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Cley lies on the North Norfolk Coast between Blakeney and Salthouse. In the 13th century Cley was ranked as England's 4th most important port and shipped large quantities of wool to the Low Countries. However, during  the 17th century the River Glaven started to silt up and access for shipping from the North Sea soon became impossible. Today the village is protected by a shingle embankment and is a popular tourist destination.

cley windmill

Cley Windmill

St. Margaret's, Cley

St. Margaret's Church

St Margaret's Church at Cley - which is a magnificent building commanding a view of the Glaven valley - may have provided the inspiration for the church in Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed.

In the book, the author is searching for the grave of a 17th century sea captain called Charles Gascoigne in the fictional churchyard of St Mary and All Saints, Studley Constable. It is not possible to say exactly which North Norfolk village Studley Constable is based on but Cley, Salthouse and Blakeney are all strong contenders. Higgins describes it as follows:

'Everything about Studley Constable was intriguing. It was one of those places that seem to turn up in North Norfolk and nowhere else. The kind of village that you find by accident one day and can never find again, so that you begin to question whether it ever existed in the first place.'

Before arriving at Studley Constable the narrator had already visited Cley churchyard to see the (real) grave of James Greeve 'was the assistant to Sir Cloudesly Shovel in ye burning ye Shippe in ye port of Tripoly in Barbery Jan. 14th 1676'. His table tomb lies just outside of the south transept.

In the book, the narrator continues his search of the graveyard and eventually finds the flat tombstone of  a local wool merchant (Jeremiah Fuller) and notices that there is another slab beneath it. Thinking that this  might be the grave of Charles Gascoigne he moves it to investigate.

'The slab slid to one side, tilting on the slope of the mound and all was revealed. I suppose it was one of the most astonishing moments of my life. It was a simple stone, with a German cross on the head - what most people would describe as an iron cross. The inscription beneath it was in German. It read Hier ruhen Oberstleutnant Kurt Steiner und 13 Deutsche Fallschirmjäger gefallen am 6 November, 1943.'

This discovery sets off the plot of the novel which centres upon an attempt by German paratroopers during WW2 to kidnap the British Prime Minister  Winston Churchill. The idea for the novel may well have originated from the fact that Winston Churchill used to stay at the Sea Marge Hotel in Overstrand.
Cley was also the place where the poet Rupert Brooke was staying when Britain's entry into the First World War was anounced. At the time, he was the guest of Frances and Francis Cornford. Frances, who was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, was also a talented poet (based in Cambridge) and she and her husband were frequent visitors to the Norfolk coast. They would later purchase the windmill at Ringstead. Frances wrote a wonderful short poem about Brooke - prior to his war posting:

A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

Unfortunately for Brooke, he never experienced the 'long littleness of life'.

My own poem Ornithologist is set on the marshes at Cley - close to where the new Norfolk Wildlife Trust visitor's centre is located.


Over the roof of the hide the seed plumes dance.
The hinged flap is up and he focuses
On the pool under the reed expanse.

Waders duck and scurry leaving prints
On the shining mud. His mind turns to the time
When leaning here he pointed out the red shank

Or the speck of the warbler, and felt fortunate.
Even the cold touch of her ring coming back
From the storm beach under the swooping terns

Could not break that. Now the sea has reshaped
The beach - taken the stones lower
And the hide, empty of her scent, echoes

With the perfect logic of her situation.
"I understand, believe me, I understand."
He shifts the binoculars to his other hand.


More photographs of Cley





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