Anyone seeing us – a huddled mass of people waiting near The Mo, and being buffeted against the early evening wind – might wonder what was going to happen next.
But with threatening rain and a wild sea crashing only yards below, we braved the elements and followed our intrepid guide with a carrying voice along Sheringham’s East promenade, and on into a magical, historic journey into Victorian times…
Historic walkways and crumbling clifftops…
We battled past historic pubs, like The Crown, standing now where other previous pubs had toppled into the sea many years ago… then past the Two Lifeboats pub, which had had many uses beforehand, including a coffee house (and a Temperance Meeting place before that). We also discovered that Sheringham once had its own Jetty, in the 16th Century, before it was washed away by the cruel seas of long ago.
Heading ‘Up West’
There’s no doubt that on Sheringham’s coast, everything – even today – can be at the mercy of the sea, and many brave souls have lost the battle, through shipwrecks, subsidence, fishing accidents and other disasters. Heading towards the ‘up-market’ West end side of the town, we sheltered in the famous Lifeboat House, built in 1894, and marvelled at the restored Victorian 16-oar Henry Ramey Upcher Lifeboat there, and heard many stories about the brave lifeboatmen who saved many souls (including as many as 16 sailors in one dark night) off the Sheringham coast in 1895 and beyond.
Whelks were Sheringham’s ‘X-Factor’… Crabs were Cromer’s!
As we progressed through the stormy weather, we learned that in Victorian times, there would be as many as 200 fishing boats up on the beach, all competing for the (then more plentiful) shoals of offshore fish – and also Whelks, which made Sheringham famous. (It was said that the finest restaurants and Gentlemen’s Clubs of London couldn’t get enough of them)! There was so much competition for the best fish catches, that many of Sheringham’s fishermen moved ‘lock, stock and boat’ to Grimsby, where they had more of the sea to themselves, in those days (and probably helped Grimsby’s fish market develop, too).
Fast Forward into the Steam Age
Another thing that really put Sheringham on the map was the coming of the Railway, in 1887. Nothing was ever the same from then on. Day-trippers started to arrive, and Sheringham quickly developed itself as a desirable resort for the ‘upwardly mobile’ classes of the time. Some of the many benefits this afforded was the building of many fine Hotels, Guest Houses, and grand residential houses and garden squares along and near-to the cliffs, on land owned by Henry Upcher, who was really the creator and developer of the Sheringham we know today.
The coming of the ‘Rich & Famous’
These new fine buildings included the Grand Hotel (now gone) and the ‘Marble Arch’ – grand entrance to the ‘West End’ beach, where the first breakwaters were built in 1895, below the grand promenade. The Grand Hotel boasted one of the very first lifts to all floors; also a grand ballroom, lavish entertainment saloons and fine suites, frequented by famous figures including Albert Einstein who often stayed, and ‘promenaded’ along the front. Nearby was a then-famous golf course, where Shakleton, Arthur Conan Doyle and Moriarty often played.
‘Gentile’ Streets and fine architecture
Exploring through the rest of the ‘West End’, we passed by the beautifully kept War Memorial and gardens, also the last remaining rounded red Victorian post box (still in use) and on past St Peter’s Church, built in 1895 for £8,000, with finely crafted flint-knapped walls, and on to the shopping area in the centre of town (Sheringham officially became a Town in 1905).
Shopping through the Ages…
Approaching the main shops of today, we discovered that Bertrum Watts was one of Sheringham’s oldest-established businesses, starting in 1902, and the Little Theatre was originally built in 1880, and the Clock Tower in 1903 (under which was originally the town well). Nearby, where W.H.Smiths now stands was – for over 100 years – the site of a Grocery Store, and today’s Starlings the newsagent, stationers and toy shop was established just over 100 years ago, too. Another revelation was that – looking up towards the Railway Station from the Clock Tower – you could clearly see that many shopfronts were built out as extensions of the original front rooms of residential houses there, to cater for the increasing number of visitors to Sheringham over the decades.
Back to the Present Day…
Our final gathering place was Lifeboat Plain, near where, in the 1914-18 war, the very first bomb to drop in the UK landed. Lifeboat Plain got its name from having the first Lifeboat Centre there (in what’s now Oddfellows Hall) and the recently-converted holiday apartments building was once a boatbuilding shed. And where The Old Tea Rooms now stand, was the site of the very first shop on the Plain.
All in all, our ‘Walk Through Time’ was a fascinating and rewarding experience, and all of our Group (now in serious need of warming up!) said they had learned a lot through our trip – and that included many people who were Sheringham residents! So we all gave a big ‘Thank-You’ and clap to our wonderful guide, and went on our separate ways. And do you know what? That very moment it stopped raining!
Andy Gage – Friday 18th May.