Seaside Special - Vintage seasides: North Norfolk

1959 was a notable year in Sheringham because British Railways closed almost the entire Norfolk network of the Midland & Great Northern railway system. The move sent shock waves throughout East Anglia and the railway community nationwide. It was merely a prelude to the savagery of Dr Beeching’s axe to be wielded in the early ‘60’s.

Sheringham, a town that had grown as a popular seaside resort on the back of its busy railway hub, became the lonely terminus for a solitary remaining branch line from Norwich. Everything north and west was closed. Even this tenuous transport connection to civilization was under threat. In 1968, the council had to step in with investment save the line from complete closure on the basis that the road infrastructure was so bad.

One could be forgiven for thinking that time has stood still. In many ways, Sheringham remains in 1959. On a visit in 2016, I was charmed to see that, despite those brutal rail closures, the original Sheringham station remains intact, well maintained and resolutely post-war. It is now the home to the Poppy Line preservation railway. Steam and diesel hauled trains are run for visitors and enthusiasts on seven miles of the old network along the coast and then inland to Holt. The red brick platform buildings retain their brightly painted wooden canopies and the signage is of classic mid-century typography and style.

Later, when researching a few facts about Sheringham, I hit upon a promotional film of the area in the East Anglian Film Archive. The movie was also shot in 1959 for Ransomes, the lawnmower company. They are based in Ipswich and had invented the world’s first lawn mower in 1832. The film takes the guise of a travelogue of the East Anglian coastline from Kings Lynn to Harwich in search of its famous lawnmowers. “This is East Anglia, with its long sea coast from which the breezes drift across a smiling countryside drousing under a summer sun…” Absolutely priceless commentary, delivered in plummy tones by a narrator from the right sort of school over a suitably evocative Vaughn Williams-inspired string accompaniment. Wonderful stuff.

At one point the camera swoops over the cliffs of Sheringham where the storyteller informs us that local people welcome visitors and enjoy a bit of fishing. “Especially sought are crabs and lobsters. Famous along these shores from here to Cromer.” There are bucolic shots of promenaders on the seafront and in the gardens. Crab boats are filmed bobbing in the waves offshore. I think I have something in my eye...

There are some unexpectedly humorous moments when the film attempts to weave thinly disguised promotion of the company’s lawnmowers in to the landscape narrative. A few miles along the coast, there is a sequence featuring the pier at Cromer and the nearby narrow streets, sweeping up to Lighthouse Hill with views back towards the town where the Church towers above the scene. The footage then cuts to a cliff top garden and we learn all about Ransomes top-of-the range beast called the ‘Mercury’ mower “which springs to life readily with a recoil starter and is a popular machine with its sixteen-inch cut and lightness and manoeuvrability”. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. The adverts or lawnmowers.

The town centre still evoked that 50’s feel. Whilst there were a few chain outlets and the ubiquitous Costa, many shops remained independent and individual, untroubled by 21st century chi-chi and chic. Frontages were often original late Victorian with deep bay windows set in decorative wooden frames either side of a recessed entrance porch. I passed a restaurant (“no cards accepted”) that had actual net curtains at the windows. And if bric-a-brac is your thing, this was the place, Acorn Antiques would fit right in. Bakeries (definitely not delis) and independent butchers were two-a-penny.

The air of preservation permeated the whole resort. The residents had recently fought a long and bitter battle to prevent Tesco’s setting up shop on the outskirts of the town centre. It finally opened in 2013. This mood has deep roots. Plundering again the Norfolk film archives, the manager of Sheringham’s Burlington Hotel, interviewed at the end of the 1950’s says, “…there will always be people who want a quiet holiday and Sheringham can offer it to them”. The film goes on to denounce new-fangled caravan parks “for which some people nurse an extravagant hatred” as carbuncles that blot out the very view they are seeking to enjoy. I wondered how long it would be before caravan parks wormed their way back into this tour. As it happened, the offending sites to the east of the town look to have outlived the fine old Burlington Hotel. As of winter 2016 it was closed up and the building faced an uncertain future.

