A few days each in Cromer and Norwich and then 24 (long) hours in Lowestoft constituted more than enough time in the melancholy milieu of WG Sebald. Fittingly, a mist – more than a sea fret, marginally less than a fog but wet enough to dampen the hair and clog the lungs – lurked wherever we went, clearing only for a while in Norwich and during the evening of our stay in Lowestoft, though, inevitably, it had returned by the morning.
In Norwich, two unexpected treats came our way: the Plantation Garden and the South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection, both of which embody the eccentricities of their founders in a thoroughly Sebaldian way. The garden, founded in 1856 by ‘a prosperous upholsterer and cabinet-maker’ named Henry Trevor, had a quiet beauty to it. With spring barely sprung, the 10 or so staff, volunteers we supposed, were busy, edging mostly, and certainly too busy to acknowledge our greetings and thanks – as if they’d been trained not to engage with visitors.
It was a lovely, though curious, spot, made lovelier still by having an honesty box for the nominal entrance fee. Perhaps that too was part of the wish not to communicate directly with visitors.
I daresay by summer the garden is ravishing. I like poetry about gardens and have a poem, ‘The Kitchen Garden’, inspired by the gardens of Cannon Hall, in The Evening Entertainment, but I must try my hand at more. The excellent all-round writer Sarah Salway has made almost a career out of writing prose and poetry about them.
The Arts and Crafts Collection is housed in a vast space built, 20 years after the Plantation Garden was started, for an ice-skating rink. The rink failed spectacularly and the building has had an array of usages. Its size suits the collection perfectly, of items old-ish and contemporary, chosen impeccably for their beauty. Among the best was an Islamic prayer board, used by women, which had two areas where the wood had been worn away by knees. The appeal of the collection lay for me in its apparent randomness, with exhibits and items for sale alongside each other, old and new and countries of origin mixed up in a marvellous panoply.
“I was unprepared for the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of me in Lowestoft” – WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn.
The train journey from Norwich to Lowestoft was as pretty and engaging as Sebald described in the second chapter of The Rings of Saturn – the mist lifted enough for us to take in the reedbeds of the Broads and the River Yare, and the quirkiness of Reedham Swing Bridge.
Lowestoft, though, had that certain, run-down, end-of-the-line feel to it that Sebald also captured so memorably. The mist was so thick for a while that from the promenade we could only hear the sea.
On the north side of the bridge which divides the halves of the town, the Wetherspoon’s, named after Joseph Conrad, was packed to the rafters at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon. As we walked up the endless dreary pedestrianised area to the old high street, we heard a herring gull mimicking a cat’s miaows and saw it tapping its bill on a first-floor window, presumably for regular tidbits.
We nipped down one of the ‘scores’, the streets that sloped down in the general direction of the North Sea, and then walked another endless way, it seemed, towards the Maritime Museum, only to find it closed until May. The Bird’s-Eye factory cast a strange smell of flavourings over the town, but fishiness appeared to form no part of it. The Edwardian pavilion, like a giant palm-house, had a fine exterior, but disappointingly it was being used just as a children’s nursery. On a sunny day, Lowestoft may have had some charms; for us, though, Sebald’s verdict on its dereliction still rang true.