Shipdham lies approximately 3 miles south-west of East Dereham, Norfolk. The name derives from the Old English word for sheep – ‘sceap’ – hence ‘homestead with a flock of sheep’. Shipdham is sometimes confused with Shipden – the drowned village off the North Norfolk coast near Cromer. Shipdham was the first US heavy bomber base in Norfolk during World War II and was home to the famous B-24 Liberator bombers.
Hyam Plutzik was born in Brooklyn on July 13, 1911, the son of recent immigrants from what is now Belarus. He spoke only Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian until the age of seven, when he enrolled in grammar school near Southbury, Connecticut, where his parents owned a farm. Plutzik graduated from Trinity College in 1932, where he studied under Professor Odell Shepard. He continued graduate studies at Yale University, becoming one of the first Jewish students there. His poem “The Three” won the Cooke Prize at Yale in 1933.
After working briefly in Brooklyn, where he wrote features for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Plutzik spent a Thoreauvian year in the Connecticut countryside, writing his long poem, “Death at The Purple Rim”, which earned him another Cooke Prize in 1941, the only student to have won the award twice. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army Air Force throughout the Amerian South and in Norwich, England, experiences that inspired many of his poems.
In 1942, Hyam Plutzik enlisted in the U.S. Army, becoming first a drill sergeant then first and second lieutenant. During the war, he married Tanya Roth, who worked for the War Information Bureau in New York City. Numerous moves—twelve different cities and twenty different houses before going overseas—and the lack of private time in army life made it difficult for Plutzik to continue to write poetry. The only poem he was able to complete was “Elegy.” But he did create an outline for and composed the first twenty lines of the long poem, Horatio, that was finally published to much acclaim in 1961.
Before going abroad, he was stationed at many bases throughout the American South, where he witnessed first-hand the institutional racism of segregation and Jim Crow. His experiences in Louisiana and Mississippi inspired him to write a number of poems that expressed his disgust for the way the Negro was being treated, such as “To Abraham Lincoln, That He Walk By Day,” and “The Road.” After his deployment in the South, he was stationed at Shipdham c.1944-5 and became the Ordinance, Information and Education Officer for the 44th Bombardment Group of the USAAF. Even in wartime Britain, Plutzik found time to attend Shakespearean plays and visit literary landmarks. He also collected impressions that later led to the composition of some of his notable “war poems” such as “Bomber Base,” “The Airfield at Shipdham,” and “The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’s England.” Like many servicemen, he wrote letters to his wife, parents, siblings and friends nearly every day, in which he described the experiences of wartime and the lives of ordinary soldiers. He also kept a journal; an entry dated June 5, 1944, the eve of D-Day, describes the uncertainty felt by men who were fighting a war as the English tried to carry on their everyday activities:
“The invasion of France began after all the years of preparation and all the wrongs suffered at the hand of the evil one…How cold it must be in the sky now, and on the coasts of France…On a bomber base in England, with a farmer harrowing an adjacent field behind a plodding horse, I pass the D-day of this war.”
Plutzik continued his tour of duty in England for several months after the cessation of hostilities in the summer of 1945. He helped establish a library in Norwich and regularly gave informal lectures on American life and culture to local residents. Though his superiors encouraged him to re-enlist, Plutzik, like millions of other G.I.’s, was eager to resume his stateside life and career that had been interrupted by World War II. He rejoined his wife, Tanya, in New York. Soon afterwards, he was hired by the University of Rochester to teach in its English department.
Plutzik wrote two poems which were directly inspired by Shipdham – the first is ‘On the Airfield at Shipdham’ which concerns a skylark that he saw above the runway and which he connects to the bombers:
There is the lark, you said. And for the first time
I saw, far up in the fast darkening air,
The small lonely singer beating its wings
Against the pull of the old and evil earth.
It is too late, I said, to praise its song ….
Praise instead (because they bring our deaths
And thus another cycle of this bird’s praises)
The beasts with guts of metal groaning on the line
This poem was dedicated to R.H. Mottram, the Norwich-based novelist, best known for his Spanish Farm Trilogy (1927). Plutzik met Mottram after he invited him to give a lecture at the Shipdham air base. In fact, Plutzik records the event in a fascinating letter to his wife:
This evening Mr Mottram, well-known resident of the nearby city, came & lectured on our base, and I have just come back from taking him & his wife back to their home. Riding in the dark along the wet roads, with the forlorn landscape illuminated occasionally by the dimmed-out lights, I thought of you my wife, and I felt very lonely for you.
(Printed by permission of Rochester University archive.)
On the Sunday evening in question, Mottram and his wife were entertained in the officer’s mess and after the lecture were driven back to 4, Poplar Drive – just off the Newmarket Road in Norwich.
The second poem inspired by Shipdham is ‘Bomber Base’ which appeared in Plutzik’s 1949 collection Aspects of Proteus. In this longer poem, the poet contemplates the bombers spread out on the airfield prior to take off but then shifts his attention to the surrounding East Anglian landscape where he notes the ‘thatched farmhouse sleeps in the dark’ or how the ‘bomb trucks move down the deserted perimeter/ Where the cold North wind stifles all.’
Norfolk also features in his famous poem The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’ s England where ‘pilgrims along the holy roads/To Walsingham’ are mentioned. There is also a lesser known poem called The Old War which appeared in Apples of Shinar (1959) which was also set in the county. Plutzik’s long dramatic poem Horatio, although not set in the Norfolk, was drafted during his time here. The poem wasn’t published until 1961 – one year before Plutzik’s premature death from cancer. Plutzik was only 50 years old when he died.
Already there is no one to call to.
The body of Edward is not Edward,
Nor the ashes of Gregory Gregory.
Alexander is no longer Alexander in the earth.
Nothing can be done but something can be said at least.
(From Requiem for Edward Carrigh)
Copyright by the Estate of Hyam Plutzik. All rights reserved
Ted Hughes was a big fan of Plutzik’s work and said: ‘Plutzik’s poems have haunted me for twenty-five years. His visions are authentic and piercing, and the song in them is strange – dense and harrowing, with unforgettable tones.’
Margery Kempe must have cut quite a figure on the pilgrimage circuits of Medieval Europe: a married woman dressed in white, weeping incessantly, and holding court with some of the greatest religious figures of her time along the way. She leaves the tales of her life as a mystic with us in the form of her autobiography, “The Book”. This work gives us an insight into the way in which she regarded her mental anguish as a trial sent to her by God, and leaves modern readers contemplating the line between mysticism and madness.
Margery Kempe was born in Bishop’s Lynn (now known as King’s Lynn), around 1373. She came from a family of wealthy merchants, with her father an influential member of the community. At twenty years old, she married John Kempe – another respectable inhabitant of her town; although not, in her opinion, a citizen up to the standards of her family. She fell pregnant shortly after her marriage and, after the birth of her first child, experienced a period of mental torment which culminated in a vision of Christ.Shortly afterwards, Margery’s business endeavours failed and Margery began to turn more heavily towards religion. It was at this point she took on many of the traits that we now associate with her today – inexorable weeping, visions, and the desire to live a chaste life.
It was not until later in life – after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, multiple arrests for heresy, and at least fourteen pregnancies – that Margery decided to write “The Book”. This is often thought of as the oldest example of an autobiography in the English language, and was indeed not written by Margery herself, but rather dictated – like most women in her time, she was illiterate.
It can be tempting for the modern reader to view Margery’s experiences through the lens of our modern understanding of mental illness, and to cast aside her experiences as those of someone suffering from “madness” in a world in which there was no way to understand this. However, this one dimensional view robs the reader of a chance to explore what religion, mysticism, and madness meant to those living in the medieval period. Margery tells us her mental torment begins following the birth of her first child. This could indicate she suffered from postpartum psychosis – a rare but severe mental illness which first appears after the birth of a child.
Indeed, many elements of Margery’s account match with symptoms experienced with postpartum psychosis. Margery describes terrifying visions of fire-breathing demons, who goad her to take her own life. She tells us how she rips at her flesh, leaving a lifelong scar on her wrist. She also sees Christ, who rescues her from these demons and gives her comfort. In modern times, these would be described as hallucinations – the perception of a sight, sound or smell which is not present.
Another common feature of postpartum psychosis is tearfulness. Tearfulness was one of Margery’s “trademark” features. She recounts stories of uncontrollable bouts of weeping which land her in trouble – her neighbours accuse her of crying for attention, and her weeping leads to friction with her fellow travellers during pilgrimages.
Delusions can be another symptom of postpartum psychosis. A delusion is a strongly held thought or belief which is not in keeping with a person’s social or cultural norms. Did Margery Kempe experience delusions? There can be no doubt that visions of Christ speaking to you would be considered a delusion in Western society today.This, though, was not the case in the 14th century. Margery was one of several notable female mystics in the la te medieval period. The most well-known example at the time would have been St Bridget of Sweden, a noblewoman who dedicated her life to becoming a visionary and pilgrim following the death of her husband.
Given that Margery’s experience echoed that of others in contemporary society, it is difficult to say that these were delusions – they were a belief in keeping with the social norms of the day.
Although Margery may not have been alone in her experience of mysticism, she was sufficiently unique to cause concern within the Church that she was a Lollard (an early form of proto-Protestant), although each time she had a run-in with the church she was able to convince them this was not the case. It is clear though, that a woman claiming to have had visions of Christ and embarking on pilgrimages was sufficiently unusual to arouse suspicion in clerics of the time. For her own part, Margery spent a great deal of time worried that her visions may have been sent by demons rather than by God, seeking advice from religious figures, including Julian of Norwich (a famous anchoress of this period). However, at no point does she appear to consider that her visions may be the result of mental illness. Since mental illness in this period was often thought of as a spiritual affliction, perhaps this fear that her visions may have been demonic in origin was Margery’s way of expressing this thought.
When considering the context in which Margery would have viewed her experience of mysticism, it is vital to remember the role of the Church in medieval society. The establishment of the medieval church was powerful to an extent almost incomprehensible to the modern reader. Priests and other religious figures held authority equitable to temporal lords and so, if priests were convinced Margery’s visions came from God, this would have been viewed as an undeniable fact. Further to this, in the medieval period there was a strong belief that God was a direct force on everyday life – for example, when the plague first fell on the shores of England it was generally accepted by society that this was God’s will. By contrast, when Spanish influenza swept Europe in 1918 “Germ Theory” was used to explain the spread of disease, in place of a spiritual explanation. It is very possible that Margery genuinely never considered that these visions were anything other than a religious experience.
Margery’s book is a fascinating read for many reasons. It allows the reader an intimate glimpse into the everyday life of an “ordinary” woman of this time – ordinary insofar as Margery was not born into nobility. It can be rare to hear a woman’s voice in this time period, but Margery’s own words come through loud and clear, written though they were by another’s hand. The writing is also unselfconscious and brutally honest, leading the reader to feel intimately involved in Margery’s story. However, the book can be problematic for modern readers to understand. It can be very difficult to take a step away from our modern perceptions of mental health and to immerse ourselves in the medieval experience of unquestioning acceptance of mysticism.
In the end, over six hundred years after Margery first documented her life, it does not really matter what the real cause of Margery’s experience was. What matters is the way she, and the society around her, interpreted her experience, and the way this can aid the modern reader’s understanding of perceptions of religion and health in this period.
The death of Amy Robsart on the 8th September 1560 is an Elizabethan mystery that has caused controversy and speculation for over 458 years with historians still debating whether it was accident, suicide or murder……and if it was murder, who ordered the deed?
The small but picturesque village of Syderstone is situated in the county of Norfolk in the United Kingdom; midway between Kings Lynn and Norwich and about five miles west of the town of Fakenham. It is about ten miles inland from the North Norfolk coast. Although small, Syderstone dates back well over a thousand years and pre-dates the Domesday Book of 1066 in which the village is recorded. Its original Anglo Saxon name was Sidsterne; meaning “large estate”, from the Old English “sid” for an area broad or extensive and “sterne” meaning property.
In the 16th century Syderstone Hall was the home of Sir John Robsart, a wealthy gentleman-farmer, Sheriff of Norfolk and also Suffolk. He had a daughter named Amy, whose initials, by the way, are still to be seen on the churchyard gate and over the entrance to the Norman church tower. Amy was born in 1532 and in 1549, just before she was 18, married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, at Sheen (Richmond) Palace. The young King Edward VI, no less, was present at their wedding. As for Robert Dudley, the bridegroom, he also happened to be the son of the powerful John Dudley, Earl of Warwick.
On her accession in November 1558 Elizabeth I made Robert Dudley ‘Master of the Horse’, an important post which brought him in close contact with Queen Elizabeth I. It also meant that Dudley’s periods of absence from his wife, Amy, would increase further from those he was already committed to. In any case, it was not customary for courtiers’ wives to live at Court and Elizabeth, for her part, would also have wanted to keep Amy out of the way – for she was strongly attracted by Robert, who was “a magnificent, princely looking man”.
