by Simon Appleyard
It may come as a surprise to people of today, trying to cope with the pressures of modern living, to learn that the burning desire to "get away from it all" is nothing new. The Victorians were just as much caught up in the search for somewhere peaceful where they could unwind and let the cares of life's increasing pace slowly ebb away. For the wealthy it probably meant a long and arduous journey to the Jura mountains, or to the Swiss lakes. To the less well-off, the London artisan and his family, it meant a trip to Margate or some other seaside resort. For many others it was a bank holiday outing to the coast, just for the day. That's why a century ago, by which time almost every part of England could be reached by train, the railway companies vied with each other to promote new branch lines to rural backwaters. They competed for ticket sales to the "must-get-away" public by publishing colourful posters of little known beauty spots, plastering them on hoardings around the country in a bid to whet the appetite of the annual holiday travellers.
In the mid-1880s an intriguing new name appeared on the billboards around the main London stations, advertising a curious place called "Poppyland". But where exactly was it, why was it so called, and why go there anyway?
Readers of the Daily Telegraph in those days would not have been quite so mystified, for they were well used to the glowing articles of Clement Scott, the paper's theatre critic and travel writer, and it was he who thought up the name "Poppyland" as a result of a routine assignment by his editor to write about the new extension of the Great Eastern Railway Company's line to the northern coast of Norfolk. Up till 1882 the line had finished at Norwich, but in that year it was extended northwards to the bracing little fishing port of Cromer, at that time rarely frequented by holiday makers, save for local folk.
The following August, Clement Scott travelled up on the new line from London to Cromer, just like many others escaping from the sweet uncertainty of an English summer, except that in the past he had been used to travelling in genteel comfort to the fashionable watering holes of Continental places like Baden-Baden or Evian, rather than sampling the mundane delights of an English coastal resort. It was not therefore surprising that the hullabaloo, of Cromer, crowded with boisterous families and their excited young children brandishing buckets and spades, soon compelled him to take a walk out of the town southwards along the cliff edge in search of peace.
After about two miles of aimless strolling he cut inland from the cliff path, attracted by the ruin of an old church tower and the distant view of a tiny village. The main body of the church had been in danger of slipping down the crumbling cliff to the surging embrace of the North Sea below, so a few years earlier it had been dismantled and re-erected further inland - except for the tower which remained, by order of Trinity House, as a landmark for shipping. It now stood like a sentinel surrounded by an audience of tombstones. Scott was completely entranced by the scene of tranquillity before him. In his despatch, sent later to the Daily Telegraph he wrote:
"It is difficult to convey an idea of the silence of the fields through which I passed, or the beauty of the prospect that surrounded me - a blue sky without a cloud across it; a sea sparkling under a haze of heat: wild flowers in profusion around me, poppies predominating everywhere ...
"So great was the change from the bustle of fashion to this unbroken quiet that could I scarcely believe that I was only parted by a dip of coast line from music and laughter and seaside merriment, from bands and bathing machines ...
"Looking across the fields there was no sound but the regular click of the reaping machine under which the golden grain was falling. It was just the time of day when an English farm has such a sleepy look. No-one seemed about anywhere as I surveyed the farm buildings, no voice broke the silence ..."
Scott continued his walk, through the near-deserted village, until about half a mile beyond he came to an old windmill with a farmhouse beside it - "the exact reproduction of the style of cottage that all children are set to draw when they commence their first lesson" - a red-brick house with white windows and a stack of chimneys at each end. Scott couldn't resist the temptation of leaning over the white gate in order to contemplate so peaceful a scene. It was evidently the miller's house, for it was not 50 yards from the sloping cornfield, topped by the four-sailed windmill, which was only a further field away from the sea.
Scott leaned over the white bar gate, drinking in the scene ... hovering between the cottage door and the little garden was the miller's 19-year-old, bright-eyed daughter Louie Jermy, wrapped in plain country clothes and a bonnet trimmed with poppies. When the journalist emerged long enough from his spellbound state to enquire if he could find lodgings there for a few days, the girl didn't hesitate.
