19 Mar 2018

Better Than Joe Wicks

On my mum's birthday, three days after Christmas, my gallbladder finally had enough of DEALING with my SHIT. Dealing with CHEESE, and MILK, and CHOCOLATE. In fact, it had probably had enough several days before since I'd been feeling sick and off food since Christmas Eve. I remember saying to Tom that I hoped I wasn't coming down with a sick bug because I would hate to not be able to eat at Christmas. OH. OH THE NAIVETE.

I spent that night in screaming, doubled up agony, with absolutely no idea what was wrong. At first, I thought I had trapped wind. Ha. No. I developed rigors, which is a Bad Sign, but didn't even recognise them. I couldn't wake Tom up. I had to keep putting Alex back to bed when he followed me to the toilet when I was being sick, and at one point felt something rip in my back. At no point did it occur to me to ring an ambulance, because it turns out I am only good at diagnosing other people. I googled. I worked out it was my gallbladder. I figured it probably wouldn't kill me (turns out I was wrong, it can kill you quite easily). At about 6am, I woke Tom up enough to get me some ibuprofen and then managed to sleep for a bit. I managed to sort myself out enough to ring the doctors and then rang 111 to see if I wouldn't be better off just going to hospital. They sent a paramedic out. The paramedic decided I didn't need admitting because I was in far less pain than before. The doctor put me on antibiotics. Another doctor put me on more antibiotics a week later. A week after that, I went to A+E and finally had a blood test to check there were no stones in my liver since I was still jaundiced. This showed the infection had cleared. I went for a scan a few days later, more than three weeks since I first got ill, which showed my gallbladder was absolutely fucking RAMMED with stones. So much so that the sono was surprised my gallbladder was still intact. So, at least I knew what was wrong. It also showed I have a fatty liver, which is not great in someone my age. I managed to get a surgical referral four weeks and three days after my initial diagnosis. 

Just a note here. The NICE guideline for acute cholecystitis, which is the proper name for a gallbladder infection, is bloods, scan, admission, IV antibiotics and a cholecystectomy within a week. This is because of the risk of chronic infection, sepsis and death (woo). I am still kinda fucking salty that this did not happen for me, because my temperature was 0.4 degrees under admission criteria when the paramedic came out. 

My first hospital appointment got cancelled because a water main burst under the hospital and they had to close the hospital down, so I didn't see a surgeon until eleven weeks after diagnosis. His happy news was that my surgery will be in the next twelve weeks. He gave me a diet sheet to force my liver to burn up its fat store before surgery. It reads like a diet of kings... two eggs for dinner? In what universe?

Now, some people get gallstones and they get the odd twinge if they eat the wrong thing. My dad is one of these lucky bastards - he's had a couple of biliary colic episodes ever (biliary colic is all the pain, no infection). Other people get gallstones and suddenly find they have zero tolerance for fat. Your gallbladder is a little organ that hangs out by your liver, injecting bile and helping digest fat. It spasms to release bile when you eat fatty food. Stones aren't always a problem, but if they get caught in the opening of the gallbladder, these spasms are CHRONIC FUCKING AWFUL AGONY. I mean it. I have had three huge-headed sons without painkillers, and gallbladder pain is worse than that. You can't get away from it, it's like a massive belt around the bottom of your ribs, squeezing and making you feel sick and wrong and breathless. I most commonly get pain on the opposite side of my rib cage and diaphragm, and in my back, because it rebounds all round your ribcage. My diaphragm always hurts and is distended. Breathing is a real issue when it's bad, as is the accompanying nausea.
via http://theawkwardyeti.com/
Unusually, I had no pain from my gallbladder until it got infected. Since then, constant fucking pain. I can't tolerate saturated fat at all. At. All. The first week or so was terrible, I thought I would die of hunger. It was the first time since childhood where I can honestly say I was properly hungry. I went ketotic for ages, and I know that's some sort of bizarre holy grail for dieting, but fuck me it's horrible. Your pee reeks of sugar, your mouth tastes constantly sweet, you feel achey and wrong and tired and sort of gluey in the limbs. But it passed, and now I'm used to it, and it's OK. Boring as fuck, but OK. 
I cry when I have to do the shopping because I can't eat what the kids have. Cooking for the kids is an endless nightmare - a few days back, they had jacket potatoes so I picked at the grated cheese. It hurt for hours. And I can't watch food programmes because I start to imagine the joys of food and then my gallbladder hurts because FOOD IS A THOUGHT CRIME. In terms of funsies, I've missed Christmas food, New Year booze, pancake day, Mother's Day, Jim's birthday cake (which I've just sobbingly made, without licking the bowl), and I will miss Easter and my birthday as well. 

