The Great Cley Floods -1 and 2
January 30, 1853
Rebecca Jackson looked out of her front window. It was very grey and bleak outside. It would be such a pleasure to sit in front of the fire and play cards with her best friends and forget that it was the middle of winter and a miserable day.
Anna Maria Ramm was the first to arrive, as usual, and Polly, the maid, let her in and took her cape. She came into the lounge where Rebecca had set the card table up in front of the roaring fire. Anna Maria smiled and said, “Well, Rebecca, what do you make of this weather? Cold, windy, wet, just about as bad as it could get, I should think.”
She was the youngest of the foursome, only about 48, married to John, a mariner, with three children, John, 18, Emma, 16 and Walter now 10. Rebecca was pleased to have her as part of the group as she was probably the wealthiest and best connected. Quite a feather in her cap for Rebecca to be able to count her amongst her friends. While most of her friends did with one servant, Anna Maria had three.
“Nothing much we can do about it, but ignore it,” Rebecca said. “Please be seated. I’m sure the others will be here shortly. May I get you a small sherry to take away the chill from your walk?”
“I am always happy to have a small sherry, but you know as well as I that I only had to walk past
half a dozen houses, and I didn’t get all that chilled in the two minutes it took me.”
“Never mind that. Here is a bit of cheer for us both. And what do you hear from your husband,
“Oh, he is most likely in Amsterdam having a good time before the return passage. He does enjoy
his time there. I shall have to go myself one day and see what it is that interests him so. He says the area near the church in the middle of town, called the Oudekirk, has many places of great interest and he makes a point to visit them each time he is in Holland.”
“Ah, here come the others. Late as usual, but at least we four are all here now and we can start
playing soon. I do so look forward to these weekly whist afternoons. It makes a change from my long and lonely afternoons the rest of the week.”
Polly let in the other women, Hannah Lee, a widow of 55, and Judith Fisher, still sprightly at 84,
and they gave her their cloaks and umbrellas and came into the sitting room. “Good day to your both. How are you? Let me provide you with a glass of sherry to warm your insides before we start our game,” said Rebecca.
“Oh, drinking in the middle of the day! I don’t know if I should. I still have to be getting the meal when I get home later.”
“Oh, one sherry won’t make you tiddly and your daughter Hannah is old enough now to do some of the household chores. What is she, 24? Besides we will have tea and cakes later anyway, which should dispel any after effects of the sherry.”
“I won’t say no, that is for sure. My hands are like ice. Can I sit as near to the fire as
possible so that I can thaw out a bit?” asks Judith.
“Yes, of course, move your chair where you please. Will you have a top up, Anna Maria?” To the
others Rebecca says, “She was here on time and shall reap the benefits of a second glass.”
“I’m sorry we were late but you know how it is. You start to get ready and then remember
something else you should do, and then forget what you are supposed to be doing. Getting old is not very entertaining and sometimes a great nuisance.”
The women sat and sipped their sherry for another ten minutes and then Rebecca indicated that they should cut for partners. She herself drew the Ace of Spades, a very good omen. Judith drew the Jack of Hearts, Anna Maria, the seven of Clubs, and Hannah, the two of Diamonds.
“Ah, so it is Judith partnering me, against you two, and I am the first dealer. Shall we begin?”
For the next hour or so, they concentrated on making tricks, or trying as best they could to keep the others from doing so. Judith, despite her advanced age, was by far the best player of the group, and Rebecca was pleased that she had drawn her for a partner. She knew they would win without a doubt, but it was always enjoyable to play, whether they won or not. There were no prizes, just the
self satisfaction of having done a good job in exercising one’s brain and proving to all assembled that you weren’t quite ready for the grave.
At just four o’clock, Polly came in with the tea things, and the ladies put the cards away, and
the table was laid with a beautiful pale yellow embroidered tea cloth with a floral design and lace edging. There were four matching napkins. The fine willow green and white bone china cups and plates were laid, and the silver tea service placed on a table near Rebecca’s right hand and then Polly left the room. Rebecca poured the milk into the cups and then the tea. The others were left to
serve themselves with sugar cubes if they wished from the bowl with the silver sugar tongs. The raisin scones and cream cakes today were ones that Rebecca had purchased when she ventured down into the village that morning. She bought them from the Bastards’ bakery (such an unfortunate name, she always thought) and although there were several bakers in Cley, she felt that young Mrs. Bridie Bastard made the best cakes. Sometimes it appeared as if her shop was less than immaculate and once Rebecca thought she had seen some cockroaches as she looked towards the wall of the kitchen, but certainly the baking was such that one could not but exclaim as to the talent of the baker. Whilst they drank their tea and ate their cakes, the women discussed their families and the usual topic, the weather.