"Indeed you can", she said with typical country cheerfulness and charm. "Come in, sir" ... and Scott moved in there and then, the miller himself driving over to Cromer later in his pony and trap with the writer to pick up his luggage. On their return through the poppy-clad country- side Scott marvelled that such a haven of peace could exist in the hurly-burly of the world he was used to, and yet within a mile or so from the crowds flocking the promenade and sands at Cromer.
As they returned to the Old Mill House Scott saw through an open window the supper table spread with a linen cloth, candles lighted and vases of wild flowers for simple decoration. The furniture was of solid oak; the books a casual mixture of religious works and the classics; for pictures they had framed illustrations from the London Illustrated News. The whole house smelled of lavender and was spotlessly clean, for Louie - called "The Maid of the Mill" by other writers who were to follow Scott on his pilgrimage to "Poppy land" - was a stickler for cleanliness despite her tender years. When Scott wasn't resting in his front bedroom - "almost wholly occupied by a comfortable old-fashioned tent bedstead" - he was tucking in to the sumptuous but plain - cooked meals that Louie provided, and he had a particular remembrance of her blackberry puddings.
During the day, Scott roamed the Norfolk lanes, absorbing the aura of peace and security that "Poppyland" provided. He was only two fields away from strolling on a deserted beach; he could swim in the sea without a soul in sight. "Had I been cast on a desert island I could not have been more alone", he wrote.
The old church tower on the cliff by the sea never ceased to fascinate him and he would often wander there to sit among the poppies and wild flowers, gazing out to sea. He immortalized the place in his poem "The Garden of Sleep" which was later published in his book Poppyland Papers.
Thus began the story of "Poppyland", for Scott christened it so and recounted his every impression of the place and its people, to the delight of the million or more readers of his newspaper column during the following weeks. He tried to disguise the identity of the nearby village itself by calling it "Beckhythe", but that only served to increase the attraction of the place in the minds of his readers. All the curious had to do was retrace the steps Scott had taken and look for a profusion of poppies...
Among the notables who read Scott's intriguing account in the Daily Telegraph on 30th August, 1883, describing the old mill and its cottage among the poppies by the sea, was the eminent Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Together with his friend and fellow-writer, Theodore Watts-Dunton, he set out a fortnight later to find "Poppyland." At first they checked in at the Bath Hotel, Cromer, but Swinburne felt the resort was "rather an Esplanady sort of place" and so the two friends took the walk Scott had described. They soon came upon the Old Mill House, and were equally captivated by pretty Louie and her widowed father. Clement Scott had returned to London only the day before, so the two literary lions took up the vacant accommodation and enjoyed its inspiring atmosphere in like fashion. Swinburne composed part of his poetic sequence for A Midsummer's Holiday while staying there, and Watts-Dunton was prompted to eulogize the whole area of "Poppyland", though not described as such, in his novel Aylwin.
The whole idea of "Poppyland" seemed to explode in the minds of London's literary and artistic society, and those who paid court to it. Before long many more famous names trod along the path to the cottage and walked through its white painted door into the simple rooms exuding a fragrance of lavender and quiet, country peace. It soon became fashionable to go there, and for the next few years the guest list at the cottage included such household names as Wilson Barrett, the renowned actor who turned even the simplest word or gesture into a dramatic performance. Louie was greatly impressed, not realising that such behaviour was often the way that sophisticates mock the innocents. It was in 1887 that Barrett, whilst staying at the cottage conceived the idea for his world-famous stage-play Sign of the Cross, later made into one of the most successful silent films.
Among other short-term residents at the little mill house was George R. Sims, a man of many parts - poet, songwriter, author, social reformer, playwright and dramatist. His regular feature, headed "Mustard and Cress", which appeared in the Sunday periodical The Referee, was the most widely read page in the country, and he made many delightful and mischievous references to "Poppyland Cottage"and its occupants, so that Louie herself became something of a celebrity. She was later taken to London and mixed with the elements of society she had learned to admire, but in their settings and style she felt out of place and she was glad to get back to "Poppyland."
