Reminiscences Chapter XVIII
A Chapter from the Reminiscences of Lady Battersea
MY days at Overstrand have not been, and are not now, merely spent in driving or motoring about the country, or in being shown interesting estates, for I have learnt to know and to appreciate Overstrand itself and its inhabitants. Our house - modest in its dimensions before it bloomed out into The Pleasaunce-stands in close neighbourhood to the dwellings of the fisher-folk ; an easy walk takes me to all the doors at which I am anxious to knock, which always open very kindly to me. During the Overstrand season, however-that is to say, for about ten weeks in the summer-it would be difficult to find the owners of these houses at home in them, for the premises are systematically let to the numerous seaside visitors who have had the good sense to discover the charm of the place, which, without the ordinary attractions such as a pier, a band, and shows of all sorts, can hold its own with many a popular coast resort. During the season the inhabitants live in strange little makeshift dwellings, even in railway carriages, standing at the rear of their houses, the latter having been given over to the lodgers, and made as fit for their reception as circumstances will permit. Happily, there is much fine weather to be counted upon during the summer or early autumn season, when the daylight hours are long, and the sea able to offer the much-appreciated bath on a grand scale. Then the shore is alive with human beings, the bathers disporting themselves from early morning until the late hours of a well-spent day.
The fishermen take their boats out to sea during some eight months of the year, for crab, lobster, herring, and cod fishing. These boats bear a colour of romance, for they are still built on the old Norse pattern, that is to say, without rowlocks. The oars are passed through round holes cut in the sides of the boats, and when these have to be drawn up on the beach, during a storm or an incoming tide, they are carried by the men, generally three on either side, with the oars acting as levers. I saw one of the old Viking boats, kept as a curiosity at Christiania, made on exactly the same pattern as the Norfolk fishing-boats that I have been describing. When not out at sea, the men are mostly to be found standing on the top of the gangways-which, be it said, are draped with hundreds of yards of drying fishing-nets-gazing seawards. When not on the cliff, most of them may be seen in a fisherman's hut, or look-out, given them by my husband, where they clean their lobster-pots, mend their gear, and look to their ropes. In this shelter the men keep their heavy mackintosh coats and their high seaboots, such boots as would, I feel sure, prevent them from ever being able to save their lives in an accident at sea. They wear a picturesque garment called a slop, like the labourer's smock cut short, of a fine red-gold colour, the tint of an autumn leaf, which can be very becoming. They talk a strange lingo, somewhat difficult to understand, and use a number of words quite peculiar to Norfolk. They have curious appellations for some of the lanes or groups of houses. A narrow pathway with cottages on each side, close to my house, is called " The Londs " ; a lane in the village is " The Loke."
Norfolk as a county always seems to me to be very self-sufficient, running away, as it were, into the great Northern Ocean. To a large extent the inhabitants have preserved their old habits, old customs, old manners of speech, and perhaps old prejudices. Norwich, the Cathedral City, the metropolis of the Eastern Counties, is both beautiful and interesting, with an old-world romantic colour that not even the modern innovations of electric trams and motor-cars can destroy. The Vikings of old are said to have landed on the Norfolk coast, bold sea-kings as they were, and the constant recurrence of the termination "Name " to the names of towns and villages in Norfolk, such as Sheringham, Dereham, Antringham, Erpingham, Aylsham, and many others, gives countenance to this supposition ; for is there not a genuine Scandinavian or Northern ring about the termination "ham" ("hame-heim")?
The old cottages of the fisher folk in Overstrand are built of beautiful grey cobble-stones collected from the beach, the roofs of a dark red tile, so that they are mostly of a picturesque aspect, often more picturesque than strictly sanitary or even comfortable according to modern ideas. The windows are small, the ceilings low, the staircases steep like ladders, alarming to the aged or infirm.
