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By the wild North Sea (Yarmouth to Caister Castle, Cromer, Cley, Wells, and Hunstanton) page 3


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Blakeney, which, in spite of its decaying trade, still looks upon itself as a port, has a stagnant aspect like Cley. The scenery, however, is not without its attractiveness to those who can appreciate lonely marshland and deserted shore. Inland of Blakeney, by way of Morston, is Langham Bishops, where lived Captain Marryat, who here wrote "for the classes and not the masses," and amused himself with the working of a wild-fowl decoy, while in the neighbouring hamlet of Cockthorpe Sir Cloudesley Shovel was born. The little market town of Holt, which is only a few minutes' railway journey from Sheringham, stands on rising ground a few miles from the coast, but is scarcely worth a visit except for the sylvan scenery which surrounds it. It overlooks the valley of the Glaven, one of those little streams which Mr Walter Rye assures us are "distinctly perceptible to the naked eye."

Wells, although it boasts of a harbour and small export and import trade, scarcely suggests a seaport, as a mile-wide stretch of salt marsh lies between it and the sea. To me it always seems a dull, not to say dismal, little town, containing little or nothing to reward the tourist. It must be admitted, however, that it is a convenient starting-point of one or two interesting excursions, notably that to Walsingham, a small town about five miles away, once famous for its shrine of " Our Lady of Walsingham." This place first came into repute in consequence of a widow named Rychold de Favranches being moved by a vision to erect here a chapel of similar design to the Sancta Caaa at Nazareth. This she did towards the end of the eleventh century. Subsequent to her death, her son Geoffrey de Favranches started on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; but before leaving his home he "granted to God, St Mary, and to Edwy, his clerk, the chapel which his mother Rychold had built at Walsingham, together with other possessions, to the intent that the said Edwy should found a priory there." Thus was founded the famous priory for Augustine canons which became the resort of innumerable pilgrims, who were believed to be guided here by the Milky Way, then known in Norfolk as the "Walsingham Way." Henry III., Edward I., Edward II., Bruce of Scotland, and Henry VIII., are recorded to have visited the priory; but reverence does not appear to have been the sole incitement to the pilgrimage of the last King Henry, who carried away with him a considerable quantity of votive gifts, in the form of gold and jewels. Far more creditable were the motives which brought here Margaret Paston, who, when her husband was lying ill in the Inner Temple, wrote to him, " Ryth worchipful hosbon, I recomande me to yow, desyryng hertely to her yowr a mendyng of the grete dysese that ye have hade; and I thanke yow for the letter that ye sent me, for be my trowthe my moder and I wer nowth in hertys es fro the tyme that we woste of yowr sekenesse tyl we woste verely of your a mendyng. My moder be hestyd a nodyr ymmage of wax of the weytte of yow to oyer Lady of Walsyngham, and sche sent iiij nobelys to the iiij Orderys of Frerys at Norweche to pray for yow, and I have be hestyd to gon on pylgreymmays to Walsingham, and to Sent Levenardys for yow; by my trowthe I had never so hevy a sesyn as I had from the tyme I woste of your sekenesse tyl I woste of your a mendying." (Extract from a letter written by Margaret Paston on September 28th, 1443, and included in the " Paston Letters.")

Erasmus came here in 15 11; but was more impressed with the beauty of the shrine than the conduct of the pilgrims. He found that, besides the image of" Our Lady," the priory contained a vial of the Virgin's milk, and one of St Peter's finger bones! The latter seems to have astonished him by its size, for he inquired whether St Peter was a giant! The ruins, which are in the grounds of Walsingham Abbey, consist of the western gateway of the priory, a part of the east end of the church, a Norman arch leading to a stone bath, some lancet arches, and the west window of what may have been the refectory. In the hamlet of East Barsham, which adjoins Walsingham, is the fine Tudor Hall built by Sir William Fermor, and afterwards occupied by the Calthorpes. From this hall Henry VIII. is said to have walked barefoot to Walsingham. The wayside chapel of Houghton, known as the Old Shoe House through a tradition that pilgrims here cast off their shoes, is within a mile of the priory.

When you are at Walsingham you are only about three miles from the ruins of another once famous monastic house - Binham Priory, which stands in the valley of the small river which flows by Walsingham, and enters the sea at Stiffkey. This priory was founded in 1104 by Peter de Valoines, and was at one time subject to the abbey of St Peter at Clugni. In the reign of King John it was besieged by Robert, Lord Fitzwalter, who claimed the patronage, and wished to reinstate a prior who had been deposed by the prior of St Albans, to which abbey this foundation was originally a cell. The king, however, sent a force to its relief, and Lord Fitzwalter was compelled to raise the siege. The village church of St Mary was formerly the conventual church of the priory, and its Norman work is especially interesting. The three eastern bays of the nave are Early Norman, as are the transepts and part of the south wall; but the fine west front is Early English (thirteenth century), and so are the three western bays.

