A Norfolk Miscellany

This article, by local author Lilias Rider Haggard, appeared in the Eastern Daily Press in 1954 and was cut out and pasted into Sylvia Claxton’s scrapbook. I have been unable to find the article in any books by Lilias Rider Haggard (Norfolk Life, A Norfolk Notebook and A Country Scrapbook), so I believe that this is the first time it has been reprinted. It gives a beautiful description of the charm of Blakeney in the mid 20th century, much of which remains unchanged today.

Michael Archer

A Norfolk Miscellany

The Charm of Blakeney

Some years ago an artist well known in East Anglia painted a picture of Blakeney which was called, as far as I remember, “The Place with a Delicate Air.” If I had the money I should like to have bought that picture, for the artist with his brush had caught something of the opalescent clarity of atmosphere which enhances the ever-changing beauty of marsh and mud, water and windswept sky, and gives it a strange illusion of unreality. So strong is this sense of difference from the usual country and coastal scenery, that there have been many days in high summer when the view from Morston across the narrow strip of water to the Point suggests in colouring, not the familiar Norfolk with misted greens and grey sea, but the hummocked sand hills of the coast near Tunis, shimmering under the heat of an African sun.

It is, I suppose, something to do with the peculiarly vivid light, the intense blue of the water, and the fact that, however cloudy the day inland, all the sunshine there is seems to fall in brilliant shafts upon the Point. Also the mysterious shimmering haze which in certain atmospheric conditions hangs over the stretch of mud flats and sand between Blakeney and Wells, in which reflections quiver and shift, so that the trees of Holkham Woods seem to be strung out upon enchanted islands suspended above a chain of amethyst lakes.

Who, loving this place, could decide when it is most beautiful? Some would say in July, when the masses of sea lavender spread a carpet which is neither blue nor mauve and, like bluebells, can never really be set on a canvas for it is light as much as colour. When the round-bodied sheep drift along the paths through the sun-bleached grass calling with plaintive voices, and the clamorous terns wheel and flash above the Point. Others, at harvest time, when the fields stand thick with corn from the edge of saltings to the high hung fields which climb, patterned in bronze and gold, to the wooded skyline behind the village, and the sun goes down into the sea through the molten splendour of thunder clouds. The wildfowlers would probably say the dead of winter—such winters as we have had the last few years, marsh and muds lit with a pale sun lying snow-bound and desolate between sea and sky, ice piled in fantastic slabs upon the tideline, and the silence of bitter frost broken only by the thunder and honk of the geese as they rise and settle again out on the open water.

And the village itself, so beautifully placed with the long, narrow main street running down to the Quay, dominated by the magnificent church on the crest of the hill and its lantern tower, which has guided generations of mariners to safety through the shoals and shifting sandbanks of the harbour entrance. Blakeney, with its steep streets which open into little courts and alleys where tall hollyhocks, climbing roses and fuchsias cluster against grey walls. Deep, open-topped wells  fringed with hart’s tongue fern, and furnished with wooden bucket and clanking windlass still supply many of the cottages, which are mostly of flint or beach stone, red tiled, and the more modern houses thatched with Norfolk reed.

For weeks together I have lived  in one of those cottages and, much as we all loved at, it had its failings. Strange smells arose in the yard, what are usually termed modern conveniences (except a cold water tap in the back) did not exist, the copper smoked in all winds except one, and the rats sported in the roof of the lean-to kitchen. For all that it was comfortable, its thick walls kept out the storms of winter, it had roomy cupboards and plenty of atmosphere—it was, in fact, a home. I would not have changed it for any modern hygienic erection so admired by rural district councils, where the necessary cubic feet of space considered essential for the modern housewife to rear a family in are so proportioned as to make the whole house look like an ugly face, with a long upper lip and a flat cap pulled down over the forehead. But then I did not have to live in it always.

It is to recondition these old cottages and bring them up to modern standards, without destroying their appearance and preserving the charm of their almost unique setting, that the Blakeney and Neighbourhood Housing Society was formed. It needs money, as is explained elsewhere on this page, but if the capital asked for yields only a modest return in dividend it promises a rich one in enduring things. It would ensure the preservation of this ancient village for the inhabitants, and ensure that those who come back to it year by year from their work in a world which seems to have grown blind to destruction and ugliness, find Blakeney unchanged and lovely, standing against that unforgettable vista of saltings, sea, and wide arc of windswept sky.

Lilias Rider Haggard