I'm listed for surgery now. I can't wait. I cannot wait. I literally cannot wait. If I could spare six grand, I would have had it out privately weeks ago, but...lol, no. This is the most miserable illness I've ever had, and doubly cruel to take my cheese away. I know the recovery can be a bit rough, but I really don't care. 

But I have lost 20kg in less than three months. So there is a tiny silver lining. If you would like to experience this weightloss for yourself, but inconveniently lack gallstones, here's how*:

- Eat twice a day - muesli and Skyr for lunch with some jam for calories, and then something fatless and dense in lentils and other veg for tea. Shellfish are good. So is rice. Plain chicken is your only real meaty option. Jelly and fruit pastilles are allowed, Haribo isn't. If you haven't been in pain all day, you  might risk a stick of kikat as a snack in the evening. Otherwise, fast for eighteen hours out of twenty four.

- Should you eat eggs, chocolate, cake, pastry, pie, red meat, cheese, oily fish, butter, yoghurt or full fat milk by accident, don't panic. Fetch a metal kebab skewer and stick it in, nice and deep, under your ribs. Oh sure, it'll bleed and hurt, and you might end up with an infection or rupture, but it will remind you why you don't eat these things anymore.

- Drink plenty because you will be dehydrated as hell, and it's a useful way of getting calories in. Enjoy your single cup of tea a day (unless you can drink black tea), and remember, no alcohol. If you forget and have a glass of wine, ask someone to punch you in the upper abdomen or mid-back. You won't do it again.

- Take supplements. No, really, you will die otherwise.

- Now and then, regardless of how obedient you've been with your diet, stab yourself again with that skewer. Just in case you get complacent.

- Carry this diet on for a minimum of three months, and then wonder at your weight loss, strawlike hair, fragile skin, reduced concentration, poor mood, exhaustion and decimated social life!

*NB: Don't do any of this. I mean it. 

16 Mar 2018

Halfway Through

I started my MA in October 2016, as my mum died. I had surgery a month later. It was Christmas before I knew it. It wasn't really until the later end of January 2017 that I started to try and focus. Then I went on Zoladex for six months, which had the unexpected side effect of levelling my mood to the point where I could actually work. My grades swung up.

My second TMA (an evaluation of a primary resource and a secondary source) scored me a whopping 85%. Turns out working with primary sources informally for several years gives you some useful analytical skills.

Then I had two lengthy assignments on poverty and the evolution of the seaside resort. The first essay got away from me a bit, but still scored a respectable 78%.
My final TMA was written for my mum. Before it was due, I went to my dad's house and scoured my mum's bookshelves for all useful literature. I came home with a pile the height of my toddler. I kinda ignored the question on the theory of urban renaissance, and wrote a history on the birth of Cromer for my mum. And my tutor loved it, and I got 82%, rightly losing marks for er...skating over the actual question.

That was back in August. This left me with four months to come up with an idea for a dissertation, research it, write a proposal and sample chapter and get it in for the first week of January. Yeah, the OU don't like us enjoying Christmas. I had decided to do something on illegitimacy months before, and this was sharpened when I studied the changes in the welfare state. This was partly because of my mum: she was an unmarried mother in the fens at the end of the 1970s, and she suffered a lot of stigma and loneliness and I wanted to know where that came from, particularly as my experiences of family research showed illegitimacy to be historically endemic among the rural working class.
However, I also wanted to study crime, and had been intrigued by stories of infanticide in the press when studying the crime and justice unit in my MA. So I decided to look at how the two were linked, using Coroner's records. Victorian Coroner's records are pretty much my favourite ever source. They are handwritten depositions taken at inquests, and they give the working class a voice that you just don't find (except occasionally in court reports) in the Victorian era. They also tie in with my morbid fascinations with pathology and history of medicine.

I spent six weeks going to the library every week to transcribe my source, (and have since done lots of further research on them), and I then wrote a proposal over six weeks. I was incredibly poorly over Christmas, getting flu and then a chest infection and then cholecystitis, so the essay aspect of my EMA got banged out in a fit of painkillers and delirium. But I got it in on time, so whatchagonnado?

