The magic of the sands

UNTIL six years ago, Scroby Sands were scarcely visible from the mainland. You could spot white rollers breaking, and even catch a glimpse of golden sand, but usually only from vantage points, like cliffs and pier-heads.

UNTIL six years ago, Scroby Sands were scarcely visible from the mainland. You could spot white rollers breaking, and even catch a glimpse of golden sand, but usually only from vantage points, like cliffs and pier-heads. That has not changed, but since 2004 we have all been able to pin-point the position of the notorious sandbank from as far inland as Acle because of the 30 wind turbines that have sprouted up there in the quest for green electricity.

Recently, I listed some of the activities that have occurred on Scroby Sands down the decades – football and cricket, newspaper production, radio station, cycling, chart drawing and bowls, for example. Time was when several boats ferried people out to see the seals and sandbank in summer, but I am told only one still plies out there with passengers.

Scroby was also beloved by naturalists, a point made by Jennifer Bailey, now a Somerset resident, only daughter of the late Joe Harrison, the long-serving Great Yarmouth journalist whose responsibilities for covering east Norfolk for the local morning and evening newspapers included wearing the Peggotty mantle from prewar until his retirement in 1977, apart from 1939-45.

He was an ardent naturalist and Scroby lover, and his enthusiasm for the barren sands was passed on to his daughter. Jennifer, a retired teacher, recalls: “Every year during the 1950s and early 1960s, we went to Scroby. Well, maybe not every year, but it seemed like an annual event. (The late) Robin Harrison (no relation), a local naturalist, organised the trip to ring the baby terns before they could fly, in late spring and early summer. It was always on a Sunday and we’d get up very early. Clear blue sky, although I remember one year we went back to bed as it was wet and windy.

“We’d go to the beach at Yarmouth, get on the boat and head for Scroby. I suppose we ought to have had life-jackets on, but we didn’t. I felt perfectly safe. Never gave it a thought till now. I always enjoyed making my first steps on Scroby because the sand was smooth and firm – just right for leaving footprints where no-one else had been.

“We had to catch the young terns, and although they were only little balls of fluff, they could certainly run. I learned to run after the bird, do a flying tackle to catch it and then I took it to Robin. That was when I once got into trouble.

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“Dad always referred to Robin Harrison as ‘Robin’, never Mr Harrison, or just Harrison, as men used to, using surnames only. So when I spoke to Robin, I called him Robin.

“My parents told me off for being cheeky. I thought that was very unfair as it was the only name I’d ever heard him called. I can still remember how I felt.

“Scroby was a magical place to me. I loved the openness, the emptiness, the sea on all sides, the sand with footprints of birds but no sign of humans till we arrived, the seals basking on the sand and slipping into the water away from us, the sheer sense of total freedom. I think there was a bit of marram grass in places, but not much.

“I was always amused, even when I was a little girl, by the publicity for boat trips to Scroby to see the seals. One of the boats, the Golden Galleon or the Eastern Princess, was berthed by the Haven Bridge and the ticket kiosk was decorated with very poorly painted palm trees. I bet holidaymakers were disappointed when they realised there was nothing to see but marram grass growing on Scroby – if, indeed, the grass was visible from the ship.

“It was always strange, coming back from Scoby. It had been another world out there, right away from civilisation. Then suddenly we were back with people in a busy town, down to earth with a bump. And that was it till the next year.”

In my recent feature I mentioned that swimming to and from the one-time ship’s graveyard presented an occasional challenge. Usually this was done quietly by a swimmer and escorting small boat, but on one occasion it attracted expectant thousands to Yarmouth beach. How disappointed most of them were!

That bizarre event was at the height of the sweltering 1963 summer when experienced English Channel swimmer Bill Pickering decided to tackle the Scroby-and-back challenge, 13 years after Yarmouth Grammar School pupil Daniel Liffen, 16, became – it is believed – the only person to have achieved that feat. The channel may not have beaten 42-year-old Bill, but the narrow North Sea passage between shore and sands did.

The tide proved too much for the channel conqueror on the first of the two-leg swim. However, an estimated 10,000 people, mainly holidaymakers, thronged Yarmouth beach that day, not to see Bill Pickering but because they were responding to a wildfire rumour that swept the resort that he was to be accompanied on his swim... by none other than favourite comedian Ken Dodd.

There was an air of expectancy and excitement among the sightseers. Would Doddy swim with his famed tickling stick in one hand, some wondered. Would he wear a swim hat to protect his famed unkempt hair? Would the Diddymen put in an appearance?

There was a definite link there, for the zany comedian – spending the summer as star of the ABC Theatre show – had been taught to swim by Pickering. But the fans were in for a great disappointment.

It was all attributed to a publicity stunt to promote the show. I think Doddy did wade into the briny with Pickering but abandoned his Scroby-and-back attempt after a token few strokes before being hauled into the support boat that accompanied Bill’s thwarted bid.

This was when Yarmouth was at a peak of popularity, and drew top stars to its theatres for summer runs. The Ken Dodd Show, with singer Rosemary Squires, was a sell-out for most of its run and did not need the publicity boost of an alleged Scroby swim. Doddy’s competitors were Helen Shapiro, Ronnie Corbett and Jimmy Saville (Royal Aquarium), Harry Worth and Edmund Hockridge (Wellington Pier Pavilion), the Beverley Sisters and Stan Stennett (Britannia Pier), and Joe Brown and Rolf Harris (Windmill).