I should like to give a detailed account of my many Norfolk friends amongst the inhabitants of Overstrand, but for obvious reasons this might prove difficult and not always politic. So I shall allow myself only a few words, making it clear that I have met many interesting and very original characters amongst them deserving of the pen of a Miss Mitford or a Miss Edgeworth. I recall one curious old couple: the husband past work but still able to pocket some pennies from the visitors, with whom he would pass the time of day, and for whom he would carry camp-stools or baskets down to the beach; they were amused by his loquacity and pitied him for his apparent poverty. He turned the pennies into beer regularly every evening, and returned often in too lively a mood for the comfort of his poor wife. In the winter months, when visitors were no longer to be caught, he betook himself to the workhouse, returning in the spring, much to the chagrin of his wife, who was far more comfortable in his absence. I never saw her out of bed. She was a very amusing old lady, who could talk by the hour. She informed me that she had had a family of twenty-two children ; of that number she could only account for nineteen-what had become of the remaining three she knew not. As a friendly greeting for visitors she would say, "Bless your bones ! " but when she wished to be specially affectionate she varied this to " Bless the flesh on your bones ! " At last the husband, a very unsatisfactory member of society, became a sore trial to her, helpless as she was ; he was often reasoned with by more than one person, and announced at last that if he did go to the workhouse again, nothing less than a carriage and pair should ever take him there. And so it befell, for my brougham, with a pair of horses, driven by my coachman, called for the old man at his cottage door, and deposited him, to the amazement of the master of the workhouse, at the gate of that institution. His wife spent her few remaining years in peace, and when dying sent for Cyril and pathetically told him that she could not leave the world without bidding him good-bye ; she kept him sitting for some time by her bedside, and at last clung to his hand with a kind of agonized grasp until a few moments before her death. I have never seen any one quite like her, nor can I forget that low dark room, with her little trucklebed in one corner, with no view of either sky or earth, or anything save a few faded photographs and samplers in their frames.
Then I could add the picture of a poor blind woman, bedridden and patient, lodging with a deaf inhabitant of the village, the two friends spending thirty years together in perfect harmony, the deaf woman outliving the blind one, and at length marrying a poor crippled man, for, as she said, she would have had to pay a man to dig up her garden ! Then there was the old so-called " butterfly man," with his one great treasure-his brilliant design of the Prince of Wales's Feathers formed with a collection of butterflies' wings, the man's own handiwork, of which he was justly proud. And who could put on paper any adequate account of a somewhat romantically placed dwelling actually standing in two parishes, and the home for many years of a very original tenant? In appearance, in speech, in dress, in everything was my tenant original, and since she has passed away (1921) I feel that the village is the poorer for the loss of her quaint personality.
Miss Matty was a subject of interest to all visitors, as she walked with a little mincing gait, holding up a parasol, bowing right and left from under her white lace veil. On King Edward's death she wore a white serge dress with a black veil-" Court mourning," as she called it. She was fond of telling all her numerous visitors that her home was like herself, very quaint ; it was crowded with old and odd pieces of porcelain and some antique furniture, including a spinet. Amongst her callers were Mrs. Florence Barclay and Mrs. Felkin (Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler). The latter she once greeted as follows " Oh, Mrs. Felkin, the novelist, and I do love a little friction!"
As all visitors to Overstrand know, the name of "Cork" predominates, and many are the fancy appellations to distinguish one Cork from another. They are fishermen by profession, but are also ready to offer their services for work on the land in the winter months.
Cyril had a perfect genius for cheery and friendly intercourse with men and women in general, but was particularly interested in children and invalids. He would carry fresh milk, delicious fruit, and tempting cakes day after day to a poor consumptive youth who was dying by inches, by whom the sunshine of his presence was as much appreciated as his gifts, if not more. But much of his good work was done under cover of such secrecy that it was often unknown to me during his lifetime. Needless to say, I was always most happy to assist him when I could in his schemes for the good of the people.
The Pleasaunce bears few of the characteristics of a purely country residence-such characteristics as are inseparable from sparsely inhabited tracts of park and woodland, where neighbours may be few and far between, and where people are thrown back upon their own resources for amusement and interest. Here I have many neighbours calling in a friendly way, some well known in the great literary world, whose presence has added to the reputation of our seaside resort, and I cannot resist mentioning some of them by name. Sir Frederick Macmillan, the distinguished publisher, and his practical, clever little wife, inhabit during the summer months a charming cottage residence on the cliff, with a garden of small dimensions but infinite variety and surprises. Sir Frederick, stout of build, ruddy of countenance, cheery of speech, delightful to meet, seems born to enjoy all the good things of this life, amongst others the fine air of the Norfolk coast and the pleasant run of the golf -links. The kindly hospitality shown to me by Sir Frederick and his wife in London continues in an unbroken stream during the remainder of the year. I look upon the Macmillans as warm friends as well as valued neighbours.
