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Hailing a most loyal and historic servant - Great Yarmouths’ Haven Bridge

PUBLISHED: 13:59 23 July 2018 | UPDATED: 13:59 23 July 2018

Traffic tails back as an Everard vessel sails through the Haven Bridge, possibly in the 1960s. On the quay rail trucks await collection. Photo: Colin Tooke Collection

Traffic tails back as an Everard vessel sails through the Haven Bridge, possibly in the 1960s. On the quay rail trucks await collection. Photo: Colin Tooke Collection

Colin Tooke Collection

Well done, thou good and faithful servant!

So near and yet so far! Bridge staff examine the twin leaves which have almost closed...but not quite. Photo: Mercury ArchiveSo near and yet so far! Bridge staff examine the twin leaves which have almost closed...but not quite. Photo: Mercury Archive

That Biblical quotation aptly expresses the gratitude we townsfolk owe to an inanimate but invaluable local icon: Great Yarmouth’s historic Haven Bridge.

The elegant structure familiar to us all has spanned the River Yare since 1930, carrying vehicular traffic, cyclists and pedestrians across it and lifting its twin leaves to permit shipping to pass beneath it for 88 years with only the very occasional glitch.

It suffered a malfunction recently, causing traffic snarl-ups and preventing vessels from sailing through it. So it had to be closed overnights while engineers repaired it.

Inconvenient, yes, but only an irritation compared to the decades when there was no straightforward alterative vehicular crossing.

It's open again! A surge begins across the bridge. Photo: Mercury ArchiveIt's open again! A surge begins across the bridge. Photo: Mercury Archive

When the bridge suffered hiccoughs before the Breydon Bridge was built in the mid-Eighties to relieve traffic nightmares, it had a paralytic effect because it was our only river crossing for traffic although there was a small passenger ferry down-stream.

At the bridge the Yare is only 80 yards wide, creating a so-near/so-far scenario.

Drivers on the Southtown side able to extricate themselves from the inevitable back-log queues and anxious to cross to the Yarmouth side faced a long and frustrating tour of Norfolk seeking the Acle New Road entry into town.

Reedham Ferry, a possible alternative route, was not always operating when the Haven Bridge was occasionally temperamental.

The previous bridge, replaced in 1930 by the present one. Photo: Mercury ArchiveThe previous bridge, replaced in 1930 by the present one. Photo: Mercury Archive

In my post-war schooldays in Yarmouth, a Haven Bridge malfunction was welcomed by pupils resident on the Gorleston side because we had a cast-iron excuse for being late (“Please Sir, the bridge was stuck”). It was always accepted without suspicion.

Long before the “elf ‘n’ safety” regime became dominant, pedestrians and cyclists were carefully shepherded across the bridge by responsible personnel if the serrated twin leaves had failed to close by only a few inches. We gingerly stepped from one leaf to the other, unable to resist glancing down at the brown water swirling below.

Vehicles had no alternative but to wait.

Strangely enough, I cannot remember the handsome Haven Bridge ever being stuck when I was on the Yarmouth side and wanted to get home to Gorleston although logic assures me that it must have happened.

Bridge openings were frequent then because shipping to and from the port of Norwich necessitated passage beneath its elevated twin spans, as well as other water-borne traffic. Most - if not all - of that Norwich shipping ceased long ago.

When officials blew the “closure” whistle, chains were put across the road and footpaths at speed to prevent anyone accelerating across. Traffic soon tailed back in both directions.

But cyclists and pedestrians gathered at the chains set off like competitors in a sprint race the moment the whistles shrilled and the chains were removed and the bridge was reopened. Very entertaining - but no prizes for winners, simply that they got to work, school or the shops ahead of the pack.

Later, drop-down barriers were installed, I recall.

The first bridge across the Yare there was opened in 1427, nearly six centuries ago, and it has had several successors. The predecessor to the current structure was built in 1854, costing £50,000.

The opening of the present £200,000 Haven Bridge in 1930 was a red-letter day for Yarmouth and Gorleston, an occasion graced by royalty there to perform the ceremony - the Duke of Windsor who was briefly King Edward VIII before abdicating in 1936.

The current bridge, and its predecessors, have been threatened occasionally by ships and boats swept away by swirling currents and tides while seeking to berth on Hall Quay a few yards away, but this one has proved sturdy enough to withstand their assaults.

Early in my journalistic career in 1955 I enjoyed the experience of crossing the river with other passengers at midnight on the pleasure steamer Hotspur, acting as a temporary ferry while the Haven Bridge was closed for 27 nights for maintenance.

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