The road into Norfolk was lined by mature trees, canopies clipped square by the endless march of passing road freight, mottling the sunlight with fresh, soft leaves. Spring was in full bloom and people were enjoying the first ice-cream of the year. I parked on the edge of town and walked into Cromer.
A shop sold trinkets with a nautical theme. An inspirational phrase hung within a lifebelt; “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ‘Thought no sailor, ever’, I added for myself and walked on. After a long drive from Manchester, I needed a reviving beverage and found just the place in Grey Seal coffee, where a young fellow named Joseph was happy to talk to me about the town. He was a local and had set this business up six months ago. He said he hadn’t seen a busker for a while, and wondered how I’d go. “Norfolk people, they’re.. y’know..”
I said I didn’t.
I took my coffee and wandered round to get an initial feel for the place. Cromer is a well-to-do seaside resort, town up on the cliff, overlooking a pier and promenade. It was early in the season, and the tourists hadn’t really got going yet. In the warm sun, the deckchair man dozed in a pile of his own product. The pier was lightly in use, with a handful of holidaymakers strolling towards the pavilion at the far end. I opted for a busking pitch back in town, on the main street, outside boots and across from the intriguingly named ‘Icarus Butchers’.
It was to be an action packed spot. I was immediately singled out by a middle aged fellow in a blue woolen suit, waving a camera. His lapel sported a number of pin badges, including a poppy, a Union Jack, a Cromer carnival badge in purple, and more I didn’t recognise.
“I’m a vlogger. Mind if I photograph you?”
“No problem.” I replied.
He photographed me from every angle, from across the street, from inside the shop, from behind parked cars. It was slightly off-putting. It made the busking feel somewhat staged and nobody was willing to give me any coins. A heavily pregnant young lady turned up and greeted him.
“This is my daughter!” he told me proudly.
Between them, they seemed to know everyone who passed by, and my attempted busking pitch turned into a large conversation about family news and Cromer gossip, as shoppers and parents were dragged into their sphere. The vlogger introduced himself as Andreas Yiasimi and asked if I’d do a piece to camera for him. I obliged, and asked him where this Vlog could be found. He said he didn’t know yet, as he hadn’t made one so far but I should search for his name in a while. With this, they made a generous donation to my busking pot and disappeared. I started up again, and was immediately drowned out by the considerable sound of a military jet engine going overhead. I looked up and all I could see was a single comical seagull to account for the noise.
The busking pitch has always been a great spot for people watching, but in Cromer, it’s all about the dogs. So many dogs. Greyhounds, Alsations, Lurchers, Terriers, Salukis all came past. One small dog was impossibly long, tiny feet skittering at each end of a long hairy tube. It looked for all the world like a caterpillar with the wrong number of legs. An Asian man came past with a Staffy who suddenly turned and barked at me. The man was mortified and immediately gave me £1.50 as an apology for his dog’s rudeness. Dogs are so much a part of life round here, that if you make a table reservation in the pub for dinner, you get asked how many people and how many dogs are in the party.
A German lady with two small kids stopped me to ask if I’d play the British national anthem to celebrate the forthcoming Royal wedding. This caught me off guard, and I said I didn’t really want to as it might be seen as a bit political. Fortunately this wasn’t a problem. I asked her how she was finding living in Norfolk after the referendum. She said it was fine for her but it would be much harder to bring her family over for visits. Personally, she’d had no issues so far. We chatted a bit more about Brexit. Her young son felt the need to drop a small coin in my case after each exchange like a gamer bribing their way through a conversation with a Non-Playing-Character in an RPG. I said “It’s ok, you don’t need to do that” and he looked me straight in the eye and added another 5p.
No sooner had I got going again when a lady stopped me from playing an Irish jig to ask if I could possibly play her an Irish jig. I said “of course” and played it again. This delighted her and she gave me a pound coin. Another lady passed and said “Ooh I love a good fiddle” before returning 30 seconds later, upset “That came out really wrong, I’m SO sorry.” before rushing off in a flutter, head shaking before I could reply.
After half an hour, by hook or by crook, I was getting somewhere. A small schoolboy came down the street with his mother, holding a tiny violin case. ‘Quids in here’ I thought. Instead, the child clocked the music, fixed on me with an expression of horror, before turning to the parent with pure betrayal that said, ‘You’re making me learn because you want me to turn into THIS?’
Mostly, though, I’d had a lot of smiles as people went past. I assumed that the good folk of Norfolk were simply a polite and friendly bunch. As I packed down at 4:30pm, I realised I had been stood next to a large window poster for emergency contraception. It had been an eventful 90 minutes, and I was surprised to find I’d made £25, given how many times I’d been distracted.
Out over the sea, as the town closed and emptied of life for the day, a stunt plane was practicing. It rolled, climbed, stalled, fluttered before catching and picking up. It was odd to see such a fine display go unheralded as the town emptied of life. I suppose it’s not like learning an instrument where you can just go and practice in the back bedroom. One has to just go out into the sky and get on with it. Finally it dived straight down towards the water before suddenly flattening out and heading out to sea. I headed for my accommodation.
