When Marnie Was There (Joan G. Robinson) in real life
Little Overton, the village Anna stays in Joan G. Robinson’s When
Marnie Was There, is Burnham Overy Staithe irl. After reading an obscure Japanese blogger, shinya1996, who
visited the place entirely through Google StreetView, I figured I should do
the fella a favor and visit it in real life for them, and answer various
questions they had.
And so I did, for I believe I’m the first to really document such a journey online. Here we go.
October 10 update: After writing all of this, only recently have I learned that I’m not the first person to document such a journey. Some other people online have, and too, did stuff like pick samphire and inquire local knowledge.mg What the hell. I’m legit so mad. If I knew beforehand, which I didn’t somehow despite several months of planning this trip, I would’ve tried to one-up them by pulling more wacky stunts.
Day 0 (Sep 29)
Little Overton (Burnham Overy Staithe)
Fields stretched on either side, sloping fields of yellow, green and brown. Ploughed fields that looked like brown corduroy, and cabbage fields that were pure blue.
As Anna had, I arrived in King’s Lynn. Next was to change trains towards Heacham and take the bus towards Burnham Overy Staithe… Except Dr Beeching had axed the Heacham line in 1969, and I don’t like buses anyway. Given a good portion of that line is now a bike road, and I wanted to explore the whole coast, I cycled 45 kilometres.
I involuntarily mouthed out
no way… when the windmill came into view
with scary suddenness. Crept up on me just like that; one minute I’m in a
built-up market town, the next I’m racing down a road with that in the
distance. I hurriedly took a horrible pic and locked up in a gravel car park
minutes later. While disassembling bike my gear, I, at a safe distance,
squinted through the pub windows to make the most fundamental judgment of my
destination: to determine if the locals really are kindly old people, or dodgy
Norf F.C. hooligans. As I walked in I was relieved to find it was the
former, and that these people could plausibly have names like
Mr and Mrs
Beales. I went and checked-in, and settled in my room, made a cup of tea.
She gave a little skip and turned down the short road to the staithe, and saw the creek lying ahead of her.
It was time to head down that very road to the creek. It was high tide, and the
low sun faintly was glowing through the clouds. A little further down is the
staithe itself. I remember not even knowing what the word
when I first read the book, I had to look it up. A staithe is an unloading area
for boats, here situated by a slipway. The staithe here is a special location
in the book, a kind of point (0, 0), a vantage point where all the major
features are said to be in view: The Marsh House to the left; the creek, marsh,
sandhills, and ocean ahead; the windmill and meadows to the right. It is where,
quite poetically, all of Anna’s adventure lay ahead of her, and the holed-up
life of Home and The Peggs is behind her.
So, how does the harbour road and staithe of the book compare to reality? Well, looking to the left, there is indeed a wall running along the creek’s bend. There are steps cutting into the wall that go onto… a conspicuously vacant plot of land. There is no Marsh House; while all its peripheries are real, the mansion itself is fictitious. It’s very strange to look at, as if it’s meant to be there but it was deleted, hollowed out from reality. There is though, a building elsewhere that inspired the Marsh House: the house with the blue windows, which I will touch on later. Part 11 of the shinya1996 blog mentioned another building, an ex-hotel, that additionally inspired the grandeur of the book’s Marsh House. A building that, as it happens, appears to be part of the said plot land the steps cutting into the wall walk up to. I couldn’t get any photos of this said other building.
She turned and looked away to the left. Beyond the few cottages a long brick wall ran along the grassy bank, ending in a clump of dark trees. And then she saw the house…
Now looking towards the right. Well, unlike the book, the windmill is nowhere to be seen. No surprise there: as I learned earlier, it’s very much off inland. All there’s to see is just meadows and the dyke that forms the marsh edge. Otherwise, all the natural features when looking ahead and around were all as promised. Amazin, well and truly.
It is difficult to describe how large the marsh ahead was, that pic of the staithe itself doesn’t do justice. Every photo I attempted to take from here of the marsh itself ended up being rendered as a dreary stroke of green. I hadn’t understood why in the book, Mrs. Pegg claimed to have not been to the sea “not since I were a wench.” Lady you live next to it, no? Now I understand. The beach and sea really is freakin’ far, with the marsh alone nearly disappearing into the horizon.
The house with blue windows
As already mentioned, when standing on the staithe and gazing to the right, all
there is to see are fields and the marsh edge. But when turning and
walking right, down and off the harbour road and into the boat yard
The Hard), there is
the house with blue windows standing above
and facing the creek. This house inspired the Marsh House. I am careful to not
literally call this the
Marsh House, which in the book is far more grand
and is critically situated right on the edge of the creek; this house merely
has characteristics that inspired Robinson.
