In the footsteps of Peggotty

THE hectic pace of work during the many years I was reporting for the Mercury's sister newspaper, the Eastern Evening News, as it was then known, had accelerated since the period when one of my forerunners as author of this column had ample time for a leisurely Peggotty perambulation around the town.

THE hectic pace of work during the many years I was reporting for the Mercury's sister newspaper, the Eastern Evening News, as it was then known, had accelerated since the period when one of my forerunners as author of this column had ample time for a leisurely Peggotty perambulation around the town.

He was covering a broad range of assignments in the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston area for the EEN and the Eastern Daily Press as well as penning the evening paper's nightly Through the Porthole column, many a decade before it was axed by the evening paper and I revived it in the Mercury in 1987.

In the column's early days pre-war, when he had no car but used public transport or a bicycle, most people did not have telephones at home, so a personal visit was necessary. Modern-day miracles such as mobiles, computers and digital cameras were in the far-distant future.

His words would have been hammered out on an old portable typewriter or painstakingly handwritten in pencil on sheets of paper cut from unused ends of newsprint rolls. Yet he found time for a gentle stroll, meeting friends and contacts, being watchful for developments on his “patch” and keeping his finger on its pulse. One such fact-finding excursion was faithfully recorded in his EEN column, and I am repeating it this week so readers can compare those parts of Gorleston he viewed through his Peggotty “porthole” with the same area in 2009. He wrote:

Sitting on the grassy slopes of Ferry Boat Hill, I often amuse myself reconstructing Gorleston as it was in days of yore. Originally, probably, part of the cliffs, the southward trend of these inclines, can easily be traced. One has only to walk along the quay and observe the occasional sandy beaches and note also how steeply the ground rises to the level of the High Street to realise it. Or, further along, to traverse Blackwall Reach and Pier Plain and look down on the pickling plots.

The ground rises again - what better proof of my theory is needed than Cliff Hill, leading to what we nowadays call the cliffs?

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It is possible that what we know as Church Lane and Baker Street and Englands Lane and Pier Walk formed convenient causeways to the beach. All this was long before the Dutchman, Jan Jonsen, constructed the entrance to the harbour that yet remains, even before the sea yielded the sands on which Yarmouth has grown.

Just behind me, as I sit, is the house where the late Captain George Manby lived. Not far away is Hewitt's Quay, reminiscent of the old fishing fleet, and picturesque Darby's Hard. Opposite is the Nelson Monument, recalling tales of the sea - well, who has not heard yarns of a different nature, but also concerning the sea, tales of smuggling, of houses in the High Street that had underground passages, facilitating the lawbreakers' activities? Again, there are little alleyways, byways leading from the street to the quay. One, we are told, was called Horsea Lane. I do not know its derivation and like to imagine it is a corruption that should have some bearing on hawse or hawser.

The street itself is full of memories. Every vestige has disappeared of the Augustine Priory that formerly stood on the west side. A certain wall on the other side always makes me think of it and wonder whether, possibly, some of the stones of that once-famous building have not found their way into its construction. Last year, was not a holy water stoup discovered bricked up in a nearby domain, and did it not probably come from the religious house? There is also Box-iron Corner, so named from the cottage opposite the Old Vicarage that tapers off, just the shape.

Somewhat further along, near the Mission, is an iron gate leading to what was a garden. The gate is said to have come from the fort that was on the denes near the harbour's mouth. In those same grounds, part of which has become a pickling plot, stood the Farthing Folly, a two-storeyed house for the erection of which its owner was said to have saved his farthings. Demolished is the ancient George and Dragon; its space fulfils the modern need for a parking ground. The national schools have scattered and removed to more commodious premises. Gone, too, is the old Town Cage, but in the garden of a house on the eastern side of the street are some lock-ups, suggestive of a police station. This now is lower down the street and, by all accounts, is about to change its quarters once more. The post office has also occupied various sites, as the stone shell of a letterbox in the wall of a shop at the bottom of High Street testifies. When I look at it, I am always amazed at its shallowness. So we reach Feathers Plain, overlooked by the old inn of that ilk. Here was once the Market Cross, also the pound, which later was moved nearer the church where now are situated Middleton Gardens.

Seven decades later, anyone following in his footsteps would find many changes, not only in the street but in the riverscape, and a few things unaltered. Recently I ventured to the grassed slopes (Williamson's Lookout) opposite that attractive ex-mansion, Koolunga, seeking the Yare views enjoyed by my distant predecessor. A circular platform with a river outlook has been built recently jutting from the slope, but I was disappoin-ted to find that a house being built or renovated stretching from High Road down to Riverside Road has blocked much of the southern aspect.

The George and Dragon closed in 1925, and its site is now a car park just north of School Lane. I presume the original Peggotty was referring to the ex-Gorleston police station in mid-High Street, now the office of solicitors' firm Mears; it was replaced by a new HQ, complete with attached police houses, on the Lowestoft Road/Suffield Road corner in 1938.

As for Horsea Lane, was it not a reference to “hawser” but derived from Horseferry because it was where horses and cattle crossed the river before it was bridged?

That road along which the pre-war Peggotty strolled is today beset with heavy traffic that renders it well-nigh impossible to enjoy in safety looking for the little reminders of Gorleston's proud past.