Probably, until you read the name of the place in the foregoing paragraph, you had never heard of Stiffkey. Or you may have heard of it and yet failed to recognise it as Stiffkey, for in the neighbourhood of Wells, and in the village itself, it is always known as " Stewkey." Yet this Stiftkey is one of the most delightfully situated hamlets in Norfolk, lying in a beautiful retired vale through which a charming rivulet winds towards the sea. It is about three and a half miles east of Wells, and the road to it is by no means a promising approach to such a lovely spot; but if you are not disheartened by this you will be amply rewarded for your pains and perseverance. To judge from the remarks of the natives of the surrounding villages, Stiffkey, in spite of its beauty, has not a very good reputation. This is due to the fact that its inhabitants, who are mainly dependent upon cockle-gathering for a livelihood, are a people who, as we say in Norfolk, " keep themselves to themselves." This is at once evident from their appearance, for they are a type distinct from their neighbours, with whom they seldom or never intermarry. Most of them have red hair, and it is plain to the most casual observer that the " keeping of themselves to themselves " which has brought this about has also resulted in physical and mental deterioration. Most of the cockle-gathering is - or was until recently - done by women and girls, who, when they are at work on the shore at low-water, wear short and sometimes bifurcated skirts. Mrs Berlyn, in her " Sunrise- Land," draws a gloomy picture of village life at Stiffkey, which, indeed, is unlike that of any other hamlet in the county. As to the hardships endured by the women, she writes: " When the east wind blows in from the sea it cuts like a flail on the naked legs of the women, stooping hour after hour to pick the slimy, glistening molluscs from the pools, and rheumatism, say the old 'minders,' is the inevitable lot of them all; for however bleak and cold it may be, and whatever may be their constitutions, they will plunge into the water knee-deep again and again, day after day, to rake from the incoming waves an extra peck to swell their sacks. Sometimes it is in the waning light, according to the tides, that the women come down for their spoils, but always in gangs, for the sea is treacherous; and once, they say, it carried away one of their number, who, working alone in the glooming with her back to the waves, learnt only of her danger when it was too late." So it is a somewhat "unlovely life" that is led by the dwellers in this lovely peaceful vale.

There is an old farmhouse at Stiffkey, which goes by the name of "The Hall." It was built by Sir Nicholas Bacon, who was Lord Privy Seal to Queen Elizabeth; but it never attained the dimensions he intended, though it was formerly a castellated mansion with imposing circular towers.

About two miles from Wells is Holkham Hall, the seat of the Earl of Leicester, standing in the midst of a large and beautiful park. The estate came into the possession of the family in the seventeenth century; but the hall, which has been described as one of the ugliest buildings imaginable, was built between the years 1734 and 1760. The great agriculturalist, Thomas William Coke, better known as " Coke of Norfolk," succeeded to the estate in 1776, and was created Earl of Leicester and Viscount Coke in 1837. He found his land sandy and barren: as he was in the habit of saying, " he used to see two rabbits quarrelling for one blade of grass." He was assured that nothing could possibly grow upon it; but discovering under the sand a stratum of marl, he, by having it dug and spread, eventually obtained from his property an annual yield to the value of something like 20,000. At the present time the park is well stocked with deer and cattle, and the woods produce more pheasants and partridges than any others in England. The park is open to the public once a week; but an inspection of the interior of the hall, which at the beginning of the century was granted every Tuesday to all except foreigners and artists, can only be obtained by special permission. In the park is a large artificial lake dug by "Coke of Norfolk," which is visited by large numbers of wild fowl. Anyone standing beside it on a winter's day may well be astonished at what he sees there. More particularly will this be the case after a long spell of severe weather, for then, as a writer has said, the fowl " lie as thick as ducks on a mill pond." Not only mallard, teal, and widgeon then come to the lake, but scoters, golden-eyes, and goosanders. There is a heronry in the park, most of the nests being built in beeches which have attained such a height that they are visible a long way off.

Holkham is also noted for being a favourite haunt of the wild grey geese, concerning which Lord Leicester has written: " As long as I can recollect, wild geese have frequented the Holkham and Burnham marshes. Their time of appearance in this district is generally the last week of October, and their departure the end of March, varying a little according to the season. Till November they rarely alight on the marshes, or elsewhere in the neighbourhood, but are seen passing to and fro from the sea. Where they feed in October I know not; but from early in November till their time of departure for the north, the Holkham marshes have almost daily some hundreds of geese feeding in them." The geese referred to are the " pink-footed " species, Atiser Brachyrhynchus, which breeds in Iceland and Spitzbergen. Mr Bowdler Sharpe, who has had opportunities of observing them Jit Holkham, says he has seen them flying out day after day to the sandbanks beyond the bar of Wells Harbour, uttering their musical " tin-trumpet "like call.

