In the fifith of our series looking at the UK’s small and interesting towns, Brenda Watkinson visits Great Yarmouth to discover a modern entertainment destination risen from an east coast fishing village.
Visitors have been coming to Great Yarmouth since the late 1700s and the resort is now one of the most popular in the UK. It is a busy resort with miles of glorious soft sands, perfect for all the traditional seaside activities; however, many visitors are still unaware that it has a fascinating history to explore.
Located at the mouth of the River Yare, 20 miles east of Norwich, Great Yarmouth was first established as a fishing settlement in the 10th century and, as early as 1066, the town was known across Europe for its herrings or ‘silver darlings’, to coin a local phrase. In fact a free Herring Fair was held each year, attracting merchants from far and wide. The size of the fishing fleets grew over the centuries and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ‘fisher lasses’, mainly from Scotland, descended on the town from October onwards to process the catch as the boats landed.
Despite being such a major fishing port for hundreds of years, the industry declined rapidly in the 1930s and has all but disappeared. Visitors are able to explore the rich maritime history of Great Yarmouth at a number of attractions though, including the Lydia Eva, which landed her last catch in 1938 and can be visited on South Quay from April until October.
Another important period of history for Great Yarmouth was the 13th century. In 1261, King Henry II granted the town the right to build a town wall to defend itself against invasion, and to control importing and exporting. Large sections of these walls still survive and they are one of the best preserved and most complete Medieval Town Walls in England. You can follow sections as you tour the town today.
In fact, the whole East Anglia coast was vulnerable to attack in times of conflict, and Great Yarmouth played an important role in defending this part of the country. In the 14th century, the town supplied ships to fight the Battle of Sluys against the Dutch, the first great English triumph at sea, and provided a large number of both ships and seamen for the Battle of Calais against the French. The town was also an important naval base throughout the Napoleonic Wars, and Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, who was born at Burnham Thorpe in north west Norfolk in 1758, landed at Great Yarmouth on three occasions. Following his death, the Nelson Monument was erected in the town on the seafront. The Nelson Museum gives an excellent insight into his career and his Norfolk connections.
Today, the town’s main income comes from tourism and it has been a well-known seaside resort since 1760. At first, only the aristocracy and gentry could afford to visit the town but, in 1844, when the railway arrived in Great Yarmouth, all this changed and for the first time, the town was open to mass tourism. The seafront was transformed as hotels, piers and entertainment venues were built along the promenade, so creating the seaside resort we know today.
Many hotels are located along North Drive, offering easy access to the beach and seafront attractions. Wherever you are staying along the seafront, there is easy access to the town as a Road Train runs the length of the promenade. Many hotels in Great Yarmouth offer their own coach parking and for day trippers, there is a coach park located a short walk from North Drive on Sandown Road.
Located on the east coast of East Anglia, Great Yarmouth is just a 20-minute drive from Norwich via the A47.
There is a regular train service from London to Norwich with connections to Great Yarmouth.
For visitors wishing to explore the town at their own pace, there are a number of routes that can be easily followed. A good starting point for a leisurely walk is Great Yarmouth Minster at the western end of the Market Place. It is certainly worth popping your head around the door of this imposing building. It is vast – in fact it is the biggest parish church in the UK and became a minster in February this year. As well as the stunning stained glass windows, don’t miss Ernie Childs’ work of art ‘Painting for the People of Great Yarmouth’, which was commissioned to mark the 800th anniversary of the King John Charter. The painting took two years to complete and is over 20 feet long. The Minster is open every morning from 10am to 12 noon and is free.
As you leave the Minster, turn right and walk alongside the high railings surrounding the Minster’s Graveyard. These were installed during the early 19th century when body snatching was rife in the town. Large rewards were given by London surgeons in exchange for bodies, encouraging thieves to dig them up. A little further on, keep an eye out for an attractive ‘row’ with an unattractive name – Snatch Body Row – before reaching Town Wall Road. Great Yarmouth is renowned for its ‘rows’, narrow alleyways only 37 inches wide in places, which lead from the quayside to the Market Place and used to house wealthy merchants at one end and bars and shops at the other.
