Poppyland

Or ‘Clement Scott slept in my bathroom’.

Elyot: I met her on a house party in Norfolk.
Amanda: Very flat, Norfolk.
Elyot: There’s no need to be unpleasant.

Noel Coward, Private Lives

It isn’t flat. Not really. You can’t call it hilly but it’s not exactly flat. The cliffs at Overstrand reach up to 80m. Further west, there are examples of Drumlins: mounds of glacial debris left by a retreating ice sheet, which give a nice ‘bumpy’ feel to the landscape. Much of the coast is low-lying and in some places, there is no firm dividing line between land and sea and wide stretches of salt marsh stretch up to sea walls, where the mighty North Sea is held back, allowing some of the land to be farmed and creating a unique habitat for wildlife. Birdlife, in particular, thrives here and enthusiasts will travel from throughout the country to stare out across the marshes in hope of finding something rare or exotic. As a child, I remember walking for miles across these marshes to the wind battered shore and across heathland, where I was told to be wary of snakes. I was also told of Black Shuck, the enormous black dog who wanders the coast road looking for his lost master. It means certain death for anyone who catches the dog’s eye. The dog is said to reside under Beeston Hump, a hill on the coast near Sheringham. Arthur Conan Doyle also used to holiday in the area and it seems he may have been influenced by this story to write his own tale of a huge, horrific black dog.

One story that definitely was inspired by the Norfolk coast is The Adventure of the Dancing Men, the tale of a secret organisation that communicates using a code composed of stick figures. Conan Doyle came up with the idea whilst staying at the Hill House Hotel in Happisburgh, and this was the first stop on my recent journey along the Norfolk coast. The village of Happisburgh was once home to Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, and writer of the Raffles stories, EW Hornung. When Doyle came to visit in 1903, he stayed at Hill House. It seems that the landlord’s son had invented his own code, in which pictures of little dancing figures stood in for letters. Doyle was fascinated, of course, and created a story in which the great detective has to decipher just such a code.

The Sherlock Holmes Corner, Hill House, Happisburgh

The Hill House is now a delightfully cosy little pub, packed to the gills with interesting objects and artworks. As well as a large bookcase by the front door, there are artefacts from ships that have foundered on the coast, paintings of the area and a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ corner, celebrating the World’s greatest consulting detective’s close links to the building. Sitting at the bar was a gentleman sporting a magnificent white beard, who, on hearing me enquire about Conan Doyle, struck up a conversation. He was one of those wonderful people you sometimes find in pubs who are knowledgeable about all things. David was knowledgeable about the history of the pub, the village and the surrounding area. We chatted for a while over a pint or two of their excellent ale and then I joined Mrs. P by the fireside.

When Doyle stayed at the Hill House in 1903, North Norfolk was thriving. The holiday locale of choice for the London middle classes. Its story as a genteel holiday destination begins in the 19th Century, when businessmen in Norwich had made enough money to afford apartments and cottages in seaside towns like Cromer. The sea at Cromer well known for its rejuvenating properties and was popular among the well to-do: both Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen both used it to denote an elegant, if bracing, seaside town. It increased in popularity when Clement Scott, the Daly Telegraph theatre critic, travelled to Overstrand in 1883 and wrote a series of articles describing it, dubbing the area ‘Poppyland’. Scott stayed at Mill House in Overstrand, a house that later the same year accommodated Algernon Swinburne on his journey to Norfolk. By 1883, Swinburne was suffering the effects of lifelong alcoholism and was regularly taken to the coast for his health. This particular trip must have made an impression on him as it inspired a book of poetry ‘A Midsummer Holiday‘, published in 1884.

Mill House: an achingly beautiful cottage, in which to B&B

Mill House is a charming little B&B. A picturebook cottage of red brick, rather than the local flint, it is set back from the road and nestles in its own beautiful garden, slightly bare on this early spring evening but spots of colour were visible among the shrubs that were bursting into flower. Mrs. P and I were booked to spend the night here and we found it after a small amount of searching (good luck with a phone signal out on the coast!) and were greeted at the door by Denise, our friendly and welcoming host. She showed us up steep, narrow stairs to our rooms, telling us in which ones the famous guests had stayed (our bathroom had been installed in part of Scott’s room).

