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24 September 2014

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Love has always been in the Norfolk air
Elm Hill: Love is in the air

A county of old romantics

Looking back through the history books, Norfolk is a county of cupids. From the mystery Jack Valentine to the tradition of swopping gifts of Valentine's Eve, it seems we are a load of rural romantics.

Each year on 14 February, millions of valentine’s cards are exchanged across the world. But traditionally people in Norfolk make an extra effort to get those hearts fluttering.

In the year 2000, one Cupid pretender gave the residents of Muriel Street, Norwich, a valentine’s treat. The lucky residents woke up to find biscuits with heart stickers stuck to their doors, gates and cars.

Although this was more of a prank than a custom, the county has a long heritage of valentine traditions.

Victorian gifts

In Victorian times, Norfolk lovers went to great lengths to swap parcels anonymously on 13 February. Often more money was spent on valentine’s gifts than Christmas presents.

The county's cupids were certainly more generous than those in other parts of the country where a a solitary love letter or card would do.

Valentine’s Eve

Across the county, Valentine’s Eve was as eagerly anticipated as Christmas Eve and it was always good fun.

People would fill a bag with love tokens to give away. They would bump into friends in the street and share jokes along the way. When they arrived at the home of their lover, they would knock on the door, leave a present and run off before they were spotted.

Hopefully, the valentine would be out and you would return home to find your own doorstep covered with parcels.

Hoaxes and pranks

Because Valentine's Day was such an extravagant custom in Norfolk, jokers saw it as a perfect chance to pull off hoaxes.

Those unlucky in love would be mocked with a huge present left outside their house. After unwrapping lots of layers of paper, the unhappy recipient would find a cruel scribbled comment.

Others would open their door after hearing a rat-tat-tat only to be laughed at by somebody hidden away.

Jack Valentine

The only surviving Norfolk ritual is Jack Valentine, otherwise known as Old Father Valentine or Old Mother Valentine.

The enigmatic Mr or Mrs Valentine disappear into thin air after knocking at the door and leaving their gifts.

It is unclear when this mystery figure emerged, but children are as likely as adults to be visited.

During the early 20th century, youngsters would probably be given a little treat from the village shop, while lovers would be more generous.

Although little is known about the history of Jack Valentine, it remains a popular custom and seems to be exclusive to Norfolk, as Ian Belsham from Australia, explains.

"I have lived in Australia for 30 years and have periodically talked and enquired of other British-born friends and family living here as to whether they were familiar with Old Mother Valentine," said Ian.

"As none of them hail from Norfolk, they always viewed my recollections of the Old Mother Valentine tradition of my Norwich childhood with an element of bewilderment," he added.

Valentine rhymes

In the 1800s, Norfolk children would set out before dawn to sing rhymes in exchange for sweets, cakes and pennies.

One favourite local verse was:

Good morrow, Valentine,
God bless the baker,
You'll be the giver,
And I'll be the taker.

Once it was light, their requests could be turned down because they were said to be sunburnt.

Local customs

On the whole, the county’s customs were more gracious than those practiced elsewhere.

Girls in Derbyshire would pray that their boyfriend called on Valentine’s Day.

If he did not bother she was deemed ‘dusty’. She would then be humiliated by her family or friends who had to clean her with a broom or straw.

last updated: 09/02/06
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gill evans
As children, Mr Valentine would knock at our door, shout out the name of the children individually. when your name was called you would open the door to find a present on the floor, but as you went to pick it up it was whisked away on a string (by my father who would be hiding in another room) unless you were quick enough to catch it.
Fri Mar 9 08:49:44 2007

L Richmond
I grew up playing Father Valentine in my granparents' house where the doorbells would go at opposite ends of the house and in screams of excitement we'd run to each door to be greeted with small presents, potatoes or even a broom landing on us. We would never know which door to run to next. I now play this with my son and his friends. He enjoys it more than Christmas!
Sat Feb 24 12:21:24 2007

jo-ann dawson
I come from lowestoft and remember being visited by father valentine every year as a child. I now live in essex and do the same thing for my children, i have been wondering where this tradition comes from as i know of people in norfolk and suffolk that take part.
Tue Feb 20 16:48:28 2007

