Whatever happened to Poppyland?

Bel Bailey on the fate of a Norfolk legend

Can there still be a bottle of “Poppyland Bouquet” perfume hidden away in some Norfolk attic? Made by Daniel Davison of Cromer, it was sold all over the world from 1890 to 1930. Poppyland china was also the name given to a range of Staffordshire china. Nowadays nobody seems able even to describe this intriguing product. Surely it was not all smashed over the years?

In the 19th century, Poppyland was one of Britain’s most popular destinations. But today few could even tell you where it was...

Its strange story began with Clement Scott, a Daily Telegraph journalist who arrived at Cromer on August 1, 1883. He thought the town very pretty, but disliked the crowds and strolled off in search of solitude along the clif top. The scarlet poppies at Sidestrand attracted him, especially those growing near a neglected old graveyard on the cliffs with a picturesque crumbling church tower brooding over it. This set the writer’s imagination to work at once and inspired a whole series of articles. These Scott called Poppyland - by a holiday-maker, written at a farmhouse by the sea.

His dramatic style of writing was immensely popular with those late Victorian readers who clamoured for more and a volume entitled Poppyland Papers appeared in 1886. His poem The Garden of Sleep had a kind of melancholy yearning, typical of that age. It was set to music and became one of the hit songs of the time. One verse ran:

In my garden of sleep, where red poppies are spread,
I wait for the living, alone with the dead!
For a flower in ruins 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 in hope or fulfilling, that entered each breast,
Ere death gave release, and the poppies gave rest?...
Sleep, my Poppyland, sleep!

To modern tastes this is rather morbid stuff but Scott’s readers lapped it up avidly. Floods of letters wanted to know what had inspired the lyrics. Then he explained the fascination the old churchyard held for him and that the poppies symbolised death. Strangely his readers wanted to see the spot for themselves , and the whole area became popular with visitors less morbid than Scott and determined to enjoy themselves.

So, Poppyland was originally Sidestrand and nearby Overstrand, but coupled with the opening of the railway to North Norfolk, Scott’s articles made the whole area around Cromer synonymous with the name Poppyland. A local railway company even opened a “Poppy-line” from Cromer to Mundesley, and a hotel boom followed in the 1890's to accommodate the many visitors. Railway advertisements also boosted the poppyland theme so the area became famous.

In his writings Scott referred to the “farmhouse by the sea” - in reality Mill House was at Overstrand, where he stayed with the miller and his daughter Louie Jermy - whose blackberry puddings and jams became famous after Scott’s friends praised them so warmly. Louie was the “Maid of the Mill” to whom the book Poppyland was dedicated. Probably the 42 year old Scott (at the time of their first meeting) was more than a little in love with the much younger Louie, an attractive brunette. Louie revelled in the influx of the famous to Poppyland as she especially enjoyed the company of poets, actors and authors.

Some of these wealthy and talented Londoners had houses built in Poppyland which led to increasing prosperity for the villagers. In fact Overstrand a century ago, became known as “The Village of Millionaires” as Lord and Lady Battersea bought a house there, followed by Sir Edgar Speyer, Sir George Lewis and Sir John Hare who all built new houses, r bought existing large ones.

At this period, around the turn of the century, Overstrand’s population increased to over 400 (from 253). Cromer’s population more than doubled to 3,781 by 1901, and even Sheringham benefited from the new railway link, and its population increased by more than 300 in those early Poppyland years.

Famous visitors to Miller Jermy’s house included the poet Swinburne, his great friend Watts-Dunton, George Sims (famous for his ballad Christmas Day in the Workhouse) also the great actor Henry Irving. While at Poppyland, Swinburne wrote A Midsummer Holiday, Sims often praised it in his columns in The Referee and Watts-Dunton wrote Aylwin, all while staying at the Mill House, so there was clearly some magic at work in Poppyland. The next to “discover” the area was the artist W.W. Russell sent hot foot in 1893 to Overstrand by the Lady’s Pictorial. This resulted in the book Vera in Poppyland!

“Scottomania” was established so well by now that souvenirs and postcards of the area were much sought after. These would form a very interesting collection but one rarely comes across them today.

Even as late as 1923, when Clement Scott had already been dead for 19 years, the Westminster Gazette! Stated that “Cromer stands as the metropolis of Poppyland”, but soon the guide books left out the captivating word as the vivid image faded.

Clement Scott died in 1904, his beloved old tower at Sidestrand toppled over the cliffs in 1916 and poor Louie was evicted from her beloved house in 1919 - though she lived in Tower Lane cottage until her death in 1934 - the last of the legends of Poppyland.

Still left, however, is the Clement Scott memorial standing at the entrance to Poppyland on the road between Cromer and Overstrand. As you visit it remember that near here a famous dream was born...

Ref: Bailey, B. 2000. Whatever happened to Poppyland? The Countryman. April 27 116-119

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