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Happisburgh (pronounced 'Hazeburrer' or 'Hazebruh') lies on the Norfolk coast between Walcott and Sea Palling. It is famous for its red and white striped lighthouse, its rapidly eroding cliffs and its lofty church tower. The name is derived from 'Haep's Burgh'.

Happisburgh Lighthouse

Happisburgh Lighthouse

William Cowper (1731-1800)

The poet and hymnodist William Cowper used to visit St. Mary's Church when he was a child staying with his uncle and aunt Donne at Catfield Rectory. Later in life he returned to the village while he was lodging with his cousin the Rev. Dr. John Johnson at nearby Mundesley. (The house in Mundeslely is now called Cowper House.)  The church stands on a hill close to the coast and its 110 foot tower can be seen for miles inland.

St Mary's Church Tower, Happisburgh

St. Mary's Church, Happisburgh

Cowper made two visits to Happisburgh, at this time, and here are some extracts from Rev. Johnson's journal recording the trips:

Aug. 31st, 1795. Walked to Happisbugh by the edge of the sea all the way. Dined in a Lodging House, where I borrowed a room for the purpose, to avoid the noise of the Public House and after dinner returned to Mundesley. This was the only instance of Mr. Cowper's ever eating, as he told me afterwards, with anything like an appetite, in Norfolk; and to be sure, he 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, the worst I ever saw. He ate, however, with a most complete relish of them all. I never knew him to enjoy a dinner anything like it after that, to the day of his death.

June 7th, 1798. I coaxed him to day into a boat in which he and I and our servant were rowed to Happisburgh. He went with me to see the Light House and appeared to enjoy in some measure looking thro' a telescope from that very lofty building, at the ships in the offing. After dining at the Public House on the Hill, we walked home - the sea being too rough for us to venture in the boat.

However, living close to the sea irritated Cowper's eyes (as he records in one of his letters to Lady Hesketh) and ultimately he decided to move inland to Little Dunham. Cowper's bleak late poem The Castaway was written in Norfolk at this time and may have been inspired by the coastline at Happisburgh. Some commentators have also suggested that it was the sea at Happisburgh which inspired his famous lines from the Olney Hymns:
God moves in a mysterious way,
  His wonders to perform;
He plants his footstep on the sea,
  And rides upon the storm.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the Hill House Hotel while on a motoring holiday in the county in 1903. While staying in the hotel, the landlord's son, Gilbert Cubitt, apparently showed him a signature he had developed using pin men. This inspired Conan Doyle to write the Sherlock Holmes story The Dancing Men.

The Hill House Pub

In the story, Holmes and Watson are called to Norfolk by Hilton Cubitt, a local squire, to investigate a mystery. Holmes eventually solves the case by cracking a code which consists of little dancing figures - similar to those of Gilbert Cubitt. As can be seen, he also took the name Cubitt from his visit. Another local link is that Cubitt lives in the manor at Ridling Thorpe - which is almost certainly a composite of local villages Ridlington and Edingthorpe. Conan Doyle may have written the story in the Green Room of the Old Boarding House which overlooked the bowling green. The villain in the story - an American by the name of Abe Slaney - lodges in a farmhouse at nearby East Ruston.

Plaque on wall of Hill House pub for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Plaque on Hill House Pub

Plaque on wall of Hill House pub

Plaque on Hill House Pub

Today the Hill House is a pub and has two plaques on the wall commemorating Conan Doyle's stay. It also holds a rather fine 'summer solstice' beer festival every year. At the back of the pub is an interesting building which was originally a signal box for a railway line that was never built.

The pub also has another literary link because the landlord, Clive Stockton, is the brother of Lorna Sage (1943-2001). Sage (nee Stockton) is best remembered for her moving memoir Bad Blood. She worked for many years in the English department at the University of East Anglia. There are photographs of her above the fireplace inside the pub.

P.D. James (1920-

Happisburgh lighthouse also features in P. D. James' 1989 crime novel Devices and Desires. Dr Alex Mair, who is the director of the fictional Larksoken nuclear power station often sees the beam from the lighthouse while working late in his office. In the novel Commander Dalgliesh - who initially comes to Norfolk on holiday - finds himself embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer called the 'Whistler'.

John Betjeman (1906-84)

The poet John  Betjeman visited Happisburgh church in 1974 when he was making the 1974 BBC documentary A Passion for Churches. He was impressed by the window of St, Mary's and also noticed that the tower was out of alignment with the nave.

Joan Barton (1908-86)

The poet Joan Barton wrote a moving poem about Happisburgh called Thoughts at Happisburgh. Barton, who was a bookshop owner for much of her life, was born in 1907 and her poetry has echoes of Philip Larkin and John Betjeman. Here is the first verse of the poem:

Remember the long combes tunnelling into summer
Cumulus tossed into towers and keeps above,
The trampled cliff paths sweet with gorse and bracken
Around each known, each named, particular cove,
And by this touchstone from the years of promise
Happisburgh cracks in dry impersonal pieces -
The reeds, the marram grass, a north wind whipping
The anonymous flat sea margins, the huts, some caravans,
And over it all the sky enormously drifting
In endless thin layers of cloud: undesired
Featureless landscape where the intruding figures
Loom up too large and loud.

Read complete poem

Happisburgh Haiku

From 2018-19,  I collaborated with the photographer Stephen Hyatt-Cross to produce a series of haiku about Happisburgh. The sequence attempted to capture the village's ongoing battle with coastal erosion. We were also able to document, in words and pictures, the abandonment of the Manor Park Caravan site. The full sequence can be seen here: Happisburgh Haiku.


More Happisburgh Photographs

More Norfolk Sherlock Holmes photos





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