Up a small lane, on rising ground, stands Carrwood House ; it was built by Sir Henry Fowler, the late Lord Wolverhampton, and left to his son and daughters. The father's intellectual capacities, although in a somewhat different line, have descended to the daughters, for both Mrs. Felkin and her sister Mrs. Hamilton are clever and witty writers. In Ten Degrees Backwards, a novel by Mrs. Felkin, there occurs the description of my garden which I have reproduced in a previous chapter. Both sisters are vivacious talkers, very entertaining, lively, and fully interested in the things of the day. They are remarkable for their quick repartee and brilliant epigrams, which follow one another in such swift succession that I find it difficult to give any adequate idea of their animated conversation. Carrwood House is a pleasant holiday home for both families.
On the opposite side of the lane is a small but picturesque house, which was tenanted for a few years by a writer of distinction, no other than Professor Gilbert Murray, with his wife, Lady Mary Howard, who were most interesting neighbours and whose departure I regretted.
In old days, Sir George Lewis and his lively family were located for the holiday weeks of the year in the Danish Pavilion-a wood-and-plaster house, conveyed bodily from the " Rue des Nations " in the Paris Exhibition and erected by them on the cliff, overlooking both the sea and the golf-links. The ground was cleverly converted into a garden and tennis-court, with cunning little devices for shelter from wind and weather, and there the Lewises received their many friends-chiefly members of the artistic, literary, and dramatic professions. Sir George Lewis was one of the most noted solicitors of his day, concerned in many celebrated cases ; he was known to be not only very clever in extricating his clients from difficult and uncomfortable situations, but also very discreet concerning the many confidences that he was inevitably entrusted with. It is a fact that he did not leave anything in writing which, had it got into print, might have caused distress to the families of his quondam clients.
Lady Lewis was indeed the life and soul of the family party. Brilliantly endowed as she is with intellectual qualities, and also with a genuine love of music and of poetry, she is no less the capable house-mother, the indefatigable and adroit needlewoman, quick in her decisions, warm in her sympathy, and a true and devoted friend.
The very attractive house called " The Grange " had for a time been in the possession of the celebrated actor, Sir John Hare, and his family. Much pleased with his experience of a few weeks spent at Overstrand during the summer holidays, and also owing to his friendship with Sir George and Lady Lewis, Sir John was beguiled into the purchase of the property. But he soon found that the solitude of the country during the earlier months of the year, when there was no club life with bridge and gossip to turn to, was more than he could bear, so " The Grange" became the home of Mr. Player and his family. To their generosity the village was much indebted. After a short tenancy the house was again offered for sale, and was acquired by the rector, the Rev. L. C. Carr, and let as a permanent domicile-and a very pleasant one, as I have already stated-to Mrs. Wilson, the mother of Mrs. Carr.
That which was once a small but picturesque cottage, standing in an apology for a garden in a by-way between the high road and the cliff, was owned in former days by a distinguished member of the medical profession from Norwich, Dr. Beverley. In time this cottage, with the grounds, was offered for sale, and finally became the property of the late Mr. Richardson and his wife, Victoria, Countess of Yarborough. A transformation scene under my husband's auspices soon took place. The cottage, now renamed " The Corner House," assumed a villa appearance, and the rough ground was turned into a little garden, an offshoot of The Pleasaunce. Both husband and wife had been intimate friends of ours for years, and had been specially connected with Cyril in his hunting days, for Mr. Richardson-or " Cat " Richardson, as he was familiarly called -was a noted sportsman, a matchless rider to hounds, whilst his wife was a fearless and perfect horsewoman. Apart from the pleasures of the chase, they both loved the country with its open-air life, and when in Norfolk took very warmly to golf and tennis. They soon became great favourites in the neighbourhood and gathered many friends about them. Moreover, Lady
Yarborough felt a spirit of kinship with the county, for she had owned and still owned relatives in Norfolk. Her mother, who began life as Miss Windham, daughter of Vice-Admiral William Windham of Felbrigg Hall, married in the first instance G. T. Wyndham of Cromer Hall, by whom she became the mother of two daughters. Widowed at an early age, Mrs. Wyndham married as her second husband the Earl of Listowel, who as Captain Hare had once been her unsuccessful suitor. He carried her away to his Irish property, whilst the Cromer possessions passed, as time went on, to her two elder daughters, the Miss Wyndhams, who married, the one The Macdonald, Lord of the Isles, and the other (the younger sister) Lord Alfred Paget, a prominent figure of the Victorian age. A tablet, recording the names and ancestry of the two sisters, may be seen in the church at Cromer.
