When the Daily Telegraph sent a journalist to Cromer in 1883, the newspaperman ended up forever changing the place he came to write about. The man was Clement Scott, and he'd been sent by his newspaper to explore the town at the end of a new railway line. Rather than seek accommodation in busy Cromer he turned east to head up onto the cliffs, and kept walking. He passed the small fishing village of Overstrand and continued to Sidestrand, where he holed up for the night in the mill cottage. The farmer's daughter who made him welcome proved as beguiling as the surrounding countryside, and Clement sent back to his paper in London a love letter to 'Poppyland'.
As Clement explored further, he found more rural charms to report back on. A windmill to climb, a chain of clifftop villages, and a church tower by the coast. He was particularly intrigued by St Michael's church in Sidestrand, which had been rebuilt inland a few years previously when the sea eroded too close. Only the tower and a graveyard had been left behind, and these inspired a poem entitled 'The Garden of Sleep' which became one of the popular favourites of the day.
Scott's writings inspired many Londoners to come visiting, and soon 'Poppyland' was attracting more than its fair share of wealthy incomers. Many stayed at the mill to enjoy the hospitality of young Louie Jermy, while some even chose to build holiday cottages or second homes in the area. Famous summer visitors included a young Winston Churchill, who brought his family here regularly until the outbreak of World War I took him away. Arthur Conan Doyle came for a golfing holiday on the links in 1901, and it was here that locals told him the tale of Black Shuck - a ghostly black hound with terrifying blazing eyes who haunted the clifftops. This legend emerged the following year as 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' - the action shifted to Dartmoor, but the inspiration supposedly North Norfolk.
Scott died in 1904, while Poppyland's reputation was at its height. But his once-rural idyll had already been tarnished by commercialisation, and further coastal erosion soon took a greater toll. Sidestrand's lone church tower tumbled into the waves during a fierce storm in 1916, and at least one of the area's goldrush hotels followed over the edge in the 1950s. By then the Poppyland legend was long faded, with the only physical reminder a commemorative stone drinking fountain on the road between Cromer and Overstrand.
Today's visitors come to the North Norfolk coast for very different reasons. Buckets and spades are still de rigeur on the sandy beaches below the crumbling clay cliffs. Cromer's Victorian pier attracts youngsters for crabbing and pensioners for an end-of-the-pier show. Landlubbers drive out to Overstrand to eat their sandwiches in the clifftop car park. The county's would-be mountaineers have to make do with the broken ridge running parallel to the shoreline (hell, even Hampstead Heath is higher than that). Conan Doyle's golf links are still there, providing a dramatic arena for folk in tartan shorts to thwack balls into the bracken. Meanwhile those staying overnight are more likely to pitch up in the caravan park above the old railway, where dinner is a few Calor-grilled sausages and beans rather than home-made pie baked by the miller's daughter. A century after Scott's secret Arcadia last blossomed, alas, even the poppies have disappeared.