Both Elizabeth and Dudley were much together so it was inevitable that there would be a great deal of gossip about the affair…….which Amy must have known about! Within a year of Dudley’s appointment, rumours were indeed rife that the Queen was smitten with him – and it seemed that the feelings were mutual. In March 1560 the Spanish Ambassador wrote about the possibility of Dudley divorcing his wife! It would seem that Amy’s continued existence may have been something that he could have done without? Certainly, his actions indicated that his thoughts were elsewhere for amongst other things, he began to neglect Amy. He sent her to live at Cumnor Place, a ramshackled two-story house about 4 miles from Oxford and formerly a 14th-century country house of the abbots of Abingdon.
There, under the care and watchful eye of Anthony Forster, a sort of ‘dependent’ of Dudley and with few servants, Amy dragged out a lonely miserable life. Ten years after her marriage to Dudley, her situation came to a climax!
On September 8th 1560 and still only twenty eight years of age, Amy was found dead at the foot of a staircase at Cumnor Place. Apparently, Amy had insisted that her servants attended Abingdon Fair leaving her alone in the house; when they returned they found her dead – from head injuries and a broken neck. She appeared to have fallen down the stairs?
At the time there was speculation as to whether she had fallen accidentally, had been murdered or even committed suicide, although this latter point was dismissed by those who thought of another reason for Amy’s ‘desperation’ and death. It appears that in April, 1559 seventeen months before her death, the Spanish Ambassador reported that people talked of Elizabeth and Dudley’s friendship so freely that:
“they go so far as to say his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.”
It was argued that this was cancer and had spread to the bones of Amy’s spine, which could have caused her neck to break spontaneously from any jolt or fall. Clearly, many subsequent historians were to speculate about her death, perhaps more furiously than contemporaries. However, the one suspicion that stood out from all others, was the belief that Amy had been murdered so that Robert Dudley could marry Elizabeth I – a suspicion which became the subject of Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Kenilworth”.
Amy Dudley, nee Robsart, was buried in the chancel of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, her body having been first taken to Gloucester (Worcester) College – where there is a relatively modern tablet recording her burial. Eighty poor men and women were said to have marched in procession, followed by members of the University, a choir and heralds. Her funeral cost Robert £500; but he was not present.
Possibly, no one will ever know how Amy died but the jurors were there and their view may be as near to the truth as one can get. As for Dudley, the Queen blew hot and cold in her attitude towards him. Of course she never married him, nor anyone else, though Dudley married again. However, she gave him Kenilworth Castle and large areas of North Wales. He commanded the army at Tilbury when Elizabeth made her famous speech on August 9th 1588 just after the Spanish fleet had been defeated. Later that month Robert set off for Kenilworth on his way to a cure at some spa or other. There was some belief at the time that Amy’s ghost was supposed to have met him in the park there saying that “in ten days he’d be with her”. As it turned out, Dudley stayed a night at Lord Norreys’ home at Rycote, and while there wrote a letter to Elizabeth. She had afterwards wrote on it “his last letter”, for he got no further than Cornbury Park, where he died!
If others are to be believed, it was chiefly the people of Cumnor who remembered Amy’s mournful end. Apparently, according to them, Amy’s ghost haunted Cumnor Place, made people fear to go near it and “destroyed the peace of the village”. The ghost had to be exorcised by nine clergymen from Oxford who claimed to have drowned it in a pond in the adjoining close – and the water never again froze over the spot! Clearly, that did not work because it was claimed thereafter that the ghost of Amy Robsart walked the grounds each Christmas – for almost 250 years. Her pale shape also appeared near the staircase where she had died, and when she returned every Christmas she also stared ‘tragically and accusingly’ at all who still lived in the Hall.
After Cumnor Place was demolished in 1810 Amy’s ghost moved to her parents home at Syderstone Hall in Norfolk – so it was said! Well, that must have been true because poltergeist activity was reported there………and many of the locals said so and believed that it was the ghost of Amy! How come? Were the villagers there ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ as it were? Not only that, the folk there were also to claim that she continued to appear at the Old Hall until that too was also demolished. Apparently, Amy’s ghost would appear by the staircase, re-inacting in exactly the same way its actions at Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire……..and with exactly the same story, villagers would claim that Amy’s ghost also walked the grounds of Syderstone Hall at Christmas time. But some around the County went a step further with claims that Amy’s ghost also revisited her childhood home of Rainthorpe Hall, Tasburg near Norwich on the anniversary of her death. There, she appeared in the garden with a gentleman who may be either her half brother, John Appleyard or her husband Robert Dudley. A somewhat cynical historian of Berkshire, William Clarke, wrote that when he visited Cumnor in 1817, after the building was pulled down, “there were no traditions current about it among the villagers”. Well, these ‘traditions’ of myths and ghosts soon sprang up plentifully in both Oxfordshire and Norfolk after the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Kenilworth’ in 1821!
Were these beliefs behind the folks of Syderstone not wanting to lose Amy when its Old Hall too was demolitished? – for it was said after this event that her ghost moved to the Parsonage nearby.
In 1833, Reverend Stewart and his family were well settled in the Parsonage. On the 8 May of the same year the Bury and Norwich Post carried a story about a series of daily hauntings at the Parsonage. The original letter that sparked this story came from the same Revd J. Stewart, the Rector of Syderstone at the time, around whom this story revolves, and concerns what he refers to as ‘The House of Mystery’.
According the Revd Stewart, this particular ghost had taken up residence at his Parsonage and liked to move around, though nothing in the house was ever disturbed. It also varied its activity such that:
‘sometimes it was a low moaning which the Rev. says reminds him very much of the moans of a soldier on being whipped; and sometimes it is like the sounding of brass, the rattling of iron or the clashing of earthenware or glass’. The noises frightened the household to such an extent that ‘the maids … were actually incapable of motion’ and some of the staff were so scared they ran away’.
The Revd Stewart opened his house to all and sundry, so that they could satisfy themselves of the goings on, including no less than four local priests – Revd & Mrs Spurgin, Revds Goggs, Lloyd & Titlow, plus a local surgeon, Mr Banks, on one particular night. It seemed that they were not disappointed, with a display that started:
‘like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey’ and included knocking, ‘some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between eleven and twelve o’clock until near two hours after sunrise’. One is quoted as saying ‘We had a variety of thoughts and explanations passing in our minds before we were on the spot, but we left it all equally bewildered’.
All those present on the night felt compelled to contact the paper, stating that their investigations, and subsequent independent examinations, were unable to find the cause. But, the one thing on which they could all agree; this was not any kind of deception on the part of Revd Stewart or his family. A section of the actual newspaper article is as follows:
“The following circumstance has been creating great alarm in the neighbourhood of Fakenham for the last six weeks. In Syderstone Parsonage lives the Rev. Mr. Steward, Curate, and Rector of Thwaighte. The house has a modern appearance, and not at all calculated for concealment. About six weeks since an unaccountable knocking was heard in it in the middle of the night. The family became alarmed, not being able to discover the cause. Since then it has gradually been becoming more violent until it has now arrived at such a frightful pitch that one of the servants has left through absolute terror, and the family, we understand, intend removing as early as possible.”
Three weeks after this first article, on 29 May 1833, the same paper carried a story describing how a number of investigators (all named in the article) had gone to witness the phenomenon for themselves.
“The first commencement was in the bed-chamber of Miss Stewart, and seemed like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey. Mrs. Spurgeon was at the moment leaning against the bed post, and the effect on all present was like a shock of electricity. The bed was on all sides clear from the wall; — but nothing was visible. Three powerful knocks were then given to the sideboard, whilst the hand of Mr. Goggs was upon it. The disturber was conjured to speak, but answered only by a low hollow moaning; but on being requested to give three knocks, it gave three most tremendous blows apparently in the wall. The noises, some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between 11 and 12 o’clock until near two hours after sunrise.”
Having described a number of events and the baffled reaction of the visiting gentlemen, the article ends by calling the haunting an “unaccountable mystery”. Then, on 12 June, a letter from one of those present, Reverend Samuel Titlow, was published drawing attention to a few inaccuracies, as he saw it, of the previous letter.
“The noises were not loud; they commenced in the bed room of Miss Steward and the female servants, and the time of the commencement was, as we had been prepared to expect, exactly at half past one o’clock a.m. It is true that knocks seemed to be given, or were actually given, on the side-board of a bed in an adjoining room, where two little boys were sleeping, whilst Mr. Goggs’ hands were upon it, but they were not ” powerful knock. If the writer of the paragraph had been present with us, he would not have said that we were terrified, as if we had experienced ” a shock of electricity;” but rather, that though there was no want of proper decorum, we were all in good humour”
He seemed convinced that there was nothing supernatural behind the events, also adding that he couldn’t believe that a ghost would appear:
“for trifling purposes, or accompanied with trifling effects.”
On 22 June, the Norfolk Chronicle carried a number of witness statements regarding the hauntings going back many years. These statements had been submitted to the magistrates as Affidavits, but since it was not clear if the magistrate could legally accept Affidavits on a subject of this nature, they were published in the local paper. The earliest event described was from 1785, when a Rev Mantle moved in to the parish. He immediately boarded up two rooms, and there was one occasion when his sister saw something “which had greatly terrified her”.
Revd Stewart was able to attribute the origin of his ghost to some 60 years previous, to about the time when this Revd Mantle had moved in – he with an emerging reputation for vice and drunkenness, having ‘formed an intimacy with a very dissipated circle of gentleman farmers’ one of whom had ‘an improper admiration of Mrs Mantle’ and ‘seduced the curate into the vilest debaucheries’. Indeed, Revd Mantle would have to be held upright during burial ceremonies ‘lest he should fall into the grave on top of the corpse’.
Needless to say, the Revd Mantle died in a miserable state but, before being buried, ‘strange noises began to be heard in the parsonage’. It was these noises which greeted Revd Stewart and his family and, at the time these articles were written, ‘the ‘noises’ occasionally recur and my ‘diary’ occasionally progresses until it has, now, assumed rather a formidable appearance’.
The Phantom Highwayman Etc. Etc:
So, it seems, Amy Robsart and the one that haunts the Parsonage are not the only ghosts of Syderstone. It is further claimed that the village is also haunted by a phantom highwayman, who has been seen on his ghostly mount, silently galloping towards the village green…….and as recently as 2017 a local resident, stated:
I live in Syderstone and was aware of these spectral stories. But, there are a few more as we also have, a lady in Rectory Gardens – [her name is also Amy by the way] – and something on a local track named Burnham Green Lane. “My normally amenable Labrador was extremely reluctant to walk up there at dusk last summer – heckles up”!
God’s own County of Norfolk is blessed with many religious establishments – large, small, dissolved into ruins or still conducting holy practices as they should; most of these religious establishments even have a history worth talking about. However, it is the investigation of this history which, from time to time, snaps one out of any tendency to be naive about the fact that misdeeds and misdemeanours are not only possible in these places but probable! In a previous blog ‘A Most Disorderly Abbey’, the Premonstratensian Canons of Langley Abbey in the south of the County were given the treament of exposure. This blog targets the Benedictine monks of Binham in the north of the same County. Fortunately, we are talking of the past!
The Priory Church of ‘St Mary and the Holy Cross’ in Binham is simply classed as the Binham Village parish church (see above), but the ruins, precinct walls and gatehouse that surround it tell quite a different story. This is the site of a once grand and wealthy Benedictine monastery known as Binham Priory. It was founded in 1091 as a cell of St Albans Abbey by Peter de Valognes and his wife Albreda. Peter was a nephew of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) who gave Peter de Valoines the land in the west and north of Norfolk, including the entire village of Binham. According to the Domesday Book the land in and around the village was originally owned by a freeman named Esket. The Priory subsequently built was endowed with the entire manor of Binham, making the Prior the ‘Lord of the Manor’, together with the tithes of 13 other churches in Norfolk.
For over 400 years, Binham Priory used to be home to a community of monks. This community was always small, with 14 monks at its peak in 1320, dropping to 11 in 1381 and by the time of the Priory’s suppression in 1539 the community had been reduced to just six monks and the Priory’s annual income low at £140. However, despite its small numbers, the Priory managed to establish a history of almost continuous scandal with many of its Priors proving to be unscrupulous and irresponsible.
About 1212, the Priory was besieged by Robert Fitzwalter because the Abbot of St Albans had removed the Prior. Fitzwalter claimed, by way of a forged ‘Deed of Patronage’, that the Prior could not be moved without his consent. The result of this seige resulted in the monks being forced to eat bran and drink water from the drain-pipes. When King John heard about it he swore ‘By God’s feet, either I or Fitzwalter must be King of England’ and he sent an armed force to relieve the Priory. Fitzwalter fled for his life. Then there followed the deaths of about twelve monks of Binham, as recorded in an Obituary of St Albans from 1216 to 1253; it included the story of Alexander de Langley, one-time Prior of Wymondham who became insane through overstudy. When his outbursts of frenzy could no longer be tolerated, he was flogged and kept in solitary confinement at Binham until his death. He was buried in chains in the churchyard.
