There is an old and, some have thought, strange tale relating to the shingled beach at Weybourne; it is that it is haunted.
This haunting, if that is what it is, takes the form of a persistent whistling sound, which is be heard out on the foreshore just as dusk is descending – particularly on nights when the moon is full. The whistle is not random or casual but sounds more like the sort of signal given by a person who is trying to attract someone’s attention. You may well think that this form of distress call is quite normal from anyone seeking help; but you would be of a different mind if anyone ever suggested that no earthly lips were making this sound. But, many have said in the past that this is so!
The fact is, a moon’s glow is sufficient to see if anyone is on Weybourne beach who could be making this whistle; if it’s only you there and you hear it then there is a puzzle to be explained away. Some people have tried and even attempted to track down the source of this whistling, assuming at the outset that it may be someone in difficulty in the surf – but, to date, no one has ever been found. Then there are the locals, the ones who should know; a few of them have, in the past, described being right on top of the spot where the whistle is coming from and, even they, have still not been able to see anyone; but, of course, there have been a few exceptions in the past – the privileged few!
Some of these have indeed reported that after the whistling had gone on for a while, and then stopped, they had seen the vague outline of a man on the edge of the beach, where the sea strokes the shingle. Fully clothed in what appeared to be old-fashioned clothing, he appeared to have roamed along the foreshore whilst staring out to further reaches of the water. But, then he just vanished before anyone could go to investigate closer what appeared to be an apparition. The moment this ghostly image disappeared, the whistling recommenced, but it has always been impossible to pin-point its exact source.
Local legend has it, that it is the ghost of John Smythe who was a smuggler from long, long ago. It is said that one night, when the moon was full, he and his fellow crew mates came ashore at Weybourne to replenish their provisions, something they had done frequently in the past. On this occasion John Smythe, who was very, very friendly with the daughter of the local inn’s landlord, told the rest of the men that he would meet them back at shore at a slightly later time than had previously been the case. But despite this extension to his time away, John Smythe was to lose track of time which, understandably, would have been caused by the extent to which he and his young girl were, shall we say, ‘improving further’ their relationship. However, unbeknown to Smythe, the Custom’s men had been alerted to the presence of the smugglers and had made haste to Weybourne to try to catch them before they returned to their ship. At the same time, the smugglers who were there to pick up provisions, learnt of this entrapment and, together, hurried back to the beach and their boat. When aboard, they waited just off shore for Smythe, who they had not been able to locate before their hasty departure. But time was slipping away beyond the moment when Smythe should have returned; and still there was no sign of him. Understandably, they assumed that he had been captured and so began to row away from the shoreline and out to their ship.
As for the Custom’s men, they had not realised that their prey had already fled and hid themselves amongst the sand dunes and waited. Within a short while, John Smythe approached the rendezvous, hurrying down to where the rowing boat had been left, but all he could see were tracks leading out into the water’s edge. In the dim twilight he managed to pick out the rowing boat making its way out to the ship. Being, somewhat a cautious man for a smuggler, he began to whistle for his mates’ attention, which in itself was rather strange since both methods of signalling for help would attract attention. This problem was compounded by the fact that the tide had turned and the sea was on its way in – and coming in fast!
On hearing Smythe’s whistle the custom men sprang from their hiding place and ran towards him. He, in turn, decided to take his chances in the sea rather than be captured; bad choice for, unfortunately as was normally the case in those days, Smythe did not know how to swim. Nevertheless, his decision to wade out into deeper water was in the hope that his fellow smugglers would see him and return to rescue him. In doing this, he knew that the Custom’s men would not follow because they too could not swim. They remained on the foreshore, witnesses to Smythe’s whistling as he ventured further away from their grasp.
John Smythe waded out from a beach that drops steeply; the sea quickly rose higher and higher. What happened next will probably never be known but somehow he must have lost his footing or perhaps the current was so strong that it swept him off his feet; whatever the reason, he disappeared below the waves and drowned; the last sight of John Smythe was his one remaining outstretched hand trailing his body below, a body that was never to be recovered.
So the saying still goes; when the moon is full, John Smythe returns to the beach at Weybourne, desperately whistling for attention of his fellow smugglers, in the hope that they will come back and rescue him – but to date they never have.
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.