The strangest place in the wide world
I wrote a post about Great Yarmouth’s Time and Tide Museum some time ago. The museum continues to be one of the town’s cultural highlights but for inquisitive visitors, especially those with a taste for faded grandeur, there is plenty more to see. One such attraction is the Britannia Monument, aka Nelson’s Monument, which is also mentioned in the same post. This 44-metre-high monument of Britannia atop a Doric column is closed to visitors for much of the time, but access up the slim spiral staircase to its viewing platform is permitted with prior booking on Sundays in summer (visits can usually be booked through the town’s Nelson Museum). Our visit was during heritage weekend in early September. Some of the photos come from earlier in the summer.
From the top of the column it is plain to see that Great Yarmouth occupies a sand spit, a narrow isthmus of land delimited by the North Sea and the River Yare. Housing and industry have long since filled the available space between the river and sea – today a modern industrial estate surrounds the base of the column – but when the monument was first erected in the second decade of the 19th century it stood alone on a fishing beach, separate from the bulk of the town to the north. An early 19th century painting by JMW Turner depicts the monument as a beacon towering over a vast beach on which sailors and local women frolic on the sand, the glowering sky above appropriately Turner-esque in tone.
Looking east, our eyes are drawn to the taut curve of the North Sea – a white-flecked mass of green that fades to grey in the haze towards the horizon. Wind turbines, grouped together like wraiths with arms raised in supplication, loiter offshore at Scroby Sands, their blades almost immobile on a calm day such as this. Turning around to gaze inland the wide silver snake of Breydon Water is revealed, the bird-thronged estuary where the Yare and Bure rivers come together before narrowing to flow past South Quay to the sea. On a clear day, it is said, you could see the spire of Norwich Cathedral nearly twenty miles inland. On this day though, a smoky blue haze limits the view to the west beyond the glimmering mud.
Walking back to the town centre along Marine Parade we pass all the familiar trappings of an old-school English coastal resort: the town’s Pleasure Beach with its garishly painted fairground rides, amusement arcades, fast food shacks, miniature golf courses, skate parks and putting greens. Punctuating this main seaside thoroughfare are the town’s twin piers – the eponymous Britannia with its end-of-the-pier theatre, and the truncated Wellington, now little more than an elegant facade. Next to Wellington Pier stands the intricate, if fragile-looking, framework of the town’s Winter Gardens, the last remaining Victorian glass and wrought iron building of its type in the country. Long empty and neglected, corroded by salt spray, the structure resembles a huge three-storey greenhouse badly in need of a paint job: a potential future Eden Project in waiting (indeed, that is one council member’s dream) if only the necessary funding could outpace the building’s slide into irreversible decay.
It is the all-too-familiar face of the English seaside resort in the early 21st century. Once bustling entertainment palaces now lie empty and abandoned. The Ionic-columned Empire Theatre opposite Britannia Pier lacks both audience and a full complement of letters above its portal. In its most recent incarnation this Edwardian cinema served as a bingo hall, and before that as an amusement arcade, but since 2011 it has lain dormant despite vague plans for its reincarnation a nightclub. The building’s anachronistic colonial name is now reduced by weathering and gravity to spell out ‘EMPI’. Perhaps in a few more years it will degrade further to ‘EMP’ and invite a literal-minded graffitist’s addition of ‘TY’?