As you turn right into Town Wall Road, you will get your first glimpse of the Medieval Town Walls. Dating from 1261 when King Henry II granted Great Yarmouth the right to build a town wall and made of local flints and pebbles, the original walls were seven feet wide and up to 23 feet high in places. They ran over a mile in length around three sides of the town, with the River Yare protecting the western side. Nearly 90% of the walls remain today and can be seen at many places around the town.
Continue to follow the town walls, through the Minster’s graveyard and then through the car park of Sainsbury’s supermarket. If you cross St. Nicholas Road into Temple Road, you will still see the ancient walls on your right as you approach Market Gates shopping centre. This modern complex features a number of high street favourites including Debenhams.
Before you reach the shopping centre, bear right along Fishers Opening into the Market Place. Here you will find Palmers, a large independent store established over 125 years ago, an ideal stop for some retail therapy and a cup of coffee.
This extensive pedestrianised shopping area also features Great Yarmouth Market, selling lots of knick knacks. If you feel a little peckish, you will find several stalls selling mouthwatering chips, a speciality of the town. In the heart of the market, look for a stone that marks the site of the 1836 Market Cross.
One last stop before returning to the Minster is another one of Great Yarmouth’s best kept secrets. Built in 1702, the Fisherman’s Hospital at the Market Place originally housed up to 40 residents but has now been divided into individual cottages.
Look out for the figure in the cupola on the roof, which is Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. From here, it is just a short stroll back to the Minster.
An alternative trail begins at the Town Hall, located on Hall Quay. This leads into Great Yarmouth’s Historic South Quay and it is here you will find a number of museums to explore.
Built in the 1880s, the Town Hall is a classic example of fine Victorian Gothic architecture and has been beautifully restored. Groups can arrange a guided tour in advance through the Mayor’s secretary.
Leaving the Town Hall, continue eastwards along the River Yare. First stop is The National Trust’s Elizabethan House Museum, once the home of a Tudor merchant. Here, you can discover what life was like in Victorian times. An audio guide is available.
Continue walking along South Quay past Yarmouth Way, turning left when you see the Library. Pass the library and turn immediately right into Tolhouse Street. The Tolhouse is one of the oldest gaols in the country dating back to the 12th century, and visitors are treated to many tales of smugglers, witches, pirates and murderers once held within its walls. This museum has limited opening hours so it is advisable to check before visiting.
Back on Tolhouse Street, turn right and then take the first right, which takes you back towards South Quay. On your right, you will see Great Yarmouth Row Houses, in the care of English Heritage; these consist of two early 17th century properties known as Row 111 House and Old Merchant’s House, containing a range of artefacts rescued from former row houses at various periods. If time allows, you could divert slightly to visit a replica of a row with all sorts of imitation cottages at the Time and Tide Museum on Blackfriars Road.
Continuing back down South Quay, the Nelson Museum is definitely worth a visit. It gives a fascinating insight into the life and times of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson covering his childhood, career, battles and tragic death.
As you return to the Town Hall via South Quay, you will see the Lydia Eva moored in the river, which has been lovingly restored by volunteers since 1999. This is a fantastic opportunity to explore the last surviving steam drifter in the UK. It is also listed by the National Historic Ships Unit as one of the 60 most important vessels in the UK. As you descend below deck, you will discover the fascinating story of the men who lived on board. Admission is free but donations are gratefully received.
The Great Yarmouth Heritage Guides
The author was taken on her tour of Great Yarmouth by Dona Watson, whose dedicated team of Heritage Guides, all volunteers, are a mine of information when it comes to Great Yarmouth and the surrounding area. Dona has been heavily involved with the Heritage Guides since 1999, when the Tourist Information Centre set up the service. She is also involved in the organisation of the Great Yarmouth Maritime Festival, taking place on 7th and 8th September 2013, and has been committed to the restoration of the Lydia Eva.
