Time and Tide

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.

Cromer New Year, 2011

Many of us feel a need to mark the turning of the year in some way other than simply customary overindulgence on the eve of the old year – an outing to some favoured spot on New Year’s Day perhaps? For those of us who live in Norwich, the North Norfolk coast usually fits the bill. It is not just a matter of blowing cobwebs away or walking off the previous night’s hangover, although certainly that may be an element of it, but more a way of welcoming the New Year and bidding farewell to the cultural interregnum that is the week after Christmas. The last week in December may not strictly be a month of Sundays but it can sometimes feel like it.

Christmas and New Year have long been syncretised with ancient rituals that used to mark the winter solstice, the turning point of the year that heralds the long-awaited lengthening of days. The trouble is these days, as with any public holiday, the Christmas break (should that be ©hristmas?) is largely seen as just another retail opportunity to sell you stuff you really don’t need. New Year’s Day seems different though – especially now that the ‘January sales’ tend to begin on Boxing Day – and has the feel of a day with a tad more community spirit than most. It may be cold January but, venturing outdoors, you get the impression that families are more likely to go out for a walk together on this day than any other in the year. Naturally enough, this phenomenon may also have some connection with New Year resolutions that involve fitness, family togetherness and fresh resolve to avoid couch potato blight. Personal New Year favourites tend to be a walk along the shingle bank at Cley-next-the-Sea, a five-mile circuit centred on Horsey that takes in Horsey Mere and a seal-friendly stretch of the northeast Norfolk coast, or the cliff walk between Overstrand and Cromer. This year, we chose the latter: a seaside amble along the beach from Cromer to Overstrand then a return to Cromer by way of the cliff path.

On a dull winter’s day the north Norfolk seascape can appear almost monochromatic. It is necessary to make adjustments in order to fully appreciate its understated, charcoal-sketch beauty. Scandinavians, fully at home with cold northern light, are good at this; Brits, however, our eyes forever enviously half-cocked on the promise of Mediterranean sun, are not so adept. Whatever the time of year, the north Norfolk coast is a liminal landscape: just sea, sky and sand. Head due north from here and there’s nothing but cold dark water until you reach the Arctic pack ice – nothing but notional maritime territories: Humber, Dogger, Forties, Viking. Horizontal layers of grey stratify the landscape: murky water; shining banks of cloud that weigh heavy on the horizon; sand and pebbles in the foreground. Look behind you and the cliffs behind are crumbling: too soft to win the fight in any sea versus land standoff. The aural landscape is hardly brighter: just the usual coastal din of argumentative gulls and overexcited dogs, the swash of waves and the grate of pebbles.

Crunching east along the pebbles, keeping a casual eyen open for the ochre glint of amber (never found), a steely blue jewel  nestled in seaweed reveals itself. The object, a detached lobster tail – or, rather, thorax – is so intensely blue that it seems to suck in light like a tiny dead star fallen to earth. The cerulean richness seems unworldly in this colour-bleached landscape. Separated from carapace and succulent flesh, its isolation renders it all the more precious. Precision-engineered to allow the most delicate of movements, it is a tail designed for swimming, dancing and mating displays, a tail for lobster love.

Returning along the cliffs next to the golf course the path is lined with thickets of sea buckthorn. In other years these have been so weighed down with squishy orange fruit that they dazzle the eye but this winter the berries, following a savagely cold December, are little more than a withered memory, with few to be seen on the bushes, thinned by frost action and hungry birds. Archaeological evidence suggests that sea buckthorn berries once played an important role in man’s diet but the truth is that, while they may be nutritious, they are also unbelievably astringent eaten raw, like bitter acid on the tongue. Freezing and cooking are supposed to reduce their unpalatable quality so we must conclude that Norfolk’s early settlers made some sort of jam out of the fruit.

Since the millennial year, Cromer has staged a New Year firework display that is said to attract at least half the town’s population and the same again from the county beyond. This year, we stayed to watch. By well before the time that darkness fell, it was impossible to find a seat in the Rocket Cafe above the Lifeboat Museum – the perfect viewpoint for the event. Instead, we stood among the crowd by the seawall facing the pier, while others positioned themselves up the steps that lead up to the main promenade. The display, when it finally began after what seemed like a long, cold late-afternoon wait, was a wonderfully explosive affair – a lengthy and varied display that made the annual Lord Mayor’s Procession event in Norwich look like a damp squib in comparison. As the last cracks of pyrotechnic thunder echoed against the sea wall, and the final salvo of rockets stabbed at the sky, I wondered what Cromer’s offshore crabs made of all this unexplained cacophony. Were they all scurrying northwards along the seafloor heading for the relative peace of Dogger Bank?