In 1317 William de Somerton became Prior of Binham and was to spend vast sums on the pursuit of alchemy, selling during his time in charge – two chalices, six copes, three chasubles, seven gold rings, silk cloths, silver cups and spoons and the silver cup and crown – not quite what you would expect of a holy man! For this, William was suspended before the altar. In addition, the Abbot, Hugh of St Albans was making exorbitant demands on Binham Priory so that it was difficult to buy food for the monks there. This did not go down well and when Abbot Hugh proposed to visit Binham, the Prior and his friends the Earl of Leicester and Sir Robert Walpole forcibly resisted the visitation. Edward I ordered the arrest of de Somerton and the monks, who at this time numbered thirteen. Six monks were imprisoned but de Somerton escaped to Rome. Eventually he was reinstated but in 1335 debts again caused him to flee, leaving a deficit of £600.
If all this was not enough, there existed continual quarrelling with the Abbot of St Albans Abbey, wasting money on expensive lawsuits, the charge of ‘scandalous behaviour’ levied at the Binham’s community. Then there was the ‘irresponsibility’, such as when, in 1433, the Prior and the monks resisted the visit of the Bishop of Norwich whilst the village people, who were on bad terms with the Priory at the time, made the Bishop welcome. One could, of course, go on and on in this vein, but no self respecting Tale of an Abbey or Priory would be complete without a reference, or two about myths or ghosts. Binham Priory is no exception. But before we go there, let us satisfy possible curiousity about the fabric of the monastery, its structure and architectural quality without the emotive topic of behaviour.
The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross is so named because the Priory was dedicated to St Mary, and its Church to the Holy Cross. What remains today is the former Nave of that Priory Church which is now simply the Village Parish Church.
Originally, the Priory Church was a cruciform building with a central crossing tower (now fallen), supported on massive piers. The monks sat in wooden stalls facing one another in the area immediately beneath the tower. This area was separated off from the public Nave by a stone screen. East of the tower would have been the Presbytery, where the high altar was located.
As a Benedictine foundation the Nave has always been used as the village church, identified as such today by the presence of a font, which would not have been needed by a monastic congregation. Nearby are the remains of the rood screen which was originally located where the east wall of the church now stands. This screen was painted over after the Reformation, but traces of medieval painting of saints can still be seen showing through. The present east end was formed by extending the original pulpitum, a low wall which divided the lay area from the monastic area.
The church was built of local flint and Barnack limestone, brought from Northamptonshire by river and sea in barges, and travelling up the river Stiffkey. Its construction spanned close to 150 years from when it started in the 1090s. Thereafter, the buildings were adapted and extended throughout the medieval period. Bear in mind that most medieval churches looked very different from how they appear today; they were usually covered, both inside and out, with lime-washed plaster. Traces of this can still be seen on the west front.
The Church’s west front is not the earliest part of the Church, but it is the first thing you see as you approach; it is beautiful and, to the informed, of great architectural interest. According to Matthew Paris, the thirteenth century monk and chronicler, this facade was built between 1226 and 1244 when Richard de Parco was Prior. For the less informed of you, the Facade is divided into three parts, the centre part containing the large west window, which could be the earliest example of bar tracery in England in which the design is made up of slender shafts and shaped stones continuing and branching out from the mullions to form a decorative pattern. This was first used at Rheims in 1211 and at Westminster Abbey some time after 1245. Before this date, the space between lancets placed together, was pierced with an open pattern, cut directly through the masonry — known as ‘plate tracery’. The window must have been magnificent before it fell into disrepair and was bricked up in 1809; maybe to avoid the cost of reglazing? Below the window is the Early English arcaded screen, with much dog-tooth ornament, in the centre of which is the main portal. This doorway is flanked on each side by five shafts, topped by crocket capitals beautifully carved from a single stone — each a masterpiece.
The bell-cote is a later addition. The domed interior is constructed of brick. An indenture of 1432 made between the Prior and the parishioners ordered that:
‘they have one bell, of the weight of eight hundred pounds or under, purchased at the cost and charge of the said tenants and parishioners, to hang in the further-most western part of the said parish church, that is to say above the roof of the church next the gable, and without any detriment to or lessening of the walls or windows of the said church, to warn and call the said parishioners to divine service, so that they may hear it and be present’.
The north and south walls correspond with the former aisles which were pulled down. The south aisle disappeared soon after the dissolution of the monasteries but the north aisle survived until 1809.The windows in the north aisle are the original windows but re-set.
The remains of the monastic buildings are extensive. They were arranged around the central cloister, a garden court that was enclosed on all four sides by covered walkways. These gave access to the principal rooms used by the monks in their daily life, including the chapter house (where they met daily to discuss business) and refectory or dining hall. Rebuilt several times during the life of the priory, by the 16th century the cloisters were lit by large windows opening onto the central garden. After the closure of the priory, some of the glass was moved to the nave wall of the church.
Binham Priory is one of the few monastic foundations in Norfolk where the precinct surrounding the priory buildings remains essentially intact, including part of its boundary wall. This monastic precinct, built on the Benedictine plan was once a glorious collection of buildings, built around the open garth and its cloisters. One could imagine it as being a smaller version of Norwich Cathedral. Great wealth was always lavished on such buildings, with the master masons perhaps coming from Normandy. As for the ruins of the gatehouse beyond, it dates mostly from the 15th century and still serves today as the main entrance to the site. South of the cloister area are the earthwork remains of the priory’s surviving agricultural buildings, including what was probably a large barn or granary. One supposes that the outer court contained other buildings such as storehouses and workshops. Beyond these earthworks, bordering the stream, is the site of the priory’s mill and fishponds and the monks’ cemetery lays beyond the east end of the church. What stories could they tell if given the opportunity?
At the dissolution in 1539, the King’s examiner Sir Robert Ryche had no difficulty in finding a pretext for suppression: As they levied fines, ‘not naymyng the Abbot of Saynt Albanys, and granted leases under their own seal, not naymyng the Abbot.’ The site and possessions were granted to Sir Thomas Paston, a local man and an important royal servant by Henry VIII, in the 33rd year of his reign and four hundred and fifty years after the Priory’s foundation. The Paston Letters relate that the sum of 13/7½ d being paid to Sir Thomas in 1533 for ‘rubble and stone from Binham Priory’ which was used to build a large house in the High St at Wells, and his grandson Edward Paston pulled down some of the monastic buildings intending to build himself a house on the site, at the southern corner of the refectory. However a workman was killed by a fall of masonry and this was considered a bad omen. The workmen refused to continue and the house was built at Appleton instead. Stone from the Priory was even sold and reused in many local Binham houses, particularly around doors and windows.
Myths associated with Binham Priory:
Places such as Binham Priory, in times of ignorance and superstition, inevitably spawned legends and myths of its own – not forgetting that we are in Norfolk and here it seems obligatory for any famous place to boast a tale, or two. Frequently, such tales are about tunnels, quite a favourite topic; so too are ghostly spectres. Binham is not the sort of historical place to be left out; indeed, it has a monk and a tunnel. Maybe this is the moment to mention them.
1.The Hooded Monk:
When the night is dark and dismal the stranger standing amongst the fragments of old walls of Binham Priory would not find it difficult to visualise his eerie surroundings as a setting for a ghost story. The inhabitants of Binham have long discuss a report of the appearance of the “ghost”; of a black-hooded monk in the Nave of the Priory Church.
It seems that a newspaper reporter interviewed the Vicar, Rev. C. F. Carroll, on the matter. It was said at the time that the story told to him was offered in the strictest confidence by a lady of position, and that he, the Vicar, would only repeat it if persons’ names were kept out of any published story.
“Some time ago this woman was present at an evening service of mine in the Parish Church, where she saw a figure on a ledge near the church door. She watched the phantom form, which resembled a Benedictine monk wearing a black cowl, walk slowly along the ledge for the full length of the church before disappearing. During its journey this spectre, for that is what this lady said it was, climbed some spiral steps, which were only there for the duration of this spectacle. The ledge itself is several feet from the floor of the church and, as you can see, there appears to be ample room for one to walk thereon”.
“I do believe that such an occurence is possible, but I would not go so far as to state that it had not taken place. The lady can be, in my opinion, imaginative at times but she was certain that she had seen the monk-like figure, so much so that she felt compelled to tell me – and remember. There were many other people at that service and it might have been that the other members of the congregation did not have the faculty to see in such a way. At any spiritualistic seance, for instance, it is only some people who may see a spirit appear; and, of course, you would know that illustrations on that point can be found in Biblical stories; such as the sory of St. Paul seeing the vision and the men who were accompanying him failing to see it. I must also say that on other occasions, villagers have stated that they have seen the figure of a Benedictine monk near the entrance to the Priory – the Gaol Gate.”
After leaving the Vicar, the newspaper reporter interviewed a lady in the village, not the one referred to earlier by the way. She related a story which was similar to that told to the Rev C. F. Carroll. She said that some years ago she was sitting with the choir when during the sermon she saw a dark figure, just like a monk; it was on a ledge in the church. Thinking that she was “seeing double” or that her eyes were playing tricks, she purposely looked away for a few seconds before again looking at the ledge; she saw that the figure was still there. Puzzled but wanting further confirmation, she once more turned her gaze away, but when she looked at the ledge for the third time there was no thing there. This same lady added, as if there may be some possible connection, that she and others had been warned that no one should go near the Gaol Gate at midnight. Why, it was never said but, from another source, the reporter was informed that the ” Porter ” was reputed to walk about near that gate, inside of which there had once been a gaol – and there had also been chambers for a Porter!
2. The Fiddler of Binham Priory:
Myths about entering into the earth through a tunnel that takes you to another place or different land are common across the world. Such tunnels, connecting us to such ‘underworlds’ or ‘Hades’, can be found in Greek and Roman myths, as well as in German and Eastern European folktales. In Britain, these myths are often associated with musician’s tunnels such as those in Northamptonshire, Culross, Fife with its piper, Richmond Castle with its drummer and Norfolk with its own fiddler, as depicted in tales Blakeney, nearby, and Binham Priory. In these tales, the musician enters a passage under the ground and is always followed above the ground by people listening to his music, which suddenly stops. It is very strange that he has a dog with him, and that this dog always gets out of the tunnel but the man is never seen again. The myth is often connected to a ‘barrow’ – which, to the uninitiated, is an underground burial place.
Now, Binham Priory seems to be an ideal place for the Norfolk version of this particular myth or legend, simply because of the ‘barrow’ named Fiddler’s Hill, a burial mound nearby which dates from the early Bronze Age, and nowadays a popular picnic spot. Of course, this tale needs a fiddler, a dog and tunnel, and what better than to have one leading to and from Walsingham Abbey, some three miles away. Certainly, local people think so and their tale goes along the following lines:
A spectre of a monk called “The Black Monk” haunted the grounds around Binham Priory during the hours between dusk and dawn. The monk emerged each night from a tunnel that linked the Benedictine Priory of Binham to the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingam some three miles away. One day a fiddler and his dog sauntered into the village of Binham and upon hearing about this spectre offered to explore the tunnel to see what caused the monk to haunt this particular spot. Before entering the passage he advised the sizeable crowd of locals who had gathered to see him off, that he would play his fiddle as he went so that the villagers could follow his progress above ground. Now, bear in mind that we are talking of a time when candles and lanterns were the main weapons against the night, or to battle subterranean gloom.
So it was with this in mind that the Fiddler called his dog to heel and lighting his way by means of a small lantern of his own, suspended on a rod so that he could free his hands for playing, he and his small dog entered the tunnel and the villagers were able to hear the strains of his music and followed his path. They knew that a fiddle plays a piercing and true sound and felt sure that its sound would vibrate upwards through the layers of soil. So they all followed, Lollygaggers (idlers), dawdlers, street vendors, interested onlookers – and the odd dog.
However, when the fiddler reached the place, at a point where two roads crossed, his music suddently stopped. The villagers looked around at each other in consternation. Why, they thought would he stop? Maybe he was just taking a rest? They waited, but the sound never returned. There was talk of digging down, but everyone held off despite the possibly that this could be an emergency. If the truth were to be known, the villagers were, in fact, too scared to enter the tunnel themselves, for they had no candles or lanterns – on the basis that, being on the surface, they would not need such items. So they just retraced their steps back to Binham and waited, for quite a long time as it turned out.
Eventually, the poor Fiddler’s little dog emerged from the tunnel, shivering and whining with his tail between his legs – but there was no sign of the Fiddler. Later that night a violent storm broke out, and the following morning the villagers woke to find that the passage entrance had been completely demolished. Over the years the hill where the fiddler disappeared became known as Fiddlers Hill, in memory of the brave Fiddler……..and remember the final twist to this story?….. In 1933 when the road was widened around Fiddlers Hill, three skeletons were found one of which was a dog!
They do say that on still, dark nights, you can still hear a solitary violin playing along the fields between Walsingham and Binham Priory.
Outside of Norfolk most people have never heard of them; come to think about it – some inside the County would also be at a loss to know! Follow me then – and bring a pair of ‘wellie’ boots with you. But don’t wear them just yet unless, of course, you particularly like their weight and feel for we are heading first to Skiffkey on the North Norfolk coast, the place where those ‘Stewkey Blues’ may be found.
