Rowan Mantell: This is not America...

PUBLISHED: 11:32 02 July 2018

California Sands (photo: Rebecca Woods)

California Sands (photo: Rebecca Woods)

(c) copyright

...but it’s surprisingly close and my transatlantic guest knows more about a Norfolk hero than I do

An American came to stay – and I went into hospitality overdrive. Not so much in the house (she still had to suffer the creaky sofa-bed and random bedding allocated to any other guest) but the county.

I’m a sucker for Norfolk facts and here was a new challenge. How many Norfolk-American links could I find to fill her brief visit? Unfortunately for me, but probably luckily for her, she was not actually my guest, but at university with my youngest son, so they had plans involving pubs, friends and shopping rather than the family trees of US presidents.

But I was not going to be that easily distracted from my mission. And I had Thomas Paine, Pocahontas, Cary Grant, California near Hemsby, and more than 50,000 American servicemen on my side.

It’s not necessarily a huge vote of confidence in the Norfolk of ye olden days that more of the people who braved the perilous voyage on The Mayflower to set up a new colony in America, came from Norfolk than from any other county.

How much do people in Thetford really know about Thomas Paine? (photo: Sonya Duncan)How much do people in Thetford really know about Thomas Paine? (photo: Sonya Duncan)

We could have visited Hingham to find the family of Abraham Lincoln and should definitely have gone to the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich’s Forum, where I would have learnt a lot.

I was impressed, and a little ashamed, to discover that an 18-year-old from New York knew far more about Thomas Paine, the Thetford-born hero of two revolutions, than my own children. She even seemed to have read his pamphlet Common Sense. I quickly read about it on Wikipedia and discovered it was one of the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution (Tom of Thetford wrote the other one too) and it is, by at least one measure, the best-selling American title ever.

I was on firmer ground with the part another Norfolk man played in the American Revolution, having been told by a direct descendant that Charles Townshend, of Raynham Hall, and an 18th century chancellor of the exchequer, decided to tax goods, including tea, entering America, precipitating perhaps the most quaintly named anti-tax riots in the history of anti-tax riots. The year after the Boston Tea Party a former corset maker from Thetford landed in America…

More than 400 years later tens of thousands of people flowed in the opposite direction across the Atlantic, bringing chewing gum, stockings, cola – and extraordinarily brave airmen.

We could have gone to the poignant museums and memorials of the former airfields. Instead, on our way out of the county, just before we crossed into the other place, I came off the A11 one junction too early for the supermarket petrol I was planning to buy and found myself performing a cheeky U-turn in a section of Thetford where the street names proudly declare our transatlantic links.

I might not have managed to show her the golden sands of our own California but she was polite enough to pretend to be almost as excited as me to glimpse Maine Street, Boston End and Vermont Walk.

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