Famous Visitors

Taken from an exhibition in the Church by Mary Trett.

For centuries Happisburgh has attracted people for a variety of reasons. The Vikings came to pillage and destroy, and later to form a settlement here. Eric the Dane was Overlord at the time of the Norman Conquest. He was soon dispossessed and replaced by followers of King William.

John Gerard, a young Jesuit priest, newly ordained in Rome, was put ashore on Happisburgh beach on a dark night in October 1588, the year of the defeat of the Armada. Roman Catholics were forbidden to practise their faith openly, and John had come, risking his life, to minister secretly to those who continued to worship in the way to which they were accustomed.

He spent the night, rain-soaked, in a wood, and next day after purchasing a pony made his way to Norwich. He spent some time in Norfolk with recusant families, and after many hair-breadth escapes reached London. Eventually he was betrayed, flung into the Tower and horribly tortured, but unlike so many, made escape. He continued with his ministry, true to his convictions, although always under the threat of further betrayal and execution.

William Cowper, the poet and hymn writer, visited Happisburgh twice in his last sad years when suffering from mental illness. In 1795 he walked along the beach from Mundesley with his cousin, the Rev’d Dr. John Johnson. They dined at the Hill House, where Cowper ‘did eat very heartily, though of very ordinary food, for the only things he would touch were Beans and Bacon, which were very old, and apple pye (sic), the worst I ever saw. He ate, however, with a most complete relish of them all’. (from his cousin’s journal) Three years later they came again, this time by sea, visiting the lighthouse and dining at ‘the Public House on the Hill’. They walked back, ‘the sea being too rough for us to venture in the boat’.

J.M.W. Turner, although best known for his atmospheric use of colour in scenes of storm and sunset, also painted a great number of miniatures to be engraved as vignettes for use as book illustrations. During 1834 he painted three on the Norfolk coast, including ‘Hasborough Sands’. It is in gouache on grey paper. Although never published, it may have been intended to illustrate an edition of poems by George Crabbe.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stayed at the Hill House Hotel when on a motoring holiday at the beginning of the 20th century. The landlord’s small son Gilbert Cubitt had developed a way of writing his signature in pin men. This intrigued Conan Doyle, who used the idea in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories, ‘The Dancing Men’. It is based in Norfolk and is said to have been written in the Green Room of the old Boarding House which overlooked the bowling green – one of the finest in this district.

Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, gave a lecture with lantern slides on his expedition to the South Pole in 1908. His was the first ship to winter in the Antarctic. A large and enthusiastic audience met in the Church Room, which ‘by dint of the utmost economy of space, was made to accommodate almost 200 persons’. (Eastern Daily Press)

Beatrice Harrison, the cellist, stayed in the Pightle one summer during the 1920’s. She is remembered for her part in the BBC’s first outside broadcast when she accompanied a nightingale.

From the 1890’s until the outbreak of the Second World War many visitors came to spend the summer in Happisburgh. Bishops and Harley Street doctors stayed very happily year after year in cottages completely lacking in modern sanitation, undeterred by oil lamps and water from the well. Some would opt for ‘full board’, but many brought in the ingredients for meals and handed them to the householder to be cooked on the kitchen range. Today, although some visitors stay at guest houses or the hotel, many prefer caravans on the cliff top.

Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, with friends, stayed at Church Farm during the summer of 1930. They picked up ironstone pebbles on the beach, which when carved and polished, shone like bronze. Henry Moore’s tiny ‘Reclining Figure’ is in the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia. They returned the following year and were joined by Ben Nicholson and Ivor Hitchens.

Photo: Barbara Hepworth & Ben Nicholson with Happisburgh
Church in the background

Sir John Betjeman paid a brief visit to the Church in May 1974 when the BBC was making a TV programme about Norfolk churches. He was delighted with the window in St. Mary’s Chapel and the chancel triptych. He also noticed that the tower is not in true alignment with the nave, and demonstrated the way in which medieval builders paced out the foundations, just as farm workers used to pace out the site for a stack. Little wonder, then, if a slight discrepancy occurred.

Rolf Harris spent a day in Happisburgh in 1982 to record a special Christmas show for Radio 2, which also included local talent. Hand bell ringers, singers and a speaker in the Norfolk dialect were among those taking part. Earlier, he visited the School where he sang with the children and painted a large picture of a witch on a broomstick.

H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother came to Happisburgh by helicopter on 20th July 1990. Although she had been invited to see the Lighthouse, she made a special request to visit the Church as well, and took a great interest in all that she saw. The deeds for Happisburgh Manor (St Marys) show that her brother Michael Bowes Lyon owned it for a while – he married Elizabeth Margaret Cator in February 1928.