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Amazing history of Darby's Hard

PUBLISHED: 16:48 17 December 2009 | UPDATED: 15:58 03 July 2010

IF places could tell a story, surely Darby's Hard on Gorleston riverside is perfectly placed to have chronicled the developments in, and changes to, the port of Great Yarmouth while remaining comparatively unaltered itself.

IF places could tell a story, surely Darby's Hard on Gorleston riverside is perfectly placed to have chronicled the developments in, and changes to, the port of Great Yarmouth while remaining comparatively unaltered itself. Long before the name was bestowed upon it when the Darby family of shipwrights and boat repairers occupied it in the 19th century, it was silently observing the harbour scene.

The gradual decline of sail as steam power took over and then was replaced by other fuels, the boom and bust cycles that eventually saw the demise of the once huge autumn herring fishery as North Sea stocks dwindled, its role as a naval base off and on during the centuries until the end of the 1939-45 war, its former importance to Trinity House as a depot for servicing lightships and buoys, the variety of pleasure trippers, the loss of the massive trade in timber imports and the relatively brief but important roll-on/roll-off service with Holland…those are but a sample of the variety of port activities eye-witnessed by Darby's Hard.

If a place could be personified as an inanimate historian, it seems evident that Darby's Hard will remain watchful, busily noting the effects - if any - the new outer harbour will have on river traffic.

Largely unaltered, perhaps, but Darby's Hard is not the place it was. A year ago Mercury correspondents drew attention to the fact that the Hard and mooring dolphins needed urgent official attention; one writer said they were probably the only spot between the harbour's mouth and the Haven Bridge to look as they did in the days of Nelson.

In recent weeks, dear old Darby's Hard has twice been mentioned here in passing, first in recollections of a long-ago stroll along Gorleston riverside and then when I reported that Henry “Pop” Gymer (who lost two relativesin the first world war'sBattle of the Somme) had a lucky escape when, moments after leaving a boat he was working on, a pilot-less American Super Sabre jet fighter plunged into the Hard in 1964.

The pilot, Capt James Chestnut, safely ejected when two mid-air explosions caused his controls to freeze over the North Sea on route back to his Lakenheath base and he had fought vainly to turn around so his aircraft crashed into the sea away from a populated area.

Perhaps in the Sixties, I waxed lyrical about this special area of the Gorleston scene in a Porthole that turned up recently when I was trawling through some old files. I quote from it today not only because it shows the contrast with the present state of Darby's Hard but also because it detailed some of its history.

I wrote: “Despite other changes along the riversides in Yarmouth and Gorleston over the years, Darby's Hard on the Gorleston side remains an unspoiled picturesque area that must have been captured on canvas and film many a time. Small boats and 'boaty' odds and ends - with the river itself and haphazard looking wooden jetties as a back-cloth - lend themselves to artistic treatment.

“Occasionally today somebody works on a boat on the Hard which shelves gently into the water, but the amount of activity there is negligible compared with the years in the latter half of the last century (the 19th) and earlier this century (20th) when it was a hive of industry as the Darby family plied their trade there as shipwrights and boat repairers.

“Sometimes boat owners would lay up their drifters on the Hard for winter.”

When Darby's Hard fairly throbbed with activity in that long-gone era as the family business thrived there, there was no Riverside Road, only a sandy path on its landward side, at the foot of the sloping mini-cliff leading up to the High Street.

In 2009 Riverside Road is well used, not only by those wanting access to the properties and businesses like the new Morrison's supermarket fronting the Yare but also by drivers anxious to avoid Gorleston High Street that is bedevilled by traffic trying to squeeze between parked vehicles.

That old family enterprise was headed by Charles Darby who also found time to be a publican, running the Rising Sun which was built bordering High Road and High Street in 1642 (with the Gorleston-Southtown boundary passing through it) as the home of a prominent local brewer, and later known became the Sun Inn.

But in 1903 it finally closed, and conveniently the license was switched to the Station Hotel on Lowestoft Road opposite the railway station on the coast line linking Yarmouth and Lowestoft that had just opened. The Station Hotel shut in 1999 and is now a private house in a backwater, but I believe a large white-letter sign now 106 years old is still painted on an outbuilding's brick wall fronting the old A12 main road, offering “Good stabling: motors, carriages and cycles carefully stored”.

Out of curiosity, I entered “Darby's Hard” into an internet search engine, expecting nothing...but up popped the information that a watercolour of Darby's Hard by Charles Mayes Wigg (1889-1969) was a lot in specialist East Anglian View sales in 2005 and 2006 by auctioneer Bonhams.

The auctioneer tells me it twice failed to find a buyer at £500-£800 and was returned to the vendor.

Mayes Wigg grew up at Cromer and Watton, attended Gresham's School at Holt and studied at the Norwich School of Art from 1911. In the Great War he was invalided out of the army with severe leg injuries which left him with a permanent disability, but he developed his career as an artist and illustrator and for many years is believed to have lived and painted on a houseboat on the Broads. Watercolour was his preferred medium, the river landscapes and their traffic his main subject.

Bonhams' art auction earlier this month in Bury St Edmunds included two more Wigg paintings - Sunset on the River Ant and Ely Cathedral from the Ouse. But prospective buyers also had the opportunity to acquire two other works depicting Gorleston: one of boats beside a jetty by the celebrated Rowland Fisher (1885-1969), and a view of the pier was attributed to him.

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