“English weather!” – heard at least five times during the course of wandering round the rain-swept town.
Does it always rain at the English seaside resort? The weather seems to always be at least inclement, at least as I recall. These last few days have gone by in such a blur that, were I not writing down everything I came across, I’d struggle to tell you where I’d been.
Great torrents of rain come down as I get up, disrupting any plans for the town’s visiting families during the school half term. For me it is an opportunity to observe how we spend our leisure, and spend more time talking to people about life here.
The youth hostel here is well-kept and run by Neil, Alison, and their young family, who supply me with good conversation and information about the area, and suffer well my unusual requests. I put on my poncho, a glorified green bin-liner, and head out.
First I wander through the little town, past Britain’s biggest joke shop, and various fish and chip places, charity stores and anglers’ grottoes, before making it to the seafront.
I’ve been here once before as a child. It was the height of summer, in what felt like a heat-wave. We all played on the beach and stayed in a nearby holiday cottage whose location I forget. During that time, a boy began digging a tunnel on the beach that became so deep it eventually fell in, suffocating him. I remembered that summer, and remembered seeing young boys digging pits and cruelly throwing crabs in to fight each other. It made the difference between life and death seem somewhat casual and indiscriminate.
The area is deserted and the funfair closed up. Wandering round the abandoned and tatty rides, surrounded by fierce winds and rains, I had the impression of visiting an abandoned place or ruin. It’s eerie and exciting. The gales are so fierce that I’m able to travel down the promenade without even pedalling my bike, but coming the other way is a serious struggle and I frequently have to take rests behind shuttered cockle stalls. In my mind I hear Morrissey’s ‘Everyday is like a Sunday’ as I pass deserted grease-tea caffs.
I eventually make it up to the cliffs, striped in three layers of brown, orange, and white on top. It’s a cake-like cross-section of this island’s formation that eventually tapers into the sea. Brown carstone sits at the bottom, 108 million years old and made up of sand, pebbles and fossils, topped with the unique orange ‘Hunstanton formation’ rock of 101 million years, made up of rusty pebbles, with a white layer atop, a younger 99 million years old and made of the skeletons of planktonic algae. It’s a wonder to see still existing such ancient rock which one can touch. The day before, I meet a family who have found fossils and shark’s teeth nearby. I love these interruptions of an ancient landscape.
In nearby Holme-on-the-sea is the little-known Seahenge, consisting 55 split small oaks embedded into the sand, a tribute to the sea. Testing reveals that the oaks were felled by at least 51 axes, and who can guess how many human hands, in 2049bc. The area contains its own quirky myths too. There is a legend here around St Edmund the Martyr, who may have landed in Hunstanton in 855, and was king of East Anglia until 869. A Viking invasion wipes him out and for refusing to renounce Christianity, he suffers the death of St. Sebastian and others, fired up with arrows and then beheaded. The Danes throw his body into a forest but according to legend, a Latin-speaking wolf protected his severed head, and was found in a forest crying ‘hic, hic’ (here, here) to attract attention. Superb!
Since the start of the trip one pannier has been gradually breaking apart, eventually falling off yesterday. I discover a bike shop nearby and head in, keen to pay whatever price to keep my stuff safe. At Fatbirds bikes I’m helped by Flynn, a friendly young guy who does a great job restoring my back mudguard. He finds me a new pannier better-suited to my journey, an Altura Dryline 56. Even though it’s a display model, all they have left, he sells it to me and with a good discount just for missing a shoulder strap. The kind of service and friendliness one gets in a local independent bike shop is often excellent – it sure is here. They are often cheaper than Halfords or Evans, and well worth supporting.
I post the battered Carradice Carradura back home, with the feint hope that I might be able to fix it there, and head on. (If anyone from Carradice reads this, I would heartily appreciate a new plastic hook, two black rail-ends, and a small piece of gaffer tape – just saying!) I wander a little more about the place but the weather’s too extreme, with flood warnings throughout the area. I find a cosy café, Wells Deli, and with coffees, noodles and cake set about reassembling my shattered observations from the day before. I talk to the friendly staff there afterwards, Jane and Maxine, and tell them about my adventure. We talk about the town and travel. I’m beginning to like it here.
Hunstanton is a unique kind of place. It is uniquely situated: an east coast town that faces the west, getting the most of the sun, explaining the unique sunsets yesterday. Little civilisation existed here once until 1842. A man with perhaps the best eccentric Victorian name – well-worth impersonating by steampunk devotees, Henry Styleman Le Strange – decided to build a resort here. The Golden Inn appears in 1842, and soon a Victorian seaside town appears, aided by a new railway line. I read through a collection of local oral histories of now elderly people describing their childhoods in the 1930s, of the bathing contests and pole-fishing, skipping on cliffs. But the town is a little cursed. Its first pier is burnt down in 1938 or 9, and its second is destroyed by storms in 1978. A great flood here killed over 300 back in 1953. Even the current Sealife centre has been closed since December from flood damage.
I return to my room and catch up with the news. Typically everything I read is bleak and negative. No matter the nature of the story, the common purpose and effect seems to foment mutual suspicion and distrust, and instil a feeling of anxiety and misery in the public. I don’t suspect anyone is quite so brilliant to consciously devise this, but this misery-culture in the popular press is remarkably effective at quelling any hope for new alternatives, or a belief in the goodwill and cooperation of others. Journalists copy and paste press releases like an army of moronic drones, whilst editors receive briefings from advertisers and allied politicians to put the day’s events in their colour.
