For sale, seaside views with history

THE number of public houses in east Norfolk continues to decrease, following the pattern throughout the land. For example, in Great Yarmouth, Gorleston and Caister there were once nearly 400, but that 18th century total has dwindled for just over a hundred in 2007.

THE number of public houses in east Norfolk continues to decrease, following the pattern throughout the land. For example, in Great Yarmouth, Gorleston and Caister there were once nearly 400, but that 18th century total has dwindled for just over a hundred in 2007.

Whether or not the introduction of a smoking ban this summer will halt the steady reduction and stimulate the licensed trade remains to be seen, although one report I read claimed that landlords were still waiting to welcome all the host of non-smokers who hitherto shunned their bars but vowed to frequent them once the practice stopped.

One of Gorleston's oldest hostelries has passed the point of no return, calling “last orders” before smoking was forbidden. It is the attractive White Lion Hotel on Cliff Hill which from upstairs commands enviable views of the harbour's mouth and the North Sea. Mind you, the amount of shipping sailing between the twin piers is likely to diminish when the new outer harbour, currently under construction, is in operation...

So, what does the future hold for the White Lion after perhaps two centuries of serving beers, wines and spirits?

Well, it is not being demolished, but is yet another property in the current trend of being converted into flats. Planning consent lasting for three years was granted in May 2006 to the new owners for the interior to be developed into eight residential apartments Gorleston.

The White Lion, by the way, is in the growing property portfolio of Jamal Mughal and Michael Butler who in September were seeking to buy the sadly neglected former Yarmouth Art College on Trafalgar Road to add to their other assets that include The Grange on Nelson Road South, Blyth House on Marine Parade, and buildings on Paget Road, Wellesley Road and Kent Square.

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The last time I passed the White Lion it did not look as though work had started, but when everything is finished and owners or tenants have moved into their new homes there, I will be very envious of their seascape views from the upstairs front rooms.

The proposed work will not be the first major overhaul there, for in 1897 the property was substantially rebuilt because it was “tumbling down and in a very bad state”, according to one contemporary record. A stipulation was imposed that the cost of this enlargement should not exceed £2100, a princely sum in those days.

The bigger White Lion included two bars, smoke room (remember those?), club room, sitting room and kitchens on the ground floor, with eight bedrooms and two sitting rooms above them.

The builders also had to move in during the last war when the White Lion suffered bomb damage. Although I have no confirmation, that could have happened during only the fourth German air-raid of the six-year conflict; on August 24 1940 at breakfast-time 20 high-explosive bombs were dropped from enemy aircraft, landing on the Cliff Hill, Beach Road and Bells Marsh Road district.

One person was killed, and five were injured.

The Cliff Hill area was in centuries past the home of beachmen and seafarers, and was an ideal spot to build a public house. The original one was conveyed in 1792 to Bells Brewery or its predecessors (Killett's Gorleston Brewery, sold to John Baker and then to the Bell family).

In 1845 the well-known local brewery of Steward, Patteson and Finch leased it from Bells at the same time as acquiring two dozen other tied houses in the town, and bought the freehold 20 years later. Watney Mann, Brent Walker (1988), Punch Taverns (by 2004) and Pubmaster all owned it in succession.

One of its first licensees was James Rivett junior in 1830, followed by others. Landlady Harriett Gallant was fined 10 shillings (50p) - with the alternative of a fortnight's detention - by Yarmouth magistrates in 1903 for “selling to a child under 14 in other than a corked or sealed vessel”.

Annie Fowler, landlady from 1917 to 1942, was in charge when she placed the display advertisement - an illustration with today's column - in a prewar Gorleston promotional brochure.

Proudly she told prospective guests that her hotel, established for 30 years, offered board residence at moderate terms, all bedrooms having hot and cold water. The White Lion faced sea and harbour, and was only two minutes from beach, boats, buses and railway station.

Its other asset was a “first class billiard saloon” and I think the White Lion used to have a team in the local billiards and snooker league.

In 1960 for 16 years came Thomas Manser, whom I remember. In the next six years came several short-duration licensees, with Joy and Jackie Kavanagh taking over in 1972. Beyond that I have no record.

It once was once the headquarters of...a quoits club! Each year its members looked forward to Easter when their season began with an onion and lettuce tea followed by a concert. That was all long ago, though. One or two other local organisations used it as a meeting place.

If the White Lion Hotel had relied on my custom as a south Gorleston resident for many decades, it would have finally closed many years earlier than it has done. For only once did I ever enter the premises - in 1969 when, after a wedding earlier in the day, a small family group spent a couple of hours there and enjoyed plates of sandwiches with our drinks.

The White Lion is at the top of Cliff Hill; near the bottom is the Oddfellows Arms, but that was not built until the end of the 19th century.

Occasionally, I suppose, the White Lion derived some custom from sailors who were replenishing their ships' fresh water supplies from the pump that Admiral Duncan had sunk in 1797 beside the flight of steps leading from the pub down to Beach Road. The admiral needed the water for his fleet during the Napoleonic wars. Gorleston folk have always called these the White Lion steps.

The inactive pump remains there to this day as part of Gorleston's heritage, a well-kept feature of a small terrace a few steps above Beach Road.

Another Gorleston pub that looks closed is the Middleton Arms. It opened in 1934 on the corner of Middleton Road - intended as a bypass for the town centre - and Suffield Road. As the public house was near my paternal grandparents' home, they used it and it was occasionally my lot as a little lad to sit in the porch facing the corner.

There was a bench just big enough for me to sit while munching my bag of Smith's Crisps (unless they were sold out because of limited wartime supplies) and sipping a lemonade, remaining alert because every time the outer door opened, it threatened to bruise my knees.

As this was the blackout era, there was a shade on the light with a cord attached to the door. When the door opened, the black shade dropped down to shield the illuminated bulb, rising again when the door closed. That prevented the light escaping and attracting either German aircraft to target the source or a patrolling ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden to bellow: “Put that light out!”

My only problem was that customers entering the darkened porch could not see me in my corner and either trod on my toes or stumbled over my legs. Sometimes they swore!