The village of Stiffkey lies, as we now know, on the North Norfolk coast, along the A149 coast road between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Morston. The name of Stiffkey derives from the tree stumps that are found in the marsh – the area of which is referred to as ‘tree-stump island’. Skiffkey is a beautiful village consisting largely of flint and brick cottages, built on the banks of the charming River Stiffkey which is bridged just into the Langham road. The river, with its little, narrow, confining valley is quite attractive during summer months and never seems to lose its way as it flows through the village on its way to the sea at Stiffkey Freshes (see below). There was once a harbour at Stiffkey, but it has long been completely silted up – the reason why those ‘Blues’ of old grew so fondly attached to the area.
The main street of Skiffkey is narrow and winding and is bordered on both sides by high walls – making it a dangerous place for pedestrians, particularly in wellie boots, also something of a nightmare for motorists – especially in the busy summer months when tourists pass through from afar. In fact, for those who venture through the village by car, van or lorry for the first time they would immediately notice one thing – the road is not only extremely narrow, but has no pavement between the flint walls and road. In the height of the summer tourist season this feature not only creates traffic jams, but sometimes the occasional ‘incident’ caused by those vehicles which choose to joist with others, often resulting in damaged paintwork at best or dented bodywork and, frequently, displaced side mirrors. It is also not the place for the faint hearted or for those who like to test their prowess at speeding. Patience is required!
High above the village sits Stiffkey Old Hall and the church of St. John the Baptist (or is it St Mary’s? – but that is another story) both in close proximity and with impressive structures. The nearby Rectory was one time infamous during the 1930’s, all because of the activities of its incumbent, the Reverend Harold Francis Davidson. His neglect of his parish work, his family and his frequent trips to London to carry out his work as the so called “Prostitutes’ Padre” started local tongues wagging. In 1932 he was defrocked by the Church after being convicted by a Consistory Court in Norwich on immorality charges. But, Davidson went on to make a new career as a performer to raise funds, principally for his proposed appeal – which obviously wasn’t successful by the way. He finally met his demise at Skegness when he was supposed to have been killed by a lion after he entered its cage – a kind of action replay of Daniel in the lion’s den. Despite his experiences and end, Davidson still had many friends and it was they who provided the funds for his funeral back at Stiffkey. The church and the churchyard were packed with people and estimates at the time numbered the crowd at 3000 plus; even the Marques and Marchioness Townshend, from their stately seat at Raynham Hall near Fakenham, were among the mourners.
In modern times Davidson has come to be regarded as a victim of an antiquated church legal system and his reputation has, to some extent, been restored. But, enough of this slight digression and a tale which has received more than its fair share of coverage over the years. For those who are still curious and would like to follow his story in more detail; click on the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Davidson . We must move on to other digressions before homing in on the main reason for this blog.
In 1937 Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, purchased Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey for £2250 – or so we are led to believe. He was anxious to contribute to Sir Oswald Mosley’s new vision of Britain but, unfortunately, he had no experience of farming and after eight years he abandoned the farm and his task to return to his beloved Devon. There, he recorded his experiences in ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’ (1941). The book contains some memorable descriptions of the north Norfolk coast:
‘The sea was half a mile from the village, and the field ended in a plantation or land-fringe of stunted trees, and then steeply down to a pebbly shore and a creek where a fisherman’s boat was moored.
We sat down on the grass, gazing out over the marshes, one vast gut-channelled prairie of pale blue sea-lavender. Afar was the sea merging in summer mist and the palest azure sky. There was no sound: the air was still: not a bird stirring. This was the sun I remembered from boyhood days, the ancient harvest sunshine of that perished time when the earth was fresh……’
For some of his time in Norfolk, Williamson lived in a small cottage off the village street in Stiffkey, while there he collaborated with Miss Lilias Rider Haggard on ‘Norfolk Life’ (1943), a journal of the years 1936-7. It is, in fact, an anthology of unusual extracts from old books on husbandry, farmers’ calendars and herbals. It is a gardener’s book, a farmer’s book, a field naturalist’s notebook — with some especially good observations on birds. It is a book of jottings that somehow manage to get the very heart of Norfolk in them.
At the northern end of the village is a long concrete road called Green Way that leads down to the Stiffkey salt marshes. This road was first laid by the army during WW2, as was its camp at the end of the road. The camp was used for training anti-aircraft gunners then and into the 1960’s before being abandoned, to be used as a camping site with its original guardroom still standing and in use by campers. It is worth saying, for those who cannot do without their cars, that there is what you might call a ‘rough’ car park area here, at the edge of the marsh. It is, in fact, on the Norfolk Coastal Path for you walkers and it belongs to the National Trust – so its members get a bonus of guaranteed free parking! The topic of parking gets a particular mentioned here because Stiffkey is another of those small places where parking within its environs is very limited, very limited indeed. The above mentioned National Trust car park is also a long way from the village itself; a village that can just about manage a general store that contains the village Post Office counter. The village also an antique shop that some say is worth a visit and as for food and drink, it has a pub, the Red Lion at the northern end of the village; again, some say it has ‘a good reputation’ and would offer a welcome pause for those on the way to seeking out those ‘Stewkey Blues’.
The Location of Stiffkey Freshes:
Stiffkey Freshes is located between Stiffkey and Morston adjacent to the coastline. The easiest way to reach the area is via the coastal path, having parked at the National Trust car park at Stiffkey. It is a walk east along the path for approximately one and a half miles until you reach the creek on your left. Alternatively, park on the NT car park at Morston and walk along the coast path towards Stiffkey – this is slightly further by the way. When you have reached the Freshes you will see some moored fishing boats in the creek and dinghies hauled up onto the grass.
There is, of course, an alternative and much shorter route from the A149 coast road at White Bridges, a location not named on the map so you would have to ask! But, a word of warning at this point. As already meentioned, the A149 through Stiffkey can be very busy in the summer months and is quite a dangerous road to walk along, because there are no pavements or flat verges. The advice is against using this route, particularly if you have children with you – carrying whatever you have for about 200 yards on this road, whilst supervising children, is fraught with danger from passing traffic. In addition, and not to rub the difficulties in, the only parking available is in a lay-by on the north side of the road near two farm buildings. This lay-by is frequently used by bait diggers who make their way down to the marsh via the footpath beside the buildings. So, do not go that way.
But, assuming that one has successfully surmounted all the obstacles, we find that this part of the North Norfolk coast that we speak of, is in a permanent state of flux. You have the cliffs between Weybourne and their vanishing point at Happisburgh to the east which are constantly being eroded. Sandbars, banks and dunes there, having been formed by the tides, gales and wave action over many months and years, can be ripped from their roots by simply one ferocious winter gale from the north-west. Stiffkey Freshes is somewhat lucky in this respect; the two-mile long Blakeney Point curves around offshore like a comforting arm and gives vital protection. This guardian prevents major erosion on the southern side of the channel and, as a result, the dunes edging the Stiffkey Freshes creek and abutting the beach itself have not changed a great deal over the years.
Now, the locals advise that visits to the Freshes should be made about one hour before low water in order to reach the marram-topped dunes that are ideal picnic venues. It would be here where those wellies would prove temporarily very useful; that is. if you did not wish to take off walking boots and paddle bare footed across the creek. From there, it is a walk along the dividing line between the dunes and the ribbed hard sand that runs down to the channel several hundred yards away. Only then would that ideal secluded and sheltered spot be found, with the added possible bonus of seeing a hare or two – they seem to favour living amongst the dunes.
Be still and listen:
Once you have established your base, take time to be still and look around you. Attune your ears to the constant calling of the seabirds and wildfowl that can be seen going about their business on the sands and in the shallows that lie in front of you. Take your binoculars and scan the north-west where you will see seals hauled out on the sandbanks. You may also spot a mussel fisherman wading up the creek, pulling his heavy boat behind him because the water is too shallow to run the outboard engine. It will be laden with the day’s catch to be shovelled into net bags on the bank of the creek.
A ‘wild’ place:
There are just a few places left in Norfolk that can be described as ‘wild’; Stiffkey Freshes is one of those. If you are an early bird and can get to the dunes as dawn breaks, or you are prepared to stay as dusk approaches, you will witness nature at its most impressive. These are the times of day that you will see a great deal of bird activity, with skeins of geese and flights of duck going to or returning from their feeding grounds. You may also see a fox hunting along the foreshore or a muntjak trotting along amongst the dunes. Again. do not visit only on hot summer days – wrap up warm and come in winter when the north westerly’s blow and the clouds skitter across the sky like the sails of racing yachts. Watch the waters of the channel being whipped up and spume dancing off the crests of the waves. The fine sand that blows in drifts across the landscape will sting your face and you will taste salt on your lips; you may never feel as cold again anywhere else, but what a rewarding experience you will have had.
Where the hell are those ‘Stewkey Blues’ you may be asking by now, having been dragged through the village and down on to and over the marshes. Well, all that was to give you a flavour of the place; and talking of flavour, the good news is that you have finally arrived at your destination and the source of ‘Stewkey Blues’ It is here, on the marshes, that you will need those Wellies – and, sorry, it should have been mentioned before that a rake and bucket would be a further advantage! Let Alan Savory – the Norfolk wildfowler tell you what you have been dying to know since you started reading this Blog; revealed by way of his writings which, whilst about duck shooting on the North Norfolk marshes including Stiffkey, mention that the Stiffkey marshes are famous for the ‘Stewkey Blues’ – a type of cockle with a distinctive blue colour. Let this extract from his book ‘Norfolk Fowler’ (1953) explain further:
‘There is a place far out on the sands somewhere between High Sand Creek and Stone Mell Creek that is called Blacknock. It is a patch of mud covered with zos grass and full of blue shelled cockles known as “Stewkey Blues”. It is a famous place for widgeon, but very dangerous to get on to and off, if one is not too certain of the way on a dark night. The women cockle gatherers from Stiffkey (or Stewkey, as it is sometimes called) who have double the strength of a normal man, go right out there between the tides and get a peck of these cockles and carry them back to the village, miles across the sea and saltings.’
It is the geography of this region that helped create perfect conditions for these special cockles: nowadays they can be found a few kilometers north of Stiffkey, on the seaward side of a saltmarsh, where muddy creeks flooded with tide create a good habitat for them to live in. They are usually buried an inch under the muddy sand which, it is claimed, gives the cockle its blue colour. Traditionally the cockles were raked from the mud by the women and then washed in seawater, and it is still as it was that the Stiffkey fishermen and inhabitants collect them. Some fishermen add flour or oatmeal to assist this process.
Stewkey Blues is a popular nickname for Stiffkey Blue Cockles which are only found at Stiffkey. The name ‘Stiffkey’ is actually pronounced ‘Stewkey’ and the cockles have a dark grey-blue shell – hence the name. They indeed have a different colour from other types of cockles around England. When they colonise, they form shells of a distinctive blue tinge, ranging from mauve to slate-blue. Its colour has always been thought noteworthy and that is why it is mentioned in their name. They have a rich shellfish flavour, refreshing and slightly salty. Stiffkey cockles open when they are steamed, and are eaten fresh, or used for soups and pies. Traditional seaside style is to boil and sell from stalls, with pepper and vinegar to taste. They have long been considered a delicacy in East England, but unfortunately, the cold winter of 1989 killed many cockles and its trade has never really recovered to the level that it once was. Indeed, it is unfortunately recognized that, year by year, the number of Stiffkey cockles declines.
Very few tales of Norfolk are without a myth or a ‘scary’ story. Stiffkey and cockle gathering is no exception. Rest a while longer from your long trek and hear this from a past Cockler:
The Screaming Cockler of Stiffkey:
In the small village of Stiffkey, out on the salt marshes is a large mud bank called Blacknock, which is the site of a ghostly haunting. Stiffkey is famous for its blue cockles, and in the 18th century these were gathered by the women of Stiffkey. It was hard and potentially dangerous work, as the tides race in cruel and fast over these marshes. But the cocklers of Stiffkey were tough women, they had to be. With their weathered faces, dressed in pieces of sacking for warmth, they trawled the marshes for cockles. Once collected, the cockles had to be hauled back in large sacks to the village, without help of man or beast. It was no wonder that the women of Stiffkey were known thereabouts as Amazons, given their strength and hardiness. You had to be tough to be a Stiffkey Cockler. On one particular day the Stiffkey women were out as usual gathering the ‘Stewkey Blues’.
“We all told her, but she wouldn’t listen, not her. Her mother was the same, stubborn as a mule. Her mother was a Stiffkey Cockler as well but at least she died in her bed, not like her poor daughter. It’s hard work cockling, you know! You get paid by the sack so if you come back with only half a sack then you might have to go hungry? Or one of your children? Then, we have to carry those sacks, full of cockles, all the way back to the village. You can’t get no mule out there, not out on those sand banks. But we’re tough, tough as old leather. That’s why they call us Amazons hereabouts. Though being tough don’t make it any easier when we lose one of our own.
But she just wouldn’t listen.
We all saw that the tide was turning; turning fast and the weather was closing in quick. That’s why we packed up. None of us, apart from Nancy, had a full sack – but half a sack and your life and a night with an empty stomach is far better than no life at all.