That evening, attracted by the prospect of fish and chips on the seafront at Cromer, we drove into town, stopping on the way to look at the Clement Scott memorial on the roadside. Once in Cromer, it became apparent that Mrs. P has a bit of a gambling problem. Attracted by the flashing lights, she was drawn, zombie-like into the amusement arcade. I left her there, feeding coin after coin into the penny shove as I went out to explore the town. I walked past the Hotel de Paris, a reminder of Cromer’s affluent past, now giving the town a feel of slight neglect. It is was here that Oscar Wilde stayed in 1892, having come to Norfolk for the good of his health. He later retreated to a cottage inland to write A Woman of No Importance. Stephen Fry also has close links with the hotel, as he worked his Sixth Form summers here as a waiter. He writes about the experience in Moab is my Washpot. Incidentally, I was listening to Mr Fry read Conan Doyle’s Adventure of the Dancing Men, during my trip. He has, as one might expect, the most superb Norfolk accent. It is gentle and lyrical and was the soundtrack to my week.

I walked down the cliff to the esplanade and discovered, by the pier, a memorial to local lifeboat crews. It lists some of the wrecks they have attended over the years, each name pointing to a distant location far out to sea. The sun was setting now and, good God, it was cold! A freezing, biting wind blowing straight of the North Sea, which, as my father often pointed out, met no landfall between here and the pole. It brought home to me just how terrifyingly, miserably, painfully cold it must be and how grateful I am that people will volunteer to go out in these pitiful conditions to rescue those that get into difficulty. The sea around here is known for wrecks and Defoe spent some travelling this coast before he wrote Robinson Crusoe (he said of Cromer that there was nothing of note except the lobsters).

Le magnifique Hôtel de Paris,
perché au sommet d’une falaise, témoigne de l’élégance passée de la ville

Elsewhere on the esplanade, on stones set into the walkway, are quotations from literary figures who have visited Cromer over the years. Oscar Wilde is here, and Swinburne, Elizabeth Gaskell and even a young Winston Churchill. Jane Austen also visited Cromer in its heyday but I couldn’t find a quotation from her (she mentions the town in ‘Emma’). This was once a fashionable and sophisticated resort, as the Hotel de Paris testifies. It has become a little run down and grubby in recent years: amusement arcades and caffs and charity shops but there are a few trendy bars and restaurants opening up, so it looks like the place is on the up. So was I. I climbed back up the, ridiculously steep, cliff steps to find Mrs. P. wide-eyed and vacant, staring into the flashing lights of the penny shove. She had no coins left (having frittered away close to £2!) but was clutching a coin purse in the shape of a Japanese cartoon kitten and was smiling with victory as she held her prize aloft. It was now dark and later than we had planned to eat. We went in search of a chippy and found one just before it closed. We carried warm paper packages back to the car and ate there, huddled together, looking at the lights far out to sea.

The next morning, We had a fine breakfast at the Mill House: sausages, bacon, eggs, proper tea from a proper pot and toast and marmalade. Lovely. We bade farewell to Denise and Philly the Labradoodle, and set out to Holt, a lovely little market town about mile inland and home to a range of craft shops and delicatessens, which are the natural habitat of the Mrs. P, and to which she is inexorably drawn. She dropped me Just outside the town at Gresham’s Public school, as I wanted to see the theatre they have there. I tend not to write much about schools but this one is rather a special case, in that it has educated an astounding number of famous people and two legendary literary figures.