Despite the liberal sprinkling of family-run grocers and food shops, none were open after 6pm. So it was with reluctance that I ended up using a branch of the supermarket chain the townfolk had spent so long fighting. We were a party of seven family and friends hoping to find some relaxation in the Christmas/New Year dead zone. However, we had arrived late and without many provisions. Off I went to the Tesco Local. And again a few minutes later for stuff I’d forgotten on the first visit. And then again for stuff that everyone else had forgotten. I kept getting served by the same cashier. We’d gone past the joviality of ‘see you in a few minutes, ha!’ and had actually become Facebook friends.

A quick glance through the visitor book would tell you that our cottage was ‘unique’. It was a long, thin former fish-smoking barn that had been the subject of an eccentric conversion with mezzanine floors at either end for the bedrooms above an open ground floor space comprising kitchen, dining room and lounge.

The walls had been left unfinished in a whole-pebble facing, very much in the vernacular style. Less traditional were the odd bottles, pots and vases cemented into the fabric of the walls as small pieces of architectural mirth.

Space was at a premium with seven of us moving about on the ground floor. Circulation was made even more tricky by the presence against the wall of a restored 1950’s Wurlitzer jukebox. That decade again. It was a beauty and even the teenagers enjoyed the physicality of the 7-inch singles being pulled from the rack and spun around the stylus. For about two minutes anyway.

The coastline either side of Sheringham offered a similar sort of pleasant, wholesome and unadulterated experience. Striking out west, cliffs rose from the outskirts near the aforementioned Burlington Hotel and the path politely followed the boundary of a golf course. Swirling fog blew in off the sea when we walked this stretch one morning and I had to wait until clear skies at dusk to enjoy the rewarding view back over the town from the hill top Coastguard station towards Beeston Hill on the far side of Sheringham. The town rested in a bowl between these landmarks. A string of promenade lights glowing gently in the gathering gloom seemed to link the two. Incredible to think that this north facing coast on which I gazed has no landmass between it and the Arctic.

Earlier we had walked in the fog for a couple of miles and turned inland at the point where the path flattened out towards Cley-Next-The Sea and Blakeney.

Years before the Sheringham trip we had stayed on this low, wide, windswept coast of marsh and bog for a wedding. Our mate Bob got married in Cley windmill and we stayed over in a curious b&b decorated with objects that meant to give the impression of shabby-chic antique finds, but were actually just junk: a battered brass bestead, ripped fishing nets, chipped willow pattern vases. I was having a wash in the lopsided Victorian sink under the window and realised I couldn’t turn off the 1920’s style mixer tap. The cross-head handle was jammed open and the metal was expanding with every drop of scalding water. I twisted with gritted-teeth determination, but the grinding of bearings just worried me the whole faucet would come away in a geyser of hot water. And then the sink, precariously bolted to the wall, would fall off and crash through the uneven floorboards. I had a vision of catastrophic doom. It doesn’t take much.

Anyway, Mrs A went downstairs to find our host. She turned off the tap with humiliating ease and mentioned in passing that we shouldn’t use the sink. It was really just for decoration. I made a note not to use the fishing nets or the vases either.

Our girls were not coming to the wedding, but had made the journey to Norfolk because our friends with kids the same age happened to be staying in a cottage over towards Blakeney, just a couple of miles up the road. A perfect opportunity for them to sleep over whilst solving a potential babysitting dilemma for us. Both Cley (I quickly learned to pronounce it ‘kly’ to avoid any further humiliation at the hands of the locals) and Blakeney were attractive, old fashioned seaside villages of flint facings and red pantiles, packing serious ice-cream parlours, tea rooms and gift shops. They were both one-step removed from the actual sea by a wide expanse of salt marsh and sea lavender, punctuated by briny channels and backed by a network of dykes and drains.  

The children's author, Kevin Crossley-Holland lived hereabouts and describes the landscape as being seventh-eighths sky – a landscape of horizontals in which verticals, including human beings, often look arresting.