So we left the girl Nancy. Left her out there by herself still gathering cockles out on Blacknock whilst we all came back, came back home to our families and to safety. There was nothing we could have done – she just wouldn’t listen. Who could have known it was going to get that bad and that quickly. Of course when she realised the danger it was too late, the roke (fog) had descended. No way could she find her way back. Don’t even think Nancy could have found her way back in a roke like that. Not even with all her years of experience.
Our men folk tried to get to the girl. Well they could hear her, see. Out there in their boats on the sea they could hear her calling and a screaming for help. My man said he even heard her cursing and swearing. Raging against the roke and the tide, even against God himself. Then all of a sudden, he said, there was silence and he could hear her no more, none of them could. So they turned back – had to. Too risky in all that roke in a boat when you can’t see where the mud banks be.
She’s still out there of course.
No not her body. No, that we found the next day. Still had her knife clasped in her hand and her sack a way off still just half full. Seaweed there was, all tangled up in her hair and her eyes. Well her eyes they were open, glaring one might say, glaring at the injustice of it all. No it’s not her body out there, that be in the churchyard, but her spirit, her restless spirit, that’s still out there. Now I can’t spend my time gossiping I’ve got to get on, got to get back and feed my family.
Now, don’t you be thinking of going out there, not now!
No it’s not ’cause of the tide. The tide has already turned on its way back out. But there’ll be a fog tonight; you can already see it beginning to roll in from the sea. That fog – It’s her! – she’s always much worse on foggy nights, much more restless and noisy. Probably cause it was foggy when she drowned. No, she’s far worse on foggy nights. On foggy nights you may even see her, with all that seaweed still in her hair.
So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”
There were once claimed to be 200,000 coypu in East Anglia; well, if that figure was ever remotely correct then it can be fairly safe to say that now it is zero – or as near as makes no difference! This population descent, of somewhat astronomical proportions, was due to trapping campaigns that started way back in the 1960s and which eventually eradicated the creatures, but at some cost both in time and tax payers money. Let’s look back at the early circumstances behind what is something of a contemporary tale in these here parts.
Maybe, the first question to ask is just how did an orange-toothed South American beaver end up as East Anglian public enemy number one?………
Well, it all began with a dodgy fence, and a would-be fur magnate with a name straight out of a P G Wodehouse novel. There was, however, nothing comical about the aftermath of an accidental release of a group of animals from farmland at East Carleton, Norfolk in 1937. These creatures were known by their more familiar name – coypu. Their story remains a fascinating one which once encompassed bitter rows between farmers and conservationists, landowners and politicians, along with a generous helping of cutting-edge science and, at times, more than a hint of old fashion farce as well!
Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed that it was a story which ran and ran to the point where some probably became fed up………! in fact, its roots went back more than 80 years, to 1929. That was the year when aspiring entrepreneurs in this country began to import a species of large rodent from Argentina.
At up to 3ft long including the tail, and weighing perhaps 9kg, the coypu was an impressive creature – for a rodent. It was not quite a capybara or a beaver, but much bigger than the common rodents such as mice, voles and squirrels that we were used to in our part of the world. In many ways, you could consider the coypu to be something like a monstrous water vole, living along rivers and in swamps and marshes, and feeding on a wide range of mainly plant foods. With its combination of walrus whiskers, stumpy body, webbed hind feet and large orange front teeth it was never going to feature on the list of the most elegant animals in nature. In fact, it could be presented as rather a fearsome creature, which might explain why it was exhibited at the Great Yarmouth Easter Fair in 1935 as the ‘giant sewer rat’, accompanied by a rather lurid painting of two sewer workers fending it off with shovels!
The local farmers were not, of course, interested in the coypu’s looks; neither were those entrepreneurs out to make a profit. It was the creature’s fur that was the big attraction, its stomach area yielding a fine, soft undercoat of fur known as ‘nutria’. Twenty-two pelts were enough to make one fur coat and this was the attraction for those hoping to make a lucrative living. Notable amongst these was the delightfully-named landowner Philip Tindal-Carill-Worsley (1881-1946) was living at East Carleton Manor and saw an opportunity to make a profit from some very wet land along the stream that formed the border with the Mulbarton parish. This stream orginates from behind Catmere Herne, borders ‘The Meadows’, passes under the B1113 at Mulbarton Bridge, flows through the lake of The Grove (Cheshire DisAbility), across Intwood Ford and on to join the River Yare near Keswick Mill. The stream and an adjacent area north of Catbridge Lane was fenced off and pens built for the animals. Here, Tindal-Carill-Worsley set up his coypu farm on what was a 120-acre site – alongside a silver fox farm which was also set up for the same reason. Gamekeeper Charles Edgar George Schofield was put in charge – and by 1938 there were 300 animals. The coypu pelts, or nutria fur, were sorted at East Carleton and sent off to the London market. Tindal-Carill-Worsley was one of three Norfolk landowners who were to dabble in the nutria trade.
Things were fine at first, that is up until the year of 1937 when heavy rain caused some galvanised iron sheets to collapse. Some coypu, recognising an opportunity of more freedom, immediately seized this one possible chance to head for the nearest watercourses. A year after their escape coypu were noticed at Cringleford, near to Norwich, and within a few years they had reach Oulton Broad and the lower Yare and Waveney. At first, they were rarely spotted at all due to the fact that they are naturally very timid and tended to vanish at the first sign of danger. Their presence was only betrayed by tell-tale fast moving bubbles, and that distinctive whiskery snout when they came up for air.
Despite the fact that all of the country’s nutria farms had closed by 1940, the consequences of the 1937 escape meant that their numbers grew rapidly and would linger on for decades, well beyond the period of war when people had much more on their plates to deal with than an oversized renegade rodent and its ‘voracious vegetarianism’. Back in 1943, they simply ‘noted’ its presence, despite the fact that complaints about Coypus clearly damaging reed beds had started to be recorded.
Like herbivores the world over, the coypu’s principal survival mechanism is to out-breed their supposed predators – there were not many of those around in the East Anglian region, but the coypu were not to know! Maturing after only eight months, coypu bred up to five times in every two years and with up to nine young in each litter. This, of course, made them very popular with the fur farmers, as one pair of coypu could produce 60 descendants over their three-year lifetime. All very lucrative, at least in theory, but once the creatures were out in open country, it was quite another and serious matter entirely.
Soon people were harking back to the case of the musk rat. Introduced into Europe in the first years of the 20th century for its fur, it too had escaped. Five animals wriggled out of an estate near Prague in 1905 and had become, according to one fanciful and suspiciously exact estimate, 100,000,000 by 1932. In this country the musk rats were eliminated by 1928 but only after a long and expensive eradication campaign. Then, just one year later, there we were importing another voracious non-native herbivore. It’s strange how some people never seem to learn! In mainland Europe the musk rat was blamed for burrowing into, and weakening, river banks – the reason why they are still tightly controlled in the Netherlands to this day – and this charge was soon being levelled at the coypu. This claim would be made again and again over the years but of this, at least, the coypu may have been unfairly pilloried.
By 1945 Mr H W Palmer, Pests Officer to Norfolk War Agricultural Executive Committee, was saying: “We have trapped and killed hundreds, especially in the Cringleford and Broads areas. They have become a feature of our fauna.” He also went on to say that in his opinion they were “harmless and purely vegetarian, living largely on the shoots of young rushes, and I do not think they do much real damage.” He said there was ‘no evidence’ that they damaged river banks. It was clear that it was its large increase in numbers that some people found unsettling.
The bitter winter of 1947 saw off many of the coypu, and population crashes were to be a feature of every sharp winter from then on. In wintertime, too, they were easy to spot, and therefore easy to kill, as they tended to huddle together for warmth. But as soon as spring came, numbers rapidly grew once more. By 1948 coypus had reached the mouths of the Nar at King’s Lynn and the Yare at Gorleston. There was still much debate raging about the creatures impact, but not everyone bought into the ‘giant rat’ image. In fact the coypus were so popular in the 1940s with some children, particularly in Cringleford – one of their early strongholds – where they would deliberately spring the traps to free them.
Ted Ellis, that past doyen of Norfolk naturalists, would be closely involved over the years. At this time, he was pointing out that the coypus were mainly eating reeds, and said they only ‘very occasionally’ damaged sugar beet crops. “I have watched coypus at close range often enough and found it hard to wish them ill,” he said. But at the same time he recognised that they were affecting rare plants on Surlingham Broad, and reluctantly concluded that “their increase must be checked by man”.
Later that year the Great Ouse Catchment Board reportedly made – and quickly withdrew – a £5 reward offer for each coypu skin handed in. Someone, it seems, had had a gentle word in the ear of officials and pointed out that if they offered that much (worth £160 in today’s money) then very soon the fly ol’ country boys would be busy catching coypus, all right – for breeding!
The trouble was no-one could really agree how damaging the coypu were. The ‘official position’ was that it was a ‘potential menace’ on its artificially banked waterways, but the East Norfolk Rivers Catchment Board chief engineer said he had not seen a single case of coypu damage in ten years. Someone else wrote to the local newspapers about his fears of tunnelling, fearing a ‘major disaster’. But fellow landowner Henry Cator, of Woodbastwick, countered that the coypu were keeping the Broads waterways open ‘free, gratis and for nothing…’ by clearing out the bullrushes. It didn’t help the debate that there were just so many myths and half-truths floating around, just like the coypus’ habit of growling when cornered – plus those orange incisors! This led to some people fearing they would soon ‘attack’ Broads boating parties. J M Last of Corpusty had to write in 1960 – to point out that “coypus do not lurk in banks and hedges to leap upon passing cyclists.” However, the knack of these animals suddenly appearing in unexpected places such as suburban gardens, beaches and even Great Yarmouth Fire Station did not exactly endear them to local people. In one startling 1961 incident a coypu even turned up in an outside loo at Litcham which prompted the comment “What puzzles us, is how it got there in the first place and managed to lock itself in.” Well, the animal might have been ‘caught short’!
After its escape from fur farms in the late 1930s it had taken to munching through rushes clogging up Broads waterways, thereby keeping them clear for boats. The debate ranged and went on and on. Did they eat crops? Did they tunnel into riverbanks? So, In an attempt to bring some science into the matter Norfolk naturalist, Dick Bagnall-Oakley, kept some Coypus for six weeks and discovered they were ‘hopeless’ at burrowing; they liked sugar beet best, followed by kale and other root crops, but didn’t really care for potatoes. He argued that their crop-eating was more than outweighed by their usefulness in keeping those rivers weed-free. It was an argument that was not going to cut any ice with local farmers, who became increasingly strident as the 1950s wore on. Soon they were banging on the doors of their local MPs and the Ministry demanding action, but the reply at first was that there were ‘no plans’ to bring in controls’.
In 1958, the National Farmers’ Union county meeting in Norwich asked the ministry to list them as pests because of damage to sugar beet near waterways. Suffolk NFU followed suit a few months later. But the newspapers were still predicting that ‘an all-out attack on coypu in Norfolk was unlikely’, and people continued to write in claiming the damage reports were grossly exaggerated.
The public mood, though, was definitely with the farmers. one of whom said how coypu had cleared three-quarters of an acre of beet from his land:
“They took them when the beet were about as big as your thumb. They went right along the line, pulling the little beet up. They bit off the root and left the leaf lying on the ground. Rabbits were never as bad as that”…..“Two years ago I used to think they were pleasant animals. I even use to feed one near the Broad. Now I kill all I can.”
In 1960 the language took on a military hue, with a ‘War on coypus’ reported. They were soon killed in their thousands, or rather tens of thousands, aided by a 1962 Order under the Destructive Imported Animals Act which aimed to wipe out coypu and mink within five years – but still the numbers grew. More than 100,000 were reported killed in the year to September 1962 in the East Suffolk and Norfolk River board area alone. Rabbit clearance societies were called in to help tackle the problem. Meanwhile, in the decidedly non-Broads setting of the Jupiter Road industrial estate in Norwich, a new ‘weapon’ was being introduced. The Coypu Research Laboratory would spend years finding out as much as it could about the coypus’ habits, even fitting them with radio transmitters so their movements could be tracked.
A massive publicity campaign was launched at the same time, using everything from local television to post office noticeboards to warn the public of ‘the coypu menace’.
For a while, it looked like the battle would be won quickly. The terrible winter of 1962-63 had wiped out tens of thousands, with guns, traps and dogs accounting for thousands more. By February 1965 a campaign was being launched to clear Wroxham Broad, described as the coypus’ ‘last redoubt’ – a claim which turned out to be wildly optimistic. In the same year Coypu Control was set up, with five trappers working full time – which with hindsight was simply not enough. In 1966 the £72,000 campaign had cleared 2,500 sq miles of Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Cambridgeshire, way above expectations. But still the coypu appeared. Every year saw upwards of a thousand trapped, giving the lie to reports of a battle won. Then a series of mild winters in the early 1970s saw numbers rocket once again. In 1973 there were 7,601 caught – more than six times the 1971 total.
