Gorleston seafront stroll full of memories
PUBLISHED: 21:48 10 April 2014 | UPDATED: 21:48 10 April 2014
PEGGOTTY, that esteemed literary character whose name has signed this column for three-quarters of a century, made a profound comment about our town that has endured ever since.
In the Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield, set hereabouts, the titular hero reports: “When we...smelt the fish, and pitch, and oakum, and tar, and saw the sailors walking about, and the carts jangling up and down over the stones, I felt I had done so busy a place an injustice; and said as much to Peggotty, who heard my expressions of delight with great complacency, and told me it was well known (I suppose to those who had the good fortune to be born Bloaters) that Yarmouth was, upon the whole, the finest place in the universe.”
Copperfield was unfamiliar with Yarmouth’s sights, sounds and smells whereas it was Peggotty’s home town and he extolled its virtues. One wonders if Peggotty might have been less ecstatic had he time-travelled from 1850 to 2014 to find his dwelling (an upturned boat on South Beach) inaccessible because of the Outer Harbour security fences!
We will never know whether or not Peggotty’s adulation for Yarmouth also embraced the other side of the River Yare – Gorleston - but on one mild and cloudlessly sunny morning last month, that other half of the urban borough also qualified eminently for that “finest place in the universe” description.
Mrs Peggotty and I walked along Brush Quay to the head of the south pier, passing about a score of ever-hopeful anglers, their eyes fixated on the tip of their rods as they awaited that tell-tale jerk indicating that a fish had taken their bait.
It was an ideal day for being out in the fresh air but a far cry from the usual cold, breezy and wet weather they usually endure in their quest for codling or whiting. Momentarily I felt tempted to return to Peggotty’s Hut to fetch my fishing tackle from the shed where it has languished, unused, for at least a decade.
Was the pier still accessible to its far end or fenced off on “elf and safety” grounds, we wondered, and were pleased to find no barriers, just protective rails. Some temporary edging had been knocked over, presumably by the heavy breakers recently, but only a fool would have ventured beyond an obvious safe limit.
On passing the pier-head building now used by the volunteer Coastwatch organisation, my thoughts harked back to the long hours I had spent there at all hours of the day and night when it was the coastguard station responsible for a large area of the North Sea.
I was there to report on search and rescue operations being conducted by the professional coastguards. They were times of patience, skill and drama as lifeboats, Royal Air Force helicopters and ships participated, determined to implement the promise that “The sea shall not have them”.
But on that wonderful March morning, the sea was placidly silver, with scarcely a ripple to mar its smoothness, except when the pilot launch briskly entered the harbour, soon returning in company with an orange-hulled rig supply ship coming down-stream stern first, then turning about and heading out to sea.
Gorleston’s lower promenade on fine-weather off-season weekends is usually busy with strollers – particularly young families with scooting kiddies - when we enjoy a walk there. But we encountered only moderate activity on this midweek outing last month. Most folk seemed to have dogs, all remarkably sociable and well-behaved – both the pets and the owners.
We paused at the boating pond where two conventional-looking model yachts were sailing serenely but briskly considering the lack of any breeze. But these are modern times, and both were radio-controlled, speed and direction variable at the touch of a button.
In my long-distant boyhood postwar, I never had much joy with model yachts, as I have mentioned here previously, but somehow frustration and disappointment were expected then, and soggy sails, turning turtle and haphazard direction were commonplace and part of the fun.
I used to enjoy either trotting around the pond, trying to stop my yacht from hitting the concrete edge and perhaps snapping its bowsprit, or waiting for yonks as it stayed in the middle, frustratingly out of grabbing reach so I could neither reset the sails nor retrieve it and head home for dinner.
Steering from a control box, as happens now, lacks challenge...but does not cause a rise in blood pressure.
Mrs Peggotty and I could not believe how wide the gloriously clean, golden, pebble-free beach has become, admiring it as we headed for a coffee outdoors in the sun at the popular Jay Jays promenade restaurant.
Gorleston beach must be without parallel anywhere in the UK! For years it has steadily increased in breadth, and we mused as to whether the recent winter gales and sea surges had combined to wash sand from the shores of unfortunate places like Hemsby and deposit it at Gorleston.
I cannot recall the beach ever reaching its present width, and it is impossible to believe that in 1969 I stood on the battered Lower Promenade as waves crashed against it and watched the wooden huts, once a feature and beloved by their owners, being battered or washed away by wind, high tide and fierce scour.
The beach was reduced to a narrow ribbon at best. The sea undermined the yacht pond which was seriously under threat because of the large hole scoured underneath it on its seaward side. There were fears that the cliffs were vulnerable if the protective promenade was battered and breached. Gorleston’s holiday industry looked in jeopardy.
Then groynes were built, sand replenishment tried, and huge granite boulders dumped along the promenade base to deflect wave action, all measures to restore the situation and prevent further erosion. Which, if any, of those worked was a topic of many a debate.
But somehow, approaching a half-century later, Gorleston beach looks perfect, both expansive and delightful. Roll on, summer!