OPINION: Winter on the coast really is good for the soul
- Credit: Trevor Allen
I’ve been mooching along a suddenly-uncluttered Cromer promenade wondering out loud why they didn’t regenerate me and a few others while they were about it a few rolling waves ago.
Perhaps a liberal dose of Vitamin Sea can set me up for a testing last lap of a second successive year loaded with restrictions, health concerns and global awakening to the serious implications of climate change.
Perhaps it’s easier to get away with talking to yourself or other brands of eccentric behaviour this time of year when most of the folk you are likely to encounter are doing exactly the same or appear fully at ease with those who do.
This start of the silly season for old codgers who prefer to grouse arrives on a stiff breeze of mild independence after all those brazen pumpkins and show-off fireworks and just before what ought to be the most wonderful thanksgiving of the year is reduced to another tawdry spending junket.
I have already muttered loudly up unwept chimneys and down gas lit streets so many times about the indecent haste with which we are invited tour knees before the giant brantub of commercialism.
“it gets earlier every time” complain haggard-looking shoppers carrying home boxes of crackers, jars of gherkins and big tins of sweets under their tanned arms in later August With as many places now switching on festive lights and an expectant tap for the local economy even before December takes a proper bow, there may be a chance this time for a lull in holly-decked along the aisles as exhaustion and penury take their toll.
There’s only so much goodwill and loot to spare.
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I reckon Sunday school outings to Hunstanton and Great Yarmouth in the 1950s nurtured a potent spirit of escapism as we sniffed annual rations of ozone, rejuvenated our toes in sea and sand and made friends with donkeys instead of rounding up cows and invested nearly a shilling in slot machines to win a Woodbine.
I didn’t sample the briny in winter until the mid-1960s when newspaper reporting rounds too me back to Yarmouth as icy November winds growled , angry waves roared and figures outside the waxworks museum wanted to huddle together for a spot of warmth. That made it even more difficult to work out who they were supposed to be not far from Britannia Pier.
So started a long-term relationship .occasionally bordering on flirtation with melancholy between my more pensive moods and Norfolk’s edge at its rawest. As an honorary Crab since 1988 I have complained regularly about summer excesses like any self-respecting free spirit capable of seeing tourists as “space invaders” and then wallowed in winter expanses of time and room to ponder and roam.
That can hardly warrant a “selfish” vote , especially from those determined to shove an all-year-round tourism bandwagon into the teeth of fiercest gales, be they economic or straight off the Old German Ocean, as our grandparents used to call the North Sea.
It takes a special brand of masochism to cry “Welcome to Poppyland and do the job for them, as a solo act entertaining rigor mortis on the north end of Cromer Pier in the bleakest of mid-winters I await my due reward.
Of course, even top poets usually wait until they get back indoors and thaw out before waxing lyrical about adventures by the wintry waves.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow might have been yearning for a Fishermen’s Friend lozenge or other forms of central heating when he advised: “Sit in reverie and watch the changing colours of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind “.
I find it better to keep on the move, convince yourself it’s at least two coats colder in Sheringham, pretend you are whistling through snow-encrusted lip sand try to forget you tod the wife you were just popping outside and could be some time.
Beach, pier and promenade can provide a sort of “safe house” for ageing curmudgeons from boring matters like residential streets being turned into parking lots, shops overloaded with people ringing home to find out what colour wrapping paper they want and someone complaining there are simply not enough supermarkets selling elastic stockings or a proper liberty bodice.
Get away from it all and savour the sentiments of travel writer Richard Girling who sited Cromer some 25 years ago. He wrote: “No place on earth can seem so empty of promise than the English seaside on a rainy day in July. Few places can offer more buoyancy to the spirit than the same place on a sunny day in winter”.
Please take care, however, not to turn up together at the same time. That’s called summer.
As thoughts swirl like crispy autumn leaves round memorials large and small, I settle on a chilling wartime chapter that opened in my home village of Beeston.
I recall old friend Ron Shaw, organising local history troops in next-door Litcham so effectively for many years, pointing me towards a girl’s tragic tale from 1918.
In fact, it turned out by a remarkable coincidence to be a tale of two Beestons - the Norfolk one seven mile from East Dereham and a rather larger community of the same name in Nottinghamshire.
A memorial to those who died in the Great War marks the way to the graveyard and the parish church perched on a hill outside my home patch. On that roll of honour are Alfred Barrett, Barnes Culley, Edward Dye John Parke, George W Pyle, William Reynolds Arthur Shinn and Harry Wyett.
There’s also Gracia Bolton – munitions worker.
A church noticeboard greets visitors passing through wooden gates. Look carefully to the left of the board and you’ll spot a large house with three chimneys about 600yards away. In the late 19th century this was known as New Farm, home of Edward Bolton and his family. Grace Bolton was born on July 31, 1898 and spent her early childhood in and around the farm with her three brothers.
Although her birth certificate gave her the name Grace, she was baptised Gracia Margaret in Beeston Church in May, 1904. It is not clear how her involvement with the war effort began but by 1918 she was working at No 6 Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell, near Nottingham and lodging with her aunt, Lily Halliard, at Regent Street in the town of nearby Beeston.
Lord Chetwynd set up the Chilwell factory in 1915 and it’s claimed that practically every shell fired by British Artillery at the Battle of the Somme and over 50 per cent of shells fired on the Western Front were filled at Chilwell.
July 1, 1918, had been very hot. Grace Bolton prepared to start her late shift at 6pm. Just over an hour later a huge explosion destroyed the mixing house and ripped apart two of the three milling buildings.
It was reported later that eight tons of TNT had exploded without warning, killing 134 workers and and injuring more than 350. Grace was one of 25 women to perish and her death certificate says starkly: “Presumed killed as result of an explosion. Deceased known to have been in work at the time and since missing”.
She died just under a month short of her 20th birthday.