A Day Out With Elspeth in Great Yarmouth

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Yarmouth has best medieval town walls in the East of England 

I began a travel book ten years ago and this is one of the earliest entries. My adult relationship with the Norfolk seaside began 15+ years ago by exploring the historic old town that I was surprised to learn of. A wry affection grew, embracing the tackiness and what may politely be called rambunctiousness of the resort and celebrating the old; but my starshaped rock coloured glasses came off after a few year’s gap. Having experienced new cities, I was less able to allow those who love the candyfloss, repeating bassline, cheap gifts and louche entertainment to enjoy Yarmouth and accept it as it is, and less prepared to spend further time there myself.

The Historic Quarter is more like a sixteenth. On my most recent trip, I was struck by how short the nice part of South Quay is compared to the length of the river, the busy roads carved through it, and the industrial sheds opposite that the guidebooks omit.

What I mind most is the lack of improvement over those years. I had read that the Quay was getting done up, but apart from small trees who don’t seem to have grown, nothing seems different and the decay is now greater than when I first visited. Tarting up the library and one of the worst shopping centres/bus stations I have seen with shiny glass have done nothing. As my expectations rise, I am no longer piqued by Spudulike (one of the last branches of the jacket potato fast food chain) and am fussier about my cafes – though Yarmouth does have a few nicer ones – Portuguese run Quayside Plaza on South Quay and Hoorah Henry’s near the cinema on the prom.

Perhaps one of the worst aspects is the view that greets the visitor from Norwich, by road or rail. Across verdant fens rises what could be an amazing prospect, like Arthur’s Camelot in First Knight. Instead: a power station, Social security offices and an urban sprawl that must make many holidayers wonder if it’s too late for a refund. I wonder how residents’ hearts must sink.

The railway station does nothing to alleviate this sense of foreboding. A 60s smelly pile waits and is locked pretty early even in season, making catching trains unappealing – Yarmouth only has one branch line (to Norwich), sometimes only once an hour, making you sit at a deserted open platform with no facilities or staff.

Leaving the station, you are presented with a rotting bridge which could be a feature. Vauxhall’s curved iron structure resembles a mini Tyne bridge, but most of it is roped off as dangerous, so it can only be used by cycles and pedestrians. One wonders if the signs really do direct you across it or if this is some method of keeping faarenners out – a violent answer to the Blarney Stone local joke. It’s now half restored in resplendent red, but awkwardly, I like the unpainted dilapidated side better.

Routes to market and beach or historic quay are not pretty either, and you could spend several moments wondering if you’d got lost or if the town really is this bad.

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A good guide will tell you that you are on your way to a quay that Daniel Defoe called the best in Europe, full of merchant’s houses and unique alleys called rows (rough little squeezeways which were and perhaps are dangerous and unappealing, lest you romanticise them); to the largest parish church in the country (now a Minster) in a large green graveyard with tame squirrels (read anon) by the timbered birthplace of Black Beauty penner Anna Sewell; some of the best medieval town walls in the country; to some important early seaside architecture from when the town was fashionable, including classical arches and Georgian style homes and several Edwardian cinemas. It has a dozen museums (Time and Tide especially is good – the only one open on Saturdays!) and many more visitor attractions, meaning it’s one of the few really good all weather British seasides (which you need!).

Yarmouth shows as many changing and contradictory faces as British summer can. It caters for unique (ahem) shopping (watersnakes anyone? Or a Buddha – next to some nipple tassels and smurfette toys), animals, amusements for adults and children – did you know Yarmouth has the oldest rollercoaster, in the world, I think? And one of the first piers, and a cinema in a Victorian aquarium, and the only Edwardian working circus, which doubles up as a venue for orchestral concerts.

I could show you pages in my scrapbook that make Yarmouth look good. But the lens is deliberately cutting off what’s around it – the busy ring roads, industrial decay and ugly post war housing (though happily not tower blocks) and an atmosphere that is as hard to capture by pen as it is with a camera. The suburbs bleed into the centre and people’s front doors are open as they visit neighbours and call out to them.

Improvement and life is starting around the King St area with artists studios and St George’s church becoming an arts centre, but the overall feel of Yarmouth is still better encapsulated by the former waxworks museum. Louis Tussaud clearly didn’t have his aunt’s gift and the outdated figures needed signs to identify them.

I have to append the awful exhibit at the Elizabethan House museum. Having enjoyed an amazing plastered ceiling and learned about possible conspiracy in shady rooms with a fireplace adorned by poorly painted nipples with the areola missing (that’s the second time I’ve mentioned those this article) – I passed through the children’s room. And there is an entablature of dead squirrels all round an table! Worse still, there’s postcard of this bizarre and and unanimal friendly sight – one fears for those graveyard squirrels! This is exactly the juxtaposition and rapid change characteristic of Yarmouth that I have been trying to convey!