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Dersingham Folk
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The Road to the Beach
Elizabeth Fiddick ©

In many of the old documents that I have looked through or read about there are frequent references to the old street names of this village. Chalkgate, Haresgate, Streetgate, Ffychamway, are just a few.  One document records,   “A path by the swamp leading to Doddshill called Wadgate.”

Unfortunately no maps accompany the documents to positively identify the positions of these ancient roads. One of the oldest track ways here is of course Sugar Lane.  A document of 1780 which describes the roads leading to the two mills which once stood high above the village, records,  “One other road, being an ancient lane, beginning at the S.E. corner of the yard of Francis Hill and proceeding in a North direction to and over the land allotted to Dixon Hoste, till it joins the last mentioned road near the said mill in the possession of John Stanton for the use of persons going to and from the said mills.”

Another ancient track way which is still walked today is The Drift opposite Manor Road and now running alongside the Mountbatten Estate.  Its full name, Center’s Drift, used to be on a road sign there when I first came to the village.  This track used to run unimpeded from the village down to the marshes and the sea.

In centuries past the sea came much closer to the village than it does now. There is a document in the Record Office which gives,” a survey of all the ports, creakes and landing places within the countie of Norfolk.”  It describes our village in this way,  “There is a haven or cricke called Dersingham Haven to which sayde town adjoyneth and belonging having habitation and householders therein to the numbers LXXV and ye shippes and other vessels yt lade or unlade there are licensed by warrent.”

Armstrong’s History of 1781 describes the area in a very picturesque way.  “Beside the Ouse there are several rivulets of less note which trickle down the cheeks of this rustic vale and influx themselves with the sea at or near Lynn.  A small brook rises and passes into the Lynn Channel in Dersingham parish”.    Armstrong also noted that a much larger stream ran near Castle Rising and that it had at one time been navigable for large vessels.  Sir Henry Spelman referred to Castle Rising as a “famous port.”

In 1328 Edward 111 ordered one of his Admirals Walter de Mauncey to return a Dersingham boat he had seized unjustly.  In 1338 fishing protection was granted to one Martin, son of Peter Scott of Dersingham and another villager, Adam, for” two little ships of Martin and Adam made for fishing in the port of Dersingham.”  Henry V in 1415 included a Dersingham captain John Goolde in a commission to police the seas and attack the King’s enemies.  Henry V1 granted sailors from Dersingham the freedom of the seas.  A licence was granted to, “Alan Lawrys of Dorsingham “with one “dogger”.  A dogger was a two masted Dutch fishing boat.  

In 1560 a ship called “William” based in Dersingham was employed in transporting corn to the North and returning with coal.  The same document records another boat belonging to John Bary and William Nevet employed for the same purpose.  There are an additional 3 mariners and 2 fishermen listed here.  We know that the Pell family of Dersingham Hall had several ships which operated not only from the port of Lynn but also from Wolferton.

The Drift was the road way down to the coast.  It would have passed close by Gelham Manor House which once stood just at the back of Mountbatten Estate.  At one time the remains of its moat could be clearly seen but unfortunately that has now disappeared during the building of the estate.  It is possible that The Drift is the track named in an old document as, “Morgate that led to Gelhamhall Moore.”   Dersingham church once had a steeple on top of which was a lantern to help guide the sailors in from the sea. It was during the seventeenth century that the sea began its slow retreat from the village and the spire of the church was finally removed in 1798.

The marshes were a great resource for the village.  Arthur Young, Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, noted in his description of this area the bullocks that were fattened on the marshes. A wiry grass called “flat” was grown of which the cattle were very fond. There were canals that drained the soggy, black soil and pumps turned by windmills forced the water into certain channels.  It is possible that the windmill that once stood near the station was of this kind.

When the railway came in 1862 Dersingham station was equipped to deal with the conveyance of coal, cattle and farm produce.  The old track way at The Drift was now not so convenient and the need for a better road from the station over the marshes to the beach was demanded.

When the villagers met together in 1901 to discuss how to mark the coronation of Edward V11 the construction of a road from the station to the beach was one of the first suggestions.  However, one of the owners of the land needed, Sir Hamon LeStrange, said he could not give the village title to the land for the construction of a road. Also there were no promises of subscriptions for such an expensive project so the project failed.  It was finally agreed to raise a subscription to place a clock in the church tower.  The sum of £20. 6s.0d   was duly raised from the villagers.  The contributions ranged from just 3d to a grand £5.  400 silver Coronation medals were given to village children of 14 years and under and the clock was installed in the Tower.  It was set going on December 22nd by The Prince of Wales.  I wonder how many of the medals are still to be found in family collections.

