diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 06, 2010

the cliffs between Cromer and OverstrandWhen 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'.
'In aimless fashion I strolled ... wild flowers in profusion around me, poppies predominating everywhere, the hedgerows full of blackberry blossom and fringed with meadowsweet; the bees busy at their work, the air filled with insect life, the song-birds startled from the standing corn as I pursued my solitary way.... There was no sound but the regular click of the reaping machine under which, the golden grain was falling.'
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.
"On the grass of the cliff, at the edge of the steep,
God planted a garden - a garden of sleep!
'Neath the blue of sky, in the green of the corn,
It is there that the regal red poppies are born!
Brief days of desire, and long dreams of delight,
They are mine when Poppy-Land cometh in sight."
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.
"...standing over Hugo, and plucking at his throat, there stood a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon. And even as they looked the thing tore the throat out of Hugo Baskerville, on which, as it turned its blazing eyes and dripping jaws upon them, the three shrieked with fear and rode for dear life, still screaming, across the moor. One, it is said, died that very night of what he had seen, and the other twain were but broken men for the rest of their days."
commemorativeScott 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.

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