David Cleveland tells how a quiet, East Anglian village came to enjoy a brief, but spectacular vogue at the turn of the century.
ON 30th August 1883, Victorians opened their early morning Daily Telegraph to read of the opening of the German parliament in Berlin, a case of a man who set fire to his wife, the odds on the St Leger, a collection of letters complaining about the recent increase in cab fares in London, and a little column and a quarter article 'by a holiday-maker' entitled 'Poppyland'.
It turned out to be, for those who bothered to read it, a description of a quiet corner in East Anglia, written by Clement Scott, a London journalist who was using the newly-built railways to explore the East Coast, not only to satisfy his editor but also to continue his lifelong search for a place of 'solitude, fine air, scenery, and seclusion'.
He set out for Cromer on the north-east corner of Norfolk. Since the advent of the railway to Cromer in 1877, this small fishing village had developed into a town and, as the Victorians called it, a watering place. It attracted the middle classes, the well-to-do of the day, who lounged on the sands on endless summer days, bathed from bathing machines, ate shrimps and bloaters for breakfast, and promenaded the town in tennis jackets and flannels. Famous families had residences there, and nannies looked after children with buckets and spades, who spent most of their time looking for crabs. For the energetic, tennis parties on the firm sand; for the less active - 'some sketch, others read, more geologize'.
CLEMENT SCOTT looked down on this summer scene of Cromer and its sands from Lighthouse Hill, a mile to the east. 'It was the old story' he wrote. 'As I rested among the fern ... they were all digging on the sands, working, reading, flirting, and donkey-riding, in a circle that seemed to me ridiculously small as I looked at it from this great height.' He turned his back on the red-roofed town where a night's lodging was hard to come by, and headed along the cliff top looking down on empty yellow sands washed gently by a calm sea, and around him endless cornfields dotted with the bright red of the common. wild. poppy. 'In aimless fashion I strolled ... wild flowers in profusion around me, poppies predominating everywhere, the hedgerows full of blackberry blossom and fringed with meadowsweet; the bees busy at their work, the air filled with insect life, the song-birds startled from the standing corn as I pursued my solitary way.... There was no sound but the regular click of the reaping machine under which, the golden grain was falling.'
He passed through the tiny fishing village of Overstrand where children just out from school stared at him. Just outside the village he came to Overstrand windmill, opposite which was the miller's house where he was to spend the night. He wrote: 'It was one of those farmhouses that is the exact reproduction of the style of cottage that all children are set to draw when they commence their first lesson. A little redbrick house with three white windows on the first floor, a little white door in the middle, a window at either side.' He knocked, and presently the door was opened by the young miller's daughter who, after consulting with her father, gave Clement Scott a night's lodging which turned out to be the first of many more.
He soon fell in love with the place, and in the ensuing days he explored the fields and the farms, the villages and the sands around Overstrand, always returning to the miller's house for his lodging and the miller's daughter's wholesome food, of which he ate heartily. He climbed the windmill and surveyed the rustic panorama of green and gold dotted with bright red poppies, as many of the fields were before the days of weedkillers and spraying, and he dubbed it 'Poppy-land'.
It is unclear whether the prolific amount of literature that flowed from his pen, much of which was destined for the readers of the Telegraph, was written in the miller's house or after he had returned to London, but it is obvious that the material was collected and contemplated on his frequent visits to Overstrand and the Mill House, and his ramblings in the countryside.
A SHORT WALK from Overstrand, bearing left, brings one into Tower Lane. Clement Scott walked up its incline, past a farmhouse and a row of cottages. It was a typical English lane; bare earth only where the cartwheels ran, and a continuous hump of green turf along the middle. Grasses and wild flowers hummed with insect life on the banks, and shrubs and trees arched-till they almost met overhead. The lane led to Sidestrand's old churchyard, where all that remained of the ruined church was a lonely tower, surrounded by gravestones. Because of the ever-encroaching sea on this part of the coast, the church had become perilously close to the cliff edge, and so it was demolished with the exception of the tower, and the materials used to build Sidestrand's new church further inland. The lord of the manor of Sidestrand, who paid for the work, was none,other than Samuel Hoare. All this had happened only a few years before Clement Scott discovered the peacefulness and solitude, for which he had so long been searching, in this cliff top churchyard. He saw it at its- best, at the height of summer. He called it 'The Garden of Sleep', and was moved to write what he called 'A Summer Song' which found its way, through his writings and quotations on postcards, to other lovers of solitude in the four corners of the kingdom.
