Shoreline stories

All along the coast are fascinating tales of all sorts of folk – and the evidence of their lives is still there to see, says Peter Tolhurst

From the very first humans to avant-garde artists; from the patron saint of social housing to a spy and a notorious fascist, all sorts of characters have retreated to the coast and made it their home, inspiration, or refuge.

Norfolk Parish Treasures celebrates creative endeavour and local identity, and the local features, from post boxes and pub signs to ancient oaks and patches of wayside flowers, that are such important parts of our collective experience. Here are a few of the interesting characters of the coast – and their lasting imprints.

Lost innocence and Lords of the Foreshore

HUNSTANTON: L P Hartley’s claim to be Norfolk’s greatest novelist rests on two enduring works of literature.  The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944), the first volume of his Eustace and Hilda trilogy, is set in Edwardian Anchorstone (Hunstanton) where the two children play in the rock pools beneath the town’s dramatic striped cliffs and where the hall is home to the hereditary Stavelys (Le Strange) family, Lords of the Foreshore.  Bradenham Hall in mid Norfolk is the setting for his most famous novel, The Go-Between (1954), a delicate study of a young boy’s lost innocence.  Much of Joseph Losey’s 1970 film version was shot on location in north Norfolk at Melton Constable Hall and Heydon.

Facist farmer and circus-joining vicar

STIFFKEY: Famous for its cockles – Stewkey Blues – and a turbulent priest. Old Hall Farm was home to the writer Henry Williamson who moved here from Devon in 1937.  The Story of a Norfolk Farm (1941), his struggle to turn round a run-down holding during the war, is a reminder of his gift as a nature writer, but his Fascist sympathies aroused suspicion.  Oswald Mosley’s lightning strike is still visible, daubed on a cottage in the High Street.  Between the wars Stiffkey’s notorious vicar, Rev’d Harold Davison, was exposed by the News of the World and defrocked for ‘befriending fallen women’ in London.  He later joined a circus and was mauled to death by a lion but locals recognised his humanity.

The patron saint of local housing

BLAKENEY: The charming mix of cobblestone cottages that line the High Street or are tucked away up backyards include a number picked out in the distinctive navy blue and white livery of the Blakeney Neighbourhood Housing Society.  The parish church may be dedicated to St Nicholas, patron saint of fishermen but Nora Clogstoun, who saved the first group of their condemned cottages in 1946, is the patron saint of Social Housing.  As the Society’s founding spirit she foresaw the effect of wealthy newcomers on the housing market.  Today the Society’s 40 or more cottages in Blakeney and the surrounding villages provide rented accommodation for local people.

The rich, the famous… and a spy

OVERSTRAND: Prompted by the success of Clement Scott’s ‘Poppyland’ articles in the Telegraph the rich and famous rushed to colonise this stretch of the coast in preference to Cromer.  Overstrand is unique for no less than three buildings by the eminent Arts and Crafts Architect Edwin Lutyens; The Pleasaunce for Lady Battersea where his ‘more capricious inventions’ are reserved for the clock tower and cloistered walkway; a striking new Methodist Chapel and Overstrand Hall, an accomplished courtyard house for Lord Hillingdon.  The hotel Sea-Marge (by Blomefield) is a more conventional half-timbered affair for the German financier Sir Otto Speyer, later deported as a spy.  It was here in 1914 that Winston Churchill learnt that Britain was at war with Germany.

The first humans and some remarkable artists

HAPPISBURGH: The remarkable discovery of footprints from at least 800,000BC in a layer of mudstone at the base of the cliffs in 2013 is the earliest known legacy of human activity in Britain. The find put Happisburgh on the archaeological map but in more recent times the village has played host to an impressive number of writers and artists. In 1798 the poet William Cowper dined at Hill House, still the village pub, while on a walk from Mundesley, and Conan Doyle set The Dancing Man here while on holiday in the pub in 1903. In the summer of 1930 a group of young artists including Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore discovered the sculptural possibilities of large ironstone pebbles and contorted flints found on the beach which helped shape the direction of figurative art in Britain.

Battling the sea and singing the fishing

WINTERTON: A fishing village which, according to the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, who stayed here in 1931, was ‘a closed community, violent and feuding, where everyone was related, and known by a nickname, like characters in the Icelandic sagas’.  The Fisherman’s Corner in the church, a shrine to those lost at sea was created by the Rev’d Porter in 1927 who was himself drowned while rescuing a choir boy on the beach. Nearby are lists of all those rescued by Winterton lifeboats between 1859 and 1923. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Winterton’s past is the voice of Sam Larner, recorded by Ewan MaColl and Peggy Seeger in 1960 as part of the English folk song revival. Their radio ballad ‘Singing the Fishing’ is based on his life story and a blue plaque now adorns the cottage in Bulmer Lane where he lived all his life.

Peter Tolhurst is author of the Norfolk Parish Treasures series

Taken from NORFOLK PARISH TREASURES by Peter Tolhurst is published by Black Dog Books. ‘Mid Norfolk and The Broads’ softback £20; ‘North and West Norfolk’ softback £20, hardback £25. Available from local bookshops or direct from www.blackdogbokks.co.uk