The Holkham estates are practically a wild fowl sanctuary; but beyond their borders the shore-gunner finds plenty of sport as soon as the season sets in. Across the lonesome flats and among the grey sandhills he prowls in search of the birds which have been driven southwards from the frozen North. Night and day he is on the lookout for them. Grey dawn often finds him crouched in a duck-hole scooped out of the wind-heaped sand, waiting for a brace of mallards or a flock of widgeon to come within range of his gun; and the red light of winter sunset often fades ere he returns to his cottage by the shore. He is inured to the inevitable hardships of his calling; he will lie for hours on the bleak sea beach if there is chance of a bag. The chill winds may blow and the keen frosts cover the pools with ice; still he remains at his post, and many and strange are the sounds he hears and the sights he sees. Almost everything is " fair game" which comes to him; even a grey gull or hooded crow is not despised; but it is the sight of the wild geese flighting that gladdens his heart.

Westward of Holkham are the seven Burnhams. Probably, only official land surveyors know where one begins and the other ends; but that need not trouble you, for you will only care to visit Burnham Thorpe, the birthplace of Nelson. Even here you will find little to repay you for your pilgrimage. Of the rectory in which the hero of the Nile and Trafalgar first saw the light, nothing marks the site except an old well; but the church lectern is made of wood from the Victory. Brancaster, which lies beyond the Burnhams, and from which a Roman road' formerly ran all along the coast to Caister, is supposed to be the Roman Branodonum; but most people go to Brancaster nowadays to play golf rather than to seek traces of the entrenchments of the " Count of the Saxon shore." Those who are not fond of salt marshes, even when overgrown with scentless sea lavender, will, however, after exploring Holkham, do well to take train to Hunstanton, where on the summit of the breezy chalk cliffs they may enjoy a wider prospect of sea and shore than they have seen since they left Sheringham. Hunstanton is another of those pleasantly situated coast-line retreats which have begun to compete with Cromer for popularity. There is a wide beach, with plenty of rock pools at low water, when the tide ebbs so far from the white cliffs that even the smart little pier can scarcely wet its iron feet in the sea. On a windy day, when the tamarisk on the cliff-top is blown about like a cloud of grey-green smoke, and you are trying to reach the lighthouse from the town, you may perhaps think the place a little too breezy; but people are not blown over the cliff every day, and a spice of danger gives a zest to pleasure.

The old village of Hunstanton, which is a little more than a mile from the new town, is notable for its church of St Mary and the ancestral home of the L'Estranges. This family has held the lordship of the place ever since the Conquest, and has produced some famous men. The 100 fine entrance gate and a great part of the old moated hall were built by Sir Roger L'Estrange, who died in 1506, and to whose memory there is a fine brass in the village church. Other portions of the building were added by Sir Hamon L'Estrange in the seventeenth century. Thirteen generations are represented in the family portraits contained in this typical old English mansion, which is filled with valuable heirlooms and curiosities gathered together during many centuries. Apparently it has been the praiseworthy aim of its holders to keep it, as nearly as possible, in its original condition; for to-day you may enter its old armoury, hung with rusty suits and coats of mail; visit the old buttery and kitchen in which old-time retainers congregated while their masters feasted in the great hall, and see rooms filled with furniture which is as old as the house itself. Such a place is a part of our English history, as nnght be realised even if it were not for the portrait of the first Pretender which hangs upon the great oak staircase, and the knowledge that the L'Estranges have played a prominent part in many historical events, and formed alliances with many famous families. Probably, in earlier days, they were considered rather dangerous neighbours, for we read that in 1644 Sir Roger L'Estrange planned to capture the neighbouring town of Lynn. He was betrayed by some of his conspiring associates, and condemned to death; but this sentence was commuted to one of imprisonment, and he eventually escaped to the Continent. After the Restoration he again appeared on the scene, this time as a political writer5 in which direction he was far more successful than as a conspirator. He established the Public Intelligencer, a paper superseded by the London Gazette, and was appointed " Licenser of the Press." The church of St Mary owes its good condition to the family whose memorials are its most interesting feature. In the neighbouring village of Heacham there is another old hall, occupied by the Rolfes, a family which claims to have in its veins the blood of the unfortunate Virginian Princess Pocahontas, who married John Rolfe, an adventurous comrade of Sir Walter Raleigh.

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Pictures for By the wild North Sea (Yarmouth to Caister Castle, Cromer, Cley, Wells, and Hunstanton) page 3

Breydon
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A Norfolk House-Boat
A Norfolk House-Boat >>>>
Cromer
Cromer >>>>
Upper Sheringham
Upper Sheringham >>>>
Stiffkey
Stiffkey >>>>
Map
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