We are fortunate to live not far from the North Norfolk coast so short trips decided on the day and by the weather are a frequent event. Most of the coastal towns and villages from Hunstanton to Happisburg have been visited and many of the more inland destinations such as Holt Burnham and many others have also received our blessing !
The more obvious destinations such as Blakeney, Stiffkey, Cley next the Sea and Wells are all along with inland Walsingham and Castle Acre and the Broads villages to the south, have all been on the itinerary of many a trip. Which brings me to the one obvious place on this coast I have never, until now, visited at all, Cromer.
There are several practical reasons for this among st others, the main tourist area is centered round the pier is quite small and the main road goes through an area just behind that on a one way system and is a nightmare even out of season so is generally avoided. When I have been forced to suffer the one-way what one notices is that a large part of the town is run down and dirty. Shops seem to be of the charity variety or tatty gift shops, not all but enough to remind one of Great Yarmouth and what that has become. So no reason to stop, that is if you can find a place to park anyway.
So for no obvious reason other than a curious mind and a desire to see the one shining jewel that Cromer offers, its pier, I announced to a surprised and rather reticent wife we were going to Cromer as there was some sun promised and we could probably park easily as it is still out of season.
The initial impression started badly at the car park. It was market day and part of the main central car park is cordoned off for the weekly market. Don’t bother as with so many markets they seem to dwindle and slowly disappear and Cromer’s market is at that juncture. The fresh fish van summed it up with the owner so busy he was reading a newspaper and had his feet up. Lively it was not.
I could see the wife's face showing that “what are we doing here look” as we crossed the road making in a general direction towards the pier area. The short lanes leading to the pier area are all full of old Regency and early 19th century buildings. Most are listed and many are wonderful examples of the era when wealthy business people purchased seaside properties in what was then an easily reached by train fashionable seaside resort, but even many of these have not seen a paint tin for many a long year. Many are now flats and holiday lets, few seem to be owner occupied, certainly not in that part of town.
Cromer is unusual in that it has a shoreline with cliffs, not much seen north of here and it provides a view when you arrive at the pier from above. A relatively short pier with a theater at the end and then a rather state of the art lifeboat station with a “proper” lifeboat in situ, not one of those rubber versions. The visitor center built around the lifeboat is well worth a visit, with all the rescues since inception on the walls round the inside of the building and who and what they rescued inscribed there.
The little theater has a bar and cafe that was open so we had a coffee and watched the world go by for a while. It is obvious the pier is the only reason that Cromer staggers on. The end of the pier show brings in the punters and many must come not from Cromer but the enormous caravan parks just up the road at East Runton, a form of holiday that is still very popular but whose attraction bypasses me.
The pier has survived a couple of serious fires and severe storm damage not that long ago but to their credit the town’s main attraction has been restored back to its pristine state each time with care and haste so as to be ready for the season. Whilst having coffee I noticed the posters for forthcoming events, the one-nighters and noticed Marty Wilde for the beginning of April and a month later the Searchers none of whom I believed to be still alive !
The whole raison d’etre of this piece however is to highlight the fact that several of these places that were jewels in the Victorian time for rest and recuperation, first for the upper classes and with the coming of rail the working class are in steep decline. Looking back up to Cromer from the pier there is the Hotel de Paris built in 1820 for Lord Suffield. It was turned into a grand hotel in 1830 and closer inspection now shows a very faded lady with mismatched curtains and cheap furniture in the lounge and dining areas, so what has happened ?
The answer is all around you. Whilst on the pier having coffee people watching revealed maybe not all but a large part of the problem. It was a street photographers dream, the endless passing of strange characters, large ladies with small dogs being towed by same and small ladies dragging old infirm dogs with twenty foot expanding leads that wanted to stay at home. Mobility scooters abound, people in wheelchairs abound, down and out young couples abound, elderly people who look as though they are waiting to die abound, non-working punk couples loiter and so on.
The place is decaying with its population and one of the contributing factors that I know is fact because a friend of mine had a daughter sent there when times went into reverse for her and her husband, is that councils farm out benefit recipients of all colours to places like Cromer because they can get cheap lodgings for them. It has become an industry on its own.
Very little of this shows in the summer as the crowds they get swamp the unfortunates described to a large degree, but what a sad world we live in when people can be all lumped together like that, all knowing that the person they just met on the pier is there for the same reasons, and it takes no time standing on that pier to see exactly that happening.
Will Cromer ever get back some of its former glory? It has the buildings to make the change and it clings on to its one wonderful asset and cossets it, the pier, but it will take a different mindset for those who run the town to achieve that and maybe they are happy with it to trundle on into downmarket obscurity. Maybe it is simply the fact that people’s tastes have changed, but not really as Cromer has exactly the same frontage as many other resorts that are still successful and blooming.
As we left on the long uphill run out of the town, we passed a gentleman of the road trudging up the same hill with all his worldly possessions in various plastic sacks about his person and puffing on a cigarette butt. He had even obtained a zimmer frame for the most difficult areas of the climb but what was significant is that he was leaving. Not a good sign. All quite sad really.