In the 16th Century, Fakenham was an important market town at the crossroads of the London road to the Shrine at Walsingam and the East / West trading roads from the coast ports to the hinterland. Before the Abolition of the Monasteries, Walsingham was the most important Shrine in Europe, known as “England’s Nazereth”*.

I had visited Walsingham several times as a child and felt the enormity of the past embedded in the countryside** and, as I couldn’t afford to live in London, I chose to teach in a Secondary Modern school in Fakenham, as a typically rebellious act against my upbringing. Further to suffering the indignity of acquiring a Teacher’s Degree my parents were prepared to assist in the purchase of a “house”.

Leaving home in the 60's

At the time, a modern-build two bedroom Chalet Bungalow cost £3500.00, but a three storey, six bedroom Queen Ann property in Friday Market Place in Walsingham was also available for the same amount*** (at the same time Barsham Manor was for sale for £7000.00).

Needless to say, help towards a mansion was not on the cards.

Reluctantly, I became childcare for the C and D streams at the school because “Art Classes” were a convenient dumping ground for sorting the School Timetable when no other alternatives were available – or even if they were!

Whilst “teaching” art in Norfolk, I fell in with a group of artisans and layabout émigrée philosophers from London. A number of them were in the provincial Art Trade comprising of dealers, restorers, artists and gallery owners. The one missing expertise was conservation, and in particular, re-lining.

There it was: teach myself re-lining whilst in the Art room and I could leave the dreaded job.

Beside the new build Chalet bungalow I built a double garage, both in width and depth, which became my workshop housing the tools inherited from my grandfather, who had been Supervisor of Cabinet Making at the Science Museum, London.

Apart from attempting re-lining for the drug-addled art set, I attempted making picture frames for the paintings I had relined. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time by being comissionbed to make picture frames for Robert Stigwood of Stigwood Enterprises fame, and “Jesus Christ Super Star”.

Robert Stigwood

Stigwood lived in Barsham Manor, a resplendant Tudor mansion which had a magic aura of mystery and romance. It was visited many times by Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon. Henry used it as a base from where he would walk the mile to the Walsingham Shrine, barefoot and flagilating himself in repentance of his sins.

The Manor was partially restored in the 1920s and 1930s by a German Count who would monthly circulate £1000 from a German bank, to one in London and finally to one in Fakenham where he requested it as cash, but unbeknown to anyone he then returned the money back again to Germany!

Naturally £1000 cash drawn each month became common knowledge and on that merit the Count ran up enormous debts. Eventually, on his disappearance, this led to the demise of numerous small businesses in the area.

In the late 1960’s the Manor was bought, restored and sold to Stigwood.

Barsham Manor

Stigwood primarily occupied the attic area where he built an enormous model train set. Although I visted the Manor I never met Stigwood.

Stigwood had two resident assistants, one being a fearsome lady by the name of Mrs. Shaw (wife of David Shaw, City Banker), and the other a lovely young man named Robin with a buzzbee and mullet hairstyle which he would shake, like a horse ridding itself of flies.

Unannounced, they would arrive at my modest chalet bungalow in Robert’s white convertible Rolls Royce which they would park in the “drive”, much to the consternation of them yokels.

Mrs Shaw and Robin liked to see how the work was progressing and frustratingly would frequently request changes further to their previous visit. I am not entirely sure whose taste I was following, but the standard specification was “very distressed” with shrinkage, craquelure, “repaired” damages and termite infestations. It was a new vocabulary of skills to be mastered, and that dreaded caveat, “convincingly executed”.

Corner frame samples

Joint cracks on gessoed frames was easy if the frame was “dry” built (un-glued joints), then gessoed. When all the normal processes were completed, natural shrinkage would perform 300 years of aging, but certainly when unassembled for gluing up, the fractures were “controlled accidents” with the conviction of genuine cracked joints. Painstaking scribing with a needle point “pen” could emulate craquelure, but termite holes were something else.

All other processes described were an external effect, but termites drill their way out from within the frame. The hole they leave is perfect with no edge indentation that happens with the common practice of punching or drilling a hole.

A new and revolutionary technique was needed in the form of shot gun.

The frame was hung from an electricity pole that fed the farm but at the correct angle that allowed the surplus shot to fall in the field behind. Initially we lost a number of frames until we learnt the critical specifications of shot size, trajectory and distance to produce realistic worm holes – well, Mrs Shaw and Robin seemed impressed.

And so it came to pass, like Dick Whittington, with these “skills” under my belt, I thought I would try my luck in London.






*It’s interesting to see that virtually all the penitent pilgrims are walking barefoot, but the two Priests are wearing shoes – so perhaps we are not equal in the eyes of God?

** A little-known fact is that every different species of tree in a 100 foot distance along a road signifies 100 years of age. Until recently, using this formula, one could count between six to eight different species along the 1 mile of winding road from Barsham to Walsingham meaning the road was between 600 to 800 years old – which records prove. I say this in the past tense, because 3-4 years ago, some moron decided to have them all cut down to allow better visibility.

Walsingham and Fakenham houses

***On the left, the three storey Queen Ann house for sale at the same time and for the same price as my chalet bungalow. But what I didn’t know at the time was that the cottage attached to the Queen Ann house was included in the price of £3500!


Copyright John Davies