Great Yarmouth’s excellent Time and Tide Museum continues to fly the flag for that town’s half-forgotten herring industry. Located near the old town walls just off South Quay in a former herring smokehouse, the museum informs and charms in equal measure. With mock-ups of 19th century ‘rows’ – the tiny terraced back-to-backs that once housed Yarmouth’s men and women of the sea – and with plenty of newsreel and black and white photographs of whiskery sailors and itinerant Scottish fishergirls it transports the visitor back to a time when the herring was king and Yarmouth served as his palace: ‘the fishiest town in all England’ as Charles Dickens once observed. Such erstwhile fishiness is tangible: the very walls of the museum are still redolent of smoked fish — rich, evocative, appetising. Once, the whole of South Quay must have smelled like this.
Yarmouth has had to reinvent itself several times over the past couple of centuries: prosperous periods as a boatbuilding hub, fishing port, herring processing centre and seaside resort have come and gone, overlapping one another as palimpsests of industry. These days, although a vestige of low-expectation tourism still clings on, it is more an ambience of low-rent charity shops, Portuguese cafes and boarded-up businesses that characterises this urbanised sand spit on England’s easternmost shore.
The Time and Tide Museum is struggling a little despite numerous plaudits since its establishment that include becoming a Gulbenkian Prize Museum of the Year finalist in 2005. Recently the Silver Darlings cafe in the museum courtyard was forced to close through lack of funding – a soft target for funding cuts in this penny-pinching era. The vending machine that has been installed is scant compensation. To Yarmouth’s credit, there was widespread dissent about this. People here are proud and do not like to see the ongoing decline of their town, especially considering that it once held such an elevated position in Britain’s maritime heritage.
Nowhere is this proud heritage better displayed than at the Britannia Monument at The Denes a mile or so south of the museum. The monument was erected in 1819 as a memorial to Admiral Horatio Nelson, Norfolk’s most famous son (give or take Stephen Fry or Delia Smith). Standing 44 metres high, just eight metres short of the Nelson monument in London’s Trafalgar Square, the column appears anachronistic towering above the humdrum low-rises of an industrial estate: a weather-stained monolith to past glory and the red-jacketed hubris of empire. Over less than two centuries, a booming herring trade, bucket and spade holidaymakers and lacklustre industry have all had their place in the sun here beneath Britannia’s unwavering gaze: such has been the drift of Yarmouth’s cultural topography.
But there is an undeniable glory to it too: a thick-set Doric column topped by a pergola framed by six caryatids that in turn supports a figure of Britannia atop a globe inscribed Plamam Qui Meruit Ferat (‘Let him who merits it take the palm’), the motto of Nelson’s coat of arms. All is not quite what it might first appear: you cannot tell from the ground but Britannia and her caryatids are modern fibreglass replacements of the stone originals — if you come here hot-foot from the Time and Tide Museum then you will already have seen the original head of Britannia there. I mentioned hubris; one might assume that Britannia would be facing square-jawed out to sea warning continental upstarts not to mess with the Royal Navy but no, she faces inland — towards northwest Norfolk and Nelson’s birthplace at Burnham Thorpe, some say.