The coast of East Anglia is literally only a daytrip from where I live and, over the years, has provided me with a wide variety of interesting views. My first real experience of Norfolk was a series of weekends of “wild” camping on the north coast near Burnham Thorpe in the very early 1970s. In those days, tourism and gentrification had yet to arrive: the area had never really recovered economically from the silting up of the ports that range along this coastline, now a mixture of saltmarsh and sand dune that stretches from Cromer to Kings Lynn.
What we found were a series of small and largely enclosed communities imbued with a strong and independent heritage. Visitors were made welcome but kept very much at arms length save for occasional impromptu social events at certain pubs where songs were sung, beers drunk, tall stories told, grievances that went back generations aired and a good time had by all. We pitched an old army tent at various road junctions and old railway cuttings, much to the amusement of the local constabulary who were wont to appear, admonish us for breaking the law and suggest that we sing somewhat less lustily on the road back from the pub before offering us a lift home. There were many wonderful tales told on such nights but the best, in common with great fairytales, always had the intimation of something malevolent thinly hidden. The storytelling tradition of the area of Nelson’s birthplace owed, it seemed, a good deal to the brothers Grimm.
Further south, the gentrification of Aldeburgh and Southwold was in full swing but it was not until almost twenty years later that we began to visit this area. Once again, the traditional activities had foundered economically and some parts of the area had begun a decline from which, in some cases, they have yet fully to recover. In the main, however, the middle classes were happily flocking in to second homes and gastropubs: we may have had mixed feelings about this but at least it provided a degree of economic input to replace the foundering traditional industries, farming and fishing and helped to preserve the landscape and the huge skies that sat upon it. Many places in this area seem paradoxically scaled: a small coastal village feels just that: small and self contained yet it exists within a vast sea and sky. Inland are heathlands that even rampant agribusiness has yet to destroy: ironically, the occupation of such areas by the military has often been the deciding factor that has saved them from the depredations of industrial farming and allowed them to continue to exude their unique and slightly alien qualities.
One of my favourite writers, the late WG Sebald, wrote in the context of a journey through Suffolk in his discursive work “The Rings of Saturn” and my sense is that it is the intangible strangeness of this part of East Anglia that informed and contextualised his thinking. In much the same way, Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes”, written in and about Aldeburgh, provides a geographical and social context in which to present and discuss other more complex and portentous issues than the seemingly simple tale of a fisherman. No coincidence, it seems, that this part of the country has provided both refuge and inspiration for so many writers, composers and visual artists over the years.
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