And then I waited. I had PLANS for January and February, like going to SEE people I haven't seen for the better part of a year, only my fucking gallbladder meant I was on a sparrow diet of fuck all, in pain 70% of the time, and couldn't walk to the school without getting breathless. So instead, I kept working on family histories, and watched a shitload of RuPaul's Drag Race. We can't be cultured all the time, darling.

I signed up for the dissertation module of my MA, which was a painful £2000 to see go all at once (I used a mixture of student finance and OUSBA to pay for the first module as I went along). I also applied for a research grant to fund some books and going to the National Archive.

My results came in on 12th March. I got 69%, a pass with merit. Yes, I would've liked 70%  but what can you do? It turns out that my proposed topic is too woolly, and my methodology and TERMS need defining. Naturally, I need to wait two months to get allocated a tutor before I can screech "heeeelppppp" at them. In the mean time, I have a literal library of stuff to read.

I have spent the time since my mum died deliberately immersing myself in work. I have coped by reading and producing hundreds of thousands of words of history. By telling people's stories. By reminding myself that grief is a hallmark of human experience.
And I have been antisocial, and I have hidden from real people, because living in the present frightens me. I am possessed by a tidal wave of grief that rises inside me, but never comes out, because I won't let it. Because I am afraid to lose control, and I have become so accustomed to sitting on my feelings that I'm not sure what else I'm supposed to do with them.
I channel my grief into my work, to stop me going numb. And when I cried at the unhappy deaths of children in the 1880s, I was crying for my mum. And when I cried because it all got too much, I cried for my mum. And when I told everyone all about the stuff I'd found out, I was trying to tell my mum. When I lay terrified and in pain with cholecystitis, I only thought of my mum doing the same eighteen months before for different reasons. When I lost weight, I thought of my mum losing weight. When I had my abdominal scan, I thought of my mum's abdominal scan that I held her hand through because she was so frightened. I was not afraid, I was only sad.

But when I write beautifully, I do it for my mum. When I do well, I do it for my mum.

I wonder if I'll ever do stuff for me again.

15 Feb 2018

The DWP's Valentine's Day Message

On Valentine's Day, the DWP charmingly sent this tweet out:

And my friends, I took umbrage.

Long ago, in the distant mists of 2012, Tom moved down from Newcastle and in with his parents. He didn't move in with me straight away. We hadn't ever spent more than a week together in one go. We hadn't been together two years. He had just got a job but we didn't know it was going to work out at that early phase. It would have been foolishly optimistic to move straight in together. When you already have two very small children, you do not want the upheaval of a 'new daddy' moving in only to move out a few weeks later when you realise that actually, you can't fucking stand each other.

So, we lived apart. I assiduously tried to find out the cohabiting rules from the DWP, about what counted as living together and what didn't. This was ludicrously difficult information to obtain. You cannot just phone the DWP and ask them because this will arouse suspicion, and provoke scrutiny and you get enough scrutiny on income support as it is. You can find the current rules here. You may notice that they are OBSCURE AS HELL, and there is no more palatable version for the recipients of affected benefits. These rules can be used to define almost any sexual relationship as living together as a married couple, whether the sexual relationship persists, whether or not money is shared, whether abuse is present, whether the relationship is happy. I wouldn't let Tom sleep here more than three nights in seven, I wouldn't let him keep any of his stuff here, I wouldn't let him contribute to any of the household expenses. Even though he categorically was not resident here, I was still terrified that the DWP would decide he was and force that arrangement to become permanent before I was ready, or worse, prosecute me.

When Tom did move in, after a year of this anxious situation, I cancelled my income support the same day. It was the greatest relief.

Here's the thing. There is no room in the DWP's rules to allow you to have a trial run, to make a mistake in relationships and undo it quickly, unless you have considerable external financial and practical support - the sort where your boyfriend can live with his parents without issue, or where you can afford to run two households while you get to know each other. You either declare that you're living together immediately, or you break the law.

It is overwhelmingly single mothers who are prosecuted for breaking this law, as they are claiming the benefit in the first place. Those who are prosecuted are usually in abusive relationships. The partner is not prosecuted. The partner is blameless according to the law.

Single mothers are a great target for abusers. Income support doesn't really give you much money, and usually the shortfall is made up in tax credits when you begin to live together if your income remains low. However, income support automatically entitles you to maximum housing benefit for your house in your area, free school meals for older children, and maximum tax credits as applicable. It is a useful gateway benefit. And it can be held over you by a man who wants to live under your roof for free, abuse you, spend your money, and then threaten you with "If you try and leave, I will shop you to the DWP". This is not recognised or allowed for in DWP rules - they are very clear about an abusive cohabiting relationship still counting as living together as a married couple. Financial abuse is often one of the first signs of an abusive relationship developing, and being on benefits means you are additionally vulnerable to partners exploiting the anxiety and dependence inherent in that way of life.