The Heritage Guides offer a programme of guided tours from Easter until the end of October, based on various themes such as ‘The Medieval Town Wall’, ‘The Trawler Trail – Lydia Eva & The Historic South Quay’ and ‘Fish & Ships’. Lasting between one and two hours, groups need to pre-book. One of the most popular walks is ‘Rows, Fishwives and Body Snatchers’, which reveals what really went on in the graveyards of Great Yarmouth. For groups, both walking tours and coach tours can be pre-booked all year round through Dona at the TIC.
Telephone: 07901 915390 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.heritage-walks.co.uk
Let us entertain you
In Great Yarmouth, the fun continues long after the sun goes down. At night-time, the Britannia Pier Theatre offers live theatre shows featuring stars such as the Chuckle Brothers, Cannon & Ball and Joe Pasquale.
The epicentre of the entertainment scene though is the Hippodrome Great Yarmouth, Britain’s only surviving complete circus building, built in 1903 by the legendary circus showman, George Gilbert.
Over the years, this intimate arena has played host to a variety of entertainment, from amazing water spectacles and stage variety shows to cinema and cine variety, and was even used as a military practice shooting range during World War Two. For eight weeks each summer, the Hippodrome stages a circus production while at other times, the venue features pop concerts, opera and classical music.
Meanwhile, in nearby Gorleston, the Pavilion opened in the summer of 1901 with a seating capacity of 300. This original Edwardian building is open all year, offering a wide selection of plays, pantomimes, musicals and concerts as well as the ever popular summer season variety show.
Great Yarmouth seafront, known as the Golden Mile, also offers many attractions, so if the weather happens to be inclement, there will always be something to occupy your group.
The northern end of the seafront is the more tranquil part of Great Yarmouth. Here, you will find a boating lake and also The Waterways, peaceful gardens featuring canals and bridges. This is also the area where many groups stay. As mentioned previously, a small Road Train operates the length of the seafront, which will take your group members along to the action.
Following the route of the Road Train, first stop is Scroby Sands Wind Farm Visitor Centre, an ideal way to learn about wind power. Visible just offshore, Scroby Sands was one of the UK’s first commercial offshore wind farms and it generates enough energy to supply over 30,000 homes. The visitor centre is open daily during the summer season and entry is free of charge.
A few steps further on, the Victorian Britannia Pier offers traditional seaside fun. As well as two amusement arcades offering all types of amusements from traditional penny slot machines to state-of-the-art computerised racing machines, there are also shops, cafes and bars.
Next door, Pirates Cove Adventure Golf is another way to enjoy the seafront. This 18-hole adventure golf course is set in beautifully landscaped gardens and is illuminated at dusk.
From this point on the seafront, it might now be worth catching the Road Train to travel further along the seafront to Great Yarmouth Sea Life Centre. This has over 70 marine species to see including a shark display, stingrays, starfish and conger eels. Many of the creatures are on the endangered list and have been bred as part of the conservation project at Great Yarmouth.
A short walk brings you to the second of Great Yarmouth’s Victorian piers, Wellington Pier, featuring a 10-lane bowling alley. If you are ready for some refreshments at this point, the nearby ocean-view café, Sara’s Tea Rooms, offers both inside and outside seating areas, a great way to enjoy the sea air.
Further along the seafront, a visit to Merrivale Model Village is a must. This delightful miniature world, set in landscaped gardens, represents the English countryside in miniature complete with an N-gauge miniature railway. Don’t miss the large scale model of Buckingham Palace in the indoor exhibition.
At the top of the Golden Mile, the Pleasure Beach offers all the fun and excitement you would expect. With its mixture of white knuckle rides and water attractions, it is home to England’s oldest wooden rollercoaster, the Scenic Railway, installed in 1932. It has a single pull-up to the highest point and once the train has left the top, it travels under gravity until it arrives back at the station, thrilling every passenger.
Groups wanting further information on Great Yarmouth can contact:
Great Yarmouth Borough Council, Maritime House, 25 Marine Parade, Great Yarmouth, NR30 2EN
tel 01493 846346