“Mr. McGilivray, my lodger, fears that there might be flooding the night. He came home briefly at noon and told me not to expect him in at the usual time, as if any ships are in trouble due to the storm, he would be needed. Being the comptroller of customs he needs to be on hand to prevent any looting if there are problems due to ships breaking up in the rough seas.”
“Oh, I am so pleased that I don’t live on the High Street. How tedious it must be for those
poor people to have to deal with putting the storm boards in place and moving upstairs each winter when the floods come. We have never had that problem here on the Fairstead, and of course I always keep a good supply of food in, just in case we can’t get down to the shops for several days.”
“And how is your daughter, Rebecca? Is she at home?”
“No, but she sent word with Mr. Tomm that she would be staying in West Runton this weekend, not
feeling like risking coming with the bad weather. I shall miss her. I so look forward to having her here.”
“And your lodger, John Steward Dewar from Perthshire, the painter, is he around at the moment? I
think he is very attractive. Does not your daughter find him to her fancy?”
“I believe he has a wife left behind in Scotland while he gads about painting our seacoast. He comes and goes as he pleases, and as he has his own key and is quite independent, I am never quite sure where he is or what he is doing. I haven’t seen him today.”
“Well, now we have finished with our tea, I will ring for Polly to take the things away and we
can have a few more hands of whist. I believe it is your deal, Judith.”
So the afternoon progressed and by 5.30 when the ladies resumed their cloaks and made their way home, it was completely dark. “See you again next Saturday at the same time,” Rebecca called after them, “and make sure, Hannah and Judith, that you come on time if you please.” They put up their umbrellas as the rain was coming down quite steadily and the wind had picked up.
Rebecca sat before the fire, feeling very alone again, even though she had had her friends in the
house not ten minutes before. She felt uneasy, restless. “I so wish that my daughter had come home this weekend,” she thought. She was very fond of her daughter, who taught English at West Runton School for Girls. Rachel was 35 years old now, and her only child. Since her husband had died, eight years ago, she now wished that her daughter would settle down, marry and start a family of her own. How she longed to see grandchildren before she died. Not that she intended to
die for some time. She was 64, and many died long before that, but she had her health and her brain was active, thanks to her reading and her card playing.
Rachel did have a young man, Richard Banyon ( not all that young as he was in his mid thirties) that she fancied. She brought him home one weekend. He was also a teacher at the Boys Free Grammar School in Holt, sometimes called Gresham School. He had come here to Norfolk because his family who now live in Axbridge in Somerset, had lived here half a century ago, and he wanted to see what it was like. He wanted a change of scenery before he settled down, but he had always told Rachel that he intended going back to Somerset, and that he would expect his wife to be pleased to settle in that area and raise their children there.
“Rachel does not want to leave Norfolk, where she has lived all her life, but mostly, she does not want to leave me on my own entirely,” she said to herself. Having neighbours and friends for whist is fine and useful, but it would not substitute for having kin near by. When Richard mentioned moving to Somerset, Rachel put it to her mother that if she married him and went there to live, she would like
Rebecca to move with them. She told her, “I could never do that. My husband is buried in the Cley Churchyard and I shall be buried here too. Our family have long roots and they are all in this area. I am too old to uproot and go to a strange place, no matter how attractive Richard makes it sound.”
“I suppose if I died,” thought Rebecca, “she would go with him. Perhaps it would suit her very well if I should die quickly enough for her to still be of childbearing age when she married him. I’m not ready to die, but I know that it won’t be all that long before I join my husband in St. Margaret’s churchyard. Perhaps it might come even sooner if I catch a chill and develop pneumonia.”
She was feeling so unsettled and anxious that she felt she must just go out for a walk. No matter that it was dark and wet outside, she was not worried about that. She put on her warm cloak and took her large black umbrella and set off Fairstead towards Church Road.
January 31st, 1953
Mary worried about the weather. It was so cold and stormy, and the wind was blowing much more strongly than usual. She was finding it difficult to settle down with her sewing. Martin, her husband was back from his work as a master at Gresham School in Holt. He said the five mile bike ride home was exhausting. After their early supper, he settled down at the table and was marking the English essays from his students, which was always quite hard work as they weren’t as talented as he might have hoped. He himself was very clever with words, and Mary knew that he had been offered a job as an actor, shortly after he had returned from the war. His father had insisted that he turn it down, and get a proper education and a proper job, so Martin had obeyed. But the Thespian in him found its way out when he was teaching the children, and also by directing the school plays.