Since the two child tax credit rule was brought in, there is an additional very real risk of declaring cohabitation too early in a relationship if you have more than two children and have been single since before April 2017. You WILL lose tax credits for any more than the older two. You will NOT get those tax credits back if the relationship fails.

There are some advantages to being on income support. There is reassurance in knowing that you get a certain amount of money at the same time every week or month. There is reassurance in that safety net, particularly when the rest of your life is a mess. You don't get much, and there is almost no financial room for anything to go wrong in this situation. You can't save up for a crisis. But it's more reliable than a zero hours contract, more reliable than hoping someone will swoop in and save you, particularly when someone you loved has let you down. It may be the first time you've ever had to manage your own money, the first time you've truly lived independently.

But in return, you surrender your freedom to run your romantic life as you choose. You surrender your freedom to decide when to make a casual living arrangement permanent. The state decides if you're living as married, according to a set of rules that could apply to almost every single relationship I know; serious or casual, with children or not.

It's a hell of a price to pay for being a single mother.

12 Dec 2017

Another Really Good Sandwich

Currently, I do not feel the urge to blog. My life is a nonstop whirl of work, because uni hate me and set the deadline for my dissertation proposal/sample chapter for the 9th January AND I HAVE TO POST THE FUCKING THING IN THE ACTUAL POST, so realistically, I need to finish it and post it by the 5th at the latest. I am, however, well proud of what I've got planned. Soph: Crime and Sexuality Historian at your service. I have a four month research break from January-May and then seven months of write up...and then, fuck knows. A job? Hold tight, NHS, I'm coming back to administrate you!

As well as work, I am trapped by the twin rock of grief and anxiety. Grief for my mum, whose loss lingers in every lit up window, in every Christmas card, in every present wrapped. Grief in every present I would have bought her. Grief in everything I want to phone and ask her ("Mum, are you sure this bloody pudding needs three hours steaming??"). Grief in everything I want to share with her, every nativity and every funny thing Alex (experiencing his third Christmas, but his first as a properly aware person) comes out with. 
And anxiety, because having a stupid fucking anxiety disorder which has MOSTLY gone away since The Worst Thing That Could Happen Happened And I Survived, rears its hideous and unwanted head at Christmas. "What if you all DIE ON CHRISTMAS EVE?" it whispers into my ear. "DID YOU LEAVE THE OVEN ON? WILL THE HOUSE BURN DOWN? I BET IT WILL". "YOU'LL VOMIT ALL OVER YOURSELF AND THE CHRISTMAS DINNER AND THE CHILDREN WILL HOWL AND YOU WILL REMEMBER THIS AS THE CHRISTMAS OF PUKE". I know it's irrational. It doesn't make it any easier to bear. My festive anxiety is not a new thing. As a seven(ish) year old, my parents had to take me to the emergency doctors on Christmas Eve because I was in such excruciating pain. It was just excitement. I used to puke every single Christmas Eve. The last time was when I was about 22. It's quite irrational. Thankfully, my endometriosis painkiller is also an anxiolytic, so at a push, I can eat them until I fall into a passive coma (*don't try this at home, kids*).

But this is all by the by. I came to give you a brilliant recipe for your leftover turkey, because I have always been revolted by the very fucking idea of cold turkey with a plate of bubble and squeak (sorry Dad). On Boxing Day, we don't have the older two boys, so I tend to breakfast on prosecco and REALLY EXPENSIVE bacon sandwiches like a luxuriant slattern. But you can't actually live on prosecco and bacon (and cheese) for the entire festive period (I KNOW, SO UNFAIR). 
This is an adapted form of the Vietnamese sandwich, Banh Mi, which I have bastardised from a recipe by Niki Segnit in the fabulous The Flavour Thesaurus. If you're carnivorous, you can probably assemble this sandwich from what you have on hand. And it is WORTH getting rice wine vinegar in just to make it, believe me. It needs a little work in advance, but not like Christmas dinner levels, and it's bright and refreshing in a sea of fat and carbs and fat. 
Sorry, no veggie/vegan alternative, but the pickled veg is bloody lovely in most things or indeed, on its own. 

