A visit to Waxham and Happisburgh in the footsteps of M. R. James, Jonathan Miller, Lawrence Gordon Clark and Mark Fisher

Mr Paxton visits Froston (i.e. Happisburgh) church
As a teenager growing up in the 1970s every Christmas I would await a couple of TV reruns on the BBC with great anticipation. One would be a film by Jaques Tati; the other would be a ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’, two of which very quickly became favourites, ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ (directed by Jonathan Miller in 1968) and ‘A Warning to the Curious’ (directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark in 1972). Both of these TV productions of stories by M. R. James’ were filmed in various parts of Suffolk and Norfolk including Wells-next-the-Sea where throughout my life I have spent many a happy holiday hour with my parents, grandparents and, in the last twenty years in November around her birthday, with my wife Susanna.


St Mary’s church, Happisburgh, on a bleak and solemn November day
Over the years I’ve been to many of the places where various scenes were filmed but two had always eluded me. One was the beach at Waxham where Professor Parkin (played by Michael Horden) trudges along the dunes, has his packed lunch, reads a little F. H. Bradley (‘silly Bradley’ as Parkin calls him) and ponders on the question of whether or not there are, in fact, more things in heaven and earth than in his philosophy. The other was the church and graveyard at Happisburgh (Froston in James' story) overlooking the sea where Mr Paxton (played by Peter Vaughan) meets the rector and hears from him the story of the three ancient crowns of East Anglia and about one of its guardians, the recently dead William Ager.

Well, an old college friend of mine who has a shared love of all things hauntological, including the stories of James and their TV adaptions, came to visit us for a couple of days whilst Susanna and I were in Wells last week. As he has a car (we had come by train and bus) and Susanna needed to stay in the cottage to do some translating my friend and I took off eastwards along the coast to seek out these locations following another guide whose work we both admired, Mark Fisher who, back in 2007, had written a short piece for his blog k-Punk about his own journey to these same places. Here’s how he began his short piece:

The temptation to visit the locations where films or television programmes were made is as difficult to resist as it is likely to lead to disappointment. We know perfectly well that the places as they appear on film or television do not really exist, that they are composites produced in the editing suite. Nevertheless, the pull is such that we will visit when we can, even at the risk of destroying our illusions.
          In the case of the BBC’s M R James’ adaptations, the temptation to visit the locations is particularly powerful. Beyond any specific spectral entities, it is the landscapes — ‘bleak and solemn’, as James described them — that haunt (in) the BBC films. The films capture a seductive slowness proper to these nearly-deserted heaths and beaches, sublime in their sombre desolation. James’ characters are urban scholars who under-estimate the powers of this archaic and arcane terrain, with its ancient lore and laws, at their peril. They come from populous human centres into spaces that human beings have never managed to subdue.

As you will see in the photos below our own visit to this this archaic and arcane terrain was undertaken on as perfectly “bleak and solemn” a day as any imagined by M. R. James.

After our hauntological journey the question remained to be answered, as it did for Mark Fisher, as to whether our visit had destroyed “the illusion that the television films had constructed?” We could both honestly answer just as Fisher had done:

In these cases, not at all. Miller and Clark’s adaptations make artful use of the Norfolk landscapes, but they do not distort them, with the result that walking these landscapes after seeing the films is not a deflationary, but an uncanny, experience.

An uncanny experience indeed.

All photos taken with a Fuji X100F
Just click on a photo to enlarge

Gateway to Waxham Hall

Perimeter of Waxham Hall

Waxham Hall

St John’s,Waxham 

Lane through Waxham behind the church

The ruined east end of St John’s, Waxham

St John’s, Waxham

St John’s, Waxham

Access to the beach through the sand dunes at Waxham

The dunes and beach at Waxham (the Marram Hills)

Professor Parkin walks the dunes 

The dunes and beach at Waxham 
Professor Parkin eats his packed lunch and reads Bradley on the dunes at Waxham

Wind sculpted sycamores at Waxham

View over Waxham Hall and the church

Black Shuck on Waxham dunes?

Sea defences at Waxham

St John’s, Waxham through the wintry trees

Sandy track leading from the beach back to Waxham 

Cottage hard by St John’s, Waxham

Rooks over the tower of St Mary’s, Happisburgh (Froston)

The tower of St Mary’s, Happisburgh (Froston)

The church yard overlooking the sea at Happisburgh (Froston)

The church yard overlooking the sea at Happisburgh (Froston)

Mr Paxton talks to the Rector at Happisburgh (Froston)

The base of the west tower at Happisburgh (Froston)

The base of the west tower at Happisburgh (Froston)

William Ager seen by Mr Paxton whilst visiting Froston church  

Ploughing the field in which William Ager stood

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