If you speak to anybody who remembers growing up on the Mile Cross Estate from the very early days and right through until the 1960’s it won’t take them too long before they mention a seemingly infamous character going by the name of “Fungi”, his farm or his pit. “Old Fungi”, “Farmer Fungi” or even “Cowboy Fungi” was actually a chap named Arthur Prentice and he had moved out of the city centre to and into number 64 Appleyard Crescent to be closer to the countryside, which back then was just across the road.
Arthur was a Market Gardener who before relocating to Mile Cross had lived at Rupert Street and Waddington Street and in 1911 at the age of 33 married Minnie Abbs at the Holy Trinity Church on Essex Street. Arthur’s father was a Bankers Agent named Frederick Prentice and his wife, Minnie came from a Gardening family; her father Jacob Abbs profession being a Gardener, which is probably how Arthur and Minnie had met.
Arthur was a smallholder of an angled piece of land running from the geological Galley Hills right up to and then along the Boundary Road, passing by Mitre Court and Eustace Road, where the entrance track into his smallholding led from almost directly opposite his Appleyard Crescent Home. As far as I can work out the smallholding appeared on the maps at around the same time as the estate did, perhaps Arthur spotted an opportunity to create a Market Garden on his doorstep and rented the piece of land off the Corporation of Norwich. Perhaps this is why he came to Mile Cross in the first place.
Arthur would often be seen travelling about the city selling his fruit and vegetables from the back of his large cart which was usually being pulled along by an impressive but temperamental white horse named “Prince”. Apparently Prince had a habit of bolting and simply making its own way back to the smallholding in Mile Cross, which must have been quite a sight.
Going from the many memories of Arthur Prentice, it seems that he must have been quite a character. The local kids tended to fear him and tease him in equal measures and would often be chased off his land after trying to pinch some of his home-grown wares or venturing in to his infamous pit. This appears to be a reoccurring theme and something that must have been a constant problem for Fungi, seeing as his fields backed on to a lot of homes, as well as being directly connected to the nearby natural playground of the wild Galley Hills, an open area that seemed to be a magnet for kids of all ages who would visit the hills from near and far.
If you happen to be walking or driving through this part of the estate today it is hard to imagine that this area was essentially open farm-land seeing as it’s now well and truly hidden under a sprawling 1960’s development and essentially an extension to Mile Cross. Not long after Fungi had farmed his last vegetable, Bowers Avenue was extended from the western end of Gresham Road northwards, across the heath of Galley Hills and right through the spot where Fungi grew his wares. Fungi’s lines of neatly-kept vegetables were to be replaced with long lines of square houses and flats and his pit was turned into a play-park and in this transformative process all traces of Fungi’s farm were swept away in the name of expansion and development.
That said there are still a few little hints to the site’s past if you know where to look, none more so than at the odd-shaped park that was built on the piece of land what used to be known as “Fungi’s Pit”. The pit was a pond created somewhat accidentally by the remnants of an former chalk or gravel working that predates the estate and Fungi’s farm by some time. This man-made depression had slowly filled with water over the years and was often referred to as a “pond” on maps throughout the years, although I think the word “pond” may make it sound a little more romantic than the reality of it essentially just being a stinky old pit. This pit or pond may or may not have been a source of water for the smallholding over the years but it also seemed to be a place where unwanted stuff may have been dumped, including – if some of the local children were to be believed – pig’s blood, dead animals and all-sorts of rubbish.
That said, it didn’t seem to put all of the local kids off and some would even risk it and venture into the pond on a hot summer’s day, much to Arthur’s bemusement and he was well known for chasing kids off his land.
After visiting the area to take some pictures of it on a recent walk, It seemed doubly ironic to to me that in the end, that this odd little corner of his smallholding, which was probably the most hazardous part of his smallholding to the local kids was turned into their new playpark and the fact that the sandpit that now occupies the depression where that potentially dangerous pond, filled with who-knew-what, was closed recently because some idiots had managed to force the council’s hand by somehow getting a load of broken glass into the same spot almost sixty years later, making it hazardous to the local kids once again. Some things never really change.
You can see in the picture below the site of Arthur Prentice’s former land as it looks from Boundary Road today and in the middle of it you can make out a double-path leading through the former smallholding and back up into the estate. At the top of that hill is where most of Fungi’s tin sheds would have stood.
