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The Bells, the Bells: Five generations go on a train in Norfolk

After a Covid-enforced year off, the extended Bell family (Mr J’s mother’s clan) gathered once again for their annual Youth Hostelling adventure in coastal Norfolk. 

Youth Hostels can be hired in their entirety at some ‘off-peak’ times of the year and although we have previously got lucky and secured a September weekend, the norm is November. This time, we were massively overexcited to book not only the Sheringham YHA building, with catered breakfasts (!), but also tickets to the Norfolk Lights Express – an evening steam train excursion from Sheringham Station (a stone’s throw from the hostel) to Holt, on the North Norfolk Railway.

And thus it was that twenty-eight family members – from Mr J’s uncle Robert down to the newest arrival babe-in-arms Mila, great-granddaughter of Mr J’s first cousin Cynthia – donned our warmest coats, hats and gloves and set out into Storm Arwen* to negotiate the Tesco car-park and puddled pavements which lay between our weekend home and our evening’s entertainment. From the platform edge we counted down from ten with the stationmaster (or was he the Thin Controller?) and then watched as ropes of tiny lights festooning the old-style carriages lit up – one carriage at a time – along the length of the train. Then it was all aboard, and quickly off into the extremely windy night.

The rain lashed down and the strings of lights battered against the windows, but there was no dampening of our spirits. We had half a carriage to ourselves. Sadly for those people in the other half of the fully-booked carriage, we were in loud, if not fine, voice – with four generations belting out Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer whilst the fifth burrowed deeper in her sling, presumably not yet aware of the words.

Our Christmas song repertoire was in fact somewhat limited. Despite efforts to conjure up more vociferous and varied renditions by consulting Mr Spotify, quite quickly our collective inability to remember the lyrics to Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody in anything approximating the right order, led to an early cessation of such undignified noise, and no complaints were forthcoming from our travelling companions. (I think we rather got away with it there. Uncle Robert, a former policeman, may have been briefly concerned about this festive breach of the railway peace and at one point was to be seen with his head in his hands, but I reckon he was laughing really. Hohoho!)

Additional lights under the train lit up the grass and trees either side of the track,
and from time to time there were groups of fairies and woodland animals to be spotted amongst decorated branches and sparkly bushes. Admittedly, it was easier to spot them on the outward journey; by the time we returned, the windows were so rain-lashed and condensation-smeared that it was tricky to be certain whether some of their number had in fact blown away. The Santa display on a mid-point station platform seemed to be remarkably resilient, however – flapping alarmingly, but somehow keeping the tableau intact by a whiskery chin.

Back at the hostel, we settled in to eat and drink to our hearts’ delight, as the youngsters charged around or played snooker whilst avoiding their own parents in case they would be sent to bed before midnight. The rest of us were roped in for the traditional men vs women quiz – men in the dining room, women in the lounge, endless cries of ‘They’re using their phones! Stop cheating! Those are boys’ questions, not fair!” etc etc. Eventually we were all pretty much as bad as each other. The boys won on actual points, but the girls won more categories – neither side acknowledged any sort of defeat, and drinking was resumed.

On Sunday morning, full English breakfasts inside us and the previous night’s washing up finally complete, we went our separate ways, WhatsApping along the way as each of us encountered some more weather – a hailstorm here, a layer of snow there, a fallen tree across the road. 

Little Mila doesn’t yet appreciate all that this extended family has to offer, but we look forward to seeing her – and everyone else – again next year, to continue the education.

NB. No Bells were harmed in the course of this weekend, aside from one mild soaking at the seafront, several ear-bashings and the ritual humiliation of anyone attempting to photograph their food or use fancy wine-flutes for their plonk. Seriously though, from a Covid perspective, we all took tests beforehand, kept a couple of windows open whilst on the train (yes, even in that hooley) and also in the rooms of the hostel – none of which spoiled anything for anyone.

PPS. I drank no alcohol at all. I think I got away with it. 

*The Meteorological Office named the weekend’s extraordinary cold, wet and windy conditions Storm Arwen. It affected most of Great Britain and many people had no power for days afterwards. We were clearly lucky that our weekend was unspoiled by it, and in some ways enhanced by a slight feeling of jeopardy on the train as the trees around us whistled and bent – and particularly amused by the soaking of one of our number as the high tide waves caught him out earlier in the day.

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