Great Yarmouth landmarks soldier on

HAVING looked recently at prominent buildings in Great Yarmouth and Gorleston that have withstood the test of time, being still in use a century after they were erected even though their roles may have altered, today we turn our attention to others less aged but soldiering on with a new purpose.

The latest to attract Mercury headlines is the very building in which this newspaper is housed: there is a plan to create 13 residential flats above the terrace of shops and other businesses (including the press office) in King Street, replacing the fitness centre that will be relocated to fresh premises on the ground floor to help improve the area generally. When I read of the proposal, my reaction was not Mercury-orientated but harked back...to Matthes!

Yes, folk of my generation will invariably think of Matthes as the principal occupier in that length of King Street. The car park between the rear of that terrace and Howard Street is still called “Matthes’ car park” by me...

Indeed, some veterans might well still refer to Hills that had a baker’s and cake shop – with tea rooms and restaurant – there for decades before Matthes acquired it in 1938. A German air-raid in 1941 destroyed the premises, the Hills/Matthes restaurant moving above the Market Place men’s outfitting store of Montague Burton until after the war when it returned to its rebuilt King Street location.

In its prewar days it was the place to meet, and its advertising proudly and unashamedly described it as “the largest and finest appointed restaurant in the Eastern Counties,” its ambience enhanced by an orchestra playing every afternoon for tea. “Our chocolate window will be one of the sights this week,” it promised.

In the first three postwar decades, Mercury reporters and their local colleagues from our sister newspapers, the Eastern Evening News and Eastern Daily Press, ate many an evening meal in Matthes restaurant, covering the speeches delivered at the annual dinner-dances of clubs and societies. As several of the reporters were young and living in “digs,” a three or four-course free meal was very welcome, although we had to make small-talk with people we did not know who probably preferred to chat among themselves about their organisations.

Working for the morning and evening papers then, I had a good excuse to leave the minute the speeches ended so I could return to the office in Regent Street to dictate my report for the next day’s editions, but my Mercury chums were not under the same deadline and sometimes had to stay – and find excuses not to dance with any of the matronly ladies...

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The same applied to another major dinner-dance venue, Arnolds (Debenhams) on the corner of Regent Street, where banqueting was big business between October and March and a straightforward restaurant operated at other times. Indeed, Mrs Peggotty and I enjoyed our after-wedding family meal there one Friday afternoon more than four decades ago.

But Matthes was acquired by the Spillers group in 1974; within four years all its shops and bakeries throughout East Anglia closed. Took’s reopened the King Street premises for a few years.

Another building to receive a new lease of life is the former School of Arts and Crafts, that attractive and elegant building – officially “listed” because of its merits - that has stood at the Nelson and Trafalgar Roads junction for a century. It is one of the many public buildings designed by talented borough engineer and architect John Cockrill and has his distinctive terra cotta fascia.

During the war it was the borough’s command centre for civil defence and rescue work, resuming as the school for arts and design until it closed in 1996, remaining empty, becoming a decrepit squat and drugs den and causing concern. It was rescued by a developer who converted the interior into 18 apartments, occupied for the first time last December. The original frontage has been conserved.

A comparative new kid on the block is the distinctive Crown Building in Yarmouth Way, erected for �216,000 in 1970 to hold various government offices and distinctive because of its three-pyramid roof. Gradually its occupiers diminished until it closed a couple of years ago and is, I believe, also to become flats.

I have no head for heights, but drew the short straw in 1970 when I had to cover the official topping-out ceremony, conducted on one of the triple pyramids that, thankfully, had a protective railing around its base.

Nonetheless, my sense of insecurity intensified rather than lessened as I watched a derrick crane lower inch by inch and manouevre into place a 25ft pole topped by a large gold crown, four men guiding its base into a special socket. Then one of the quartet climbed a ladder resting on the pole so he could release the crane hook.

To have written my graphic report, I must have been watching intently, but I cannot recall now how I refrained from squeezing my eyes closed throughout the topping-out ceremony at that giddy height!

One Yarmouth building which has not withstood the test of time is the new pavilion annexe to St George’s Church: in fact, it has not even managed to open on schedule owing to structural problems. The 1714 church, also described as a chapel and a theatre, has survived and will benefit from its improvements, but cynics like me wonder why it needed the adjoining pavilion, an expensive extravagence in these straitened times.

I cannot but help wonder if the indulgent project will ever fulfil its forecast potential, and be financial viable, as and when it opens.