Rather brilliantly, some of the Mile Cross boys who still talk about Fungi whilst having a drink at the Whiffler have to navigate their way through where Fungi’s fields used to be on their way to and from their only remaining local. They often refer to the return leg of their journey back up that path back in to the estate as “up Cardiac Hill”, due to the gradient making it quite a struggle after a pint or seven, that is if they aren’t one of the many old boys who now head in the opposite direction and into what is known as the “Mile Cross Retirement Village”, also known as ‘Hellesdon’.
Another giveaway to the area’s former use as farmland is the location of the entrance to Arthur’s smallholding, where the ghost of the former pathway running in to it from the corner of Appleyard Crescent and Eustace Road can just about be made out by following the diagonal fence-line in the image below. The fields have now all but disappeared under the 1960’s and more recent additions to the estate but you can still get a feel for the well-trodden path made by Arthur and Prince that used to be here. On a completely unrelated note, whilst I stood there and took this picture, it dawned on me that Eustace Road must be one of, if not the shortest roads in Norwich.
Whilst on the subject of old pathways, there was another path used by many Mile Cross residents that ran up to and along the edge of Fungi’s field. It ran from Galley Hill (the road), between the field that is now the Whiffler industrial estate and behind the houses on the western side of Bowers Avenue all the way through to Boundary Road at Fungi’s Pit. Parts of that path are still there in spirit if you turn left after the last house on the left at the end of the original reaches of Bowers Avenue. People would use this path as a short-cut to save having to walk all the way up Drayton Road and down Boundary road to get to the Whiffler pub, and us 1980’s kids used to use it to get straight to the playpark and avoid walking past the tower blocks where it always felt like you were never to far away from being picked on by some of the older kids. For this particular blog entry I decided to drag my wife and kids out for a lockdown walk so that I could retrace my childhood steps to take the following photographs.
This is where we come to the only photograph of Fungi’s land taken from ground level that I know of existing. Another Mile Cross resident from Bowers Close, Mr Ulph is posing for a picture whilst out on a winter’s walk and he’s stood facing south on the land close to where Fungi’s smallholding was and in the background you can just about make out one of the tin huts used by Arthur Prentice hiding behind the bushes on the left. It’s hard for me to imagine this area being so rural not all that long before I was born.
If you head over the later-added Bowers Avenue and towards some of the original Mile Cross Houses bordering Fungi’s fields, you come to the back of Mitre Court which stuck out like a pinnacle into into those fields. If you stand looking in the right direction (with the flats behind you) and using a fair bit of blinkered imagination, you can almost picture this little green area being the countryside for a few moments. This is also close to the spot where we come across an interesting encounter between Arthur Prentice and one of his neighbours that was reported on by the local rag way back in 1932.
One day back in 1932, Arthur – whilst arguing with another man on his land – then got into an argument with another neighbour, an Engineer named Charles Fuller who resided at 14 Mitre Court. Charles’ garden backed on to Fungi’s field and a long-running dispute about a broken fence was about to come to a very Mile Cross conclusion. The poor quality of the fencing had enabled some of Fungi’s Goats and horses to get into the rear garden at number 14 and whilst they were there they promptly set about eating all of Charles’ vegetables. The two men then got into a very heated verbal altercation where all sorts of allegations were being made about stolen vegetables, animals running amok and even the alleged attempted poisoning of Fungi’s stock with deadly nightshade. This long-simmering resentment between the two men was about to boil over proper and when Charles demanded Arthur fix the fence, Arthur descended into a rage, shouting: “I hope the f*cking goats will come in and eat everything to the ground!” He then entered the rear garden of number 14, to confront Charles, grabbing him by the throat in the process and then preceding to stamp all over the recently re-cultivated part of the garden. In the ensuing carnage it appears that the limits of Charles’ patience were reached and poor old Fungi came a bit of a cropper.
In the court case that followed Arthur Prentice told the QC that he had approached Charles Fuller with the intention to “knock him down if possible”, but his plans appear to have backfired somewhat when Charles caught him squarely on the chin and knocked him clean out. As well as being an engineer who was protective of his recently replanted garden vegetable plot, Charles also happened to be a keen boxer. Oops. To top it all off Arthur was then fined £1 for his troubles. At least he was man enough to admit that he was in the garden looking for trouble, even if it didn’t end too well for him.
This isn’t the first or last time that Arthur Prentice had gotten himself into trouble and it seems as though he had built himself a bit of a reputation for being a funny old soul. When talking to anybody who remembers him they always end up talking about him in a mostly negative light and there are a load of memories from former residents that have been shared about old Fungi, his pit and his fields. Some of which I’ll share with you below.
