The tower of the medieval church at Sidestrand on the North Norfolk coast fell into the sea many decades ago. Back in the early years of last century however it still stood as a prominent symbol of Poppyland. The rest of the village church had already been rebuilt further inland, to rescue it from the advancing waves.
Poppyland was the invention of a London-based journalist, Clement Scott, who needed some copy to fill his space in the Daily Telegraph. He was sent to Cromer by his editor, and there he came up with this romantic picture of life in a previously remote part of the country. The distance of North Norfolk from the capital had recently been dramatically reduced by the construction of the railway from Norwich to Cromer High Station. The railway had opened in 1877 and the article appeared in 1883. Scott’s book on Poppyland followed in 1886.
Walking along the cliffs towards Trimingham, at Sidestrand Scott had turned inland to the wind mill. Like Sidestrand church tower, the mill has disappeared long ago, but then this tarred black wooden mill stood out as a landmark. It belonged to Alfred Jermy, the local miller. It was well inland, in the parish of Northrepps, and strictly speaking not in Sidestrand at all. This structure became derelict after Alfred’s death in 1916, and was blown down in a gale in the autumn of 1921.
Clement Scott had been enchanted by the miller’s daughter Louisa, who he first saw working in the garden of the mill house. He enquired if there was anywhere locally where he could stay, and was invited into the mill house. That is just about all that happened; the rest is the result of his literary imagination. With its hints of old graves falling into the sea, opium induced dreams from the poppies nodding on the cliffs, and all under the gaze of the ‘Maid of the Mill’, it struck just the right note to impress the Bohemian elite of late Victorian England. Fashionable citizens flocked from London to Poppyland, in search of the romantic life they hoped to find, including the young Winston Churchill.
As a result of Clement Scott’s literary production, rich bankers and industrialists had fine houses erected in Overstrand, where before the coming of the railway only fishermen eked out a precarious living. Impressive buildings began to spring up around the village. The finest architect of the day, Edwin Lutyens, built several edifices there, including the Methodist chapel.
The Norfolk and Suffolk Joint Railway from Cromer Beach Station on the M&GN to North Walsham on the GER via Mundesley was opened in 1906, two years after Scott’s death. It was constructed partly to capitalise on the popularity of the village of Overstrand, which village it served with its own station. Poppyland had made it the place for the super-rich to have their holiday homes.
Some hotels were built in the seaside town of Mundesley, a few miles along the coast, but the Great War ended any hopes of turning the area into a major tourist resort. The years of conflict brought a new and more serious connotation of the word Poppy, and were followed by years of economic uncertainty. The line served too sparsely populated an area ever to be profitable, and development was slow in coming. After struggling on for less than fifty years the line from Cromer to Mundesley was closed in 1953. At least it never saw DMUs take over from steam engines. This section of line included the only tunnel in Norfolk, in Cromer. The line from Mundesley to North Walsham lasted another ten years, by which time diesels had taken over the passenger traffic. I was able to travel on the line just before it closed. There was one intermediate station on this stretch of line, at Paston.
The name Poppyland has endured for this stretch of coastline, but the rich and fashionable residents have moved on to other parts of North Norfolk, leaving peace to descend.