Ten years later in 1911 when the villagers met to discuss how to mark the coronation of George V the first suggestion was once again the construction of a road to the beach.  Although there was strong support for this at every meeting it foundered on the same two problems, the rights to the land and the expense.   Mrs. Tylden of Ingoldisthorpe was not willing to release the land for that purpose.  Also the King would have to be approached and the villagers thought it was not right to ask him to provide the means for commemorating his own coronation.  There was also the problem of how the road would be maintained afterwards.  A Mr. Bartlett had worked out a preliminary costing.  Allowing for a road of two miles with material at 7s. 6d a yard the total would be £1500.  This did not include fencing, the cost of the land or legal charges.   This announcement was met by whistles of amazement and was headlined in the local press “Dersingham’s £1500 Road“  Mr. Bullman observed that it was perfectly silly to talk about making a road to the beach as Dersingham had no foreshore and no right to the beach when it got there.

The suggestion that all the work could be done by the local labourers was given short shrift.  An anonymous voice from the back of the hall shouted. ”You speak for yourself.  It’s quite enough to work from 5 in the morning to 7 at night.” 

So the road scheme foundered once again.  There were other suggestions put forward at the meetings.  The most serious was establishing and maintaining a nurse in the village.  There had been several bad cases of illness and the Rev. Lewis thought there was an urgent need for a nurse whose services would be at the disposal of the poor.  He thought that £60 a year would support a nurse.  This scheme, surprisingly, did not prove popular. In fact one villager voiced the opinion that the nurse would probably expect to be waited on hand and foot and be provided with a house and uniform.  Moreover what would she do in a working man’s house?  “Would she do any cleaning up?”

There seems to have been a shared opinion that the nurse would really only benefit the better off.  Another suggestion considered for a while was a swimming pool at The Emblems the house opposite The Feathers. Although there was agreement that it was an attractive idea it was finally considered impractical.  I suspect some villagers became rather bored with all the arguing to and fro.  Mr. Dyble suggested a road through Centre Vale but the fact that he lived there was not lost on the meeting. Needless to say it was not carried although the present day residents of the area might wish that it had been.  Another restless villager suggested that as many residents drove donkey carts and had pig sties that they should have a pig and donkey show.  Although this caused much laughter it was not voted on.

However Mrs. Tylden, although not able to give the village the land for the road, did make a very generous donation for the building of the Church Institute Hall which was duly completed and opened in 1912.    It would be many years before the topic of the road came up again.  In his Millennium interview Geoffrey Rolfe recalled his early life working on the land in the village.   He stated that the only way down to the marshes was by the track opposite Manor Road which he referred to by its locally known name,  the  “Hurry Home Drift “. (What a great picture that conjures up.) You went over the railway gates, over the railway lines and on down to the Marsh.

It was the coming of World War 11 that would change things.  In those desperate times there was urgent need for farmers to get down and plough up the marshes to grow crops due to the shortage of food. So the road was laid down in 1941/42 by WarAg (War Agrigulture Executive Committee) which was a department formed by Parliament to look after farmers and agriculture. This also provided a route for access to the shingle banks that ran along the coast from Dersingham through to Snettisham were a valuable resource and good access to them was essential. Thus finally a concrete road was built.

Geoffrey Rolfe remembered its construction vividly.  As a youngster he was employed on the marshes as a bird scarer.  “I had a pair of clappers made.....You waved them backwards and forwards to keep the crows off the seed.  I used to see the Italian prisoners of war making the marsh road that is now the concrete road.  They lived in huts down on the beach.  They were brought there every day by lorry.  I used to see them cooking on the side of the road.  They’d be cooking in billy cans.  There were English Officers looking after them.” 

Once the road was completed several different companies worked at extracting the shingle which was used on the runways of the airfields. The remains of the light rail track that was built to help in this work can still be found as you walk along the paths from Dersingham through to Snettisham beach.  Most of the shingle was taken away by barge from the old Snettisham jetty or by lorry along the Snettisham Beach road.  The marshes and arable land however were reorganised and there was  an increase in the production of the crops as a consequence.

Once the war was over the work was stopped as it was severely weakening the bank and the risk of flooding was a distinct possibility.  This of course was realised in the 1953 disaster.

Mr. Rolfe recalled using the concrete road after the war and that at 12 o’clock each Saturday dinner time Dan Seaman used to shut and lock the gates so that only a footpath could be used.

So that is how the concrete road down to the beach finally came to be built.  The whole saga reminds me a little of the problems in the more recent past connected to the building of a certain by-pass.

(Article written for the Dersingham Village Voice, February 2008)