You Will Need For About Four Sandwiches:
For The Pickle
A peeled carrot
An unpeeled cucumber
Rice wine vinegar

For Assembly
Pâté - chicken liver for preference, but it's Christmas so whatever you've got. Nothing too spicy or herby though. 
Mayonnaise - Helmans is fine
Fish sauce (aka nam pla)
Soy sauce
Leftover turkey shredded into strips
Four short baguettes cut not-quite-in-half lengthways
Fresh coriander, but it's not essential

This is a recipe of two halves, so you need to plan it a tiny bit. 
First, pickle your veg, Cut your cucumber and carrot into matchstick pieces. I am crap at cutting them this fine, but you want them fairly thin because nobody wants to bite down on a fucking enormous piece of carrot in their sandwich. Take the seeds out of the cucumber as you chop it up, or the resulting pickle will be a wet seedy mess. Once they are cut, cover them in salt and leave them for ten to twenty minutes. I do this with them on a piece of kitchen roll in a colander in the sink, because the salt draws the moisture out and then it drains straight out into the plughole rather than sitting about, sludgily. When you think they've had long enough, rinse them, dry them and then put them in a bowl. Mix about four tablespoons of rice wine vinegar with a tablespoon of sugar and then pour if over the veg. Leave it in the fridge to marinate until you want it. I tend to do this in the morning if I'm eating in the evening but you can really do it any time in the 24 hours before you want to eat. This sounds a faff. It is not. 

And so to assembly. Drain the veg. Mix some mayonnaise with a dash of fish sauce and a dash of soy sauce - you don't want to make the mayo too runny. Then spread one cut side of the baguette with mayo. Spread the other side with pâté. Warm it through in the oven. Then stuff the baguette with drained veg and shredded turkey. Add fresh coriander.


At this rate, my first book will be Soph's Big Book Of Fucking Amazing Sandwiches.

Merry Christmas xxx

26 Nov 2017


Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people

When I was a child, Christmas began at some point in late November, when Mum made the Christmas pudding. The last Sunday before Advent, known as Stir Up Sunday, was the Pudding Day by ecclesiastical law. 
My mum, never one to do things by halves, made enough puddings to feed the five thousand. An enormous washing up bowl would be summoned from the utility room and sterilised. My dad (or later, me) would be sent to the shops to buy suet or mixed candied peel, or some other seasonal obscurity. A quantity of booze, usually untouched in a cupboard for eleven months of the year, would emerge. And then the weighing and measuring. She used an old Delia recipe, much amended, and a truly ancient kitchen scale that only measured in pounds and ounces. And the house would be suffused with the smell of allspice and clove, beer and fruit, the same sweetness you get in mincemeat but amplified. 

When the washing up bowl was full, sticky and incorporated, we would be summoned to stir the pudding, traditionally with the youngest going first, but as we grew older, whenever Mum could pull us into the kitchen to stir it. She was loath to portion it up for steaming until we'd all had a stir. Long after I'd left home, I would try to arrange to go round every Stir Up Sunday. It was her labour of love, giving puddings as gifts to loads of people, putting her heart and soul into it and then FURIOUSLY STEAMING THEM FOR ABOUT A DAY once they were made, in a great tower of constantly refilled steaming pans. 

In 2015, my mum's last Christmas had we but known it, her carpal tunnel syndrome was playing up so I made the pudding up. She portioned it all out, I mixed it up and got elbow-deep in pudding mix, working it together while she watched on and told me when I was doing it wrong. 

Last year, she'd just died. My brother in law, Scott, made the puddings. I'd just had surgery. Everyone was a bit numb still. There was no stirring event.

So, as it so often the case, it's this Stir Up Sunday that hurts. I could have made enough pudding to feed the five thousand, but I can't bear the thought of it, the smell, the feel, without Mum there. It's fucking freezing outside, the house down the road is beginning to put its amazing light display up, I've done most of the shopping, but it all feels unreal. 

I miss my mum. 

3 Nov 2017


A few weeks ago, I had to write about the rise of the leisure town in the nineteenth century. I wrote a 5000 word essay on Cromer, my most favourite resort in the world, and the place where we recently scattered my mum's ashes. I couldn't have written the essay without help from Mum's prodigious seaside library, and when I decided to do my MA, Mum was so excited about the idea of helping me with this essay. She couldn't help me in body, but she helped me in spirit.