The list of famous names who visited her cottage and the village grew as each summer passed - Robert Reece, the prolific writer of stage shows at the Gaiety Theatre; Andrew Chatto, the publisher; Sir Henry Irving, the first knight of the theatre; Dame Ellen Terry, the Shakespearian actress; Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the celebrated London actor-manager, and his equally famous daughter, Viola.
It was not long before the place - quickly identified as being Sidestrand, a hamlet then a little way removed from the main village of Overstrand - became known is "'the village of millionaires." Although not strictly true, it seemed that all the famous names in England were drawn to it. Not all, of course, could find accommodation in Louie Jermy's spick and span cottage, but other villagers opened their doors to the notables of society, particularly men of letters and literature, such as Anthony Hope Hawkins, who wrote The Prisoner of Zenda; Anstey Guthrie who gave us Vice Versa; E.F. Benson, Grant Allen, Sir Ernest Cassell, Rufus Isaacs, and even that young writer and aspiring politician Mr Winston Churchill.
Many titled people bought land nearby and built rather more magnificent homes. Even so, the general public had so far largely ignored it, not only because of its out of the way location, but also because there were no "facilities"there ... but, sadly, that came to an end in time. The catalyst for burgeoning popularity, and the inevitable despoilation that it brings, came when Clement Scott published his "Garden of Sleep" verse, written in 1885, in The Theatre, a publication which he edited. One of those who read the verses was the popular song writer Isidore de Lara. He was quite taken with the lilt of the words and, as he walked along Southampton Row in London a few days later, he fitted a tune to it. It was an age of increasing sentiment and when Chappells published the song - later entitled "The hush of the Corn" - it became a huge success all over the world. Now everybody even tourists from overseas, wanted to know the whereabouts of "Poppyland" and visit its honeysuckled lanes. That's when the railway companies moved in, issuing their posters of idyllic cottages in the Norfolk countryside, bearing the invitation "Welcome to Poppyland", to capitalize on the boom in public curiosity to follow the footsteps of the famous.
Clement Scott, as its discoverer, remained the doyen of its visitors and he continued to make the journey there for 5 years, not only in the summer, but also in midwinter. He wrote his "Garden of Sleep" while standing in the churchyard by the old church tower at Christmas 1885, and it was a particular ritual of his to travel there during the "dog days" and see in the New Year from the self-same spot, reading his poem as a reminder of the first days of his discovery and, in some ways, as a lament for what his publicity had done to the place.
Scott later published a delightful book, Blossom Land and Fallen Leaves in which he expanded the story of "Poppyland" and rambled further afield in the Norfolk countryside. The tremendous success of his blissful country paradise soon attracted other journalists and artists to the scene and a flood of guide books and articles suitably illustrated, began to appear. Soon, the little cottage in Tower Lane, which was once the old coach road from Cromer to Norwich, became a showpiece for day-trippers. Cream teas were served in the garden, "Bed and Breakfast" signs began appearing in all the surrounding cottage windows, tour organizers arranged to bring visitors in from Cromer station in the new charabancs, petrel-driven buses, then just beginning to appear in Edwardian England. There were the usual coloured postcards, souvenirs - and even a "Poppyland" perfume, made presumably from the oil of the poppies themselves.
As the public gawped, so the notables moved out and stopped coming. Scott died in 1904, having lived to see his rural haven of peace turn into what he termed "Bungalowland." Swinburne and Watts - Dunton both died a few years later, having themselves helped to immortalize the house and village. When the Great War began the whole of the East Coast became a military-controlled zone and "Poppyland" was taken over by the Army. Several officers were billeted on Louie and her father, but again they gave of their best and provided just the same sort of cheerful, kindly service that they had given to the rich and famous, It was during the war - February 1916 - that a violent storm swept in from the sea and devastated the old church tower. It collapsed and tumbled down the cliff edge into the sea, along with many of the tombstones that had rested peacefully in the "Garden of Sleep" for centuries.
