone arriving by train in Diss during the evening rush hour will take anything up to thirty minutes to exit the station car park and travel the hundred yards to join this road.

British Rail have also managed to make getting from one platform to the other an army field test, as there is no way to access the up line platform from outside. All passengers to and from Diss have to use the bridge over the tracks. When my 90+ old mum visited some years back that would have been a big problem getting over that bridge, but as the train was running late it did not stop long enough for her to alight (we did wonder where she had got to) so when a telephone call from Norwich from my sister who was accompanying her was received it was a blessing in disguise as traveling back from Norwich meant the train actually stopped this time so she could alight without the drama of the bridge crossing.

Ninety minutes late of course but at least we did not have to carry her over the bridge or alternatively she could have stayed on platform two for a short break, or even traveled the London – Norwich line ad infinitum on the non stop train. Despite public cries to remedy this obvious flaw, the bridge years later remains seemingly a test to the traveller’s speed and endurance capabilities, winter and icy steps bringing an extra frisson to the occasion.

There is also a museum on the market square. Bijou is the word that comes to mind, but at least they have one though as the opening hours are rather/very limited perhaps that is a moot point.

To the south of the log jam that dissects Diss east to west is a rather fine green, one of those very large spaces that abound in this part of Norfolk and Suffolk, and next to the pub on the green a little gem of a restaurant that we found some time ago by mistake. A bit sixties inside , unless they have updated, it actually serves real food at reasonable prices, almost extinct in this day and age and equally good cafe and fish restaurant opposite, no relation. A little gem in what is generally a culinary wasteland

Update the restaurant owner has purchased the pub next door and incorporated the restaurant. Ah well it was good while it lasted, but not having revisited it may still be good.

Leaving the town past the green one comes to the Redgrave and Lopham fens and some beautiful country houses, much is a public park and it is spectacular for colour in spring, a quite unique landscape with multi coloured lichen forming mounds among the gorse, and a little further out Bressingham Gardens created by the horticulturist the late Alan Bloom who in modern day gardening invented the use of island beds for use in the gardening world with this beautiful display garden that is still there alongside his extensive steam collection.

On open days Alan Bloom in later life could be seen taking various locomotives round his extensive circuit round the gardens, proving that when it comes to things that really matter gardens and steam trains are still a sanctuary from the world’s ills.

Back in the centre the Corn Exchange with its Doric columns has been saved from collapse and is now in full use again after several years of doom floating over it, and to the west of the town center is T W Gazes auction rooms, probably the most well known business in the town and an institution. I could never get over the sheer amount of auctions they have every week. Four is not uncommon and always the place is packed, it is also now a regular on the TV antique show circuit.

Famous people, not that I could find any, the sitting MP is Richard Bacon, an increasingly rotund figure. Sitting is probably what he does best as the likelihood of him losing his seat is on par with being struck by lightning. I suppose Rick Wakeman who lives just outside the town is the nearest claim to fame. I know he features in various local openings and the like though I am not sure if he has been asked to turn on the Christmas lights yet. Best not ask as they are the worst lights I and most of the inhabitants of Diss have seen anywhere. Mean doesn’t come into it and there has been a total failure to get local business to cough up for anything better. Spread thinly is the byword for the lights in Diss, even the decent Christmas tree plays spot the lights. Oh well !

Why I can imagine you asking are you writing about just another English market town? Well the truth is I quite like Diss, don’t really know why, just do. It’s quirky as only Norfolk can do, the solicitors in the main street in a rather splendid Georgian building has some rather colourful show chickens and roosters in its gardens that have to be circumnavigated to reach the front door. That’s pretty quirky.

But it all came flooding back when I visited a couple of weeks ago to go to the optician for my annual eye test. I only go back there because he is a very good optician and it makes a change to see that part of the world again. The optician is on the market square opposite the rather grand and large Post Office that flies the Union flag and not one of Palestine, which makes a change. Not that anyone here would know where Palestine is as a very large percentage have never left the confines of Diss never mind the county. Only local people would understand that ! So whilst my wife was having the first eye test I had a good half hour or so people watching.

