18 AUGUST 1967, Page 9

Conflict in East Anglia


The staithe is, and always has been, without a squire, a parson or a doctor of its own. The bland, Georgian squirearchal hall was (until it became a hotel) the headquarters of the strong force of coastguards deployed to deter smuggling. Spiritual comfort was provided' in the Primitive Methodist chapel (before it was converted into a studio) and neighbouring Church of England vicars regarded the bois- terous defiance of its hymn-singing as subver- sive if not pagan. Medical advice is still sometimes sought from a family with roots in the rubbish tip, which gipsies have frequented for several centuries, and their secretive prescriptions are said to make use of herbs, toadstools, cobwebs and white magic.

Because the staithe, unlike its neighbouring Norfolk villages, lacks, and has always lacked, the traditional hierarchy and influences of the English village, some current changes in country life can be seen here with unusual clarity. Two factors which are having a profound effect upon village life in deeply rural England are the exodus of young people in search of work and entertainment and the arrival of the week- ender in search of rest and peace. Upon this follows the struggle between exploiter and pre- servationist. All this has transformed the pattern of life at the staithe.

Before the harbour silted up and the hundred- ton sailing coasters with their cargoes of coal, corn, malt and oilcake were replaced by fibre- glass sailing dinghies, there was here, as in the other East Anglian• staithes, much vigour. Great granaries, maltings, barns and mud-

clogged docks remind old villagers of days when a dozen sail might lie in the creek and

the arrival of the London packet was, after the fairs, the dramatic event of the year. When ships were in, sailors enjoyed Rowlandsonian nights in the three pubs and one old man re- members `step-dancing and the fiddles going.'

Until 1914, life at the staithe was divided. equally between land and sea. Some adven-' turous lads had always gone to sea (several had volunteered to join Nelson in the 'Agamem- non') and damp cottage rooms can still be decorated with a polished shell case, brass.

knick-knacks from Bombay or a tinted photo- graph of a destroyer off Wei-hai-wei. Those who stayed at home fished for herring. mackerel crabs, cockles, musSels, and, at one, time, pysters. Then the railways destroyed the coastal trade, the neglected harbour silted up and, last week, a day's fishing produced just two mackerel.

The landsmen had worked in the little port and on the farms. There was a weekly market inland and, on Saturday nights, the young men's entertainment was to march upon the next village for a fight, which they usually won.

Poaching was an economic necessity, too, and an individual's particular skill—as netman, snare- man or nightman--a matter for pride. Then the port closed down and machines began to replace men on the farms. Some 500 men and women earned their living at the staithe in 1914; now, about fifty.

Yet, except for the lack of sails off the har- bour mouth, the look of the place remained

unchanged. In due season, pinks and sea

lavender colour-washed the salt marshes, terns fished the shallow creeks and oyster-catchers paced the sands, wings clasped behind backs.

After 1918, the peace and solitude of the coast attracted the first weekenders—a few minor painters with a liking for wide Norwich School skies, and birdwatchers dressed like Vic- torian alpinists. Then Cambridge dons and an occasional small-bore canon from Norwich or Ely came to sit in deckchairs in panama hats. But the decrease in employment and the in- crease in visitors did not take full effect until ten years ago. American air bases still em- ployed redundant farmworkers and visitors had taken time to rediscover what had for five years been a front line fortified with coastal batteries, tank traps and barbed wire. The clos- ing of the local railway increased the isolation.

Then, just as the air bases were running down and the mechanisation of agriculture was reach- ing a peak, outsiders began to appear in numbers. Londoners and Midlanders, never having had it so good, could indulge in a week- end cottage or a family car. At the staithe, the price of a four-room cottage was known ' to rise from £250 to £2,500 in a decade. Fo: the young villagers there was now neither work nor housing.

On summer Sundays, columns of small saloon cars converge on the staithe. There, overlooking the sweep of salt marshes and distant dunes, they are parked with windows tightly shut, while inside picnics are consumed, the News of the World read and gran and auntie sit stiffly in the back with shiny straw hats'firmly pinned to their wiry grey locks.

The confrontation of exploiters and preser- vationists began at this time. The area of conflict was small. as most of the coastline was protected either as nature reserves or by landowners, hidden away in their pheasanty parks, who by preserving their shooting rights and furred and feathered prey also preserved the countryside. But, within what planners call the envelope of the staithe itself, combat was joined, with the natives being, for economic necessity, the exploiters and the weekenders the preservationists.

The fortunes of war swung to and fro. A native garage-owner tried to buy a quayside granary for conversion into caff and funfair, but was outbid by weekending yachtsmen, who turned it into a boathouse. In revenge, the garage-owner took to selling the noisiest and most powerful American outboard motors to Midlanders, who tended to prefer plastic speed- boats to the Londoners' gentlemanly sailing dinghies.

The exploiters tried to establish caravan parks, beach-hut encampments and even a motor road to the lonely sands. A few caravans have come to the staithe but, on all other fronts, the preservationists have prevailed. In the village they are considered high-handed, being on Christian-name terms with the National Trust, the Civic Trust, the county council and, it is rumoured, Sandringham. A happy party of American airmen established themselves in a houseboat, armed with repeating shotguns, for hunting in the bird sanctuary; hardly had the first case of vodka been opened when an adver- tising man, with a cottage on the quay, was telephoning the American general at Ruislip; and next day they were gone. Planning per- mission for the multiple erection of bungalows on a cornfield was thwarted when a week- ending barrister, from whose cottage windows they would have been visible, bought the land and planted trees. A suggestion in the rural district council that a waterside field be com- pulsorily purchased for the construction of public lavatories and an asphalt car park was abandoned when the owner declared that he was presenting the field to the nation.

Either side of the staithe, the preservationists have not been so successful. To the east, vast caravan parks are growing. To the west, a rich food-canner has abandoned his pose as preservationist country gentleman and sold two fine fields for the erection of 'luxury coastal homes with boat ports' and terraces of 'luxurious town houses.'

At the staithe, the preservationist victory has kept employment low and men must now some- times go as far as Colchester or Leicester to find work. But in this rather brutal shakeout a new minor industry has been started. There is work at the hotel, the four shops prosper, the pub sells wines, there is work in 'property maintenance,' gardening and a busy taxi and ferry-boat service. A tiny, self-contained tourist industry, geared to the English middle- class country holiday, will support a smaller population of villagers but keep intact a rare unspoilt corner of England for wide but dis- criminating enjoyment.

But now a new and dramatic influence has appeared, quite literally, on the horizon, to alarm preservationists and delight exploiters. At night, a spangle of lights sparkles out at sea. At dawn, a massive, threatening shape, like an aircraft carrier, stands in the water. This is a drilling rig searching for natural gas. This could transform life at the staithe again for better or for worse, according to your view