King's Lynn: happily behind the times

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The Independent Travel
The last time King's Lynn was the avant-garde was 300 years ago. If you came in 1696 to do some business you might have headed for that ultra-modern building on the quayside, the Custom House. Afterwards you might have stayed in The Duke's Head, an even more racy design, with a full-frontal display of erotic pediments, the feminine curved one being brutally ruptured by the pointed one bursting up through it. This explicit and unrestrained baroque was about 30 years ahead of its time.

Today the bright-pink facade beams at the Tuesday Market Place defying anyone not to smile back. During the King's Lynn festival this cheerful face - with a walrus moustache of white stucco sprouting over each first floor window - will be the backdrop for a series of free concerts by such jolly relics of pop history as Boney M and Sweet. So Lynn is back where it is happiest: about 20 years behind the times.

Recent attempts to bring King's Lynn up to date have been disastrous, such as the death by pedestrianisation suffered by the High Street. In accordance with the latest thinking, there has been ample provision of benches, litter bins and hanging baskets. As a result the High Street is not a street anymore; it has been turned into a rainswept shopping precinct, with charity shops taking over the increasing number of bankrupt lots.

For shopaholics, King's Lynn may be a good place to dry out, but happily you don't have to endure the High Street to get from one festival venue to another. A route down King Street and Queen Street is full of interest in itself, and there is the added delight that at every corner you can dash down an alleyway to the quayside where that evocatively named river, the Great Ouse, seeps silently out into the Wash. Coming upon it at the bottom of a narrow street is like opening a window in a stuffy room.

Across the wide expanse of muddy water is a thin, green line apparently drawn with a ruler and a fine pen. That's Norfolk. The landscape may be vertically challenged but it makes up for it with extra sky; an enormous canvas, sometimes blank and sometimes with mountainous clouds looking as if they were painted by Rubens over in Antwerp and blown across the North Sea.

From the river you also get a view of the backs of the elegant Georgian houses, only to discover that some of them are also warehouses, and one of them (Clifton House) rises to a spectacular medieval look-out tower. You can see why Lynn was chosen as a set for BBC's Martin Chuzzlewit, and this part of town is in danger of becoming one giant preservation trust. Many aspects of Lynn's former life have been consigned to museums. There is one dedicated to the vanished art of fishing, and even corporal punishment is fondly commemorated in the Old Gaol House, which is now a family-fun dungeon.

This last stands beside a collection of buildings that show how the past can inspire future generations to more than mere conservation. When the Guild of the Holy Trinity built themselves a grand meeting hall they hit upon the superb decorative device of using pale stone and dark flint in alternate squares. Not only was this cheaper than using just stone, it also gave a rich and showy effect, like a quilt with a huge window in it.

Such ostentation was bound to appeal to the Elizabethans, who extended the building with an arrangement of heraldry and silly windows topped with an even sillier gable to the left of the original hall. In the 1890s the matching Town Hall was built alongside with an appropriate disregard for the rules of good taste. Any town that has put up buildings that look like Battenburg cakes not once but three times in its history must be worth a visit.

Despite its stock of find buildings, however, King's Lynn is not entirely given over to nostalgia and vanity. This is thanks mainly to the continued existence of the docks, which provide an alternative source of identity. Until recently the streets of Lynn were enlivened by the spectacle of noisy brawling between boozed-up dockers. A closed circuit TV system recently installed by the council has killed off this tradition, but perhaps the dockers will put on a special display during the festival. I have no doubt that funding from the lottery will soon be made available to set up a museum of dockers' lives.

The King's Lynn festival runs from 20 July-3 August 1996. Festival Box Office, 27-29 King Street, King's Lynn, Norfolk PE30 1HA (01553 773578). Information about King's Lynn and West Norfolk (including accommodation) from the tourist information centre, Saturday Market Place, King's Lynn, Norfolk, PE30 5DQ (01553 763044)