Peter Woodhouse
I am pleased to have maintained the tradition this evening for my son and daughter. I remember it as one of the highlights of the year in my own childhood, although the presents were never expensive, and sometimes were just empty boxes or pieces of coal! The other tradition maintained in my family was of 'snatch valentine', traditionally carried out on the 13th. but often also part of the ritual on the 14th. A knock would be heard on the door, an attractive parcel would be on the doorstep, only to disappear around the corner of the house on the end of a piece of string before the expectant child could grab it. Jack Valentine would, of course, be on the other end of the string, no doubt chuckling in the coalshed.
Wed Feb 14 20:32:05 2007

J. Saunders
I have just read the comment from R. Martin who remarks that the custom of Jack Valentine did not cross the border from Norfok into Suffolk. I have lived in Kessingland, south of Lowestoft in Suffolk all my life and have certainly kept up the tradition with my own children and now my grandchildren, so in fact the custom has crossed the border.
Wed Feb 14 13:51:50 2007

Helen Groom
I was born in 1974 and have always had a visit from Father Valentine every Valentines Day Eve, I have never seen him but he leaves a present and when I was much younger he used to sometimes tease us with a 'snatch bag' which was a present on the end of a length of rope, which pulled away as we tried to collect the bag - great fun! Im 32 now and he still pays me a vist even though I have moved 3 times from my original homestead!! LONG LIVE FATHER VALENTINE!!! The tradition will be passed down to my children in the future should I have any!
Wed Feb 14 13:44:21 2007

Sue Hill
I grew up on the Norfolk-Suffolk border and Norfolk acquaintances speak very warmly and affectionately of Jack Valentine visiting their houses at around 6 p.m. on 14th February to leave a small gift on the doormat. I always sent my children a card each from Jack Valentine when they were small. It's a lovely tradition that I haven't heard of at all anywhere else.
Tue Feb 13 16:54:10 2007

John W
S. Valentine's day and about 6 o'clock in the evening. There would be a knock on the front door. When opened it would reveal a parcel on the step. Barely was the door shut again than there was a knock on the back door and another parcel. This went on, back and front at random - there was always one parcel which had many wrappings to undo, and one parcel on the end of a piece of string which 'ran off' when you tried to pick it up! The parcels contained small gifts, such as gummed paper shapes, crayons etc. or sweets. At the final knock, which came at the front door, my father tumbled in backwards, professing ignorance of what was happening! I continued this custom for my own children, but now, with no grand children, there is no-one to receive the presents.
Tue Feb 13 10:15:14 2007

Shane McAndrew
I remember from only a few years ago when Jack Valentines visited my cousins and myself. The moments were all recorded on video, which we often watch back, showing the halarious pranks that were pulled on us by Jack. These ranged from brooms being lent up against the door and falling on us when it was opened, to flashing lights which petrified all of us. It was great fun when this used to happen and I loved the local tradition.
Fri Feb 9 22:26:32 2007

Alan Cobb
We Lived in Norwich in the 1930s and The visit of Jack Valentine was as every bit as exciting as Father Christmas. The front then back door then French door would receive a sharp knock and there would be a present for either of my sisters or my self. At least once in the Evening as we went to pick up the parcel it would disapear into the bushes pulled away on a length of string. The excitement was intense. later we learnt that it was the daughter of the people across the road.
Fri Feb 2 20:39:13 2007

Peter Child
Father Valentine came to our house every Valentine's Day, after it got dark. The experience of waiting for a knock at the door, rushing to find a present, hoping to catch a glimpse of Father Valentine, was one of heart-stopping excitement. When I was small we lived in an old terraced house in Great Yarmouth. I must have been about 4 when I did indeed get a glimpse of Father Valentine, depositing his gifts at the kitchen door. I was amazed by (and in my childish guilelessness never though to question) the fact that he looked exactly like my own father...
Sun Dec 24 23:28:56 2006

Michelle King
My children will be getting a Valentine's present left on the doorstep tonight as I did as a little girl. We always knew her as Mother Valentine but the idea was the same. I was born in 1968
Tue Feb 14 16:11:26 2006

