Of all the ways of describing Cromer’s busy sea front, refined is probably not one of them. The main streets nearest the coast are lined with amusement arcades, fish & chip shops and bric-a-brac souvenir shops. To top it all, just beyond the boating lake and crazy golf, there is even a Morrisons petrol station on the front (itheir main supermarket is just a few minutes walk away on the site of an old railway yard and gasworks, and is the first thing you see if you arrive in the town by train).
Cromer may today be a little tacky in parts, but once it was one of the most fashionable resorts around. It was the coming of the railways by the 1880s providing links to places as far afield as Norwich and London (by the Great Eastern Railway) and Leicester (by the Eastern and Midlands Railway) that led to it being rapidly developed, with numerous fine Edwardian hotels springing up on the seafront. And in 1902 a new fashionable pier was built to replace an earlier simple wooden structure, with the Blue Viennese Band playing on the bandstand to celebrate its opening.
Dating from 1926, this account published by the Eastern Daily Press remembers Cromer on the cusp of rapid development:
“I think I first saw Cromer somewhere about the year 1880. Charming enough it was then: the great church and narrow streets, and still very little that was ugly. Of course it was a tiny place and all the streets west of Garden Street were not there. No big hotels. The old wooden jetty was where the pier is now. I remember being taken there on Sunday by my father and that I loved Cromer at first sight.”
Cromer was wealthy from medieval times thanks to its fishing industry and it later attracted rich banking families from Norwich for the summer season, however there wasn’t much here before the coming of the railways. “Cromer is a market town close to the shore of this dangerous coast,” wrote Daniel Defoe in the 1720s. “I know nothing it is famous for except good lobsters”.
At Cromer Museum, which can be found next door to the 14th century Church of St Peter and St Paul, there is a wonderful display of watercolours showing the resort in its early days. The first visitors came to the town in part because they believed that bathing in seawater could help cure a number of illnesses. Bath houses, which brought sea water into fashionable buildings with a number of amenities such as a library and billiards. The Cromer Telegraph reported in 1834 of the popularity of these institutions:
“We trust that Simons the Proprietor of the Marine Baths will this season reap a Golden Harvest. His establishment is the constant resort of all the Nobility visiting Cromer & it is considered very unfashionable not to take a plunge every other Morning in his admirable Baths. The servant who attends them already speaks of their liberality to her – not underserved we know.”
Once the railways arrived in the town tourism moved up a gear. Cromer Museum is partly housed in five old fishermen’s cottages, where up to eight people would be squashed into the cramped rooms. But during the summer months, they often doubled up with other families so their homes could be rented out to holidaymakers. Museum displays described how townsfolk cashed in on the influx of tourists, with everyone from ginger beer sellers to chemists opening stores.
If you are in the town it is also worth visiting the RNLI Henry Blogg Museum, next to the slipway where a lifeboat is still based, which tells the history of Cromer’s lifeboats. Featuring prominently in the displays is Henry Blogg himself, who as coxswain for the Cromer lifeboat from 1909 to 1947 saved, with the help of his crew, 873 people. Given all that he gave to the town, it was sad to read during my visit that his memorial is on the verge of being lost to a sea of weeds.
Cromer was hit by three devastating bombing raids during the Second World War, with numerous buildings destroyed and considerable lives lost. It was probably targeted because soldiers were billeted in hotels or maybe just because it was on the flightpath back to the Netherlands from raids in the Midlands. I went on an interesting 90 minute guided walk run by Cromer Museum, which pointed out how the town prepared for possible attacks.
We saw traces of big concrete blocks positioned in streets in case German tanks tried to invade, we had a look inside one of thousands pill box high up above the town centre and viewed a surviving listening and watch out post which is now rented out to holidaymakers through Airbnb. We also visited the sites of devastating raids and heard the tragic stories of lives lost. Quite a few hotels were lost (perhaps they were targeted given who was staying there); in the town centre only the original gates of the Metropole Hotel survive, the replacement building is now shops, while elsewhere modern flats have sprung up where hotels once stood. But not all of the old great hotels of Cromer have gone.
I had wanted to stay in the Grade II* Hotel de Paris which my guidebook said “has survived as a reminder of all the bustle and top hats”, but unfortunately it was fully booked. That didn’t stop me popping in for a drink in the faded splendour that is the ‘cocktail bar’, overlooking the pier and beach. It is thought that the flamboyant playwright Oscar Wilde worked on A Woman of No Importance while staying at the hotel in 1892. And Stephen Fry once worked as a waiter at the hotel, as he noted in his autobiography:
“In a week I earned a hundred pounds, and by Christ I earned it. I think I must have walked two hundred miles between kitchen and restaurant, silver-serving from breakfast to late, late dinner. The money was spent on cannabis, cigarettes and still (I blush to confess) sweets.”
The hotel where I actually stayed – the Cliftonville – was perfectly pleasant and itself had plenty of history. The Edwardian building situated on a quieter part of the promenade away from the town centre was constructed in 1894 and extended and further improved just four years later, incorporating a new facade in the fashionable Arts and Craft style with hand carved ornate brickwork. During the Second World War it was used to accommodate soldiers who were sent to the Norfolk to guard the coast from invasion.
Although the hotel has been refurbished over the years, it does include a number of original features including a grand wooden staircase leading to the first floor and stained glass windows. There is a modern feel to the bistro and its menu, yet there is an old fashioned charm and everyone you meet seems to be a manager of something. In the reception signed pictures of past famous guests, ranging from the late Ronnie Corbert to Darren Day, are proudly displayed on the wall.
To the future
I arrived back in Cromer after a walk as people were heading out for a night on the town. Perhaps I was a little unfair about my initial assessment of the place. Some of the pubs actually looked (and were) pretty pleasant, with live music and a good selection of beers, and the crabs are must-buys for many visitors. If you look carefully there are craft burger bars, trendy coffee shops and stylish galleries.
The early 20th century pier and pavilion was destroyed by devastating gales in 1953 and was also damaged by passing barge in 2001, but it was re-built. Bill Bryson believes it is “the best and handsomest in the nation” and was appalled that there was talk of tearing it down after the most recent incident. Today the pier boasts a restaurant called Tides and the popular Pavilion Theatre, with a capacity for around 500 people. During my visit the musical Made In Dagenham was showing, while their special long-running summer and Christmas shows are also highly-regarded.
Cromer may be a little shabby in parts, but it still has some charm. My Second World War walking tour took me away from the centre and there I saw streets of houses that are well-built and look like they would make lovely family homes. Cromer’s long beach is actually very pleasant if you can get beyond the tatty amenities that surround it. And the fact that town has retained its rail link to Norwich, a mere 45 minutes away, means that plenty of people can come and visit.