The following is an excerpt from my next book, Kismet Quick: a travelogue/guide/ramble/rant through 40 of Norfolk’s towns and villages (I’ve visited each via public transport). Kismet Quick is now available to buy here. Check this site for regular updates & follow the journey in photographs here
Wroxham is famous for two things. The first is that it’s ‘The capital of the Norfolk Broads’, where David Bowie claims you can see the mice in their million hordes. The second is Roys of Wroxham, upon which Mr Bowie is yet to offer up an opinion.
Roys of Wroxham is unique in that it’s a village shop that seems to have taken over most of the village. What is even more remarkable is that it has taken over the village of Hoveton and not Wroxham, which is actually a little bit further down the road from Roys. In Hoveton you will find a Roys department store, a Roys food hall, a Roys toy shop, a Roys garden centre and a Roys menswear shop called, I kid you not, RoyZone.
It started in the late 19th century with two brothers (Alfred and Arnold Roy) selling fruit to holidaymakers and eventually opening up a store in nearby Coltishall. As the company grew, they moved into the big leagues (in village shop terms, I must stress), set up a new store on the very edge of the Broads and called it Roys of Wroxham. They never looked back. They certainly never looked at whether or not they were in Wroxham. In the 1930s Roys of Wroxham won a competition which enabled the business to call itself the ‘The World’s Largest Village Store.’ And for a time, it very possibly was. My Women’s Institute book of Norfolk villages (there’s a line I never thought I’d say) paints a picture of Roys in the middle part of the last century:
‘On its long mahogany counters complete with brass scales, tea, coffee and sugar were displayed in lovely decorated containers and weighed to the customer’s requirements. Bacon was cut thick or thin by hand and all was personal service and no hurrying.’
Roys has evolved somewhat. It has, as mentioned above, bought lots of other properties in the village and turned them into Roys based enterprises. For new visitors to the area this must be a little creepy. Everywhere they turn there’s a different Roys store. They must feel like they’re trapped in the world’s largest hall of mirrors. The Roys stores look rather American. The food hall in particular has a certain 1950s US swagger. There’s a touch of The Last Picture Show about it. I half expected to see a Cadillac roll up outside with a couple of denim-clad high school kids in the front seats and their white-haired sweethearts applying their make-up in the back.
The main Roys building, bang in the middle of the village, is the star of the show. That’s where the hardcore Roys shopping action is. That’s the place to go if you want owl shaped pepper pots and Union Jack cushions. Need four place mats bearing a picture of the Hay Wain? My dears, you’re at the right place. It’s Harrods for people that will never go to Harrods. (I include myself in that.) It has the lot. God bless it. As their website proudly proclaims, ‘A visit to Roys is almost a day out in itself.’ (Note the legally shrewd use of the word ‘almost’.)
I left the world’s largest hall of mirrors and headed down to the water. It seemed that everywhere I turned I was confronted with an image that you’d expect to see in a crap local calendar of the Broads. The many boats were moored and empty, with sunshine bouncing off their clean white paint. A gang of seagulls followed me around, perching nonchalantly onto nearby poles and fences, as though trying to supply me with photo opportunities. I wondered if they’d been hired by the local council in a bid to increase the quality of photographs people took of the area:
‘Hold up, there’s someone taking a photo down there,’ says Gull A to Gull B.
‘Come on, then. Let’s go and sit on that bench for him,’ replies Gull B.
‘You can. I’m going to perch myself on that rubber ring and look pensive.’
Gulls are the biggest show offs in the ornithological world. Whenever there’s an oil slick, they’re first on the scene, hamming it up. I refused to get sucked into their games and headed back towards Roys of Wroxham. In Hoveton.