After the war the character of guests seeking to stay at the Old Mill House changed dramatically. The bright young things were out for high kicks, late-night fun, and hang the consequences. There were midnight bathing parties, a growing laxity of personal behaviour, hilarious singing and shouting ... and soon the inevitable notice to quit the cottage was given to Louie by the landlord, for few country people owned the freehold of their homes in those distant days. George R Sims, writing his column in The Referee in 1919 (he was then 72), wrote this paragraph for his myriad readers:
LATEST FROM POPPYLAND
Miss Louie Jermy - Louie of the blackberry puddings - is leaving and the Old Mill House is for sale. So snaps another link with the pleasant and pic turesque past. Miss Jermy should write her reminiscences. She has been the guar dian home-from-home angel of famous men ... Clement Scott loved the Old Mill House. He wrote the "Garden of Sleep" there. I worked there with Wilson Barrett, with Henry Pettit and with Robert Reece. Alas, all three of my old friends are now at rest in the Garden of Sleep.
During the red years, Miss Jermy has been hostess to the khakied captains of the war and they all paid homage not only to her blackberry puddings but to her skill in the real old English kitchen. And now the hospitable reign of the Jermys in Poppyland has come to an end and the Old Mill House will know the joy of Louie's blackberry puddings no more. I stain this paper with a tributary tear.
The auctioneers moved in during September 1919 and put all the memorabilia of Poppyland's fame under the hammer. Unable to part with all of her more treasured possessions Louie bought some of them herself at the last moment and carried them upstairs where a friend later found her sitting among the meagre pile, crying "as if her heart would break."
Louie Jermy had been born in the cottage. She had been there when first her mother then her father died. To have it all sold around her was too much to bear. But she had an indomitable spirit and accepted the hard face of reality. She moved into a nearby terrace home and, although qualified for the Old Age Pension, never drew it. Such was her staunch country pride, for in those distant days it smacked of charity and as such was beneath the dignity of some folk to accept, particularly those who had been hard-working all their lives. What a contrast with the attitude of modern times!
For a few years Louie was a distinctive figure in the district, often to be seen pushing an old pram containing some of her prized possessions from the hey-day of her cottage. For a few years she continued to delight local audiences with recitations of poetry in her strong Norfolk accent, and wearing the huge picture hat of her youth trimmed with poppies. When she died in 1934, at the age of 70, four local fishermen from the village carried her coffin and laid it in the Garden of Sleep alongside those of her family and friends.
Today, if you go to that part of northeastern Norfolk, you will still find a few signs of the former "Poppyland". The old mill has long gone but the cottage remains as a private residence. There are the Jermy family graves in the churchyard, a water-trough monument filled with flowers and inscribed to the memory of Clement Scott and, occasionally, the odd book in second hand shops telling the story of the place. But every year the greatest reminder of all is provided by Nature ... the millions of lush, red poppies that brought notoriety for a time to this glorious corner of rural England.
The Garden of Sleep
by Clement Scott (1841 - 1904)
On the grass of the cliff, at the edge of the steep,
God planted a garden - a garden of sleep!
'Neath the blue of the sky, in the green of the corn,
It is there that the regal red poppies are born!
Brief days of desire, and long dreams of delight.
They are mine when my Poppyland cometh in sight.
In music of distance, with eyes that are wet,
It is there I remember, and there I forget!
O! heart of my heart! where the poppies are born.
I am waiting for thee, in the hush of the corn.
From the Cliff to the Deep!
Sleep, my Poppyland, Sleep!
In my garden of sleep, where red poppies are spread,
I wait for the living, alone with the dead!
For a tower in ruin stands guard o'er the deep,
At whose feet are green graves of dear women asleep!
Did they love as I love, when they lived by the sea?
Did they wait as I wait for the days that may be?
Was it hope or fulfilling that entered each breast,
Ere death gave release, and the poppies gave rest?
O! life of my life! on the cliffs by the sea,
By the graves in the grass, I am waiting for thee!
In the Dews by the Deep!
Sleep, my Poppyland. Sleep!
Ref: Appleyard, Simon. 1987. Poppyland. This England. Autumn. 10-15
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