Thankfully not all of those memories of interactions with Arthur Prentice were entirely negative, as Rod Matlass recalls below:
“I lived at 25 Appleyard Crescent from about 1947 to mid 70s. Amongst my playmates were Kenny Prentice (my age now 76) and John Snape, who was a bit younger. They were Fungi’s Grandsons and lived with him and Johns Mother, Fungi’s Daughter, further along the Crescent, Just before Eustace Road, where the entrance to Fungi’s farm was. John shared a desk with me for the first two years at Norman Senior School, before then they attended the Langley School. With my brother Roy, we had great times playing all over the Galley Hills, on the farm, and in the pit. We were also allowed to have a camp fire near the pig sties. The famous white Horse was called Prince and he often returned to the farm pulling the cart without Fungi on board, Suddenly around 1958, the boys and Johns mother, moved to Australia. After then they started to build on the farm and Galley Hills.”
“There are still many people about who would remember him, it is almost impossible to discuss growing up in Mile Cross without a mention of him, my uncle who was ten plus years my senior, referred to him as “Cowboy Fungi” so he was well known by the 1940s. I know he was born in the 1800s so was probably too old for service in WW2 and was of better use growing crops. He was still growing strip row crops in the 50s and sold produce from the cart all over the estate and also market stallholders and shops. The horse, (Prince), often bolted but would always go back to the farm on its own pulling the cart even from Woodcock road. The cart had iron wheel rims so made more noise than a car. The SE corner of the farm was by the cycle speedway track and through to The Passageway from Mitre Court. If you went through the court, Fungi’s house was directly opposite on Appleyard Crescent.“
I asked if Rod could remember more about Arthur Prentice’s personality as I didn’t just want to write about him in a negative light, after all I never met him and I think it would be rude of me to just talk ill of him, thankfully Rod shed a bit more of a personal human light on Arthur Prentice:
“I can only tell you about his personality from a child’s point of view. Most children feared him, because of his constant battle keeping kids off his land and from teasing Prince, who was grazed in the field by the path from the cycle track to Mitre Court. He tolerated those that swung out over the pit from the Oak tree, but that did not affect his livelihood, and I suppose when he shouted at those who ventured down into the pit it was for their own safety. Though we called it ‘Fungi’s pit’ it did not form any useful part of the farm so was possibly not his real concern. Fungi cut a Steptoe-like figure in a great coat and trilby and sitting up there on the iron-rimmed cart ,shouting at the horse and I suspect that this is how many people would remember him. He was not a particularly big man but he just seemed so to to us kids. When I was 14 I was the same height as him. He sold his produce from the cart, never from his farm as he did not encourage any one over there. Many of the housewives would not deal with him as to many he was rude and unkempt and his prices were the same as the shops, but he did grow some fabulous traditional vegetables. My personal view is maybe different to most, as I was a friend of the boys and was allowed to play with them on the farm, a real privilege. I never went there without John or Kenny. Mr Prentice showed us how to light a fire and provided firewood, it may be it was stuff that he just needed disposing of. A spin off from that was baked spuds and eggs on tap. I once overheard a conversation between Fungi and a similar aged man, about the Boer war but don’t remember if either had actually served in it, but I was fascinated none the less. Some time after the boys went to Australia I acquired my first my first sheath knife, up to then we all had folding, or shut knives. I remembered that there was a large grind stone on the farm used for sharpening sickles and other tools and one day I felt brave enough to go and ask if I could sharpen the new, but very blunt knife on his grindstone. Fungi was only too pleased to give me a lesson on using the grindstone, even turning the handle for me. “Never never without water” he said and then went on to hone my new pride and joy on an oil stone. The knife had cost me 7/6d With my next half crown I bought a Norton dual stone and still have it to this day. That is about my last memory of Fungi, (Mr Prentice to me) a local legend, however you may remember him. As for the famous horse Prince, I am fairly sure he was gone by the time I left school in December 1959 and I just remember a three-wheeled van, driven by an unknown person and the farm sheds fading away as I developed my teenage interests.“
After reading this fascinating insight I asked Rod about the types of buildings, if any that could be found on Fungi’s Farm, as unfortunately the aerial photographs don’t show that side of the land and the maps only show us a few minor-looking rectangles close to the pit. The buildings were remembered as follows, but it also reveals a little more about how Arthur Prentice was remembered by other local people who were not lucky enough to have been allowed onto his farm/smallholding:
“Hi Stu, Since this morning I have spoken to several of my old pals, none of whom remember him in a favourable light, it seems I was just fortunate to know the boys. The farm (smallholding) was just a collection of tin-covered sheds and a small collection of pig sties and chicken coups, and from the stuff you sent to me we know he lived 1911 Rupert Street, 1920s Waddington Street, and 64 Appleyard Crescent by 1932. There was so no Farm house. I often used the path from the Galley Hill pub to the Pit, the first section on my left sloping down to the corn field was covered in heathland plants like Broom and gorse and blackberry great for a game of commando’s, then there was a sand pit and along to another old marl pit in the field by the cycle track, and then along to the pit along to Fungi’ pit.”