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York in 1907. The son of a doctor, he enjoyed a reasonably privileged upbringing. He went to Gresham’s at the age of thirteen. He would, of course, go on to be one of the defining poets of the twentieth century, writing a huge range of verse in a variety of styles. He relates personal to political experience, in a way that is sometimes funny, sometimes unfathomable and sometimes heartbreakingly sad. One of his poems (Funeral Blues, or ‘Stop all the clocks…’) is one of the most recited at funerals. Whilst at Gresham’s he met Stephen Spender, who was to become a lifelong friend and collaborator. Spender was a local lad: he had grown up in Sheringham, a few miles along the coast. Spender was a shy and withdrawn child, who liked music and long country walks. Unlike Auden, who thrived at Gresham’s, Spender was unsuited for life at school and it made him utterly miserable. Auden and Spender, along with the writers they associated with, Isherwood, Cecil Day Lewis and Louis MacNeice, are characterised by a strong anti-fascist sentiment. Growing up with the rise of fascism in Europe politicised them. Spender, being half Jewish and influenced by Brecht’s socialist poetry, wrote poetry that expressed his own socialistic opinions. Auden joined the international brigade and fought against fascism in Spain.

The Auden memorial, Gresham’s School

The school has honoured WH Auden by dedicating a theatre to his memory. This is not just for the students, but is also available to the local community and is used for the literary festival, held in Holt every summer. The staff at Gresham’s were very welcoming and amiable, as I arrived without an appointment and asked if I could take some photographs. It was the school holidays, so there was little activity on the site but the staff that were left behind were doing their best to catch up on all the little jobs that need doing during the holidays. I was extremely grateful that Mr. Gabriel, the caretaker took half an hour out of his busy day to show me around. There is a memorial to Auden on the lawn outside the theatre, and another to Benjamin Britten. Another ex student after whom the concert hall is named. Mr. Gabriel told me a great deal about the theatre, the school and all the famous alumni: Benjamin Britten, Stephen Frears, Olivia Coleman. “There’s always one they leave off” he told me “Jeremy Bamber, remember him?” Indeed I did, he was a Norfolk lad who had taken a shotgun to various members of his family. I had no idea he was at Gresham’s! In fact, their list of alumni is so impressive that “I had no idea he was at Gresham’s!” was a phrase I uttered frequently that day.

Having looked around the theatre and thanked the school staff for their hospitality, I walked the mile or so into Holt where I met Mrs. P in the Adnams shop: always a welcome sight in an East Anglian town. It was fast approaching lunchtime now, so we drove back out to the coast road and through a series of tiny, coastal hamlets: Kelling, Salthouse, Cley – where London poet Stevie Smith had spent some of her summers. We wound our way along coastal roads between farmland and seemingly endless marshes, stretching to where the shingle bank keeps the sea at bay. We at last arrived at Blakeney, squeezing down narrow lanes between tightly-packed flint houses, to the tiny harbour on the creek, where excited children dangled bright orange crab lines into the water.

Jack Higgins, author of The Eagle Has Landed, based much of his description of the Norfolk landscape on the local area. The landscape plays an important role in the story, about a plot to kidnap Churchill, who is staying in a remote Norfolk village during the second world war. Higgins describes it as:

a strange alien world, of sea creeks and mudflats and great pale barriers of reeds as higher than a man’s head, inhabited only by the birds, curlew and redshank and brent geese, coming south from Siberia to winter on the mud flats.

Jack Higgins, The Eagle Has Landed
The Blakeney Hotel

He stayed at the large, rambling Blakeney Hotel, when he was writing his novel; we headed there now and had a rather good lunch. Mrs. P opted for the crab sandwich, a local speciality, served on rustic wholemeal bread, whilst I went for a seafood platter, washed down with a pint of the local ale. We went for a walk around Blakeney harbour after that. From here you can walk out to the point: a finger of land that stretches four miles out into the sea. It is home to a lighthouse and a colony of seals, who will play around passing boats for the amusement of onlookers. We weren’t in the mood for such a mammoth walk this afternoon, so headed back to the car and spent the rest of the day meandering along the coast road, stopping briefly at Stiffkey to see the little farmhouse where Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, was inspired by Oswald Moseley to take up farming and ‘do his bit’ for the forthcoming fascist utopia. Thankfully, neither of them succeeded.

As we drove west, we were able to catch glimpses of the sea, beyond marshes, behind dunes and through pine woods. As the road headed further inland, it receded into the distance, until finally being lost for good.

If you are interested in discovering more of the literature of Norfolk and the famous writers associated with the county, I thoroughly recommend visiting the Literary Norfolk website.

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