When I finished the essay, I sent it to my dad to have a look and he said "I prefer your blogs". I know what he means - academic essays can rob all the joy out of a subject - so I decided to rewrite my essay for my dad's consumption, put the stuff I couldn't put in my actual essay, and put it on here. It only covers up to 1900, so you will have to go write your own essay for the Edwardian period. I got 82% for the 'proper' version.

A Brief History of Cromer as a Resort

Long ago, in the mists of time, Cromer was a prosperous market town, a little inland from the coast. It was almost the site of Edward IV's successful reinvasion to take the crown (again) from Henry VI, but he changed his mind and went up the coast to Ravenspur. But erosion took its toll. Shipden was swallowed by the sea in the thirteenth century, giving rise to certain legends, and it seems likely that part of the reason for Cromer's diminishing size across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that it kept falling in the sea. In 1724, Daniel Defore, then roaming the country and writing up the first travelogue of England, said that "Cromer is a market town close to the shoar [sic] of this dangerous coast. I know nothing it is famous for (besides it being thus the terror of the sailors) except good lobsters”. Not long after, seabathing became a popular health treatment for the wealthy of the age. All kinds of hydrotherapy were used by the rich - my favourite is the visitors to Matlock Bath who paid a princely sum to have buckets of cold water dumped on them from above - and seabathing was widely accessible, and had a royal pedigree - George III in his madness was a frequent visitor to Weymouth, and Brighton developed alongside as a favoured resort, being close to London.

Cromer, however, was not close to London or any other useful municipal centre. Norwich, the closest city, was a busy market and textile town. King's Lynn, further round the coast, was a very busy port full of important folk. What secured Cromer's fortune as a future resort was its local gentry. The gentry were the celebrities of the day - in Bath, famous guests were announced by a peal of bells, as much an attraction as the spring waters and balls. In North Norfolk, Holt was the place to be. It was almost entirely rebuilt in fashionable style after a fire gutted it in the eighteenth century, and the local gentry (of Felbrigg, Gunton, and Melton Constable) held horse races, balls and assemblies to provide the rich with something to do. Where else would they go to bathe in the sea than Cromer; splendidly placed on high cliffs, with plenty of shipping and beautiful scenery, and untouched by the burgeoning industrial revolution.

Now, we skip forward a little to 1800, when the first guidebook to Cromer was published. It was written by a surgeon named Bartell, who wanted to advertise the benefits of the town, possibly inspired by a 1799 piece in Gentleman's Magazine which waxed lyrical about Cromer's coast: "Had Neptune himself sent his azure chariot to receive [me], I scarce could been more awed, more softened, or more enchanted". Bartell wrote of its beauty, its lighthouse run by two women (there's a cracking story there somewhere), and the many country houses in the vicinity for those who wanted to go and peer through the windows of the aristocracy. He wrote of how you could hear the bells of Shipden church ring at high tide (most likely nonsense, although church rock undoubtedly remained an issue for shipping into the nineteenth century). He also wrote of its dearth of attractions, complaining that all it needed was one good inn for the rich to stay in, to catapult it to fame akin to Brighton. It was already hosting the rich for short seasons in leased houses, but there was no hotel, no bath house, no assembly room.1 Cromer's population at the time was around 700 people.
Bartell's book worked. By 1815, Jane Austen was able to refer to Cromer as "the best of all the sea bathing places. A fine open sea [...] and very pure air" in Emma. This implies that the sort of people reading Jane Austen at the time knew where and what Cromer was. Cromer began to grow. Adverts such as this one began to appear, advertising large houses for sale in order to lease them out to holidaymakers:
Norfolk Chronicle 18th August 1827

A bath house was built on the seafront, as was an assembly room. These were both washed away in high seas in the 1830s, but the bath house was rebuilt soon after, and remains standing. In the 1820s, Lord Suffield of Gunton Park built himself a mansion on the cliff, changed his mind about twenty seconds later and sold the house to a developer. The developer cleared the site and built the first Hotel de Paris. This was not quite the grand structure we see today: it was small, white and two storeys high. Later, an extra storey was added on. Two other hotels (the Belle Vue and New Inn) flanked it. A little further along the cliff was built the Regency Hotel:
Engraving from 1867. Prints Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum. Original available here
It is now called the Craft Burger Company. As far as I can tell, it is the oldest hotel still standing in more or less original form in Cromer.  The Red Lion was also an early hotel, but has been rebuilt at least twice. Tuckers Hotel was popular among upper class guests, and stood near the church on Tucker Street. In 1870, Gertrude Marion Gillow went swimming from Tucker's (not a sensible move in the choppy sea on that particular day) and was washed up drowned a few days later. She was the daughter of a Kentish farmer and there was a £5 reward for information before her body was found: about four months wages for a fisherman!

