A legacy more than bricks and mortar

AS a conservation officer saving every shred of local heritage it’s no surprise that Stephen Earl has difficulty throwing things away.

Widely credited with rescuing from certain ruin some of Great Yarmouth’s most significant buildings, assembling huge projects has created two decades of paperwork – and on the eve of his retirement it goes against the grain to throw much of it away.

His desk at the borough council is reputed to have papers stacked in teetering piles some of which are now in his garage – office and home getting all mixed up.

But on Tuesday all that came to an end as the 58-year-old guardian of Great Yarmouth gathered up the disparate documents and said his farewells to colleagues who have shared his vision and raised the town’s reputation along the way.

On his retirement many were quick to sing the praises of the Norwich born father-of-two whose contribution to the town saw him elevated to an MBE in 2007, and variously described at a reception this week as inspirational, tenacious and determined.

Faced with such praise Mr Earl said simply “Gosh,” and was quick to bat back the plaudits to his team.

For amid the minor triumphs concerning sash windows and wood pannelling there are the big “saves” that have rescued redundant but important buildings and given them a new community use – most notably the Time and Tide Museum and the Aspire Centre, where Bretts used to be in Market Row.

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His passion and enthusiasm for Yarmouth is infectious and probably one of the levers that has helped draw down millions of pounds in grant funding to restore fine buildings that suffered in the weak economy of the 1990s, and properly display important collections that sat unimaginatively on dusty shelves.

“Its been a great innings,” Mr Earl said. “I have been a conservation officer for 36 years, 20 of those at Great Yarmouth Borough Council, and it has been a great privilege.

“Yarmouth is an outstanding historic town, but in the 1990s it was undervalued and there was a huge problem with redundancy and neglect. There were 90 buildings at risk and now just 16. We have protected what we have got because they are a finite resource. It has been a tremendous team effort. Yarmouth is just fantastic to walk around. Walking up the rows gives me just as much excitement as it did 20 years ago. It is one of the most historic towns in England.”

Alongside his council role Mr Earl was also project organiser for the Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust, set up to save buildings the private sector wouldn’t invest in.

Many projects have flourished under his captaincy including Boultons’ former furniture store in North Quay, Gorleston’s only 16th century timber-framed house in Baker Street, the enhancement of the South Quay museums and the creation of the Nelson Museum, among hundreds of others.

His headline act – the �5m Time and Tide Museum – is now reckoned among the best in Britain and an enormously pivotal project that changed the perception of Yarmouth on a European stage.

He said: “I hope I have left Yarmouth in a better state than I found it. The former regional director of the National Trust said Yarmouth could have gone beyond the point of no return and now its future is secure. It is such an historic town – look after it.”

James Steward, eastern area manager, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, said: “Great Yarmouth is now being taken seriously as a heritage tourist destination and that is significantly due to Steve Earl’s knowledge and enthusiasm in preserving the unique material evidence of the town’s illustrious past. He rightfully deserves the acknowledgement of many people who have benefited from his vision.”

Leader of the council Barry Coleman said that without Mr Earl many projects including Time and Tide would never have gone ahead and that his efforts had completely changed the borough’s image.

Council chief executive Richard Packham said Mr Earl relished risk and being “out there on the edge”, his polite manner masking a forceful tenacity. His legacy, he added, was not only about bricks and mortar having wider benefits to the town and its reputation.

Mr Earl and his wife Brenda have two grown-up sons.

A keen sailor he remains involved in the Excelsior Trust and hopes to involve young people from the Aspire Centre.