Lady Listowel had a large family of sons and daughters, one of whom, Lady Victoria Hare, became at an early age the wife of the then Lord Yarborough. After some years of married life, Lord Yarborough died in 1875, and in 1881, when her son, the present Earl, came of age, " his mother felt free to marry the man of her choice." Thus writes Miss Richardson in the memoir she has compiled, called The Life of a Great Sportsman, being a delightful account of her brother, Maunsell Richardson, second husband of Victoria, Countess of Yarborough.
At Felbrigg Hall there are some portraits of members of the Windham family ; these naturally proved of great interest to Lady Yarborough, who loved to trace a resemblance to her son, Jack Richardson, in the features of the blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked General Windham.
To the great regret of his many devoted friends, Mr. Richardson passed away in 1912. Of him I have written (at the request of his sister) a short appreciation in the book she has dedicated to his memory, and from this I will quote:
He had the qualities of a true English gentleman, and very lovable ones they are, and he carried on the best traditions of the old sporting world, such as have been known for many a day in this our country of England. He was typically English in his great love of nature, added to a keen spirit of enjoyment, and in being devoid of all conceit and self-sufficiency, whilst very generous in his estimation of others.
After Mr. Richardson's death his widow sold "The Corner House" to a lady who became widely known as a writer of fiction - Mrs. Florence Barclay. Niece of a much - read authoress of Victorian days, Miss Charlesworth, whose book Ministering Children had become a household word in thousands of Englishspeaking homes, Mrs. Barclay by her novel The Rosary leapt into sudden fame. The demand for the book was extraordinary. It satisfied the tastes of the many who read little besides fiction but who shrink from literature that may bear a touch of unseemliness or irreverence. Mrs. Barclay had an arresting personality, and a fine mellow voice in speaking and singing ; she played the organ for years in her husband's church. She could also look back upon a long course of Bible lectures that she gave week after week for twenty years to consistently well-attended meetings of women, proving herself a most impressive speaker. She died unexpectedly, after a very short illness, in March 1921. I should advise all who take an interest in her writings to read a memoir of her life by one of her daughters, which gives a very true and vivid account of a remarkable woman.
One fine summer's day brought Sir Edgar Speyer and his wife, a most talented violinist, on a visit to Sir George and Lady Lewis at the Danish Pavilion. Overstrand was then in holiday trim and looking its best. It so captivated the visitors that they set their hearts upon possessing a summer residence in the village. They lost no time in acquiring a few acres of ground for that purpose, where before long there rose a lowroofed, cottage-like villa of ample proportions, which had seemingly engulfed the red brick house formerly standing on part of its site, commanding a glorious view of the North Sea. There were no cobble-stones or red brick walls to be seen in its construction, nothing reminding one of Norfolk architecture, only wood and plaster, black and white, as in the Cheshire and West Country habitations. It was comfortably, nay, luxuriously, appointed within, and was given the somewhat fanciful name of "Sea Marge." A garden surrounding it, with tennis-court and croquet-ground, was speedily brought into being, and there the occupants spent many bright and happy holidays, happy for themselves, also for the villagers, to whom they always showed much generous kindness, until the Great War cast its shadow upon them, and severed their connection with this country.
About twenty-five years ago we were visited at Overstrand by the Hon. and Rev. Edward Lyttelton and his wife ; they came over from Cromer to see us, bringing their two little girls, Nora and Delia, with them. I had known Edward Lyttelton when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, and when, in all the strength and beauty of youth, he had visited Aston Clinton for a cricket match, and had given us a taste of his singing voice, which had pleased us so much that we begged for his services at a Penny Reading in the village. He came, sang, and conquered. His success was assured, and we were asked over and over again " when the gentleman who sings a song called 'Jinny' may be coming back to sing again at a Penny Concert?" Unhappily, I cannot remember any coming back to Aston Clinton. Edward Lyttelton disappeared for a few years from our vision. When next I saw him he was ordained and married. His wife, Miss West, daughter of the Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin, was strikingly handsome, and also endowed with a fine voice and much taste for music. It was music that had brought the pair together, and music naturally took a prominent part in their married life.