Clare Hodges
We have today been discussing Jack Valentine in the office. Several of us remember this tradition. One colleague's mother still does it for her grandchildren. No-one seems to know where is comes from.
Tue Feb 14 13:10:27 2006

Chris Booty
As children (in the '50s) we were lucky enough to get visits from both Mother and Father Valentine all characterised by the knock on the door and the gift left on the troshel. I can't ever remember being unaware that the identity of the donors was in fact our Aunt and our Dad but we were quite happy to go along with it all. I remember the American family who lived on the corner (one of the Sculthorpe families) finding it all really amusing and quaint. It wasn't till I moved away from Norfolk that I became aware that this was such a localised tradition.
Tue Feb 14 12:37:42 2006

Caroline Bean
I remember as a small child on Valentine’s Day hearing a knock on the back door and my brother and I screaming because it was completely out of the ordinary for anyone to come to our backdoor. My mother afforded us an Oscar-worthy performance of also being afraid, refusing to open the door straight away and joined in with us when we tugged our father down the hall saying there was someone round the back. He had of course just come in the front door! We always got some small toy, like a new dress for Barbie or a bead set, and naturally my brother had something more boyish. I being the ever-inquisitive child remember asking why we had a present and was told it was because someone loved me! Of course the year came when my brother had shot up a few inches and was tall enough to see my father’s back bob past the kitchen window and that was the last year we got presents from our secret admirer. When I went to university and asked my fellow students if they got Valentine’s Day presents from their parents I was met with looks of bewilderment, as they silently proceeded to exchange nods amongst themselves confirming their belief that us Norfolk folk are just a little odd! When I have children myself I fully intend to keep up the tradition of leaving a present on the doorstep from a secret valentine.
Mon Feb 13 11:06:30 2006

I remember receiving Jack Valentine presents as a child living near Great Yarmouth. It was only as I got older that I realised it appeared to be a Norfolk tradition when talking to friends from other parts of the country who didn't have the faintest idea what I was talking about! I always thought it was amazing how my grand-mother (who would've been in her 70's at the time)was able to knock at the door and disappear completely by the time I got to the door a matter of seconds later! I don't do Jack Valentine with my own children though, although I know of a few friends who keep the custom alive - my daughters have their birthday Feb 15 so Valentine's day now gets a bit over-shadowed.
Mon Feb 13 10:17:43 2006

Mr R Martin
My wife talked of Jack Valentine but I always dismissed it. She used to live in the villages surrounding Great Yarmouth but I lived in Lowestoft, only a few miles away. It seems funny how the tradition never strayed across the county border into Suffolk. Now we both live in Suffolk she has convinced me to carry out the tradition with our own children with sweets and colouring books.
Thu Feb 9 20:31:06 2006

Liz Rastrick
I remember Valentine’s Day with great pleasure, as it broke the long haul between Christmas and the Summer Holiday. I was born in 1953 and in my early childhood , perhaps as young as 2 or 3, recall hearing a mysterious knock, opening the door and finding a present but no person, sitting on the doorstep. The present was only small but always exciting because it was semi-unexpected. I continued the tradition with my own children when they were younger and hope it will be continued by them to their children when the time comes. As a slightly interesting aside, I have also heard family stories of Jack Valentine’s Eve on February 13th when jokes or pranks were played. The one story I remember is of a continuous knock on the door, the door being opened with difficulty and the presence of a donkey’s tail tied to the door, with the donkey still attached. I have no idea who perpetrated this mischievous deed but do think this story must date back to the start of the 20th century.
Sat Nov 26 16:34:30 2005

Alan Moore
I well remember the custom of Father Valentine leaving presents on the doorstep - my trainset gained most of the rolling stock by Valentine presents. It was much more exciting than Christmas as there was always the possibility that you might actually see Father Valentine. But if you did see him you were told that he would call no more. When my children were growing up I continued the custom and many devious plans were set in train to either knock on the door or ring the bell and trying to be present when the gifts were found all at the same time. I was born in 1930 and my parents certainly carried on the custom during the early 30's and even during the war. As I got older the practice stopped but as young teenagers we would knock on neighbours doors and either leave nothing or an empty parcel.
Tue Feb 15 09:22:52 2005

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