The writer Clement Scott (1841-1904) first visited Overstrand by accident in 1883, staying with the local miller because there were no vacancies in Cromer. He was so attracted to the quiet North Norfolk coast that he described it in a series of romanticised articles in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere. He called it “Poppyland“.
Five years later, when land for development came on the market, Overstrand rapidly attracted some of the richest people in Britain – a small colony of bankers and lawyers, most of them Liberal in politics, cultured and socially extremely well connected. Part of its appeal was that it was not Cromer, by then regarded as popular, if not exactly vulgar.
At one time there were six millionaires in the village – among them Cyril Flower, Liberal MP and later Lord Battersea, Lord Hillingdon, one of the few Tories in the village, and the financier Sir Edgar Speyer who became chairman of the original London Underground. Their holiday neighbours included Sir Frederick MacMillan, son of the founder of the publishing empire, Edward Lyttleton, headmaster of Eton, and the classicist Gilbert Murray.
Though these incomers lacked the landed status of earlier generations of Cromer-based bankers, Barings, Gurneys and Hoares, they knew how to spend money and they had taste. The rising young architect Edwin Lutyens received two domestic commissions in Overstrand, The Pleasaunce (1888) for Cyril Flower and Overstrand Hall (1898-1900) for Lord Hillingdon. Cyril Flower, as Lord Battersea, provided Lutyens with his only opportunity to build a Methodist chapel (1898).
Celebrated visitors flocked to stay with such opulent hosts. Queen Alexandra visited the Hillingdons. Lady Randolph Churchill, often with her sons Winston and Jack, stayed repeatedly with either the Speyers or with the powerful lawyer Sir George Lewis, who lived in the Danish Pavilion, which he’d transported direct from the 1900 Paris International Exhibition. Sidney and Beatrice Webb stayed with Lord and Lady Battersea, whom they disliked, on a working break with their fellow Fabians, George Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallas.
The heyday of Poppyland was all over so quickly, killed – as much as anything – by the effect of the First World War. After 1919 the millionaires moved away and died off, and by the mid-1930s all the major houses had been converted to hotels, nursing homes or apartments. By that time the only major modern hotel in the village, the Overstrand Hotel, was at risk of sliding over the fast-eroding cliffs: it eventually burnt down in 1947.
Overstrand remains an attractive and interesting place to visit. It carries the implicit message that you can’t take it with you.
The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk’s Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.