Treasures of North Norfolk

Worn out from some very pressing family commitments, Grahame and I took an October mini-break at my sister’s place in North Norfolk. There, bleak vistas of windswept shingle beaches and a warm cottage, well stocked with jigsaw puzzles, combined to produce the appropriately relaxed ambiance. However, in all of my visits to this to this stretch of East Anglian Coast there remained several destinations still to be explored so it wasn’t long before we were setting off in search of the eccentric and the unusual.

The Peter Coke Shell Gallery at Sherigham is one of those curious places that most people in the region have heard of but few have actually visited. The volunteers who try to keep it open as much as possible during the Summer season cannot be blamed for this; it has a rather esoteric appeal after all and even a combined ticket to see the Lifeboat Station does not attract that many visitors. Thankfully, we managed to see it on one of the last open days of the year because my friend Chris, chief archivist of the Shell Grotto in Margate, had long ago tasked me to find out more.

Mr Coke (pronounced Cook) died in 2008 at the age of ninety five, living for just long enough to choose the exact shade of blue he wanted for the decoration of the gallery which bears his name. This last achievement was highly appropriate because it was during his third career as an interior decorator and antique restorer that he began to work on these elaborate seashell confections. Obelisks, picture frames, bouquets beneath glass domes, Sailors’ Valentines and even full-on fairy castles were all created in the home that he shared nearby with his life partner, sound engineer Fred Webb.

What a life Peter must have lived. Related to the Earls of Leicester (the Cokes of Holkham Hall), he trained as an actor before WW2 and then reached the rank of Major in the Artillery. After the war his acting career stalled so he took to playwriting until finding fame as the sleuth Paul Temple in the long-running radio program of the same name. We can love or hate his shell creations according to our own personal taste but we cannot help but appreciate the dedication that he lavished upon them. Nor, I think, can we fail to admire the dignified and dutiful way in which this “confirmed bachelor” weathered the societal changes of the twentieth century all the way to the present from the days when the term “gay” was most likely to be applied to Flapper girls who danced the Charleston.

As well as the Lifeboat Station, we also had plenty of time to visit the “Mo”, a splendid, if rather strangely named, museum dedicated in 2010 to the maritime life of this part of the British coast. If I got a little confused over the fact that much of the ground floor is taken up with more lifeboats and their heroic stories, then the fishing industry memorabilia was all the more illuminating. That life was hard and times were tough is nowhere better illustrated than in the old photographs of women knitting the ubiquitous “gansey”, or fisherman’s pullover. They seemed to be working on these dark blue, tubular garments whenever they found their hands free from their many other tasks and it is said that the intricate patterns formed by variation in the stitch could be identified down to individual families. But as for the patterns helping in the identification of drowned fishermen, that seems a little far-fetched.

And for Grahame: another boat museum. The Rescue Wooden Boats Maritime Herritage Centre along the coast at Stiffkey had plenty to distract him. Enthusiasts come from far and wide to give up their time restoring old wooden boats of all shapes and sizes; no doubt bemoaning the introduction of fibreglass and rigid inflatables. It was fascinating to find out that their work had enabled lifeboat Lucy Lavers take part in the Dunkirk 75th anniversary flotilla but I think that if I was awaiting rescue on a storm tossed wreck then I’d welcome whichever craft could get to me first. Whatever it was made from.

Before then end of our trip we also managed to schedule a visit to Holkham Hall, grand Palladian residence of the other Coke family (still pronounced “Cook”). The tour started badly with a snooty guide telling me that Peter the seashell artist was only a distant relative and went rapidly downhill when he proudly pointed out that the magnificent marble hall staircase had featured in the film “The Duchess” with actress Keira Knightly. Now, the real (and rather foolish) Duchess of Devonshire actually had nothing to do with this house and if the soporific Keira K’s career lasts half as long as Peter’s she’ll be lucky.

On the other hand, there were some exceptional artworks on show: I was especially taken with an ancient Greek mosaic incongruously set above the library fireplace and there were some first rate portraits of the great and the good. Frankly, the “we’re just like an ordinary family” pitch adopted by the current incumbents didn’t really hold up. Rather than express a controversial opinion featuring tumbrils and tricoteuses here, I’ll just quote directly from Lord Leicester’s welcome address:

My young family is happily ensconced in the family wing which affords us a degree of privacy and comfort for modern day living, but we feel it is important to use as much of the house as possible; I often sit and work in the libraries. From time to time we entertain in the state rooms, it brings the house to life.

At the conclusion of our visit I returned to the car park to find that someone had driven into the back of my car. Not my favourite way to end a holiday but, hopefully, it will not completely ruin the trip.

Postscript: The note left on my windscreen by the other driver turned out to be genuine and, when I spoke to him later, he admitted liability and paid up for the repairs.  


Categories: Britain, East of England

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