The people who visited resorts liked to have somewhere to walk. This was partly because sea air was healthy and free, but also because it gave an opportunity to be seen and to hobnob with other rich guests. Cromer had a jetty, 'well paved for walking', from 1822, in much the same place the pier now stands. It was washed away on numerous occasions, but always rebuilt as the centrepiece of the town. Although the pier in its current form wasn't built until 1901, the older jetties held concerts and firework displays and functioned as the formal pier does. Happy Valley, being considerably broader in the 19thC, was also a popular place to walk. At some point in the Victorian era, this walk was paved and supplied with porches to shelter in and view the sea. When it finally occurred to the great and good of Cromer to build sea defences, lest their lovely money-spinning hotels fall into the sea, they included a promenade for guests. This was initially built in the 1870s.

It wasn't enough to have hotels and walks to attract the wealthy. Cromer's status as fishing village turned good meant it lacked the amenities that people were beginning to take for granted: safe water, gas power, transport links, room for coaches. Part of Church Street was demolished in the 1870s to widen the road to allow for more traffic. There was a daily coach in the summer season, taking guests from Tucker's Hotel to Norwich railway station in time for the 11am train:
Norwich Mercury. 23rd June 1849.
In 1866, Ellen Buxton of the Quaker banking Buxtons described her first class railway carriage from London to Norwich as "most comfortable and beautifully fitted up. There was a table in the middle, two easy chairs, a sofa fixed to the wall at one side. There was also a little carriage opening out of this big one which we called the nursery, and there was a wash basin and place for the luggage". To then clonk down to Cromer in a horse drawn carriage would have been considerably less luxurious. In the 1850s, Lord Suffield had proposed a railway link to Norwich, with the idea of improving agriculture through faster transport. It took ages to get going, but Cromer High Station opened in 1877. Almost immediately, it started attracting far greater numbers of visitors than had been expected, requiring a platform extension. It didn't provide a very fast link to London - six hours - but was still a popular and luxurious way of getting to the sea. In 1887, Cromer Beach station opened on Cabbell land, and provided a much faster link to London and the Midlands. Indeed, this new station later eclipsed Cromer High, as it was not only faster, but there was no mile trip down to the town. Then, as now, the visitor to Cromer Beach station could walk straight down to the sea, and the development on the west cliff meant that lodging houses and hotels were immediately available.

Gas power and piped water were both introduced in the 1870s, under the guidance and on the land of the Cabbell family of Cromer Hall. The Cabbells had bought Cromer Hall in the 1820s and their influence was strong; as described above, they were instrumental in the opening of the Cromer Beach station and sold off a swathe of land to be developed into lodgings and hotels along the west cliff. This network of terraces, built in the 1880s and 1890s, still stand, in their original layout, although most of the hotels have gone. The Cliftonville is still there, but the ghastly Albany Flats have taken over the site of the former Grand Hotel and the Morrisons garage is on the site of the old Marlborough Hotel. A travesty, if you ask me.

The reason the Cabbells built the West Cliff estate was primarily because of guests complaining bitterly that there was no room at the inn. When Clement Scott, he of Poppyland fame, arrived in Cromer in the early 1880s, he couldn't find anywhere to stay so wandered off to Overstrand looking for lodgings. As you do. In doing so, he discovered the church tower on the cliff, the Garden of Sleep, and weaved the mythology of Poppyland, so potent that it remained in advertising use for a good century after he wrote about it. So perhaps the lack of lodging was a good thing. Or perhaps it was simply overstated to discourage common visitors from coming to have a look. One thing that became abundantly obvious when researching Cromer is that its reality was a far cry from how it was advertised. Cromer was undoubtedly full every season, but the advertising was designed to underplay its attractions. One guidebook said "on undeveloped tastes, Cromer would be thrown away". In 1800, Bartell wrote pages on the art, the light, the beauty, while acknowledging there was nothing much to actually do. This was more or less true in 1800. However, when Clement Scott wrote eighty years later about there being "nothing to attract the fashionable young lady", he was LYING. Oh the lies Scott told! "We have no representative brass band, no rotunda on the pier head, no fashionable promenade, no evening dances, no assembly rooms, and very few opportunities for social intercourse". There was no brass band or rotunda, that's true enough, but there was a string quartet, regular concerts in the inns and on the jetty - even fireworks displays. There was at least one assembly room in 1880. The only possible conclusion to draw from these lies is that Scott was trying to put off the working class hordes that had begun to infiltrate Great Yarmouth and Hunstanton. THERE'S NOTHING HERE, PEONS, STAY BACK! A scant twenty pages later, he calls Great Yarmouth "a playground by the sea". Scott wanted to protect his little Cromer haven from the influx of Sheffield smiths that were already using Yarmouth as their preferred holiday destination.