The most notable characteristic is, of course, the blue frames. Then there’s
the mystery of its inhabitants, for Robinson was enchanted when she saw a girl
having her hair brushed through one of the windows. I have very confidently
determined that this is a regular residential property, called
Granary, and that people live in it. This house also has two narrow side
windows beside the door, which is just the same as the Marsh House: Anna peered
through one of them when she first saw it.
She grew bolder and looked through the narrow side windows on either side of the front door. There was a lamp on a windowsill, and a torn shrimping net was leaning up against the wall. She saw that a wide central staircase went up from the middle of the hall.
Last but not least, the windows are said to light up when the sun is low, as if people inside have switched the lights on. Tn the book, this dazzles Anna and spurs on the mystery of its inhabitants. I unfortunately did not witness this happen, but there is a pic online demonstrating so.ln
The walk around the marsh
She went down to the beach, walking all the way along the dyke. There was no sign of Wuntermenny, and in any case she felt that even his company would be an interruption.
I wanted to see the beach. As we know from the book, if it’s low tide then you might be able to cross the marsh on foot (more on that later). If it’s high tide, you take a boat, or walk the dyke at the edge of the marsh. It’s about two hours since I arrived here, and I haven’t managed befriend some mute fisherman to take me in a boat, so I walked the edge of the marsh. The book doesn’t really speak of this route much, but given its a demanding hour walk and offers a good view of the marsh, I think it’s pretty underappreciated.
The beach at high tide
I began to feel excited when I was able to hear the gushing of the sea behind
the now-close sandhills (dunes) that walled off the beach ahead. I cut through
and raced down the sandhills, tumbling onto the beach. At last, now truly I
felt I arrived. At first I panicked, thinking I walked into a pile of heroin
needles, but they were actually just sea shells. There was no one else in sight
because it was getting late. I took a stick and began drawing in the sand,
Anna <3 Marnie then paced about on the beach.
The sun set as I headed back along the marsh edge. There was enough sunlight come through the clouds for the moisture on the meadows and marsh to condense into surface fog; I watched this smoke pool and stream in the hollows, skim above the dyke. Magical. Wish I could have taken a pic, but camera is useless in low light.
Wondered if I headed back a bit too early when I caught myself getting into bed at about half 8, but then I supposed it would be worth getting a lot of sleep for tomorrow.
Woke up at half 5 in the morning, lole. Made some tea as I waited for some
sunlight before heading to the harbour road, finding the tide was very high.
Had it been raining, or is the morning tide really like this? I paced up and
down the road and boat yard to get a second look at everything, went a little
way up marsh edge, but knowing I can’t stray too far: need to get back for
breakfast early, I have work to do today! With a little prior research of tide
times, the plan was to cross the marsh on foot around noon where the tide is
lowest, forage samphire, pick sea lavender, and reach the beach. There was a
sign nearby that read
By crossing the creek you risk personal injury or
death […] you must know the tide times. Bring it on.
Crossing the marsh?
So I went back to my room, and I nabbed the bin liner out of an unused bin, good for bagging samphire I reckoned. I prepared my backpack, needing to not just eventually carry foraged items, but also to safely bring my stuffed Ponyo friend and a copy of Marnie as my guide book. Had breakfast, then hit the harbour road again. Was about 10 AM and the tide wasn’t low enough. As a test run though, I walked along the mud flats that were exposed, and immediately encountered a problem: it was very slippery. I thought, there must be a safer entry point to the marsh… I looked into the distance over to the left and saw there were people walking over what looked to be the other edge of the marsh. I could tell it didn’t go to the beach, it veered off to Westerly elsewhere, but I figured maybe somewhere along it there might be some safe entry point to the marsh.I went inland and up the pavement of the main road where I got caught up with a troupe of dog walkers, for they could only be walking to one place. The pavement turned right and ended, opening into a potato field. On the left the main road continued; on the otherside of the main road was the windmill, which I still couldn’t get a good picture of. Oh well. So I continued following these elderly people who now let their dogs off their leash. Am not terribly comfortable around dogs, I awkwardly continued walking to the other corner of the field to join the left marsh edge.
To summarise the locations I’ve discussed so far and how they are all positioned relative to one another, I’ve constructed this map. Again, I’ve identified the staithe as the central location, Point Zero. From there, there are things broadly to the left, and broadly to the right. To the left is the creek bend where the Marsh House would be, and far out is a walkable edge of the marsh, a dyke, (highlighted as a magenta line) that I’m trying to reach. On the right is the edge of the marsh, a dyke, (also highlighted) that serves as the only permanant route to the dunes and beaches.