Mary helped however she could, and made costumes and scenery for the plroductions. She really felt the effort was worthwhile when she got the students out of their stiff uniforms and into costumes such as those they had worn for their last production, Toad of Toad Hall. She remembered how amusing the Day boys were in the play, and, of course, she and Martin always enjoyed the company of Jan Day, the chemistry master at Gresham. His wife Betty, quite a powerful figure
in her own right but with a good heart, helped him run Kenwyn schoolhouse, planning the meals and managing the housekeeping.
Martin and Mary’s children, Alice, 5 and John, 3, didn’t worry about the weather much, and enjoyed playing down on the beach, collecting stones and chasing the waves, despite the chilly wind and rain. Now they were safely tucked up in the top bedroom, sound asleep.
Mary was restless, and felt the urge to take a walk up the loke near their house to see how the night was progressing. It was of course pitch dark outside. Cley didn’t have street lighting. Martin and Mary were renting a house on High Street, more or less directly across from the Whalebone House, which was also the post office. Just next to the Whalebone House was a path (called a loke in north Norfolk) that led to Fairstead, parallel to the coast road through the village, but higher up. Mary wasn’t afraid of the dark, and told Martin she was just going out for a quick walk, as she couldn’t
settle, and he wasn’t in the least worried about her, as she often went for lone walks.
Mary noticed as she started on her walk that water was coming down the road. No doubt the tide had breached the wall, as it often did in winter at high tide. She would have to remember to get the flood boards out when she got back which they placed behind the front door to make it water tight packing it in with mud. She had never experienced a Cley flood, but from hearing her neighbours’ talk, she had taken the precautions that they had recommended and had a “flood kit” near by the front of the house.
Mary was not a local girl, any more than Martin was a local lad. They had met at Cambridge University. Martin had started attending just before the war began in 1939, and they had become sweethearts before he went off to war. And what a war he had. He was a pilot, and twice had ditched his plane in the sea, being rescued by comrades on the first occasion, but not so lucky on the second. He was captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft 3, but not as
one of those who tried to make The Great Escape. In fact, he almost felt guilty in how much he enjoyed the war in his prisoner of war camp. They were for the most part well treated, and it was there that he became so interested in the theatre. He and his fellow officers put on regular performances of plays, a new one each month, making the costumes and sets themselves. The Germans provided the English scripts for them, and were helpful in other ways, taking photographs
of the plays, providing musical instruments. At the close of the war, Martin had been sent a copy of a book about the prisoner of war camp called Wire Bound World in which he in his skirts (he was usually the female lead) featured highly. Mary’s family came from Somerset, and she had continued
with her University course during the war, and on finishing, she and Martin had again got together. They married when he finished University in 1948 and this was his first real job. However, Martin
felt that he was not likely to spend his life teaching and was sending out feelers about going to work for the BBC.
Martin and Mary had now lived in Cley for four months, having for their first few years rented a house in Holt. But the sea was always a delight for them both, and the chance to live near it was something they couldn’t resist. They loved swimming, walking the marshes, digging up cockles and winkles, picking the seaweed samphire and not only eating it for the months that it was fresh, but all year long, as Mary pickled as much as she could.
Cley is on the coast road and between it and Holt, were the other seaside villages of Weybourne and
Salthouse, but the quickest way for Martin to get to work was on the roads over the back of Cley. The beach near Cley was mostly large stones, with a little bit of sand showing at low tide. The stones which are great flints, are used in house building in North Norfolk, and most of the bigger and richer houses have a flint facing. The house they were in now, was in the middle of a row, and had unadorned brickwork at the front. From the large front room with an open fireplace, there was only a small tacked on kitchen at the rear, where Mary was pleased to say they had a Rayburn which not only cooked for them, but kept the house hot and heated their water as well. They had an outside toilet. Upstairs there were two large bedrooms, leading directly from the top of the stairwell, and the
third small bedroom was off the largest of these. Mary was again pregnant, so she knew the third bedroom would soon have a use of its own. Outside they had a small garden with one huge sycamore tree, but Mary, who loved gardening, intended to make use of every available space for her flowers and vegetables.
To move at all, Mary had to fight against the wind although while she was in the loke, she was somewhat protected from the force of the gale. But when she reached Fairstead, and had started to walk towards the church end of town, she was almost blown off her feet. As she struggled along, a large branch which had minutes before been attached to a huge oak tree struck her hard and she fell unconscious to the ground,