By now the campaign, which was originally supposed to cost £12,000 a year over five years was up to £30,000 annually with no sign of it ending. Critics began to point out it cost £6 to wipe out each coypu, but no-one had ever actually worked out in monetary terms how much damage they were causing. It was time for a fresh look and in 1977 the Government set up an independent Coypu Strategy Group to look at long-term control issues. Then in June the following year, a £1.7 million masterplan was unveiled to wipe out the coypu within ten years. Just as well, with Coypu Control reporting the rodents had developed an alarming new taste – for cereals!
This time, 24 trappers were employed and the 10-year project started in 1981. With the aid of careful ongoing analysis, including dissection of bodies to understand population structure, this approach was successful and the coypu was effectively extinct by 1989. Interesting elements of this strategy was that included was an absolute decision that the project would end after 10 years, whatever the result, and that if the trappers were successful they would get a bonus of up to three times the annual salary, declining as the 10-year deadline loomed. The trapping was carried out using weldmesh cages baited with carrots, and the captured animals were despatched using a .22 pistol. Also, one of the more interesting developments to emerge during the project was the adoption of trapping rafts. As well as being relatively safe from interference, the rafts kept the baited traps at water level and attractive to coypu, throughout the cycle on tidal waters such as the Norfolk broads.
Overall, it was felt that this ‘final’ push would mean the end for the orange-toothed invader. In 1984 a total of 2,300 coypus had been killed; the following year scientists claimed that there were fewer than 20 adults left. Then in1987, the last colony was found near St Neots in Cambridgeshire, and only a dozen were caught that year. In 1988 just two solitary males were reported – one at Barton Bendish, and one near Peterborough. So, in January 1989 agriculture minister (and our local MP) John MacGregor was able to declare that, at last, the coypus were gone for good. Each of the trappers was stood down, with a £20,000 bonus for their efforts.
Was that the end of the story? Well not quite. In December 1989, a male coypu was caught at the Little Ouse at Feltwell and there continued to be 40-50 possible ‘sightings’ each year for some time thereafter but nothing was ever substantiated. Coypus did live on in Norfolk for a while, but only at Great Witchingham Wildlife Park where, unlike the dodgy fencing incident of the 1930’s, this time round the critters were securely penned in, drawing to a close East Anglia’s coypu saga. It only took 50 odd years and more than £2.5 million of tax payers’ money to get rid of a problem caused by “man’s greed and women’s vanity.”
Norfolk has a long history of shipwrecks; most are victims of storms, some due to error and a few maybe subject to intent. Whilst most wrecks can be plotted along the whole length of the East Coast of England and particularly the eastern extremities of Norfolk, a few lay along the north coast of the County.
Two wrecks in particular lay quite close to each other; well, if you consider 7 miles apart being close. The SS Vina lays at Brancaster, whilst the S T Sheraton, the subject of this tale, rests on the beach at St Edmund’s Point near Old Hunstanton, just below the former lighthouse and chapel ruins. Time, sea and weather has ensured the this once proud steam trawler now resembles little more than a large and rusty rib-cage; a carcass which retains a half digested meal of brick remains and concrete.
The S T Sheraton was built in 1907 by Cook, Welton and Gemmell Ltd of Beverley, near Hull and began its working life by fishing out of Grimsby, her home port at the time. It was of a specific design and just one in an already well-established succession of steam trawlers, the first of which was built in 1878. Measuring approximately 130ft long by 23 ft wide, the Sheraton had a 12ft draught. This ship represented an historic phase in deep water trawler construction as metal replaced timber. No design drawings remain nowadays, but the one surviving photograph of the Sheraton at sea, plus contemporary steam trawler plans indicate a vertical stem, counter–like stern and finely drawn underwater section. Its hull was constructed with ferrous metal plates over ferrous metal runners and ribs, held together with rivets, and with some internal wooden framing, possibly to support the decks and superstructure. All in all, these features were legacies of a great sailing era which contributed to the fine sea keeping quality of this type of vessel. The Sheraton was indeed a tough and sturdy ship, designed to cope with the often hostile conditions of the North Sea, with a single screw propulsion and accompanying machinery supplied by Messrs Amos and Smith, of Hull.
The Sheraton was built at a time of growing national unease at the growing military power of Germany. Nothing made Great Britain’s sense of unease more stronger or acute than the thought that the Royal Navy itself – the mightiest in the world – might be challenged any time soon. In the same year that the Sheraton was built, Rear-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford strongly recommended that steam trawlers should be used as minesweepers in the event of war, “to free up regular warships for other and more appropriate duties.”
When what became The First World War began in 1914, as many as 800 trawlers from both Hull and Grimsby were requisitioned for minesweeping and anti-submarine duties. One of these was the Sheraton which became an auxiliary boom defence vessel involved in net laying and patrolling anti-submarine booms. This she did for some considerable time, only occasionally undertaking trawling work. After peace was declared, she returned to fishing from Grimsby.
Then, following the outbreak of the Second World War the Sheraton was requisitioned in January 1942 by the Royal Navy, this time to serve in the ‘Nore’ Command, a major Royal Naval unit established in Kent during the 17th century. The Nore’s operational area included some 222,000 square miles of the North Sea, in addition to looking after the Medway, Chatham and Sheerness dockland areas. This Command continued until long after the war ended, only finally being disbanded on March 31 1961 during the Cold War. At its height, the Nore Command was overseen by an admiral and such was the demand for its services, that a number of smaller subordinate commands were set up around the country, one of which was at Great Yarmouth which also had a fleet of minesweeping trawlers, motor launches and examination service vessels.
When requisitioned by the Navy, the Sheraton was fitted with a six-pounder gun towards her bows, before being registered as an armed patrol vessel and serving off the East coast. It seems she not only resembled a torpedo boat in appearance, but her bows were also adjustable to avoid detection at night. The following entry appeared for the Port of Grimsby at the time.
Auxiliary Patrol Vessels – trawlers WARLAND (armed with 12 pdr gun), SHERATON (6pdr), EVERTON (3 pdr) repairing to comp 7 Jan, ORVICTO (3 pdr), French MONIQUE
CAMILLE (65mm), naval auxiliary boats GOLDEN ARROW III laid up in care and
maintenance, NORMARY, all vessels at Grimsby.
In addition any other convertions that may have taken place on instructions from the Navy, the Sheraton was also fitted with an Echo Sounding Device.
Soon after the Second World War had ended in 1945, the Sheraton was stripped of all valuable components and painted a bright and distinguishable yellow ‘daffodil’ colour. This was intentional, because the next phase of her life – which was obviously meant to be final – was to be a Royal Air Force target ship. This was no different a role to that of the SS Vina, laying just seven miles east of the Sheraton.
It would also appear that, following the end of hostilities, references to the Sheraton and details relating to the Grimsby fleet as a whole disappeared. The ’Loss List of Grimsby Trawlers 1800-1960’ does not mention the Sheraton, nor does ’Grand Old ladies: Grimsby’s Great Trawler Stories’, by Steve Richards. Maybe she changed ownership after the war and was re-registered in another port? Possibly, when the vessel came to the end of her working life and ended up as a hulk for target practice, such re-registration, or de-registration occurred. Maybe use as a target involved more than simply towing the vessel to a suitable position in the Wash? If a full de-commissioning took place then the engine could have been removed; this may explain for the concrete ballast in the present wreck.
It was in the Wash off Brest Sand, Lincolnshire where the now-unmanned Sheraton was anchored; she was to remain there until the night of 23rd April 1947 when severe gales drove her to break away from her moorings and drift across the Wash, eventually settling on the beach at Old Hunstanton.
By the next day, anchors had been laid in preparation for an attempt to refloat this 130-ft RAF target vessel. That effort clearly failed and it was left to a firm of King’s Lynn scrap merchants who, reputedly, bought the beached ship and began stripping her down, almost to its ‘bare bones’. Thereafter, time and tide took over and what one sees today is what one gets – a large section of a partially ribbed hull.
The shipyard which built the Sheraton no longer exists, having been wrecked itself on the twin rocks of the 1973 Oil Crisis and the collapse of the once-proud Hull-based fishing industry. The only option left was to call in the receivers. So although the yard which built her vanished a generation ago, the once-proud S T Sheraton, a ship which gave valuable service to her country in two world wars, and helped to feed her in times of peace, still lingers on.
With every year that passes onlookers continue to come and go, some will probably contemplate the possible circumstances surrounding the wreck and take photographs to post on social media; others will be preoccupied elsewhere and, in their minds, on more interesting objects. Those who have seen it all before get older and the youngsters copy the beach habits of their elders and simply paddle in pools and dig sand castles. Whilst all this goes on, the remains of the once proud S T Sheraton continues to be weathered towards ultimate oblivion.
(Based on contributions from Christopher Weston and other sources.)
This is a Tale not so much about the village of Weybourne but more about a grand Edwardian hotel that was built there to entice the wealthy – but was destroyed by changing times and the fear of invasion.
Visitors who come to Weybourne in the hope of seeing where this once-elegant Hotel once stood in the schemes of things would see nothing. Indeed, few would know that it had its beginnings during a period towards the end of the 19th century when there was a spirit of optimism in the area founded on the tourism boom of the 1890s. But it seemed that the building, and its intended purpose, was damned from its inception.
Given Weybourne’s current geography, it might seem hard to believe that in 1900, plans were considered for what later became a large building, variously known as either the ‘Weybourne Springs Hotel’ or the ‘Weybourne Court’, Hotel. It would be located next to Weybourne railway station but on the opposite side of the road. The building project was financed by a Mr Crundle, owner of the nearby gravel pits; he hoped that guests staying in the five-storey upmarket establishment would come from the upper classes.
When the idea of building a railway line from Sheringham to Melton Constable via Holt was first announced there was much opposition from local landowners along the route, but it eventually went ahead and opened in 1887. However, between Sheringham and the next station of Holt there were no further stations originally planned, but this changed as a result of the late 1890’s tourist boom when the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway (M&GN) decided they would develop Weybourne as a holiday resort. So, in early 1900 work began on a new station, the site of which would be a mile from the village of Weybourne; the station opened to passengers on July 1 the following year. The position of the station, some 1760 yards from Weybourne may seem a bit odd, but not when it is understood that the Station was built to serve the nearby “Weybourne Springs Hotel”, not the village and local community! Had the hotel not been built then, maybe, Weybourne might never have had a station at all?
However that aside, the hotel’s arrival was seen by the M & GN as a chance to increase revenue on their line; and it did want to impress, given that the ‘Springs’ was located nearby and both properties would “grow” together. Work to build the Hotel began on what turned out to be a large building with its three reception rooms, billiards room, hotel office, manager’s rooms, guest bathrooms, kitchen, serving rooms, domestic offices, staff bedrooms and outbuildings including stables. In all there were 36 guest bedrooms and due to its size, records suggest the hotel, reputedly named after nearby springs with medical properties, didn’t open for business until 1902. Interestly, included in the hotel’s facilities was indeed a local ‘Springhead Plantation’s spring-fed pool, which flowed under the adjacent railway. At one end was a pumping station and at the other end was a hydraulic ram. This equipment served the hotel.
Whilst popular at first, and with a belief of management in possible further development later, the hotel was to fail to reach its full potential. Certainly in its shortlived ‘heyday’, the Weybourne Springs Hotel was an impressive building with verandas, gables, corner towers and a first floor main entrance which, during the early years of the 20th century, welcomed visitors. Its appearance partly resembled that of the current Links Hotel at West Runton.
Ironically, when it did open, one of its earliest and largest booking was not by elegant tourists at all. This ‘booking’ was made in May 1903 when the increasing numbers attending Gresham’s School in Holt had outstripped the space for them at the school’s boarding accommodation. So, from May to July that year, boys were boarded at the Weybourne Springs Hotel. From there they would travel daily, by train, to Holt for their lessons until the end of the school’s summer holidays when extra accommodation was provided at the school.
Thereafter, there were various occupants for the Hotel, including a holiday centre with chalets in the grounds and a private club. Brewery records reveal that on October 19 1908, Percy Newton Mayhew was the third and possibly final registered licensee. No licence application renewal was made either in or after February 1910, suggesting the Springs only remained a hotel for a short time. The Norfolk Pubs Register claims closure was “around 1909”, and two years earlier on June 7 1907, the London Gazette (the official Government journal) had already published Notice that the Springs Hotel would shortly be sold by auction.
First listed by Kelly’s in their 1904 Norfolk Directory, the hotel had been owned by the North Norfolk Hotels & Catering Co Ltd with its company secretary, Mr S E Harris, as licensee. However, in 1908 the London Gazette announced that North Norfolk Hotels & Catering Co Ltd would be dissolved in the November but the property still retained its name.
In 1910 the “Springs” hotel was the chosen venue for a Theosophical Society Summer School. An international group of like-minded souls searching for divine wisdom in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of the universe. The school ran from 4th to the 18th July and guests were charged 35s per week for those sharing rooms with an extra premium of 5s per week for those who were fortunate enough occupy a room on their own. Up to four people occupied some of the rooms, however there is no record to state if the occupants were of mixed gender or not. There was an overflow of attendees and these were accommodated in tents pitched in the grounds of the hotel and in lodgings at Holt and Sheringham. Some of the folks who attended the summer school travelled from Europe. This, plus all the activity generated by so many must have provoked a great deal of interest among the locals who themselves had, in all probability, never set foot outside Norfolk.