Samphire and sea lavender
What were you doing on the marsh this morning?the girl asked dreamily.
Picking samphire. Why, did you see me then, too?
Yes. I wondered if you were picking sea lavender… I love sea lavender…
I walked some way along this marsh edge dyke and eventually found that the tide
had gone out just enough for there to be patches of treadable mud flats. So I
crossed it, and then grabbed a tuft of long grass to pull me up on top of the
marsh bed. Now, next question: what does samphire and sea lavender even look
like? If so far I led you to believe I’m so go-getter naturalist, I’d like to
correct the record; I can’t name trees, I can’t name plants. I found it pretty
exceptional that in the book, Mr Pegg could name a bird by a second-hand
description of how it sounds (the
sandpiper). I gazed at the harbour
mouth in the in distance to let my mind recollect descriptions from the book.
green marsh weed, called samphire
There was a purple haze over the marsh, which was the sea lavender coming out
Luckily it didn’t take too long for me to find something that looked
vegetable-like. The genius that I am, I picked off a piece and chewed to
determine if it’s edible. I thought,
seems legit and then began pulling
it out in clumps and began bagging it. I couldn’t take any pics of this process
because my hands were full, and was wearing my winter gloves because I
anticipated that doing this would be messy—and boy was it messy. Both
inside and outside of the bin liner became wet and muddy somehow. Maybe I
should have brought some bladed item, so I wouldn’t need to pull up the muddy
roots, but then I remembered how I didn’t have my loiconse to even buy
scissors in a shop a while ago.
I stopped after what felt like two minutes, cause I was getting unmanagably messy. I tied the half-full bin liner and took off my gloves, then opened by backpack and carefully rearranged items into separate compartments so that there was one vacant compartment to keep a wet and muddy bin bag. Then ceased an opportunity for a pic.
I eventually found what looked like sea lavender and picked only a sprig. I wasn’t sure how I’d otherwise carry a bunch.
I decided to abort my mission to reach the beach this way. There just seemed to be too many hollows to leap over, many of which I wasn’t entirely confident I could, despite spending my early teenagehood larping as a freerunner. The mud flats were, again, too slippery. My shoes sank into them far too easily, and I knew I had to cross very many of these along the way. I guess the weather just wasn’t right, it’s not the middle of summer afterall. Beside, it looked like I’m the only one doing this, is what I’m doing unusual nowadays? O well, it’s not like Anna could reliably cross the marsh either.
At the beach
Here was the one place where she could be sure of meeting no-one. Even if anyone should happen to be wandering along the beach, she could see them while they were still no more than a speck in the distance, and lie low until they had passed. Already she had spent many afternoons here, lying in a sandy hollow, hearing only the wind rustling the tops of the grasses, the distant crying of the gulls, and the soft soughing of the sea. It was like being at the very edge of the world.
And so, I went back to the staithe and then use the path to the beach I used yesterday. Though I knew it was still low tide, what I saw as a I climbed over the sandhill I didn’t expect and blew me away: the beach is very, very big now. A massive foreshore. The shore itself was now way off. As I took the next 20 minutes to walk there, I felt like I was in a dream—for real, I’ve had recurring dreams like this, despite never having been to such places before. Yeah, I’m sheltered.
After some while I finally reached the sea, picking up one (1) urchin and seashell. Then I went and walked along shoreline. Just walking, not really going anywhere; I thought about much of a bad traveller I was one time when I went to the Peak District with a friend, having thoughtlessly approached the trip as a mission to get to place-to-place-to-place in a limited amount of time. No, time to forego that, I’m simply relishing the peace here. As Anna had, I thought about nothing.
After maybe an hour or so, I found myself at the end of the beach, at the harbour mouth, which now was just a thin sheet of water trickling over hard sand going out into the sea. I took my shoes off by now, this beach now suddenly becoming a tactile experience of soft sand and hard stones under my feet. I found a patch of fresh, luscious green seaweed and I remembered the one thing I wanted to do. I put my winter gloves on and began pulling it up, and chose a spot to pile it. Did the same with handfuls of rocks and seashells. And so, I began arranging them…
She walked down to the water’s edge, and saw it. Shells and strips of seaweed had been used to make a careful pattern of each letter, and the name MARNIE lay spelled out on the sand.
After I did that, I plopped down for my legs were kinda tired now. Just wanted to get into the moment. Decided to do some reading, picking out chapters I haven’t read in a while. I decided to refamilarise myself with The Lindsays, for I forgot Roly even had a line of dialogue.
