An Arctic blast and summer fun

PHEW – WHAT A SCORCHER! Great Yarmouth's seaside was the place to be in heat-waves like that of 1963

PHEW – WHAT A SCORCHER! Great Yarmouth's seaside was the place to be in heat-waves like that of 1963. - Credit: Archant

IN three weeks it will be spring, with winter supposedly behind us...unless we are hit by a late flurry of cold and snow. Here on the easternmost fringe of Norfolk, at the time of penning today’s column, we escaped the worst of the winter weather that brought severe problems to the rest of the county and nationwide: in Gorleston two snowfalls totalling about eight inches – the second coming before the first had thawed away – were the worst we suffered.

Exactly a half century ago, the Yarmouth area and beyond had been in the grip of one of the worst and most prolonged winters in the memory of many residents.

“Vegetable shortage looms in town,” screamed the Yarmouth Mercury’s main headline in January 1963 in the fifth week of the deep-freeze. “Arctic weather hits builders, ships jam, birds die.”

According to the report: “Sprouts, cauliflowers, carrots and parsnips will be scarce and, as the frost continues, the situation will become more serious. Potatoes will also be in short supply.”

There were innumerable burst pipes – 50 years ago homes were poorly insulated and often uncomfortably cold compared with today. “School attendances have dropped sharply”, said the Mercury – but significantly, there was no mention of school closures which are the controversial norm nowadays.

“The RSPCA “dealt with” (whatever that implied) hundreds of stray dogs and cats, while “great numbers of geese and ducks have died lingering deaths.”

Builders and outdoor employers were retaining only essential staff while their activities were curtailed by the conditions. Cantley beet sugar factory, employing 500 men, had to close because an estimated 44,000 tons of beet were still frost bound in farmers’ fields.

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The rivers between Yarmouth and Norwich were frozen in places and impassable to shipping, with ten vessels awaiting a thaw: today it would be inconsequential but 50 years ago the city still had a trading port. One casualty returning empty from Norwich was the Rose Julie M which became stuck in the ice at Reedham, but her sister small collier, the David M, declined to attempt a break-through.

Another collier with problems was the 255-ton Crescence, from Rochester in Kent, stranded for a fortnight on Winterton beach.

There were several bids by tugs to free her on high tides, and 50 tons of her coal cargo were off-loaded and collected by grateful villagers with prams, barrows and sledges. Four crewmen were paid off and went home, their three shipmates staying on board awaiting a refloating bid.

To add to residents’ misery in the protracted Arctic winter, there was a strike threat by employees of Yarmouth’s South Denes power station over a pay dispute.

But one weather-related memory of 1963 for me was that the deep-freeze winter was followed by a scorcher of a summer. I was working at the press office in Cromer at the time and know that our youngest son’s birth in late July was a few days after the thermometer there soared to 90 degrees, according to the official weather station that supplied statistics to the Meteorological Office.

Yarmouth’s temperatures that summer were undoubtedly comparable, and in those days we too gave daily readings to the Met Office, a practice ended in the Eighties after 120 years for various reasons, depriving the resort of daily publicity derived from a place among its rivals around the coast in lists published in national newspapers

In contrast to its shivering accounts of the winter of 1963, the main front page in the Mercury declared in summer: “After Britain’s severest winter for a century, out comes the sun! 100,000 revel in heatwave. ‘Hotel full’ signs go out. Thousands flock to the beach.”

It makes you feel happy and warm just reading about it! But, as usual with good news, there is often a downside. The summer of 1963 was no exception in Yarmouth.

The Mercury told its readers: “Gangs of late-night hooligans in holiday areas are threatening the town with what one hotelier has described as ‘a terror wave’ damaging Yarmouth’s reputation as a family resort.

“Gangs of youths patrol the streets nightly, bricks are hurled through windows, bottles are smashed against doors, and other property broken up or stolen. Residents who escape wanton destruction may be terrorised by drunken yobs.”

Preparing for the summer season of 1963 meant working against the clock for the Constitutional Holiday Camp in Hopton which was badly affected by a fierce blaze that reduced the wooden dining hall and bar to a shell. The building was constructed on stilts.

Twenty-six firemen fought the outbreak and, despite a strong wind, succeeded in containing it so other buildings escaped damage, including the dance hall, the former cafeteria destined for change of use to a games room, and the kitchen which had been re-equipped the previous year.

Within 24 hours of the conflagration, estimated to have cost £55,000, managing director Mr A I M Chapman promised: “We’ll have the dining room up again by May. Already plans are being drawn up. It’ll be busi8ness as usual.”

Gorleston, often regarding itself as the Cinderella part of the borough when the council allocated cash for holiday area improvements, learned that proposals for giving its sea-front a face-lift could cost double as much as the town hall had indicated it was prepared to spend.

Work on the Floral Hall and swimming pool, and providing chalets, shelters and a paddling pool near the model yacht pond were estimated to cost £215,000; the council had said it was prepared to spent £95,000.

Across the river, the closure was announced of a Victorian non-commercial oasis in the centre of the bustling Golden Mile. The Coastguard eastern division headquarters – including workshops, storage, offices, staff housing and an attractive frontage – was to be vacated after a century, its operations moved to Gorleston pier.

The tower complex was built to replace it.

A scheme was mooted by a developer to erect a conference hall or casino, bowling centre, shops, restaurants and dance hall on part of the St Nicholas playing field, but planning officer Keith Gilbert warned councillors that the venture “is not what the hospital authorities wanted” when they gave the recreation ground to the town.