Now this is where Diss comes into its own, the mix of the population, circa 9000 all goes through the town square at some time during the day or so it seems. Also sitting for a long period watching throws up certain demographics. Like most places these days single mums seem to be on the rise. The slightly bohemian element is still there in abundance, you know what I mean older men with pony tails and colourful jumpers. I saw Bob Flowerdew last year who fits that description to a tee plus he looked organic ?, Still don’t believe that is his birth name.

Lots of puffa jacketed matronly types, and two special classes that only Diss can supply in football fan quantities. The mobility scooter reigns supreme in this town only the rising population of perambulators can compete with them for pavement space. The pedestrianised main shopping street is a cross between a drag race for these silent marauders and an obstacle course with the pedestrian being the obstacle. Never stand still.

Flocks of them on occasion come swooping down the slight incline that leads from the market square into the main shopping street. They often congregate around the open area that leads to the Mere a sort of mobility scooter rallying center similar to the flocks of crows so prevalent in this area. They are especially active crossing the main road and then holding up the traffic by traversing the entrance road to Morrisons on the Zebra crossing. I’m pretty sure that some of them spend all day just crossing and recrossing with ever increasing frequency just to prove they can.

There is a central reservation on that crossing and I swear having got to the center certain scooter drivers wait for another car to appear before edging out and stopping the car. They then slowly cross waving their walking sticks or crutches or both, look no hands, in appreciation of having held up another car or by the time they have crossed a convoy. And in the mobility scooter parking area next to the store entrance where they can transfer seamlessly from their own scooters to those provided for shopping ! can be seen state of the art scooters with personal number plates. Some even have tassles on the handlebars like kids bikes ! FU2 has nothing on this lot.

The number of outlets in and around Diss selling mobility scooters reinforces my belief that Diss is the UK capital for this form of transport. My optician when I raised the subject disagreed and with a meaningful sigh he said Clacton was far worse after his observations on a visit there a short time ago. difficult to believe after today's showing but he knows better having been to Clacton and I take his word for it.

The other delight is one I have boggled at before. The optician is also opposite car parking that is sideways on to the road. There are only just over six spaces but they are directly in front of the shop so great delight can be taken in the utter failure of people to be able to park there without either having umpteen goes and thereby holding up everyone from both directions, or having to have the partner wave arms about as directions usually to no avail as the driver on most occasions from what I observed makes such a hash of it that they have to start again.

This went on for the duration of my wait with the pièce de résistance being a mother with a people carrier having the luxury of two empty bays to park in still taking in the region of seven to eight goes and making such a hash of it that she ended up with about six inches to spare on her side and couldn't get out. She then decided to exit on the passenger side and having achieved that realised her child in its carry cot was also on the wrong side and could not be retrieved, so she got in and started all again, I then got the call for my eye test so have no idea if she made it or drove off and found somewhere else to park that was less challenging. All this of course is NFN.

When I mentioned all this to the wife on our return trip, a return trip that showed large placards still in place stating LEAVE that might have a different connotation after all this time, she gave me that strange look one begins to appreciate as an indication you are not quite the ticket, and said ‘you are drawn to Diss for some reason aren’t you? You are becoming one of them.’ Quite what she was implying I am still not sure but I have a pretty good idea. Royston Vasey anyone !


Sackerson said...

Been to Norfolk, it has a quirky feel.

The Jannie said...

We visited Bressingham in the mid-70s and were surprised when we realised that the chap wielding the oil can and wearing overalls and an engine-driver's cap was the owner.

Demetrius said...

Cognitive dissonance?

A K Haart said...

Sackers - we like it, go there most years.

Jannie - yes he sounds like a real character. It's why I like steam rallies because the people are even more fascinating than their steam engines. They all have stories to tell.

Demetrius - probably these days.