Footsteps: Knowing Alan Partridge, knowing Norwich

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The Independent Online
East Anglia's most famous fictional son is a frighteningly real creation, so real that Andy Bull decided to construct a Partridge-themed tour of the city that spawned him. Here's Alan Partridge, and this is his Norwich. Ah-ha

Norwich is where Alan Partridge learnt his broadcasting craft - on Hospital Radio Norwich, where his chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You was beamed to the nation before being unceremoniously axed by the BBC, and where he now works, on Radio Norwich, filling the "key" 4.30am to 7am slot, with a show imaginatively entitled "Up with the Partridge". His new role is the subject of the fly-on-the-wall documentary I'm Alan Partridge, on BBC2 on Monday nights.

Perhaps we ought, at the outset, to draw the dividing line between fact and fiction. Alan Partridge is a creation of Steve Coogan. Radio Norwich does not exist, and the current show is not filmed in the city. But Partridge is a frighteningly believable creation, and the Norwich of our collective memory may well deserve to have him as its most famous son.

At the Norfolk Tourist Authority they admit that Partridge has boosted interest in the city. Officially, they think it is all "great fun", as they do at the city's real-life radio station, Radio Norfolk. Privately, the city fathers must be wondering what on earth Norwich has done to be lampooned in this way. After all, it is what it says on the signs they have at the boundaries: "Norwich: a fine city".

To amplify, Norwich is a fine medieval city, largely unspoilt, which has an imposing Norman castle, a cathedral with a spire second in height only to Salisbury's, no less than 32 ancient churches (more than any other city centre in western Europe) and a maze of largely pedestrianised streets filled with a varied array of little shops. It's as fine an example of a county town as you are likely to find.

But Partridge is not really a city centre person. His world, the world of Pringle sweaters, Rover 800s, hotels with names like the Linton Travel Tavern which boast a really excellent carvery, and select developments of mock Tudor palace-ettes, exists on the peripheries of cities. It's a ring-road world. And Norwich has all of that. So, sit back, relax, and let me guide you, in a large, gently purring British-built motor car, through Alan Partridge's Norwich.

Hotels have loomed large in the life of Partridge since he was thrown out of home by his wife, and his recommendations in choosing one are invaluable to a visitor. When you call a hotel home, you choose the one you live in with care. You might think you have found such a place as you approach up the A11 and spot the welcoming lights of the Norwich Travel Lodge. With its neighbouring Fina service station and Little Chef it looks at first as if it could provide all the creature comforts.

But a perceptive potential guest like Partridge would notice almost immediately the giant electricity pylon that stands four square on the front lawn, and which was fizzing loudly in the rain as I arrived, like an amplified equivalent of Norman Bates's buzzing neon Vacancy sign in Psycho. The rooms do have some of the required Partridge ambience. On the walls are semi-abstact prints of wild untamed beaches that bring to mind the picture he owns of two white horses frolicking in the surf, and which makes him wonder: "Who owns those horses? And why aren't they saddled?"

Yet it's not enough. The Post House off the ring road on Hall Road also looks promising. It's right across from the Cattle Market. This is worth a visit if only to gain an understanding of what a minefield Partridge was stepping into when he ventured a comment on agricultural issues. You learn here that cows are more complicated than you might think. For of the row of yellow brick bunker-like buildings in which livestock is bought and sold, one is labelled, plainly and simply, Pig Sale. But there is no simple label for cows. Instead you get Calf Sale Ring, Store Cattle Sale Ring, Dairy Sale Ring and Fat Cattle Sale Ring, all in their own separate buildings.

How easy it would be for a man more at home in Bally slip-ons - made in Norwich and available cut price from the factory outlet just up Hall Road - than green wellies to put his foot in it. You might admire a man's fat cattle, only to be told that they are dairy, and how dare you.

Right at the end are sheep, where a group of men who look like they have been left out in the rain for a year or two cluster round a bloke with a clipboard who stands between the pens and mumbles rapidly, while they either make dismissive gestures or nod. Beside me a woman was saying to two men, "You should get into sheep. Sheep people are awfully nice."

Sound advice Alan.

No, the perfect hotel is the Stakis Norwich Hotel, which you get to by driving round the A140 ring road to the north of the city, passing on the way the West Norwich hospital (on your right behind a graveyard), home of Hospital of Norwich, birthplace of Partridge. The Stakis, with its inimitable Greco-Scottish ambience, is at the airport, up Cromer Road just past the Mann and Egerton Rover dealership.

You know the Stakis is right for Partridge immediately the automatic door admits you to the lobby. The first thing that catches your eye is a portrait of the Queen, looking regal in powder blue. The lobby is double height, panelled in dark wood, with a seat curved around a statue of a nymph in the centre. Sheer class.

The carvery offers an authentic Partridge dining experience. To start your meal, maybe the Southern Fried Jacket Potato Wedges and Mushroom Combo with Spicy Mayonnaise Dips? Or perhaps the Tandoori style Babyback Pork Ribs basted in Honey? Then on to your choice from the Roast/ Hot Dishes from the buffet. "No extra charge for those who would like seconds!"

Only one slight niggle. Re the piped music. TLC's Crazy Sexy Cool is great in the disco, but over Cheesy Baked Stilton Mushrooms? I don't think so.

Yet while the suburbs are perfect Partridge-land, the city centre should not be dismissed. There is the shopping for a start. Partridge would be impressed by the Castle Mall precinct, the perfect leisure-shopping location for sports-casual man. It's a bit like shopping at Gatwick Airport but without the comfort of knowing you will be flying off on holiday very shortly.

The pedestrianised streets to the west of the castle are worth a browse. I saw a very nice pair of tan leather and string driving gloves in Chadds For Fine Clothes in Bedford Street for pounds 49.95. Pringle sweaters are surprisingly hard to find. They have a few at Pilch Intersport in Brigg Street, but they are the showier numbers in the Faldo Golf range.

I did ask at the tourist authority for suggestions for my Alan Partridge itinerary, but they were very nervous. They run a shop in the old Guildhall, one of the many spectacular buildings in Norwich, which is packed with leaflets. I think Alan would go for one called "Where to Park in Norwich".

In the end they came up with one or two ideas. He had bad feet, didn't he? How about a trip to the Coleman's Mustard shop in Bridewell Alley for a mustard foot bath?I asked the tourist people about trips round the Norwich factory of Nestle Rowntree, makers of Partridge's favourite confectionery, the Terry's Chocolate Orange. But it turned out the factory closed last December, axing 700 jobs.

The historic sights can also have their Partridge moments. Before I left I popped into one of the finest of Norwich's medieval churches. St Peter Mancroft, beside the market place, is remarkably bright and airy, with huge clear-glass windows reaching up to the hammerbeam roof. Partridge would be most impressed, though, by the Flemish tapestry they keep behind a protective curtain that dates from 1573 and which portrays the Resurrection appearances of Christ. It depicts him as a gardener and ("rather too literally" according to the guide book) wearing a gardener's hat. The lady who showed me it said that this is one of only two pictures in Britain in which Christ is shown wearing a hat. The other is in Anglesea. Alan would like that.

Still searching for a gift for the Alan in your life? Stakis Hotels (0990 909090) is offering "A Christmas gift you'll always remember" at the Stakis in Norwich, or one of 38 other locations - including Glasgow and Edinburgh airports. For pounds 99 two people get two nights dinner, bed and breakfast; you buy the voucher, which arrives "in a smart presentation wallet". After 27 December, the recipient phones to book the room between 1 January and 31 March.

Norwich tourist information: 01603 666071.

I'm Alan Partridge is on BBC-2 at 10pm on Monday.

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