Overstrand must possess some potent charm, since so many visitors who come but for a short holiday end by purchasing, or trying to purchase, a small pied-aterre on this coast. Here again was a case in point. The Lytteltons decided upon buying-and were fortunately able to do so - a piece of ground between Overstrand and Sidestrand. Mrs. Lyttelton devoted herself most ably to the work of supervising the building of her house and its furnishing, and showed a real genius in so doing, as well as in the laying out of her garden. Both house and grounds are charming and quaint. They are known by the Irish name of " Grange-Gorman."
The newcomers were well received, all the residents being delighted at having so distinguished a neighbour as Dr. Lyttelton, who became Head Master of Eton in 1905. After his retirement from that prominent position, Dr. Lyttelton officiated in the parish of Sidestrand in the place of the Rev. No Hood, the young and gifted husband of Sir Samuel and Lady Hoare's youngest daughter, Christobel, the learned author of Records of a Norfolk Village. Mr. Hood had left his Rectory to join the Army, and was, alas, one of the victims of the Great War!
Edward Lyttelton has a very engaging and original personality. His preaching is most appealing, interesting, and inspiring. In the Norwich and Ipswich churches, as well as in London, he is warmly welcomed. His keen sense of humour leads him not only to appreciate that which is quaint and droll in others, but also to relate stories against himself that may be original and amusing. But to me his great charm lies in his really beautiful and unselfish nature : this was daily evident in his untiring devotion to his wife during her long years of great suffering. In all things he practises what he preaches.
When we first visited Cromer Mr. Samuel Hoare (later Sir Samuel) with his wife and family lived at Cliff House, one of the largest residential houses in the town, and there Lady Hoare laid out a garden, or rather a succession of gardens, most cleverly, on the very cliff itself ; in fact, she initiated the cliff gardens in this district, specially introducing the beautiful shrub called Buckthorn, which, with its orange-coloured berries, has become a great feature in the autumn and winter on the Norfolk coast.
Sir Samuel Hoare, M.P. for Norwich, was closely connected with the Buxtons ; like them he began life as a Liberal in politics and an Evangelical in religion, but he ended his career as Sir Samuel Hoare, a Conservative and an advanced Churchman. He was a handsome man, of rather the grand Saxon type, sensible, straightforward, industrious, kindly, much beloved by the members of his family and popular in the county. He had been a success as a boy at Harrow and always retained a great affection for his school, where he had shone conspicuously as a cricketer. He was of a very hospitable nature, fond of the society of his neighbours and of entertaining guests in his house. From Cliff House the family eventually moved to Sidestrand and settled in a renovated and rejuvenated old building called Sidestrand Hall, standing in the centre of much of their property, with a fine view over the sea and the Overstrand village. Here the family grew up and prospered, preparing themselves to go out into the world, where each in his or her way was to gain distinction.
Lady Hoare, left a widow in 1915, has shown very remarkable pluck in her long severe bouts of illness. She has accomplished many clever things with her skilful fingers, such as beautiful tatting, an art she has revived, and the making of toy animals in velvet and soft materials, which are a delight to children and objects of admiration to adults. She is a great centre to her family, an adoring mother and grandmother. She has, indeed, reason to be proud of her sons and daughters, among them being Elma, wife of Dr. Paget, Bishop of Chester, Sister Anna Louisa, a prominent member of the Wantage Sisterhood, and her eldest son, Sir Samuel, the well-known Member of Parliament.
Lady Hoare's special interest lies in the beautiful little church at Sidestrand, which, with the exception of the tower, had been removed by Sir Samuel Hoare from its original position on the cliff, to rescue it from the encroaching sea. But the tower, in its isolation, stood for some years as a memory of the past, as a landmark to the fishermen, and as though guarding the many sleeping around it. On one tempestuous night in 1916 this tower, like its ancestor, was shattered, and in the morning light the old graveyard, familiarly known as the -Garden of Sleep," presented a pathetic aspect. Since then the gravestones have been removed by Lady Hoare, and reverently placed against the wall surrounding the village church.
