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Hope we don't lose our crystal palace

PUBLISHED: 10:02 06 February 2009 | UPDATED: 12:58 03 July 2010

Visitors to the Tyrolean Biergarten in Great Yarmouth in 1966

Visitors to the Tyrolean Biergarten in Great Yarmouth in 1966

IT would be a gross exaggeration to claim that I had suffered restless nights because it was preying on my mind, but I must confess that I would be saddened if one of the most handsome buildings on Great Yarmouth's Golden Mile had to be demolished because a combination of the ravages of time and exposure of its cast-iron frame to salty air had rendered it beyond repair.

IT would be a gross exaggeration to claim that I had suffered restless nights because it was preying on my mind, but I must confess that I would be saddened if one of the most handsome buildings on Great Yarmouth's Golden Mile had to be demolished because a combination of the ravages of time and exposure of its cast-iron frame to salty air had rendered it beyond repair.

I am referring, of course, to the Winter Gardens, part of the Wellington Pier complex and the daddy of all conservatories and greenhouses that has graced our seafront for more than a century since the borough bought it from its rival resort of Torquay in 1905 for £1300. It cost us £1115.50 to put it back up again.

Legend has it that not a single pane of glass was shattered or cracked during this upheaval. If that is so, it is a tribute not only to the gang of men responsible for the work at either end - Southtown-based Crabtree was entrusted with the re-erection - but also to the shipping company on to whose barge it was carefully loaded for the 350-mile voyage around the coast from Devon to Yarmouth.

But the years have taken their toll and in 2005 there were fears that the Winter Gardens - officially listed as a building of special interest - might collapse because of structural insecurity. Hugely expensive restoration or possible demolition were alternatives, but now a specialist thinks vital work could give it decades more existence for about £500,000 - roughly the cost of pulling it down.

We must wait and see what view the borough council takes after weighing up the options. Who knows, with casinos at the top of some agendas hereabouts, perhaps a casino promoter might foot the bill for restoration, add some triple glazing and install a plush interior so the Winter Gardens can become a gaming centre of unique design in the Las Vegas mould...

The Winter Gardens have dropped off the radar of local people in this 21st century, latterly being a family leisure venue aimed primarily at holidaymakers and day trippers, but in first three-quarters of the 20th century it featured regularly in the entertainment and recreational pursuits of both residents and visitors.

In my postwar youth, it was a friendly rival to the Rollerdrome that occupied the ballroom and dining hall of the long-gone Gorleston Super Holiday Camp off-season. The floor area must have been much larger than the combined two Gorleston rinks and allowed the roller-skaters on their anti-clockwise circuits to build up a greater head of speed down the straights before reaching the narrower ends - subject to the vigilance of the patrolling stewards, of course.

Skating was introduced to the borough a century ago, taking place outdoors in the Wellington Pier Gardens. Between the wars it moved into the Winter Gardens off and on, and my point about the potential for moving fast is underlined by the fact that speed championships used to be held in the Thirties beneath the eucalyptus that grew around and over the rink, partially as a sun screen.

When Gorleston closed in the early Fifties, and Yarmouth had the monopoly, skating transferred in summer to a new outdoor rink where the club members staged spectacular shows that attracted thousands of spectators; this left the Winter Gardens available for other summer uses.

Dances - both tea and evening - were held there before and after the war, and concerts. I cannot recall any of the big bands gigging there, perhaps not welcomed because the volume of their playing might have posed a threat to those panes of glass. Was health and safety a factor even then, many a decade ago?

Beauty competitions and conferences have also taken place within those glass walls, and it has even been used as an electoral polling station.

The Winter Gardens started with a bang, figuratively speaking. Only a year after it opened, it was the venue for a bumper celebration of the centenary of Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. No fewer than 3000 schoolchildren raised the roof - again, figuratively speaking - with their rendition of the stirring nautical Hearts of Oak and other songs, accompanied by the Band of the Prince of Wales' Own Norfolk Artillery, with interspersed readings and addresses.

In 1908 it again attracted crowds when a three-day Imperial Bazaar filled the spacious building in a bid to raise money for Anglican churches in the town.

“The [theme] is that of the British Empire, with its many colonies and dependencies united to the central motherland and yet each distinctive with its local colouring and native and colonial life,” explained the handbook. “The homeland is represented by the mother-church of the town, and then grouped around the heart-centre of the whole are six main stalls, each undertaken by one of the district churches and each representing one of the great colonies of the British Empire.

“In addition, there are a number of combined or united stalls for the sale of special articles of one particular character. These are representative of the smaller colonies of the Empire and are managed by committees representative in each case of every part of the parish.”

At the event there was a smoke-room for gentlemen, a pillar-box for sending souvenirs and postcards, a counter for tying parcels at a penny a time for delivery within the town by the Brigade of Magazine Messengers and Priory School pupils.

Probably the amenity's postwar heyday was in the Sixties when it was transformed in summer into a Tyrolean Biergarten, a bit of land-locked Austrian kitsch by the edge of the sea in England, complete with chalet-type décor, barmaids and waitresses in traditional Alpine costume, and Josef Hofer and his oompah-style band wearing lederhosen - men's leather shorts with H-shape braces.

The visitors, particularly older ones, loved the sing-along thigh-slapping knees-up informality of it all.

On one season's packed opening night, a waitress asked the press table if a couple of elderly holidaymakers could occupy vacant seats with us. They must have gained a wonderful impression of Yarmouth's generosity because they were always included in the constant replenishment of free drinks by innocent waitresses.

It's a wonder they did not leave singing the resort's official song, Yarmouth - Wonderful Yarmouth!

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