Then came the First World War which rekindled worries for the authorities who were to heavily defend the whole of the north Norfolk coastline. For centuries Weybourne had been seen as particularly vulnerable to foreign invaders going back to pre-Tudor years when the Spanish planned to invade, followed by threats to invade from the French and later by the Germans in both the First and Second World Wars, One of the reasons for this is that Weybourne has very deep water making it very easy to bring boats in and unload directly from the boats to the shore. That had been a particular big advantage to the Romans when they first came and then the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes. The Vikings landed and lived here.
There was a 16th century saying: ‘He who would Old England win must at Weybourne Hoop [harbour] begin’.
So during the Great War, when coastal lookout stations between Hunstanton and Sheringham were manned by members of the Cyclist Brigade, two of their companies (2nd & 25th County of London Cyclist Brigade) were billeted in the Springs Hotel, whose corridors now echoed to the sounds of army boots rather than those of hotel guests. But even during wartime there was time to relax: on May 24, 1915 (Whit Monday), the hotel hosted the military’s Cycle Battalion Sports Day. Soldiers from Brancaster, Hunstanton, Snettisham and Wells also attended, camping under canvas in fields around the railway station.
After the war the Hotel must have reopened, as the 1922 Kelly’s Norfolk Directory listed Frederick George Emms as ‘Proprietor of the Weybourne Court Hotel’ but by 1929, it was unlisted, evidence of its end following a gradual fall-off in trade over the previous twenty years or so. At the time it was suggested that the Hotel’s demise was partly due to subsidence of the light sandy soil on which the Hotel was built. But nearby, and not to be entirely forgotten of ‘The Springs’ was to be the ‘Weybourne Court Holiday Camp Ltd’ complex, built on some of the former hotel’s site. However, in August 1931, the London Gazette advised this too would be dissolved within the following three months – the Company was only finally wound up in 1942. As for the former Weybourne Springs Hotel, this became a home for disabled people in the 1930’s but would experience its end at the outbreak of Second World War. The demise of the former Hotel came in 1940 when it was demolished after being considered a conspicuous landmark which might be advantageous to the Luftwaffe. The building went through many guises in its relatively short history but all that remained would be a few photographs and fast-fading memories to remind later historians of a hotel which was launched to serve upper-class tourists but which succumbed in the end to the tides of war.
FOOTNOTE: In the leadup to the Second World War a local bylaw came into effect in 1937; this allowed for anti-aircraft guns to be fired in the peaceful village of Weybourne as part of the County’s wartime defences. The order, made under the Military Lands Acts and signed by His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the War Department, Duff Cooper, and the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, restricted access around the secret training camp at Weybourne while warning flags were flying. Anyone found to be in breach of the bylaw could be removed from the area and fined up to £5. Although the War ended in 1945, it took until 2016, more than 70 years, for the Order to be ended.
During the Second World War, Weybourne Camp was a highly secret site and was an Anti-Aircraft Artillery range not too far from the site of the former Weybourne Springs Hotel. The camp, along with a complementary camp at Stiffkey, represented the main live firing training ranges for ACK-ACK Command in World War II. Here the Norfolk coastline became a controlled zone by the British forces. This controlled zone extended 10 km deep into the North Sea around Norfolk. Weybourne Camp was a vital part of this zone and, as well as firing in anger, it was also to be used as the principal training camp for all the Royal Artillery who were defending the Midlands and London with their anti-aircraft guns. Gunners would come up to Weybourne for two weeks, they would be trained on firing their guns and then they would deploy back to the cities to defend the cities. They were trained by women of the Royal Auiliary Corps, the ATS, who were responsible for training the artillery gunners. It proved to be a popular place to be posted because it was where the lads could meet the ladies; there are a number of records of soldiers who married their loved ones who they had met there. But all that also came to an end when the Anti-aircraft guns themselves became obsolete in favour of missiles. The Camp at Weybourne closed in 1958.
However, while the guns have long since fallen silent at the anti-aircraft artillery range, they can still be seen in position at the Muckleburgh Collection, on the site of the former camp, part of the UK’s largest private display of guns and military vehicles.
As for Weybourne village and the railway, these would go on to benefit from the general holiday rail traffic as folk came to visit the Norfolk coast for their annual holidays after hostilities ended. But, in 1959, the axe also fell on both the railway line and Weybourne station. But, in time, the M&GN Joint Railway Society was formed and secured the Sheringham to Holt section, enabling Weybourne station to remain open today as the North Norfolk Railway.
In addition to reading Chris’s narrative below, how about clicking on the following Link to see some of the boys ‘stepping out’
Now take a breather by sitting back and reading the following:
‘Nearly thirty years ago a friend and I, in a small boat with the two Suffolk fishermen who owned it, pulled ashore on Cromer beach, below the tall tower of the church. We were going round the coast recording material for a radio programme. Later that evening, hugging the green box which was that marvellous new thing, a portable tape recorder, we found ourselves in The Albion pub with a bunch of big smart men in reefer jackets and blue jerseys – the Cromer lifeboat crew. After a pint or two all round someone put a small board on the floor and, to my amazement, one by one these stalwart modern fishermen stood up and step-danced like people from another planet. Indeed, if they had put on silver suits and flown out of the window I could have not have been more surprised and delighted. We recorded like mad.
I had no idea then that people still did this in England – it just shows how ignorant radio producers can be!’ Thus the BBC radio producer Philip Donnellan, who was instrumental in bringing Winterton singer (and step dancer) Sam Larner to wider notice, wrote in 1982.
The north Norfolk town of Cromer has long been associated with crab and lobster fishing. Even once the Victorian railway arrived and brought countless waves of holidaymakers, turning the town into a fashionable spa watering hole, the crab fishing industry continued to flourish and was the main source of employment in the town. It was a hard way of life, as Katherine ‘Kitty’ Lee – daughter of ‘Shrimp’ Davies, erstwhile fisherman, lifeboat coxswain and step dancer – recalled: ‘A typical day in May would start for me when the alarm goes. Johno (her husband) gets
up, calls our son. Phone will give two rings and then stop, which means John Balls, our crewman, is up. The time could be anything; say it’s 3 am, 3:30 on the beach. Maybe he’ll want a different order for bait. He’ll set the clock for me to get up about 7 am. I light the gas coppers. They take an hour to get hot. If everything is working OK the men should be ashore about 7:30 am. Home around 8 am. Put 2 or 3 hundred crabs into the bath of warm water – 8.30 they’ll be drowsy enough to scrub clean. Two of the men will scrub – we can boil 200 crabs at a time. The third will cook their breakfast – they take turns – all good cooks! In June when they go off around 2:30 am, they are home by 6:30 am…’ It was also a hazardous existence, dependent on the tides and the vagaries of the sea, in a notoriously unpredictable area of the coast, as Donnellan made note of in the same article as before: ‘Three months after our recording session in The Albion two of those big dancing fishermen, coming into Cromer beach on a summer day with their catch of crabs, were swamped by a freak wave and never seen again.’
Side by side with this traditional industry of crab fishing were the two activities of being crew members of the Cromer lifeboat and step dancing in the pubs of the town and surrounding area. In both of these activities, the Davies family has been prominent. Probably one of the most renowned of the family was Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies (1914-2002), a long-serving and decorated coxswain of the lifeboat. He was also a wonderful step dancer. Philip Donnellan was not the only BBC broadcaster to visit Cromer step dancers, intentional or otherwise. John Seymour, in conjunction with fiddle player Alan Waller, did so sometime in the early 1960s: ‘Going up into the town, we looked up Shrimp Davies, as the coxswain of Cromer’s No 1 lifeboat is generally called by people who know him. I’ve known him for some years. Like the other lifeboatmen, he’s also a crabber and crabbing is how he makes his living. He’s a smallish man, but wiry and tough, as anyone following his calling must be. He likes his beer when he’s ashore, he plays the melodeon and he step dances……The earliest extant recording of Shrimp step dancing seems to have been made by Peter Kennedy in 1952, in the town, when he danced to Percy Brown and Bob Thompson playing The Sheringham Breakdown on melodeons.
‘Shrimp’ Davies’ cousins Jack (John James) and Dick were also step dancers, whilst another cousin Bob also played the melodeon. When Peter Clifton and Ann-Marie Hulme visited the area in the mid-1970s to research the step dancing tradition, they found the Davies family members still very active in this respect. They identified three distinct styles of step dancing still in evidence in north Norfolk, albeit mainly practised by a few members of an older generation: ‘
1) An intrinsic and deep rooted style of dancing which we call Norfolk stepping.
2) The stepping characteristic of the travelling people – as old or possibly older than Norfolk stepping, which we call Travellers’ Stepping.
3) A degenerate form of what is commonly called modern Lancashire stepping performed by the Davies family of fishermen in Cromer.’
‘The Davies are an established Cromer fishing family whose association with the lifeboat dates from its earliest days. The present cox is young Richard Davies who succeeded his uncle, Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies. Shrimp’s predecessor was the famous coxswain Henry Blogg, brought up with the Davies. There has been a tradition of dancing in the Davies family for at least seventy years. This dancing is performed in ordinary leather-soled shoes and is considered by the fishermen and others to be Lancashire dancing.’
‘Unlike the Lancashire stepping of the travellers and the Jearys, the older members of the Davies family danced in eight-bar phrases, comprising a six-bar step followed by a two-bar finish. The story of how modern Lancashire step dancing came to be found amongst the fishermen of Sheringham and Cromer is well known. The Morning Advertiser of 1964 relates the tale as told to them by Mr Archie Wright in an article entitled Christmas is a time for Step Dancing. It reads: At TheHorseshoes, in the Norfolk village of Alby, the entertainment speciality of this cheerful roadside inn is a particularly vigorous form of step dancing. The story of step dancing at The Horseshoes is linked with the career of licensee Mr Archie Wright.
His first connection with the local fishermen was in 1924 when he went to The Belle Vue at Cromer, a house he managed for nine years.’
‘In any conversation about step dancing the most frequently recurring name is that of Jack Davies (Sn). Mr Wright’s sister Rosie is Mrs Jack Davies (Jr). Her son Richard is an expert step dancer and his grandfather Mr Jack Davies Sn., now over eighty, was until a few years ago one of the finest exponents in the district.’
‘At this point it has to be acknowledged that Norfolk cannot claim this form ofstep dancing for its very own. It was brought to Cromer by a coastguard from Lancashire over sixty years ago and he showed local fishermen Mr Jack Davies (born 1884) and his brother Billy (born 1887) how it should be done. When Jack and Billy Davies danced together they did so in perfect unison. An exponent whose expertise is still remembered and discussed with admiration was the late Mr Charlie Harrison (born 1874). ”Billy Davies passed his talent on to his son Mr Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies. Jack’s brother Dick is a good step dancer, as is Jack himself and his son Richard. The Sheringham lifeboat bowman Mr Eric Wink is another step dancer.’
It goes on to say, ‘For a feature of this dance, which over the years has become the Norfolk fishermen’s own speciality, is that it must be performed within a very small space. It is all done on the toes and ball of the feet and heels must never touch the ground.’
Archie Wright’s daughter Marian Daniels commented, of another public house held by the family, that ‘My parents Archie and Ivy Wright were tenants at The King’s Head, Erpingham. We moved there in 1948. All the twelve years we were there Sat and Sunday evenings George Craske would bike over from Sustead and bring his accordion. Also a chap called Albert would play the piano. He was a coal man and my mother had to clean the white keys as they were black when he finished playing.’
“My uncle Jack Davies, a Cromer fisherman, and his son, my cousin Richard, would step dance, also myself, my father and Jimmy Crane. Everybody used to get up and dance. My mother would be up and down the cellar steps, serving. There was no counter. She would be singing all the old songs. Titch and Charlie Lambert, uncle and nephew, loved to dance. If they couldn’t get a partner they would dance together. It is such a shame these wonderful evenings are no more.’
To return to the article by Peter Clifton and Ann-Marie Hulme: ‘The Davies’s dancing is of great interest as it demonstrates the absorption of an extrinsic style of dance into the local tradition and how in two generations the dance has degenerated. We know that the deep-rooted Norfolk stepping existed in Cromer before the arrival of the Lancashire coastguard. Indeed, old Jack Davies’ father was a Norfolk stepper. Old Jack Davies, his brother Billy and ship’s carpenter Charlie ‘Casey’ Harrison from Sheringham learnt Lancashire steps from a coastguard stationed at Cromer in about 1905. The Davies called these steps by such names as the 1st Lancashire Step, the 2nd Lancashire step, etc. The steps the coastguard brought with him are generally termed Lancashire clog steps. That is the modern style of Lancashire dancing dating from the 1870s, danced on the music halls and at competitions. The Davies fitted their Lancashire steps to the even rhythmic hornpipes and breakdowns of the local Norfolk musicians, often dancing alongside the dancers of the deep-rooted Norfolk style of stepping such as the Wards and the Turners from Roughton whom Archie Wright calls ‘farmyard shufflers’ or ‘tailboard steppers’.
