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  • Writer's pictureGillian Harwood

Preserving Great Yarmouth’s beautiful historical places for the benefit of all!

On a map, Great Yarmouth resembles a sort of appendix hanging from the rounded belly of the east Norfolk coastline. It is a long, narrow place sandwiched between the North Sea and the harbour. It's where rivers Yare and Bure meet before they pour out into the sea.

The town is part of the Norfolk Broads National Park. A vast expanse of tidal water called Breydon Water sits right behind the entrance to the town. The seafront faces east with a broad sandy beach about two miles long with low dunes at either end. The main approach to Yarmouth is across seven miles of wonderful marshlands. Fields are spotted with old windmills, herds of piebald ponies and grazing black cattle. From across the grassland, as you approach, you can see the spikey spires of the 14th-century Minster reaching up above a low huddle of very old buildings. The journey across those marshes by car or train is haunting and hints at the magical place that lies ahead, ready to be explored.

They paved paradise (and put up a parking lot)

The reality today however is shockingly grim- and I say this as someone who is entranced by the town. The first dwellings you meet are not buildings at all but rows and rows of static caravans crammed behind a high fence into a Holiday Park. Then tattered hoardings screened off derelict land and used car lots. A very large Asda supermarket and the first of Great Yarmouth’s multitude of car parks completely obliterate the view of Breydon Water. An interesting Victorian brewery was fairly recently demolished, replaced by a monstrous Poundland store and an Aldi (again, each with a car park).

Rows of Georgian houses must have been demolished to make way for the main road through the town. It thoughtlessly cuts off the beautiful Minster and accompanying graveyard from the market place which it once overlooked. To make matters worse, another massive supermarket with a further huge car park has been permitted, slap-bang next to the tranquil churchyard.

Should you prefer the usual hustle and bustle of a busy harbour to the seaside (which I normally do) it’s only a very short distance across the narrow town. Through the streets of modest houses and lock-ups, you come upon the grandly named Historic South Quay. Described by Daniel Defoe as “the finest quay in England if not in Europe” and lined with handsome “little palaces”. In reality, South Quay turns out to be a virtual motorway with heavily loaded lorries and cars. But where is the harbour and where are the ships? Due to rising sea levels, a solid concrete retaining wall about four feet high has been built. It runs along the edge of the quay, blocking off any sight of the water or boats.

Town hall from Haven Bridge, there is enormous potential for Great Yarmouth

The Council's passion for car parks has caused rows and rows of old houses to be demolished. At one time there were about 145 incredibly narrow alleys called “Rows” in Great Yarmouth. They would lead up from the old quayside until they met the retaining town wall. This is where people lived and worked. Packed in like sardines. Funnily, an old plan of Yarmouth I’ve seen actually looks like the skeleton of a fish! One central street called Middlegate becomes the spine of a herring with the multiplicity of tiny little Rows being the bones. There are precious few vestigial remains of some of the old Rows, with their beautiful old brickwork and timbers.

Unfortunately, having been quite badly bombed in WW2, the town planners decided to raze almost all of the historic centre. A few poorly built council house estates were hastily put up to re-house families and cars were given all the best spaces! Had the local government creatively restored and improved the Row Houses (many dating back to the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries) I believe Great Yarmouth would now be a World Heritage Site and as beautiful and prosperous as are many restored European towns and cities.

Opportunities for new life to thrive in historic places

Back towards the harbour mouth are acres of old industrial buildings. A few remaining smokehouses connect with the herring trade. Painters, photographers and sculptors have found wonderful spaces for their studios in this part of town.

There remains an impressive lacy Victorian gas holder. A total surprise is a memorial to Admiral Nelson, almost as tall and older, and more beautiful, than the one in Trafalgar Square. These historic gems are surrounded by piles of old tyres and litter amongst the disused factories. All are sadly destined for demolition. Several years ago architectural designer Kit Martin bravely took on the challenge of successfully converting the old Naval Hospital in this part of Yarmouth into very smart and comfortable housing.

Two of Great Yarmouth's most impressive structures

Within the town, streets of later Victorian two-up-two-down cottages still exist, as well as larger villas from the same era. King Street and South Quay are lined with stunning Georgian ship captains’ houses. The most beautiful baroque church of St. Georges has become the local theatre with an amazing foyer and bar building next to it, both designed by Michael Hopkins.

There are literally hundreds of stucco houses which became seaside boarding houses and now house migrant workers and refugees sent to Yarmouth from other places. This is a town with massive potential for true, sensitive urban regeneration. There is already an effective Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust doing its best to save what it can.

One of our completed restorations in Great Yarmouth, 56 Howard Street South

We must kindle change. The people of Great Yarmouth deserve it!

Despite the grinding deprivation of many of the residents, there is some work locally. The sea is bristling with hundreds of white wind turbines, which should bring jobs and wealth to the town. Tourism of a different type to the 1950s. Trippers would make a massive difference to the town. As would an influx of new young families and professionals seeking an affordable living. That would bring better quality shops and a healthier food offering with both eco-tourism and the exploration of exciting historic places becoming year-round sources of income and jobs.

The Council and others need to stop looking backwards to the heydays of the 1950s and ’60s. Imagination and foresight are required. A real will to engage the whole community to start believing that the town really can return to being a stunning place. I believe that relatively small changes and interventions can work wonders. Despite the fact that Great Yarmouth is a real candidate for being swept totally away if/when sea levels rise, I believe things can improve. And the people of Yarmouth deserve it!

My new concept of Catch the Tide embodies all my beliefs. But a small group of caring private developers cannot possibly hope to regenerate a place with as many problems as Great Yarmouth currently has. It needs a substantial injection of money combined with a forward-looking vision of regeneration and conservation in its broadest and best sense to make a better place. This must not be left solely to the local council to instigate but should involve local people, businesses and those with a passion for the town, who can use their skills and experience to shape it into a place that helps the community to thrive once more.

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