In fact it was due to Rod contacting me via this blog that I was inspired to revisit Fungi’s Pit and write a bit more about the man himself, Mr Prentice or Arthur. Rod had responded to my original call for more details about this seemingly mystical chap and given me Fungi’s real name and address. As I’d only previously written a short piece about his Pit, I’d missed out about 99% of the actual story, so it’s with great pleasure that I can share his detailed memories about this infamous Mile Cross Man with you, and I can’t thank Rod enough for helping to bring it all to light. I also need to thank Les Fisher for enthusiastically trawling the newspaper archives to find out the details about Arthur Prentice getting himself into trouble as mentioned earlier.
Other people have shared their memories of Arthur Prentice too and it seems that his white horse, Prince was almost as infamous as the man himself:
“I can remember Fungi with a white horse and cart. One day on Aylsham Road near Bird’s bakery, the horse took to running wild. He was finally able to get it under control. Scared the life out of me. I was under age 12 I’m sure.“
“Old Fungi and his pit eh, one of my old childhood playgrounds back in the late 40’s early 50’s. Still have painful memories of falling out of an elderberry tree which bordered the pit and landing in a nettle bed. Shameful I know but we used to nick his rhubarb sticks and eat them at the back of the Boundary Road greyhound stadium car park-another favourite playground-which was the other side of Boundary Road opposite Fungi’s pit.“
“Ah, old “Fungi” Prentice. I may be entirely wrong but I’ve got a gut feeling that he lived on Philadelphia Lane (now Penn Grove). He could often be seen travelling along Aylsham Road heading north to his pit/premises on Boundary Road.
I actually worked part-time for him down the pit on my hands and knees with sack cloth around my knees weeding rows of carrots for a pitiful financial reward. I would have been about 12 or 13. He was a hard task master.“
Arthur died on the 18th June 1966 aged 88 and it seems that he took with him those last direct connections that Mile Cross once had with the countryside on its doorstep. His fields were quickly paved over and out of those once-fertile fields grew tower blocks, smaller blocks of flats, rows of asbestos-roofed garages and those flat-roofed homes that now run along Boundary Road, hemmed into place by newer homes that were shoe-horned into the gaps. The pigs, goats and horses were replaced by vans and Audi’s fighting for space along the increasingly congested Bowers Avenue and the once-quiet road once known as Sandy Lane was transformed into one of the busiest roads in the northern fringes of the city we now know as Boundary Road. I doubt old “farmer Fungi”, Arthur Prentice; or his horse, Prince would have cared much for all that extra traffic running close by or straight through his private corner of the Mile Cross estate. Nor would he have cared about the fact that his pit was emptied out and given over to those local kids who had been pestering his way of life from the very start. On the other hand there is a part of me suspects that he’d actually be quite relieved that it was no longer his job to police those local kids and make sure none of them drowned in that stinking pit whilst he tried to eek out a living from the countryside on his doorstep. I for one would give anything to have been able to have a pint with Arthur Prentice in the Whiffler pub and find out what this local legend was really like. In reality, I suspect I would have probably got right on his tits… and vice versa.
As for the future of what used to be Fungi’s Pit? I’ve recently been informed that some funds have been secured by Norwich City Council to give the play park a much-needed and complete makeover and if there is anybody reading this from Norwich City Council, I think that during the makeover this park needs to be renamed to reflect upon its history.
How about renaming it something along the lines of “Fungi’s park”, or even better, “Prentice Park”? Personally, I think this would be a rather fitting conclusion to a fascinating chapter of the history of this particular part of the estate with the possibility of bringing with it some much-needed positivity to an area of Mile Cross that only ever seems to generate negative press these days.
Thanks to Rod Matless for inspiring me revisit and reconsider this important and fascinating part of the estate’s history and thanks once again to you lot for taking the time to read it all.