He used these terms in a slightly derogatory sense, considering their style of stepping inferior to that of the fishermen. The names apparently derive from the farm labourers’ practice of removing the tail boards of farm carts to step in order to keep warm on cold mornings whilst awaiting their orders.’
As to the Davies’ style, the article comments: ‘We believe old Jack learnt eight steps. He was undoubtedly the best dancer, and we are told was the only Davies to be able to dance the steps off each foot. The next generation of Davies, Jack, Dick, Shrimp and Bob dance about half that number. The best dancer and the only one to still use a two-bar finish is Dick Davies. He learnt his steps from Charlie Harrison. He insists his 1st Lancashire step must be danced with plenty of spring and on the toes. Another step involved shuffles followed by a toe and heel – a type of roll. We note that for a dance which is supposed to be ‘all done on the toes and ball of the foot, and heels never touch the ground’, it certainly employs a number of down heel beats.’
In an area where step dancing was once very commonplace, and to a more limited extent still is, the Davies family – or at least the males of the family – have ensured that this tradition continued in Cromer perhaps long after it died out elsewhere. The fishing community in the town was notably conservative, in outlook, dress and customs, as Kitty Lee relates: ‘Johno averages a new suit every other year. Doeskin is out, but he does have the best serge available. So he generally can rely on having three suits at any one time – working, second best and best. He has at least seven jackets in the house at present. He takes a pride in wearing the old style and I doubt he will ever change.’ It is this pride in the traditional way of doing things which may have ensured the survival of the step dancing in the town, particularly although not exclusively in the hands of the Davies family.
Kitty Lee once again comments on the men’s habits which fostered this: ‘Bringing up a family in the olden times they didn’t have a lot of room – 2 up, 2 down – with 7 or 8 children. It wasn’t so bad when they were all small and sent to bed but as they grew, where did they all sit? So I guess going to the local hostelry was really a necessity. It would be more like a wealthy person going to his ‘club’. What better way to end a day’s work than by sinking a few pints of good ale, replacing the liquid sweated out rowing and hauling, chatting about the day’s events, discussing catches, swopping ‘yarns’, telling tales. Bit of music from an accordionist, sing an old ‘shanty’, dance a step or two. Wonderful days. It was the best way to relax, take the tension out of any worrying situations that might have occurred, discuss prices and decide what time is best to get the tide tomorrow.’
Unfortunately this tradition of self-made pub entertainment was not to last as people’s recreation changed; of the aforementioned step dancing Davies, Richard (1944-2010) was the only one of his generation to continue the practice, as his daughter Fiona relates: ‘There weren’t really many people. I can’t think of anyone like Billy Davies, or anyone like that stepping. I can’t remember them doing that … Dad used to get annoyed (in The Albion) when someone would come in and start playing, and then someone in the pub would turn the music up; and he could get really annoyed.’
Singing in the pubs was also commonplace in the town, part and parcel of the evening’s entertainment with the step dancing, as a local newspaper article relates: ‘Shrimp’ learned his many step dances from his father, and from his famous uncle, Coxswain Henry Blogg. He tells many a tale of the fierce competition which existed in the early days of this century between local step-dancers, tales which involved both ‘Shrimp’ himself and his father. ‘He recalls a man named Gipsy Gray, renowned around Cromer for his prowess both with his feet and his fists. Shrimp’s father was dancing in a local pub one night when Gipsy Grey walked in and started to deride the Davies’ dancing. ‘Davies determined then to prove his superiority and a fight ensued from which he emerged victorious, uncrowned king of step dance and fisticuffs. Having heard of these tales I wondered how ‘Shrimp’, who certainly looks a worthy successor to his father, had earned his diminutive nickname. He laughed when I inquired about it, and told me that being a rather small baby, his Uncle Henry had walked in, taken one look and said, not very tactfully, ‘What a bloomin’ shrimp.’ The nickname has survived some fifty years.
‘The usual venue of the lifeboatmen of Cromer is either The Albion pub or The Bath Hotel. In The Albion, on a black, storm-swept night in January, I met ‘Shrimp’s’ brother Bob Davies, a giant of a man. Like the rest of the Davies family he has the sea etched into his face, and also like them he has a warm, outgoing personality. He is judged to be one of the best accordion players in the county, when he can be persuaded to give a tune on that instrument.’
‘When one adds ‘Shrimp’s’ dancing to Richard’s singing and Bob’s accompaniment, one wonders why they did not choose the stage for their career, for they would have been instantly successful. Richard, who strikes one as the obvious leader of the younger generation of Cromer seamen, does most of his singing in The Bath Hotel on the seafront. The proprietors, Tom Evans and his wife Stella are both keen folk music followers and have encouraged the fishermen to use this pub as their song and dance centre. Richard has a wealth of traditional song at his fingertips, songs which have been passed on by generations of seamen. One of his favourite songs is The Bold Princess Royal…’
Clearly there was on occasion a robust spirit of competition as regards the step dancing, although Richard himself did not favour any sort of formal dancing competitions, as Fiona relates: ‘He used to get quite annoyed about the stepping competitions as well…It was just that you shouldn’t have a competition. I totally agree with him on that one. That don’t matter who’s better … But it’s not about how well you do it; it’s being part of it and adding a beat to the music. It’s not how fancy your steps are.’
In recent years Richard Davies could always be prevailed upon to sing his own idiosyncratic versions of The Foggy Dew and The Worst Old Ship (Waiting for the Day), both, in their rather blunt bawdiness, exhibiting his vivacious and convivial personality which always came to the fore in numerous musical occasions across the county.
One local regular singer and step dancer who was greatly involved in the nights of music but who was not of the Davies family was Frank ‘Friday’ Balls. An occasional fisherman, he tended to earn his living in the building trade, as Jimmy Jeary recalled: ‘He hardly went to sea; very, very rare. He was a builder more than anything. He used to sing down The White Horse on Saturday, Friday nights. Cause he knew all the old fishing songs,’ and Fiona Davies remembered that ‘He was quite a lovely old man’ who sang and step danced.
Aside from Bob Davies or George Craske, a regular musician to play for the step dancing was Percy Brown, who lived in and around the town of Aylsham. Philip Donnellan again: ‘Two of the men that night in The Albion (and what better name for a culture-carrying pub than that?) were not fishermen but countrymen: Percy Brown, who played melodeon and concertina (sic) like an angel, and Dick Hewitt, a slim, straight younger man, who danced like a demon.’ As well as in Cromer itself, the step dancing would take place a few miles inland as, before the advent of synthetic materials, the fishermen would head to Antingham to gather hazelnut sticks for their crab pots, as recalled by Ray Bird, formerly landlord of The Barge in that village: ‘Them down Cromer, the fishermen, they used to come. They used to come to that little old plantation; that’s where they used to cut hazelnut out for crab pots. They’d just call up the road for Percy: ‘Come on, we’re going down for a drink.’
On 6th October, 1962, Reg Hall, Bill Leader and Russell Wortley recorded an evening’s entertainment in The Bath House on the sea front of the town. Reg Hall
remembers that they picked up Dick Hewitt and Percy Brown on the way and that ‘Shrimp’ Davies lived more or less next door. The lively recordings showcase Percy Brown’s playing of a variety of popular song tunes, his occasional singing, and quite a few medleys of hornpipes to which Richard, Jack, and ‘Shrimp’ Davies step danced, as did Dick Hewitt and ‘Friday’ Balls, the latter also contributing the occasional song. As well as Percy, Reg also accompanied the step dancers on several occasions, recalling that he played that evening to get things going, something he wouldn’t always do. As a consequence of this night, Reg remembers that the Cromer lifeboat crew were invited down to Islington Fox in about 1965 and that about four came and there was a night of singing, step dancing and storytelling.
In the 1970s a short film was made for Anglia Television of various Davies family members and ‘Friday’ Balls step dancing to Percy Brown’s playing, showing their individual styles within that ‘degenerate form of what is commonly called modern Lancashire stepping.’ The five dancers get up one after the other to perform their steps, whilst Percy Brown continues to play Yarmouth Hornpipe throughout, very much as is the custom. The dancers in order are Richard, Dick, Jack, ‘Friday’ Balls and ‘Shrimp’ Davies.
Richard Davies, the life and soul of so many musical nights across the county with his ebullient personality, sadly succumbed to a brain tumour on 5th May, 2010, at the age of sixty five. Local broadcaster and newspaper columnist Keith Skipper wrote: ‘He looked and sounded like a refugee from Treasure Island. Gingery beard, muscular frame, booming voice, piercing eyes darting from menace to mirth in no time and a throaty chortle … With great uncles like Henry Blogg and Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies, the boy Richard had to get used to feeling at home with proud traditions … We found happy common ground on stage as his extrovert nature and delicious lightness of foot kept traditional step-dancing to the fore. He answered calls to give special displays at Mundesley Festival and on my Press Gang farewell entertainment rounds. Our final flourish together came at Waxham Barn on an uncommonly cold May evening a couple of years ago to raise money for the Sea Palling inshore lifeboat. Richard’s turn culminated in his own distinctive version of Foggy Dew.’ Richard Davies was a highly respected member of his local community, long standing coxswain of the lifeboat until his retirement in 1999, and the town quite rightly came to a standstill for his funeral on 19th May, 2010.
Times have changed in Cromer as everywhere else but the crab fishing is still thriving in the hands of Richard’s son John, continuing the family business although, in the words of Fiona, ‘My brother can step. But he always says he has a bone in his leg, so he can’t! But he can step; he was taught to step. He knows how to do it, but he won’t.’ Fiona however has continued the family tradition, despite the fact that it has been almost exclusively a male preserve in the town: ‘It was male-dominated … But I can’t remember any of my aunts stepping … I broke that tradition!’ She recalls earlier years and being in Aldborough Black Boys in the mid 1970s: ‘I can’t remember whether we were upstairs or downstairs, but I can remember my dad saying, ‘Come on, step!’ And I had to, whether I was shy or not. I was only about five or six. That was one of my earliest memories, I think. And it was great, because there was lovely people and a whole big community of people doing music, and it was interesting, I think, at that age.’ The tradition is in good family hands as Fiona’s children Ben and Emily both step dance too, even if age has temporarily reduced the interest: ‘And when I got to a teenager: I got ‘I’m not doing that anymore!’ Like my children, they’re teenagers; they don’t want to do that. But they will come back to it. It took me a few years to do it; to come back to it. But it’s a nice thing to keep going; tradition. I’ve even got my own little protégées now and my friend’s daughter; she’s six.’
Near Brancaster’s sleepy harbour off Norfolk’s northern coast, three barnacle-coated hunks of metal appear at low tide. The ghostly remains of the SS VINA are enticing to the curious, but pose a real threat to anyone who gets too close.
Some of the finest looking ships ever built came from the shipyard at Leith and the screw steamer SS VINA was one, built by Ramage & Fergusons Shipbuilders. The SS VINA was the first of a two ship order from the shipping company of J.T. Salvesen & Co of. Grangemouth, Scotland. Her sister ship the SS VANA had been launched only four months previous, with the main difference between the two sister ships being the engines used – the SS VANA was to use the steam compound engine while the SS VINA was powered by a Triple Expansion engine.
The SS VINA was a fine lined coaster, built in 1894 as a short sea trader on the East Coast with voyages to the Baltic States as part of a round trip; in fact she spent most of her working life, that is up to the outbreak of World War 2, operating the Baltic Trade.
In 1940, she was requisitioned as a Naval vessel and brought to Great Yarmouth under the command of Captain Pickering to act as a block ship to prevent an invasion via the port. Included in this plan was for the hull to filled with concrete, wired with explosives and manned by a crew of 12 to carry out any necessary orders. Had the Nazis attempted to invade the SS Vina would have been detonated in the Great Yarmouth harbour to block the passageway. That never happened and in late 1943 she was towed to Brancaster. The following year, in 1944, she was purchased by The Ministry of War and anchored further out at sea, to be used as a target for RAF planes testing a new shell; however, some time later a north-west gale dragged her to her present position full of the shell holes. The ship subsequently sank and the wreck remains on the sandbank to this day.
Over time numerous efforts have been made to retrieve the wreckage as the ship was not only a danger to navigation, but also an attraction to the holiday makers on Brancaster beach who regularly walked out to the vessel’s remains at low tide. In 1957 a merchant bought the SS Vina wreck for scrap and cut it into three pieces with an oxyacetylene torch, but he couldn’t safely remove it. Since then, people have scrapped bits for themselves. In 1968 the bronze propeller was blown off, manually floated across the channel and with much difficulty inched with chains up the beach. Apart from these few attempts to salvage, serious efforts to clear the site have long been abandoned due to the excessive costs involved.
The wreckage still makes navigating through one of the harbour’s channels difficult, but any efforts to remove it have been thwarted by the wild tide in the area. The tide also creates a hidden danger for those getting too close to the ship. Lives have been lost due to ill-advised actions and the local lifeboats and RAF rescue helicopters have been pressed into service on many occasions each summer. A warning sign on the wreck advises anyone reaching it to return to the beach immediately.