Was he successful? Of course not. In every directory of businesses published in the 19th century, Cromer is described as a 'fashionable bathing resort'. The rich residents of Cromer - the Gurneys, the Buxtons and the Barclays all made their holiday homes here - were a clear indication to those in the know that this was no mere beautiful backwater. A look at the businesses listed in the directories back this up: no less than two piano warehouses in Cromer by 1892 were surely a sign of the upper class. The residents of Church Street doubled in number between 1851 and 1891, and a few fisherman aside, most were affluent and had servants. Almost every business also offered rooms or apartments to let - usually those above the shop. Holidaymakers were huge business. However, Cromer remained difficult to get to for those who could not afford the train fare, and maintained its exclusivity well into the Edwardian age.
Some of its poshness can be ascribed to the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Edward VII made his home at Sandringham, about forty miles from Cromer, from the 1860s onward. He was a regular visitor to Cromer, and patronised the golf club from its inception in 1887. The Royal Links Hotel (long gone, alas) became the royal residence of choice when visiting. His sister, Princess Louise, and daughter Princess Victoria, were frequent guests.

And so, here endeth the tale of Cromer, before the pier was built, before the Seaside Special became the longest running end-of-the-pier show in the country, before Henry Blogg became a household name, before Winston Churchill summered in Overstrand. Before Paul Theroux had a chance to describe it as “very empty [with] a sort of atrophied charm, a high round-shouldered Edwardian look, red brick terraces and red brick hotels and the loudest seagulls in Norfolk”. From fishing village, to a town with a population of 3700 in 1901, Cromer blossomed throughout the nineteenth century because of its exclusivity, rich inhabitants and royal allure.

A quick note: an assembly room was basically a space for hire, where you could hold balls, lectures, concerts etc, like a very posh community centre. They were usually owned by the local bigwigs and the events were accessible by subscription to keep the riff raff out. Coaching inns usually were built with an assembly room, to increase the profitability as well as to attract customers. Towns like Stamford had as many as three assembly rooms in the early 19thC.

29 Sep 2017

The Anniversaries

My dad said, rhetorically, on the anniversary of my mum going into hospital "Why do the anniversaries hurt so much? What makes that day different? Why a year and not eleven months and two weeks"

If only the anniversary of Mum's death was one day. If only the whole of autumn was not stained by loss. My mum lay dying in the garden as the leaves turned yellow and red and brown, and as they fell from the trees, her life fell away. There were conkers and chilly, bright days. There were crosswords, and quiet reading wrapped in fleeces, and five different drinks in case she got thirsty. There was family everywhere, always. The fairy lights twinkled around the garden. The rain swept in and our frightened tears turned to a strange mix of waiting and desperation. It turned cold. Mum still went out for a fag, even if she forgot to smoke it while she was there. And she slipped away quietly, without an audience, on a dark October night. That day was eleven months and two days ago. That day, to quote my six year old, was ages ago. That day may as well have been yesterday for all the difference time makes.

They say time is a healer, and they are quite right, but grief is an unfathomable chasm to cross. It is far easier to say she died eleven months and two days ago than to admit she will always be gone. The first anniversaries are always the strongest, whether it be a happy anniversary or a bad one, but I have no illusions that everything will be fine in a month's time. Or another year. The shock has faded. The reality is unconscionable. The memories, some wonderful, some unpleasant, churn around and keep me awake.

I am flattened by grief at the moment. I wake up exhausted regardless of how much sleep I get, and my head hurts, and my eyes are swollen, and my body is numb. It's as though I have cried all night, but I cry so rarely. I sometimes wonder if my soul is crying all night and my body just hides it away. Maybe I'm doing the grieving in the background because I ensure I have too much to do to ever let it overwhelm me. The slightest hiccup sends me floundering without anchor.

Anniversaries are hard. And when a whole three months is anniversaries, it's even harder. We will endure.