Writers from a century ago knew what Norfolk was all about

Cley Marshes

Winter on Cley Marshes and other Norfolk coastal delights can inspire imaginations towards Vikings on the horizon .. when the light is good! - Credit: Trevor Allen

Well, it’s even harder now to come up with a legitimate excuse at the start of a new year and a third lockdown confinement to homely barracks.

I refer to the call for yet another attempt to conquer the north face of a mountain of books, magazines and documents blocking a path to my groaning study desk.

A tinge of guilt and a tingle of excitement surface together as the first sortie reveals old friends left to fade and gather dust along with more recent fancies still awaiting proper attention. Least I can do is give them piles of their own.

So begins the latest charge to an endless scaling of literary ranges in search of knowledge, inspiration and useful companions to help make sense of a world in which real books and joined-up writing can so easily be reduced to bit-part players – despite all those crammed shelves acting as backdrops in current television news interviews.

I bought a rather crumpled edition of The Land of the Vikings by HV Morton several years ago. 

It was first published in 1928, shortly after his best-selling In Search of England, a volume worthy of establishing him as one of the leading travel writers of the age.

Henry Vollam Morton’s style is too flowery and jingoistic for many tastes, but he did evoke stirring images and values of an age and an environment difficult to scoff at from a recession-wracked era, clouded even more by climate change worries and a virus pandemic in the third decade of the 21st century.

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As wind howled and rain and sleet banged on my window, I renewed acquaintance with the Vikings and that part of England known to our Saxon ancestors as the Danelaw between the Thames and Humber.

Perhaps anticipating the vagaries of “local” television services with outstretched arms, the Danelaw embraced today’s counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Morton claimed over 90 years ago that it formed one of the most interesting and least explored districts in the country.

Some will suggest that he and fellow journalist Clement Scott, who prised open the petals of Poppyland some 40 years earlier, did their best (or worst) to rid Norfolk and close neighbours of isolation and innocence in readiness for a brash and seemingly insatiable tourist industry.

It depends, of course, where you stand over the old conundrum on discovering somewhere enchantingly different. 

It is right to spread the word or reasonable to keep the secret to yourself? I suppose the tendency has always been to muse: ”Well, if I don’t tell everyone, someone else will”.

Writers like Scott and Morton certainly carried a lot of weight and painted enticing pictures, the latter pitching a claim for a cosy seat on the East Anglian Tourist Board with gems such as “I do not know another part of England in which the history and romance of this country leap more readily to the mind”.

Morton’s chapter How to Enjoy Norfolk betrays more than a whiff of patronising and subservience to the sort of comments already qualifying as cliches before the Second World War. We have been “remarkable for shrewdness, carefulness, blunt honesty and suspicion” ever since I started reading, writing and ruminating.

I was tempted to give him top marks for describing Cromer as “the most fashionable watering-place on the Norfolk coast” before alighting upon a tribute to “a part of Norfolk almost unknown and never mentioned in the ordinary guide-book”.

He refers to about 30 miles of “meal marshes” between Sheringham and Gore Point deserted except for a fowler or stray naturalist. They are cut across with little creeks and rivulets and every tide sends salt water running up through the sea lavender and samphire.

“Flocks of wild birds soar over dead seaports. The sea has retreated from the land over centuries. And there, far away, outlined against the yellow sand-bar, black dots – the women of Stiffkey, great baskets on their backs and skirts pinned up above bare knees, gathering cockles”.

It doesn’t take much after that to turn to a Morton missive from a previous visit and see Viking ships beaching on the distant strand …”the big, red-bearded men walking to the shore, dragging their great double-bladed swords through the purple marshes, shading their eyes to the distant land”.

And ne’er a tourist board official among them putting up signposts pointing to The Road To Nowhere.

Skip's Aside: If counting coypu or trying to remember names of who played The Three Stooges and Old Mother Riley fail to bring sleep, let me recommend a new bedtime exercise with a topical flavour.

I’ve been easing my way towards slumberland by inventing new words to go with one already pushing for honours as most-used on the planet since early 2020. Lockdown’s the name for this mind-stretching game.

It is best attempted alone to avoid too much chuntering out loud or ridiculing brave efforts to extend and enliven our vocabulary during the rest of a highly challenging era in our lives.

I began with an easy one … Big Ben has to be satisfied with Clockdown or Tockdown. Then I set the bar a bit higher by stretching down the bed to rectify a chilly case of Sockdown.

Are you getting the idea and ready for more extreme flights of verbal fancy? Could this sort of linguistic levity feature before long on University Challenge and Only Connect?

Here is my list with power to add before the nights and my imagination start getting shorter:

Spockdown - a lonely place far, far away for Star Trek enthusiasts.
Crockdown – end of road for vintage car drivers.
Brockdown - It’s all-year hibernation now for badgers.
Hockdown - new retirement home for pawnbrokers.
Knockdown - auctioneers v ex-boxers in new quiz show.
Blockdown – Santa’s inquiry into problems with chimneys.
Grockdown – where circus clowns end their careers.
Stockdown – end of a long and dusty road for cattle drovers.
Flockdown - Bed and breakfast stop for birdwatchers.
Wokdown – next television culinary winner with Mary Berry.
Smockdown – BBC academy in London for rural dialect coaches.
Rockdown – social club for ex-climbers in Broadland area.
Shockdown – cabaret at local electricians’ annual dinner.
Baroquedown – outdoor arts festival on Buttercup Meadow in Upper Muckwash.