There is nothing like an English wilderness. For even in the midst of barren flatlands, there is something of the Shire about it.
Norfolk is on the way to nowhere, though once it was the gateway to everywhere. Few world travellers venture to this extraordinary outpost of England, which really is the way things once were here. Here, just outside the Georgian town of Holt, everyone lives in picture-box villages with cobble-dash houses; the timeline has simply ambled on from mediaeval times until now with little interruption.
Times jostle together to create a companionable timelessness.
One of the nearest coastal points for us is Cley-Next-The-Sea, which hasn’t been since the 17th Century. It is a strange little end of the world. The waves which lapped against the harbour walls have been stultified by sand and silt, but the buildings of the harbour are still there.
It was once one of the busiest ports in England: for there the merchants from the low countries would dock their ships and exchange grain, malt, fish, spices, cloth, barley and oats.
And it has the most outlandish of charm. Each building is cobble-dash, with Dutch gable roofs everywhere. Impossibly characterful cottages jostle their neighbours, setting puzzles for the passing tourist: how does a mediaeval stone arch remain in what appears a Georgian fascia? Why are there everywhere references to St George and the Dragon? Did they build the huge picture windows to match the big skies?
The main road to Kings Lynn winds chaotically through the centre but it cannot rob Cley of its end of the worldishness. For it faces the great salt marshes, wild and wet, and beyond them the North Sea.
Standing sentry over the village is a 19th century windmill for grinding corn. Five storeys, with four sails driving three relentless pairs of millstones using the wind which tears in off the sea.
And it is this England, the little wild kind, where a poet sat on the day war was declared in August 1914.
Rupert Brooke: whom WB Yeats had dubbed ‘the handsomest man in England’, a member of the Bloomsbury set who had skinny dipped with Virginia Woolf.
He was staying in Cley with friends, the poet Frances Cornford and her husband. And rather horrifyingly he had dreamt about the war, and woke to find it all not a dream, but real.
He did not speak to the Cornfords all day; until Frances said to him: “But Rupert, you won’t have to fight?”
And Brooke replied, simply:”We shall all have to fight.”
The war took him away from this strange little England, across the seas to the Aegean, on his way to Gallipoli. The Times Literary Supplement carried a couple of his war poems in March and April 1915, and he was becoming famous.
But in late April 1915, he was bitten by a mosquito, and contracted sepsis, and died one day at about teatime off the Greek island of Skyros. It was a brilliant day with a wonderful cool sea breeze, but it was not home.
Brooke was buried the same day – the expeditionary force had orders to leave immediately. And now he sleeps in an olive grove, on a Greek island.
I wonder if he would rather have slept at home?