On the beach at Cromer the surf is a cutting edge against the grey prom, everyone wrapped against a breeze which could whip into a gale, the scent of crab salad and iodine, I wonder why this town has got me hooked.
Cromer is beached here like an ark, pulled into a tuck of the strand by the North Sea,
Up on a sandy cliff, its Perpendicular church a flint beacon, the town has the flinty light of north Norfolk and the scouring sea below, agate white and pewter.
'When you come back next year, there'll be less' the deck-chair man said. He meant less cliff. He did enjoy talking about church towers which had fallen into the sea. It does feel remote and foreign. The Norfolk coast has a remoteness which outrides fashion. In the last century Cromer was a small, select watering place grown fashionable with the advent of the Great Eastern railway line from Norwich.
The town is leftover Edwardian, high-bosomed brick sailing along the esplanade. I love dining at the Hotel de Paris, in a kind of stifled calm amid the wistful stained glass. The waitresses talk in a strong Norfolk drawl. 'I've always worked at the Hotel de Paris, it's hypnotic,' one told me over dessert, 'People come back year after year,' she poised with a sundae in mid-air. 'We had the Duchess of Marlborough once and Queen Victoria's grand-daughter.'
They're clapping ‘The End-of-The-Pier Show’ which I always intend to see but never stay awake long enough. Something to do with the air, Cromer natives say, as you fall into bed at half-past nine, it'll wear off in a few days. But it doesn't. Cromer air is exhilarating and opiate at one and the same time, guaranteed to induce sleep.
I even slept through the nocturnal racket of the crab boats grinding out to sea on high tide. The crab boats are dragged up and down the shingle by ancient tractors that stay on the cobbled gangway between tides.
Cromer lifeboat is housed at the pier end, pointing high over the North Sea. Even in calm summer you can hear the waves below grabbing and sucking. Out at sea are wrecks and shifting sand-banks. This bit of the coast used to be called 'The Devil's Throat'.
A nice elderly couple are vending souvenirs because the whole lifeboat service is voluntary, always has been.
When August comes round, so many marvels are on parade in Cromer Carnival that there aren't enough crowds to line the pavement. The carnival amazed me, stretching right around the clifftop with gorgeous floats from north Norfolk hamlets and tiny village schools which the county has been vainly trying to close.
There's much rivalry between Cromer carnival and the similar event at Sheringham along the coast. Sheringham, more self-conscious and knowingly picturesque, prides itself on a slightly higher tone. Sheringham has retired naval gentry and many snug cottages covered in flint pebble: flint boulder smooth as a skull, or flint pebble urbane and perfect as an egg. The shingle here is so narrow, they launch the lifeboat sideways on a great wooden turntable, then down a slipway of smooth baulks bleached salt-white, which dip abruptly to the tide.
Sheringham lobster is famous. 'I prefer crab, personally,’ said the lady who runs the teashop. Both are very rich, she paused, lobster more than crab.
People bear the same curt family names: Pegg, Craske, West. Three Craske brothers used to run a general emporium notable for Norfolk ham, strawberries and raspberries from the rich hinterland. Outside, the scent of fruit and juice borne on a stiff inshore breeze. 'I'm hungry again, an hour after breakfast. Something to do with the air, said the Cromer bus driver. 'I've got three neighbours aged 104, Cromer is the most healthiest place.'
Up on the downs above the town, bouncy and tussocky, the air whips you clean. Faraway cries come from children on the strand below, littered with grey and agate boulders torn from the scree. Cromer lighthouse is up here, dazzling white. When the tide goes out, the whole sky is reflected in wet leaden sands. Now it's on the turn, grabbing at the black vertebrae of the breakwaters. I could walk here for hours, explore Overstrand and the tawny thrilling cliffs which are bitten by gales and rabbits.