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Great Yarmouth port no demise

PUBLISHED: 16:26 13 March 2008 | UPDATED: 10:37 03 July 2010

THOSE who live in a so-called comfort zone and do not accept change lightly or willingly ought not to be derided as dinosaurs or fuddy-duddies, for there is some merit in their philosophy of "better the devil we know than the devil we don't".

THOSE who live in a so-called comfort zone and do not accept change lightly or willingly ought not to be derided as dinosaurs or fuddy-duddies, for there is some merit in their philosophy of “better the devil we know than the devil we don't”. The world keeps a-changing fast, and not everyone wants to try to keep pace with it.

Our outer harbour, currently being built after a protracted gestation, is a case in point.

A port-orientated friend was muttering to me the other day about our riverside, gloomily forecasting that once that much vaunted scheme was up and running, it would be the figurative new toy receiving all the attention and investment at the expense of the dear old Yare that has served the borough well for centuries.

Indeed, the port of Great Yarmouth has a proud and lengthy pedigree. It was described by the celebrated sailor, traveller and author Daniel Defoe (1661-1731) as the finest in all Europe; led the world as a herring base until gross overfishing and changing tastes caused the decline and resultant demise of that great industry 40-plus years ago; then fortuitously was in the right place at the right time to become the pioneer port for the multi-million £ exploration beneath the bed of the North Sea for the invaluable riches of oil and natural gas; and weathered the loss or diminution of important trades like timber and coasting.

In short, it has shown remarkable resilience and has adapted to change, and has benefited from one of its greatest assets, that of being a sheltered haven offering 24-hour accessibility at all states of the tide.

But hereabouts there are folk like that port aficionado who fear that all the energy and enthusiasm will be channelled towards attracting bigger ships into the outer harbour - its whole reason for being - thus bringing new business denied to the present port that cannot be used by vessels above a certain length, breadth and draught.

The sceptics wonder whether the “old” port will decline when it becomes a sort of junior partner. They also are curious about from whence these big 'uns will come, and what will persuade them to move from their present UK terminal to Yarmouth with its dreadful road, and near non-existent rail, links to the rest of Britain. Other doubters fear that if the outer harbour fails to capture those large newcomers, it might end up as an expensive yacht marina.

All one can do at present is to utter phrases like “wait and see” and “time will tell”. No critic can accuse the port authority of having stampeded the ambitious project through without doing its home work, but its supporters as well as outer harbour detractors must wonder at times if the optimism and ambition will be realised?

The prospects are intriguing.

Over and above this perhaps uninformed but interested speculation about the overall impact and viability of the new facility, we must remember that there is also a body of folk miffed not because of the grand scheme and its economic implications but simply because the outer harbour building activity has robbed them of their favourite parking spot where, for decades, they have sat contentedly for hours in their cars, winter and summer, gazing at the restless sea and enjoying an ice cream (even in biting blizzards) from the van usually in attendance.

It seems a fair gripe, even though there may not be a compromise or solution..

I have always liked the port, particularly yonks ago when it always seemed busy, not just in autumn when drifters animated the quaysides. All my innumerable car journeys from Yarmouth to Peggotty's Hut in Gorleston were along the riverside so I could keep abreast of developments and comings and goings, and just think myself lucky that we had such an asset.

After collecting car registration numbers as a child, in my youth I turned to logging ships using the port, excluding drifters, pleasure steamers and small fishing boats. Three of us cycled along quays as often as we could, or stood on Gorleston Pier, and noted information like name, nationality, port of registration, owner, house flag and funnel markings. Those were the days when coasters, particularly Dutch-owned, were plentiful and big ships brought us timber cargoes while others exported barrelled herring.

Although many were familiar as they arrived and sailed regularly, newcomers came in sufficient frequency to keep our numbers increasing. Those we often saw belonged to the Everard fleet, some built at Fellows' Southtown shipyard, with posh (and sometimes confusing) names usually starting with “A” and ending in “ity”, like Actuality; or the Metcalf line ships, most of which had family names and the suffix “M” - Rose Julie M, David M; and those operated by the Great Yarmouth Shipping Company that had the suffix “Trader”.

The first entry in my log was a small Dutch coaster called the Jura, from Groningen, a regular visitor. I think that years later, when I had become a newspaper reporter, I covered her being stranded for a few days on the beach at somewhere like Walcot or Mundesley after running aground.

Also long after my personal shipping register had been abandoned, the big ferry operators came on the scene: Superior International evolved into roll-on/roll-off Norfolk Line with three sailings daily to and from Holland, and various others plied to and fro across the North Sea. The rig supply ships and others involved in the offshore industry would also have gone into my book had it still been maintained.

One by one those big ferry companies with their imposing vessels abandoned Yarmouth; for example, Portlink and Norfolk Line went to Felixtowe, the latter claiming it wanted to introduce ships too big to be accommodated in the Yare. Now the builders of EastPort are confident ferries to and from the near-Continent will avail themselves of their new facility.

In reporting our past port activities, I learned from experience never to say in print that some ship or other was the biggest or longest or broadest ever to enter the harbour. The first time I used a superlative, I received from the late Clifford Temple - a professional photographer who, for many decades, had taken pictures of quayside activities - a sort of league table of the top ten to merit the accolade, with their vital dimensions, dating back to the early 20th century...

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