Blakeney was once a commercial port until the estuary began to silt up leaving behind this environment of sand hills and mud banks. The day after the wedding reception, we set out to explore the paths that followed a network of creeks and channels twisting and turning their way between sea and land. I was grateful for a stiff breeze which helped to clear the head after too many real ales the previous evening. Though a few more knots would have been required to blow away the memory of some unfortunate Dad-dancing episodes.

Snapping back to the Sheringham trip, our walk cut back through a gentle, expansive estate created by Humphrey Repton. We strolled along paths that bordered lawns in front of the country house to which the rolling acres belonged: Sheringham Park, after the town. Two of the teenagers in our party had joined us on the walk. Quite a turn up. They liked Sheringham. To a point. Derision was spurted when the inevitable question, ‘Could you live here?’ surfaced. “Everyone’s old!” they chorused. Indeed, the local populace was very much of the blue rinse genre, clinging on to their memory of little England and thinking that a Brexit vote would bring it back.

More than 40% of the 7,700 souls residing in this pretty town are aged over 60, compared to 23% for England as a whole. The median age of residents there is 51. The national figure is a positively juvenile 39. The age profile of the rest of North Norfolk is not that dissimilar and given the analysis behind the EU referendum, it comes as no surprise to learn that almost 60% of north Norfolk folk voted for Brexit. Odd that these voters would want to turn back time, given that Sheringham has barely ever left the 50’s.

The next day broke clear and sharp. We explored the coastline west of the town as far as Cromer. The tide was out – literally miles out – and we walked across the beach beyond the groynes in a straight line towards Cromer pier, beacon-like on the horizon where the ice blue sky met the shimmering wet sand and shingle.

Offshore wind farms seemed to hover over the water in the haze. There were noises of dissent about these developments from local conservationists (and they have a rich history – Blakeney Point just around the corner became the country’s first costal nature reserve in 1912) who are concerned that the horizon is becoming industrialised. Indeed they are colonising off-shore waters at an incredible rate. I find them fascinating and not unattractive.

Cromer immediately felt more lively and cosmopolitan. Knots of people on the pier, queues outside the myriad crab shops, actual young people in the amusement arcades. Heck, even a bloke out with his Ransomes mower on the cliff lawns. OK, that last bit is a lie.  

South of Cromer, the cliffs rise and fall and the coastline reverts to quiet, windswept and expansive mode. Overstrand and Mundesley are both sleepy enclaves straggling along bays and hills. Fleetingly, I could imagine myself a few years’ hence, sitting on the terrace at the front of one of the many bungalows lining those quiet lanes, nursing a cold beer and watching the tide roll away. I say fleetingly. Because I would be alone. Mrs A would have left me high and dry having refused to live in anything resembling a bungalow, or indeed anywhere that dormitory.  

Fortified by burgers and beer in a swish joint overlooking Cromer Pier, we walked back to Sheringham inland to avoid the incoming tide. This involved weaving through and around a series of cliff top caravan parks. I thought I heard the distant forewarnings of a certain hotel manager from an earlier age floating on the breeze...

Almost back home, there was a final thigh-stinging climb up the surprisingly steep Beeston Hill. We were rewarded with a fine view of the sun slipping behind the hills where they met the sea on the far side of the town; and where we had stood almost exactly 24 hours earlier. The crest of Beeston Hill is the site of a former WWII secret listening station. Known as a Y stations, they formed a chain of posts that intercepted Axis Power transmissions and beamed them back to Bletchley Park, or Station X, for decoding. 

This is just one of the many little wrinkles and curiosities that make the North Norfolk coast so fascinating. We added another when we left. The place appeared to be the epicentre of a very local microclimatic aberration. Sheringham was again bathed in crisp winter sunshine. Just as it had been the day before. As soon as we drove over the cliffs and inland, we entered the cloying fog that had clothed the rest of Eastern England for the duration of our stay. It was somehow evocative of those hackneyed tv movies where a car would turn off a busy road onto a tiny country lane and enter a thick mist. When they emerge from the shroud into a settlement at the other side, they would find themselves in an ancient place where time has stood still. We had just done the opposite.  

Next stop on the tour is a lockdown-emergent visit to south Norfolk


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