Neighbours after the advent of motor-cars, but hardly neighbours prior to that period, were Mrs. Petre and her family of Westwick Hall. Later, after the marriage of the elder son, it was at Furze Hill, a comfortable abode in the country town of North Walsham, that mother and daughters made their home ; it would, indeed, be more correct to say daughter, for the Salvation Army claimed Mildred, the eldest daughter, some twenty or more years ago, and never was there a sweeter or more attractive face to be seen under the shadow of the Salvation Army bonnet than that of Mildred Duff.' The second daughter, Leila, like her sister devoted to great causes and personal work, has left a name that will not easily be forgotten, so closely connected as it was with that grand institution, the Y.W.C.A. The youngest, Basilia, full of fire and energy, ready to take up rural, civic, or social duties as the case may be, is a very striking figure, and one well known not only in the country districts where she inspects and inspires the Girl Guides of Norfolk, but also in Norwich, where she made her mark as Lady Mayoress during her brother's year of Mayoralty.
(1 The owner of Westwick Hall had to take the name of " Petre " on inheriting the estate, but the other members of the family retained the original name of Duff.)
Perhaps the keynote of the whole family is work for the good of others, done from the highest motives. The very wonderful mother encourages such work and, despite age and infirmities, rejoices at her children's activities.
Northrepps Hall, with its beautiful woodland scenery and its banks of luxuriant rhododendrons, is a delightful property, within easy walking distance of Overstrand.
It was at Northrepps Hall that Sir Fowell Buxton (the friend of Wilberforce) and his wife Lady Buxton (Hannah Gurney by birth), with their large and growing family, spent some years of their strenuous lives ; it was there that Sir Fowell died in 1845-after having seen the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery passed in the Houses of Parliament, ten years before his death. And it was at Northrepps Hall that his loving and devoted wife ended her days, but not until 1872. I had often been told of her singular charm and attraction, and indeed this was made manifest to the eye in the beautiful water-colour portrait painted of her by the great artist Richmond, to whose brush may be attributed no less than fifty likenesses of the Gurney and Buxton family.
I regret never having seen Lady Buxton, but she died a few years before my first visit to Cromer, and I only connected her and her husband with the graves that were shown to me in the ruins of Overstrand Church.
Northrepps Hall has retained much of its old-world colour ; it seems to have resisted many of the improvements, and perhaps some of the disfigurements, claimed by the requirements of modern existence. The long drawing-room, from which you step straight into the flower-beds, seems to carry with it an aroma of the past. I always feel as if the unrest and excitement of presentday life must be foreign to it. I cannot resist quoting this description of Northrepps Hall and its owners, written by a Miss Clowes in the year 1833, that occurs in The Gurneys of Earlham.1
"I have in my memory," she writes, "vivid visions of Northrepps Hall, that sunny court, brilliant with flowers. ... There were Sunday evening meetings in the old Hall, held in the large dining-room for the country people and visitors ; besides the invited guests and Mr. Buxton's own household, the Overstrand fishermen occasionally came, those rough, weather-beaten old men, with long, floating hair ; the stout ploughmen and the farm maidens were already assembled. It was a simple service as conducted by the master of the Hall without formality and with great solemnity ; and after the chapter of the Bible was read, his own well-digested, well-arranged, and homely remarks were made, well adapted to his village hearers."
On Lady Buxton's eighty-first birthday she wrote to her brother, Daniel Gurney:
I must send you a line on my birthday-81. Surely goodness and mercy have followed me since I was born at Bramerton, 1783.
Only a few years later, when she had attained the ripe age of 88, she passed from this life in the quietest and happiest manner - her death being so little expected that she was actually preparing for the evening meal, when, as Mr. Hare tells us, " the summons came."
Since the year 1872 Northrepps Hall has been tenanted by members of the Gurney family, and now the occupant is Mrs. Richard Gurney, the last remaining daughter of Sir Edward and Lady Buxton, and granddaughter of the Sir Fowell and Lady Buxton whom I have already mentioned.
1 By Augustus Hare.