The book more often describe these structures as
sandhills rather than
dunes, so I’m going with that. I’ve already cut through these a few times to
get onto the beach, of course, but now was to explore it. My shoes were still
off, sharing the same compartment in my backpack as the bag of samphire for it
too was wet and muddy. To my bare feet, the marram was very prickly at the
wrong angles. Was not put off tho, cause everything else was soft pillowy grass
and near white, pure sand. Almost wanted to eat it. As bill wurtz once said,
sand is short for how it tastes: (sa)lty yet bla(nd).
She sprang up and ran like the wind, away over the dunes until she had nearly reached the far end where the hillocks levelled out and became flat sand. She plunged headlong into the last remaining hollow and burrowed her way down into the fine, warm sand.
Notable features the book described of the sandhills were rabbit holes, hollows you can hide in, and tall dunes you can stand on. The rabbit holes were boring. The hollows were pretty chill sitting places, I sat in one and did some more thinking about nothing.
I headed back to my room, ofc walking the dyke I came here by. Needed to caffienate myself. While walking, I noticed the marsh seemeed drier. Huh, I thought it was well past lowest tide. Or I guess the mud flats that were exposed had dried a bit and so it looks dry but the tide is still coming in. But still maybe it would’ve been possible to come back over the marsh bed? Idk. It was 3 or 4 in the afternoon now by the time I was in my room, having a cup of tea, and connected to the wireless to post various updates.
I brought my backpack into the shower room and dumped the muddy bag of samphire into the shower. Ran water under so that the outside of this tied up bag would be clean. It just made things more gross, and I began to panick cause muddy water sprayed a fair bit in places. The housekeeper is going to be mad at me. Going to need to wipe down a bit. I placed the sea lavender, urchin, etc, on the dressing table.
I watched the weather turn a bit. Wind howling now and then, drizzle coming down. Hell yeah. I put on my bike jacket and braced myself.
A final visit to the beach
Alright, looking at the marsh it seems the tide is coming in. The wind was a little aggressive. I was thinking back to an article linked on Hacker News about how hats were necessary for people in the olden days because walking in any weather condition was a part of daily life, before cars. I really could’ve done with one.
So instead going straight onto the beach, I decided on more exploring of the sandhills. I climbed the tallest dune and stood, extending my arms out in christlike formation, and just embracing the wind and rain. There was no one for miles. This was a big vibe, and personally my fav thing I did.
I raced down the dune, a sharp vertical drop I fully knew I had to break my fall. Went on the beach, where the shore was a normal distance away now. Walked along it, intentionally stepping a little into the shallow water cause it was fun for some reason. I was trying to find I spot I was in earlier, I had to check something.
I walked to the opposite end of the beach now. It was time to go back, but felt sad that this was the last time I would see this place. I walked backwards over the sandhills, rather than turn my back. Walked back as the sun went down. Boi did it go down, it was pitch black by the time I go to my room.
I explored the harbour road again, reassembled my bike gear for later, then had breakfast. There were two things left I needed to do.
As I was checking out, paying for my stay, the person asked me stuff like if I
enjoyed my stay, enjoyed the area, etc. I was waiting for the opportunity to
say what I wanted to say. Eventually I was asked,
I guess you were here as
a nice getaway?
I’m actually here cause of a book, written by Joan G. Robinson…
When Marnie Was There.
It was actually set in this place.
Oh that’s cool!
There were more parts to that conversation, but that was it really. No, the book isn’t local knowledge here. Too bad, so sad.
So now there’s one more thing I needed to do. I got on my bike, all kitted up to head back to King’s Lynn, but I had to stop by one place: the windmill. It wasn’t enough to see it from a distance, and I haven’t been able to take a good pic of it because every angle is to far or obstructed. I need to look at it close up. I arrived at the gates, which had some National Trust sign saying that this place is for residents only (it’s a holiday cottage now). I stood there thinking about a youtube vid I once saw, Ally Law, a group of friends who broke into a water park complex in the middle of night by scaling the building, getting onto the roof.
I unlocked the fence and forthrightly walked in. I went as close as the front door, and took a good look at the general brickwork. Now to take a pic.
- Burnham Overy Staithe Cameron Self
- When Marnie Was There: by Joan G Robinson Sue Purkiss
- Author would have approved of Japanese re-make of mysterious story set at Burnham Overy Staithe in north Norfolk Chris Bishop
- Why Burnham Overy Staithe is big in Japan Rowan Mantell
- Where Marnie Was Marlies G. Prinzl