The next day was wet through. Busking was just not a possibility. There were no sheltered spots, and there was virtually no footfall anyway. Cromer was half asleep. I put the fiddle to one side and explored. The pier has a theatre at the end. I walked all round it and dreamed of putting a show on inside. Further still, built off the end of the pier, is the new Cromer lifeboat station, ideal for a launch straight to sea.
Back on land, I visited the Henry Blogg musuem. Built around the motor lifeboat, the H.F.Bailey, upon which Blogg served the later part of his career, it’s a monument to the RNLI’s most decorated lifeboatman. Blogg won the gold medal three times, and the silver medal four times, a haul far in excess of any other person, partly due to his extreme ability and bravery, and partly due to the sheer volume of work that the Cromer lifeboat got through back in the day. The flat sea hides a number of difficult sandbanks that can easily wreck a ship. Once trapped, the waves will lift and drop a ship against the sand till it breaks up. Besides these regular issues, there was also a battle in the Spanish civil war off Cromer, and several disasters during WW2.
Some of the details of Blogg’s rescues were scarcely believable. On one shout, unable to come alongside a stricken vessel in towering seas, Blogg chose instead to drive the lifeboat onto the deck of the ship by riding a wave down, quickly pick up a sailor, before riding off on the next wave, not once but twice. The museum had next to no information on the man himself, as aside from his RNLI work, he fished for crabs, hired out deckchairs, and kept himself to himself, refusing interviews.
The Cromer museum was no less interesting, containing the world’s largest elephant. I think Cromer should make more of this. Discovered at Runton Sands, in exposed sediment from 600,000 years ago, the West Runton elephant is claimed to be twice as big as any living elephant. With 85% of the skeleton, it’s also by far the best example of its kind. If I had the world’s largest and best elephant, I’d be telling everyone about it, not hiding bits of it in a darkened room for people to find on a rainy day.
The exposure of the ancient elephant came about through the rapid erosion of the land. The sea is winning round here, and eating back at the cliffs at an alarming pace. Cromer was not originally the seaside town, but was instead inland of a place called Shipden. Beyond the end of the pier is Church Rock, until recently just about visible at the lowest of tides, the remains of Shipden church, now several hundred metres out to sea. Down the coast, houses are regularly being lost and land is falling away. With the seafront heavily re-enforced at Cromer, and soft cliffs collapsing on the coast either side, Cromer will end up a projection into the sea, a peninsula by subtraction.
I found myself staring out to sea and trying to imagine what it had been. This was Doggerland if you go back far enough, a vast prehistoric plain that ran through to Europe, wet, lush, richly populated with animals and early humans. But the traces are still there, not just in the axeheads that periodically come up in the trawler nets, but in the great forests of wind turbines far out to sea, sunk into the sandbanks that kept Henry Blogg so busy. These white towers, in mega-clusters miles distant, mark the contour lines of an inundated land. The sea may be formless, but the land projects through it, still readable and tangible.
The rain continued to fall. I perused the Olive Edis collection, an early colour photographer, resident of Cromer, who had taken magnificent portraits of nobility and ordinary people alike. She had the great distinction of being appointed the country’s first female war photographer in 1919. By about 3pm, it was clear that the rain was not going to stop, so I opted for a short drive to Sheringham and a ride on the North Norfolk Railway.
Sheringham greets you with a road sign; “Sheringham, North Norfolk’s Premier Seaside Town” which feels slightly contemptuous towards Cromer and Wells-Next-To-The-Sea. ‘I’ll be the judge of that’, I thought. Clearly some local rivalries were at play. Sheringham is the terminus of the North Norfolk railway, one of a large number of preserved railways across England. Alone in my carriage at the front of the train, I began to consider nostalgia, and how we English are so susceptible to it. The railway staff were in immaculate period uniforms, somewhat spoiled by the ubiquitous hi-vis orange jackets on top. The rain outside suddenly switched up a gear from steady to tempestuous, and a couple on the platform fought a losing slap-battle with an umbrella before belatedly realising the sensible course of action was to run for shelter.
England is a land of nostalgia. From preserved railways like this, to castles, forts, to the music of our youth. We want it and we love it. I have always adored steam railways, and now I found myself asking ‘why?’. They are slow, rattly, smelly, and you get a face full of black bits if you look out of the window. It’s not even as if this railway is an accurate portrayal of the steam age either, with a large and spotless mainline engine slowly pulling four coaches tender first, through over-wrought floral railway stations with not a single pansy out of place. It’s deeply idealised.
I could draw a lot of conclusions, but one steam railway wasn’t enough evidence. Instead, I made a note to explore further our relationship with the past, and the role of nostalgia in shaping who we think we are.
On the return leg, I found myself sharing a coach with members of the Meridian cycling club of Kent, out for a few days on the lanes of Norfolk. They asked me to play them a few tunes, so I obliged. The guard of the train turned out to be a morris dancer, and having given a brief demonstration in the corridor, sent the hat round for me. I made my fare back and some. It was a good end to a wet day.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!