Great Yarmouth: Silver from the Sea

You are considering taking a trip to Great Yarmouth? Congratulations. Whether it be seaside resort ‘kiss me quick’ tackiness or post-industrial lunar landscapes, Great Yarmouth sometimes suffers from a deadly combination of stereotypes. Here, however, I'd like to present you with an alternative exploration of the town – one that, hopefully, challenges these clichés.

© Colin Howey - Great Yarmouth Collage

Being something of a romantic ruin myself, on entering the burial yard of St Nicholas Church my eye is immediately drawn to the ivy-clad doorway of the old priory. This would have once been the site of the prior's hall, as the church was originally a Benedictine 'cell', founded by the the Norman bishop, Herbert de Losinga. The shape of the arch would suggest that this is a 14th century doorway. Whereas the flint is native to Norfolk the limestone arch must have been imported through the port and carted to this site. Strange to think that it was sparkling new once. Curious to imagine the mason, with a final tap of his rosewood mallet, standing back to admire his work. Who was the last person to pass through this doorway I wonder?

As I enter the churchyard, I notice the grave of a nine-year-old boy, George Beloe. At the head of the stone is a depiction of a collapsing bridge. Along with 79 others, young George drowned after the bridge fell on May 2nd 1845. On that day, as an ill-conceived publicity stunt, a clown from 'Mr Cooke's Circus' was passing down the river in a tub drawn by four geese. Drawn to this surreal spectacle, the people of Yarmouth gathered to see him go by. Tragically, the weight of the spectators gathered on one of the walkways on the side of the bridge causing the supporting rods to snap, plunging several hundred folk into the river below. Out of 79 people who died, most were very young. In addition to this, 29 of the deceased had lived within 150 yards of the bridge. We can't imagine the emotional impact of this tragedy to the Yarmouth community. Poor George... poor parents!

Great Yarmouth was granted permission to build a wall and ditch in 1261; not being completed until 1391. Despite the tendency of some to denigrate the town, it has - among other things - one of the most impressive stretches of medieval civic wall in Britain (see, in particular, the section along Blackfriars Road). As well as the obvious defensive purposes, in the medieval period a wall was also a reflection of the status of a settlement. It would seem that local people quite literally bought into this idea, with many Yarmouth citizens during the period of its construction choosing to leave money towards this massive construction project in their wills.

As I make my way through the town, I am watchful, looking out for the quirky, the curious and the unusual. Going a little off the main routes, I find a section of the town wall that had obviously undergone quite recent restoration. As you can see, the builders decided to recycle some empty wine bottles, using them to fix a hole. For me there is an echo here: just as many folk in medieval Yarmouth memorialised themselves through posthumous contributions to the cost of building the walls, people are still making history in small ways today.


In that same section of wall, looking up, I note the presence of a small yellow ball curiously lodged near the top of the wall. How on earth did it get there? The shrub on the top of the wall also brings me to another point. There is a widely held view that nature resides in rural spaces and not in urban ones. This is not true. In fact, given the monoculture in much of the contemporary British countryside, there is often more eco-diversity in towns and cities - and not least in old walls. Lichen, plants, insects, birds - the nature of these spaces is often very diverse and, for me, interesting. Let's put it this way - we're not the only ones scurrying around.

Walking down an alley, I happen upon an unloved 19th century structure, which had been built onto the frontage of the town wall. Looking inside, I see a jumble of rubbish and rancid rags. However, I'm captivated by the pattern and silvery shimmer of the shattered glass window as it glistens in the bright sunshine. If I could freeze-frame this little structure and cocoon it for a thousand years, archaelogists of the future would swoon. So much evidence; a snap-shot of this present-day. The value of things changes. Survival may make the most unexpected of assumed significance.

Strange, then, to think that the people profiting from the dissolution of wonderful buildings such as the Yarmouth Greyfriars during the early phase of the English Reformation, saw their value only in terms of pounds, shillings and pence. Deprived of its function by wider events, the friary was eyed covetously in terms of the monetary value of its lead, timber and dressed stone. How different the ruined cloisters appear to us now. Unique in having the only wall paintings of any friary in England, this is a beautiful and poignant space. I do hope my unloved structure with its silvery shattered window doesn't develop a significant development value, or that, in the name of 'place-marketing', it isn't sanitised and tidied into oblivion.

I'm nearing the end of my walk as I approach the South Quay. Here, next to the library, there is a piece of public art and a well-tended community garden. As part of a project - 'Growing Together' - local sculpture Jason Parr carved this 4.5 metre high totem pole. As you can see, it features (from bottom to top) waves and rays of sun, with racks of bloaters (smoked herring) at the summit - a fitting tribute to a town founded on the silver from the sea (for a deeper understanding of this herring borne legacy, visit the town's wonderful Time and Tide Museum).

On the lower levels of the 'totem' volunteers involved in the project were invited to connect with their town's history and memorialise themselves by carving their names into the timber. It is great to see communities coming together and getting involved in marking their history and making their present-day richer and more meaningful. The flowers in this garden have burst their buds and the vegetables begin to grow. I am but a stone's throw away from the Greyfriars site, where the friary accounts tell us that there was once a garden with mulberry trees and a strawberry yard. It is lovely to see a new garden bloom.

We would love to hear about your heritage discoveries too. Share with us the curious details you spotted on your explorations.