Everyone is in a fuss about the recent success of UKIP, a party with perhaps as much staying power or novelty as the SDP. Who? Yes, exactly. But their growth reflects one of the points of my project. Let me quote George Orwell to best explain it:
‘One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.’
In London and in Paris, those voters that turned out in the last few days chose not to vote for right-wing nationalist parties who in the rest of the country received immense support. The growth of UKIP and Front National reflects a widening chasm between these self-important cities and the concerns of the rest of the country. It is not simply about immigration or nationality. As Orwell observes, it is the working class who feel most patriotic and tend to be least self-conscious in showing it. For the middle classes, particularly liberals or those on the left, this patriotism is considered an uncomfortable joke. I’ve seen many England tattoos and fluttering flags in the small out of town suburbs I’ve passed, and experiences are similar: inadequate housing, pay so low that only immigrants will take the work, a poorly managed labour force, and a desire for a positive communal or collective identity (to know one’s neighbours, to be a part of something). These are all fair rights.
A desert remains until someone raises these basic concerns in an intelligent, egalitarian and constructive way. England remains a ‘family with the wrong members in control’, led by a parasitic group of rich people, ‘less useful to society than his fleas are to a dog’. Orwell wrote this in 1941.
I apologise, I am glad to be away from all blather. I head out again in the evening but the rain has closed most of the shops. I find a kebab shop open and order a mountain of chips, quickly concealed with mayonnaise. They are so tough that the plastic fork breaks. I’m feeling jaunty again though, looking out at the distant rain, and I talk to the owner Mat, explaining that French fries are actually Belgian. He’s Turkish and has been in Hunstanton for eight years. He thinks Turkey’s getting better, and speaks about it with more optimism than anything else our conversation covers. We talk about Oludeniz and Fethiye, beautiful parts of Turkey, and discuss the frequency of Turk Cypriots in south London, particularly in the dry-cleaning game.
I’m a little thirsty so I wander to the Golden Lion, the town’s not-very-old-oldest-building. The bartender is a local and friendly, and I ask him about myths as I sip some Norfolk golden ale. He says the pub is haunted but laughs it off. I agree, telling him about old pub cellars are full of such stories, like the place I worked in for some time in Croydon. He tells me about the amount of second-home owners in the Burnhams, and the difficulty of affording to live here. ‘What can you do?’, he asks to himself. I suggest that the government could begin a new house-building programme that was not for profit. ‘But who would pay?’. I suggest taxing businesses and the wealthy, and he laughs. It’s become so hard for us to contemplate any kind of change in the current establishment of power.
I then wander down the deserted roads to a large beach-side amusement arcade, improbably still open at this late hour. It’s deserted of customers yet full of bow-tied young staff polishing the screens of penny machines. Incongruously, the venue plays the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ as I wander round the flashing fruit machines. It is perhaps the most English moment I’ve experienced so far. I search in vain for a Time Crisis 2 machine, my love and one true devotion aged 14, seeking out some object to connect with the past, but nothing appears.
The pubs are all deserted, and it seems that the only people drinking are off-duty staff, a strange kind of unproductive reciprocal local economy straight out of a Magnus Mills’ novel. At one, a drunk owner starts talking loudly about a recent secret shopper, implying I’m one. I have little time for this kind of passive complaining and confront the issue in good humour, but he’s too wrecked to address me directly.
At another relatively uptight-looking seaside bar, the off-duty staff curse as they play Candy Crush at the bar. A somewhat ambient soundtrack is complained about being too suicidal, and the Rolling Stones is put on instead. Conversation changes to the cheap clothing offers in Sainsburys and gossip over the drunken indiscretions of friends. I’m happy drifting into the pub chat, taking my mind elsewhere into the abstract music of its untethered thoughts, in the manner of those distant, preoccupied gazes of solitary drinkers in pubs across the land. “I’ve never been a beast of burden”, sings Mick Jagger in the distance.
I’m wandering back when I spot a final place open. I ask the barman if it’s open and he laughs and invites me in. We quickly get talking and I soon meet one of the most interesting characters on my journey. Sean is a Londoner, born in Bethnal Green but with a life that has taken him everywhere. He’s been in Hunstanton for a couple of months after leaving Crouch End where he was caring for his dad. He’s a bright and kind man, and we quickly get talking about caring for relatives, the effects of alcoholism, and the different trajectories of our lives. He was a roadie for the Prodigy, good people, one now a Lord of some Essex enclave, skidding round his mansion on a mini-motorbike. After those mad parties, he worked with Richard Ashcroft, a good person if he happened to trust you, and later Coldplay, who despite working years for them still hated doing their sound-checks. Fair play!
In between tours he travelled extensively across the world, enjoying the money as it came. He even roadied for McFly, but found the screaming girls, and the possibility of spending time with a distant and remote father, a better alternative. We laugh a lot, talk about our loves, travel, and living in the moment. He tells me about Hunstanton, about growing up with a neither English-nor-Irish identity during the 70s and 80s when Irish was deeply unpopular, like growing up as a Muslim today, he notes. He tells me about fishing in the sea here. The fish change with the months, with cod and rays to be caught during the cold winter months, and bass, mackerel, even British sharks in summer. Round here, he’s discovered, they call the Burnhams ‘Chelsea on sea’, and Londoners are not popular. I laugh and thank him for the advice.
As I wander back in the rain, I’m glad to be here. This trip has so far been extraordinary. ‘You’ll see some sights’, he tells me. I have seen far more than I ever expected already.