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!
As the fame of Poppy-land spread, so did the railways, and it was not long before Overstrand itself had a station. Clement Scott's Poppy-land consisted of the area between Cromer and Mundesley, but the railways, who used Poppy-land as an advertisement for their train services to the east coast, and other writers who wrote about the area, enlarged Poppy-land to take in Sheringham on one side, and almost as far as Yarmouth on the other. But most people still went to Cromer and started their wanderings from there. Overstrand became fashionable in its turn and famous people began to build houses in what was at first only a small fishing village. They also came to lodge at the miller's house.
WITH ALL THE publicity that this quiet rural spot in Norfolk suddenly received, it is not so surprising that at least one local character would emerge and become modestly famous. In our story it turned out to be the miller's daughter, Louie Jermy. When Clement Scott first called at the miller's house, and the pretty nineteen-year-old Louie opened the door, perhaps he fell in love with her as well. She was typical of Norfolk folk. She was not very well educated, but was kind, generous and well mannered. She was very able, particularly when it came to housework and cooking, and she thought nothing of digging up potatoes or plucking chickens. All this stood her in good stead for what was to follow. Scott's writings had made the Mill House the mecca of Poppy-land. From then on all her rooms were full with visitors. The famous came here, particularly from the theatrical and literary professions. Amongst her guests were Sir Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Swinburne, the Beerbohm-Trees and many other famous names of the time. Playwrights came and went away inspired. But of course the most constant visitor was Clement Scott who came regularly whenever he could spare the time for the next fifteen years. Naturally, there was a certain amount of local gossip about the relationship between him and Louie, but he was always 'Mr Scott' to her.
'That hers was a striking personality', wrote one of her guests after her death, 'was apparent to all who ever had occasion to make her acquaintance. The marked individuality there shown was as much a part and picture of the time in which she lived as were the cliff-side home surroundings of holiday charm for the many who year after year came to know her and Poppy-land.' She had a certain amount of ambition to better herself, and at one time went to London to act as housekeeper to Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite artist, where she came into contact with such people as Rossetti, Ruskin, Gladstone, Kipling and many others, all of which 'opened her mind and filled her with a profound admiration for those whose opportunities had been greater than her own; at the same time preserving her independence of character intact'. But she soon returned to the Mill House to look after her father and the innumerable guests that continued to come for several years.
In 1916 her father died at the age of eighty-two, and it was not long after this that she retired. All her household belongings were sold, except those that held the most treasured memories for her. These were carted to her new home, a tiny cottage at the top of Tower Lane, not far from the Garden of Sleep. When she died in 1934, Poppy-land died with her. Today, the visitor would be hard put to find any evidence that Poppy-land ever existed; there are not even any poppies there today. And the Garden of Sleep has disappeared into the waves, together with the end of Tower Lane. The row of cottages has gone too, except for a few fragments of wall that belonged to her cottage that stand perilously on the edge of the cliff. The commercial 'spin-offs', to use a modern term, have also disappeared. One might find a copy of a Poppy-land book, with every illustration covered with red poppies, in an old bookshop, or a piece of Poppyland china in a junk shop, but you are unlikely to find Poppy-land soap or, perhaps the most famous of these souvenirs, Poppyland Bouquet, a scent prepared and marketed by a Cromer chemist. Even the Poppy-land Tea Room at Cromer has changed its name.
Overstrand and its neighbourhood has altered greatly since the war. The railway has gone, and modern houses are mushrooming everywhere. Tower Lane, although still retaining a certain amount of beauty, ends abruptly at the cliff edge and is uninviting, as the off-sea winds blow sand straight up the cliff into one's face. But Clement Scott's book Poppy-land will always remain as a nostalgic record of the rural Norfolk countryside, a way of life gone forever, and a tribute to Louie Jermy, the Maid of the Mill.
Ref: Cleveland, David. 1975. Poppyland. The Lady. 5th June. 1002-1003
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