The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society Weekend June 20 - 22 2014

Dorset to Norfolk is not a journey intended by nature, our party decided, after several hours of driving across the country. Other members, though, had travelled much further to join the STW weekend – from Germany (via Cromer), from Glasgow and from America. As on our first Norfolk trip (this was our third) we met on Friday evening for an Italian meal in the lofty expanses of the Forum in Norwich.

We had a good turnout. On Saturday there were 23 people for a packed and lively day. This began at the Old Hall, South Burlingham, home of member Margaret Steward and of Peter Scupham. Margaret serenely offered coffee to all and sundry (including the postman). Peter, himself a poet, read two poems by STW: 'The Death of Miss Green’s Cottage' and the ninth sequence from Boxwood, 'People Whom I Never Knew'. This was an unexpected pleasure, and the house was full of further surprises – the books and paintings in a maze of rooms, the mermaid with a saucy merman above the entrance, and Elizabethan murals in one of the attics. These were black and white hunting scenes, with skilful drawings of hounds in a leafy forest.

We drove on in convoy (a haphazard experience) to St Benet’s Abbey Gatehouse, where Caroline Davison was our expert guide. St Benet’s was the only Abbey to survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the Bishop still comes by boat every year for an annual service. As we walked, sails were flitting across the landscape in low invisible waters. The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia’s favourite among her novels, describes a nunnery in nearby Oby but, as Caroline explained, the real setting is probably St Benet’s. The Gatehouse itself has undergone transformation, being encircled by a windmill.

Lunch was at the Fisherman’s Return in Winterton, one of the two pubs in the village frequented by Sylvia and Valentine. (The second, the Mariners, has become a private house.) Close by are the remains of Valentine’s childhood home, Hill House, rendered unrecognisable by huge bay windows and now part of a holiday camp. In the grounds is a collection of round huts in pastel shades with thatched and pointed roofs, as if from some African fairy tale.

Warren Farm, Horsey, our next stop, has remained relatively unchanged, though finding itself in a field of caravans. This is where Sylvia and Valentine stayed in October 1949, during the crisis of the Elizabeth Wade White affair. We climbed up onto the dunes behind the house and then slithered down to the sea, where a solitary seal was swimming close to the shore.

At Waxham Tithe Barn we had tea, followed by a tour of the buildings, guided once again by Caroline. The vast barn, the largest in Norfolk, was built in the 1570s using fragments from some of the monasteries which Henry VIII had managed to dissolve.

We spent the evening in the Hill House pub at Happisburgh where Lorna Sage’s brother Clive is the landlord. There was a beer festival in full swing, and Elvis serenaded us as we approached the pub, passing a fanciful star-shaped house by Detmold Blow. Hill House may not be there for much longer, as the entire stretch of coast is falling into the sea. Sand martins were nesting precariously in the brittle cliffs over the heaps of broken rock which lined the shore.

On Sunday, the weather looked less promising, but soon warmed up. We drove in our convoy to Frankfort Manor, (now known as Sloley Old Hall) where Sylvia and Valentine lived happily in 1933-34. We had been here on our first trip; the manor still had the same friendly and hospitable occupants. We were given coffee, and ate a whole trayful of lavender cakes, made by Dorothy, then were taken for a tour of the house, which she and Steve have carefully restored.

The Shell Museum at Glandford was our next stop, a heady collection of shells of all hues, shapes and sizes, plus shards from Pompeii, agateware and a collection of valentines sent by the Shell company to lady motorists. It was the likely inspiration for the shell collection catalogued by Thomas Kettle in The Flint Anchor. And along one wall is a fine tapestry by John Craske, a panorama of the Norfolk coast.

Finally there was lunch. This was at Wiveton Hall café with its brightly painted walls and, a fitting place to end an enjoyable and memorable weekend.

On behalf of the Society, I’d like to thank Peter Tolhurst, for planning and arranging the trip, and for his informative and entertaining commentary. Thanks too go to Richard Searle, for organising the meals – a vital part of all our weekends!

Judith Stinton