Deep down your way


One Summer, on the way to Norfolk, we stopped for a picnic at Grunty Fen on the Cambridgeshire-Suffolk border. It was flat and damp. Apart from its appealing name - and the fact that we were ravenous - there was no particular reason for choosing such a spot. Or so we thought. Little did we know that we had inadvertently hit on the home of a star.

Dennis of Grunty Fen lives in a converted railway carriage with his 92- year-old mother. He is one of the Local Heroes celebrated in last Saturday's R2 Arts Programme. He is completely batty. Yet his bike is adorned with three royal feathers, for he is, officially, Banjoist to Her Majesty. From Cambridge in the west (yes) to Ely in the east and as far north as Sandringham, he is a renowned repository of wisdom, much in demand as an after-dinner speaker, though few of us outside the pale of East Anglia were - until last weekend - familiar with his gifts.

Yet Dennis should be a national treasure. Regular listeners to BBC Radio Cambridgeshire know all about his passions, from the conversations he holds with their man Christopher South in the chicken coop that used to be his Riley. "Whey is the fen sile black?" he demands, with the air of one who knows. His answer, as you'd realise if you'd ever lorst a welly troyin' ta crorss a peddle - is that the fen sucks. Dennis's theory rambles on, involving Boadicea's allotment which grew rhubarb powerful enough to play havoc with the Romans' digestion. Well yes, I did say he was batty.

Tony Capstick, who claims to be utterly famous in certain parts of Rotherham, introduced this selection of local loonies with aplomb. There's a theory, often aired, that television destroyed the comics because their material has to be renewed so rapidly. Tell that to the members of Scotland the What? who have been delighting native audiences in Aberdeen (and confusing visitors) for 40 years or so. Their act is performed in the Doric dialect. I had thought that Doric was a style of architecture: whatever it is, it's hard to understand even 30 miles outside the city. In Sussex, it might as well be primitive Germanic.

My esteemed colleague Gillian Reynolds once remarked that all you could tell about the audiences of local radio stations is that they haven't been well lately. Despite my tremendous respect for her, and inspired by Tony Capstick's enthusiasm, I listened to a few this week. You can see what she meant. Twiddling the dial, I came across one that carried, on Tuesday, an estate agent's advertisement for a Regency cottage whose bathroom had period fittings (gardy- loo) - I think it was the same one that featured a Sloaney talking horse: Hiyo, Silver.

Yet this year sees the 30th anniversary of the beginning of local stations and, to survive this long, they must have been doing something right. In our village, we can only get one really clearly: Southern Counties Radio, successor to the old Radio Brighton. It is all news, traffic news and talk, frequently recycled. As its listeners are often reminded, it covers everywhere from Polegate to Worplesdon. The big story in the region at the moment is that there are plans for a millennium footpath between Dorking and Leatherhead. And did you know that on the first day of Wimbledon a player on Court seven was born in Addlestone?

When such items begin to stale, as, alas, in the fullness of time they must, listeners are invited to bewail the sufferings of other regions - the plague of moles in Herefordshire or the nasty rash of naked groomsmen left tied to lamp-posts after Cumbrian stag-nights. And I kept hearing an eel expert called Chris Lee discuss the price of elvers and mispronounce Sargasso, until I found myself desperately trying to think what Christian name he could have been given so as to be completely reversible. Didn't get further than Stew.

Southern Counties suffers from being too close to London and serving too wide an area: it only really works in 10-minute snatches. Radio Norfolk is quite different. A successful mix of speech and music, it is a way of life for a third of the inhabitants of that stubbornly individual county, many of whom count the presenters as friends. Probably the most popular is Roy Waller, who spent 25 years as an AA man before his (local) broadcasting stardom. He has, as they say, a good face for radio, yet there is a constant demand for signed photographs of him from his devoted fans. And I know people - nice, sensible people - who are addicted to Saturday's Bride of the Day. Each week, Stewart White visits the house of a bride preparing for the off and asks her how her beloved proposed: was it a one-knee job? There is, apparently, a long list of people hoping for the chance to answer that.

When I was there last weekend, they phoned an older woman who had won pounds 50 on their Golden Nugget competition. She wasn't interested. "Haven't time for all this," she retorted, "I'm just off out." That's Norfolk.

And while we're out in the sticks, Anna Hill talked to John Field about the names of English pastures and hummocks, greenswards and knolls in Toad Pipe Meadow (R4). Ms Hill and Mr Field had a lovely time rolling eggs down Pace Egg Bank, in a faintly artificial reconstruction of a pastime that might date from prehistoric times. But their serious point was that, unless we treasure the names the English have always given to fields, we lose a truly fascinating aspect of our history.

These names are wonderfully poetic but also utilitarian, suggesting the purposes to which fields have been put for centuries. In the countryside near Alresford, the fact that Peggy Munday's Bottom lies perilously close to Sailors' Lane gives an accurate idea of good old Peggy's profession. And, by dint of some linguistic archaeology, they found a clue to a field known as Cream-Well, or Bubbles Meadow, Devon, in Burbles Meadow, North Yorkshire. The northern field is named after its ancient spring. Sure enough, by digging around in the Devonshire brambles, they found an icy, burbling stream there too - and a stone slab, once used as an al fresco dairy, or cream-well.

The EC, in its wisdom, is trying to insist that such fields should all be numbered, not named. This programme was almost enough to send us out in search of the oldest inhabitant so that we can start mapping our own, detailed local histories. What, I wonder, can be the derivation of Grunty Fen?

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