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Messing about in boats was such fun

PUBLISHED: 18:04 12 June 2008 | UPDATED: 11:12 03 July 2010

ARE WE NEAR THE SHORE YET? The Smith family rowing on the boat lake in North Drive, Great Yarmouth

ARE WE NEAR THE SHORE YET? The Smith family rowing on the boat lake in North Drive, Great Yarmouth

THE principal photograph illustrating today's column shows one of the variety of simple pleasures of yesteryear: enjoying a row on a boating lake. The summer sun was shining, the family was playing it cool as though they had been born to be messing about in boats, and it was all good fun.

THE principal photograph illustrating today's column shows one of the variety of simple pleasures of yesteryear: enjoying a row on a boating lake. The summer sun was shining, the family was playing it cool as though they had been born to be messing about in boats, and it was all good fun.

The only “down” side was that all too soon - and just when they had mastered the knack of pulling on the oars in co-ordination, avoided catching a crab, and managed to steer in a straight line - the dreaded shout would bellow peremptorily through a megaphone from the side: “Come in, number nine (or whatever number was theirs)! Your time is up!”

Those used to the routine would ensure that as the end of their allotted time approached, they would row - or pedal, if their craft was a pedallo - to the farthest point from the attendant's hut so they could gain an extra five minutes by claiming they never heard the call. If they had obviously heard, they would pretend they had not realised they were number nine.

Whatever ruse they adopted, they ensured that their return trip was a slow and zig-zaggy one to prolong the waterborne experience.

The snapshot, taken at the boating lake on North Drive in Great Yarmouth, was passed to me by the little lad using both hands to help his father to row. Dad might have sung the opening line of the old song: “Michael! Row the boat ashore, alleluia!” because his son was Michael Smith, aged four when the picture was taken about 1949 and now a 62-year-old businessman who runs Swift Taxis locally.

With him in the rowing boat are his parents, shirt-sleeved Billy - who died seven years ago - and Cora, wearing a little jacket over her summer frock, who passed away in December. The couple ran the Wellington Tavern in St Peter's Road for 26 years.

At the time the family home was a prefab in Coronation Road, Cobholm, but they were flooded out in that great 1953 surge and moved to Middlegate. After the photograph was taken, they had a second son.

“In the background you can see the green hut where the racing yachts were kept,” Mike Smith points out. “Some were expensive models, and the old boys who owned them used to enjoy sailing them there, but there were never any break-ins.”

Also shown is the pylon, situated on the island between the two ponds. Neither of us can remember the purpose of the pylon, although Mr Smith suggests it might have carried power. It has long gone.

Beyond the Smith family are a man and boy (perhaps another father and son) in what is either powered by feet on pedals or hands turning paddle wheels. And I am intrigued because the man appears to have his hand over his eyes - not recommended practice on a popular facility.

Early this year the Mercury reported plans for improvements to the amenity, with a 70-seat Italian-style restaurant, gondola rides and upgrade of the gardens, but neighbours were objecting. I am not sure how Town Hall discussions developed.

My indefatigible correspondent Cecilia Ebbage, of Lovewell Road, Gorleston, spurred by my recent feature on the 1931 earthquake, tells me she has now experienced two - that 77 years ago and the one in February.

“I remember the 1931 earthquake very well,” she writes. “We were living in Blackwall Reach and I recall being wakened by a terrific roaring noise, then I was tipped out of my bed on to the floor, and the wall opposite seemed to fold and move. The little ornaments from my dressing table fell on to the floor. This was followed by a great feeling of intense cold although the room looked quite normal.

“Being a teenager of 15, at first I didn't really feel frightened...until I realised it was an earthquake! As we often read of earthquakes in Japan, I expected another, and being swallowed up.

“When we had the 'quake (in February) I was sitting on the edge of my bed. Suddenly I felt the earth shake. It was over in a second. I knew then what it was, but thought I was probably the only person who felt it.”

Another natural phenomenon was “a terrible thunderstorm which lasted nearly all day and part of the night”, presaging the outbreak of the second world war. “We thought it was a sign of the things to come,” says Mrs Ebbage, “but I have never heard it mentioned.”

An earlier column about the bakery businesses that once flourished heeabouts but have largely disappeared reminded her that her wedding reception in 1951 was in Matthes Assembly Rooms above their shop in Englands Lane, Gorleston. It cost £25 for a buffet for 80 guests!

Cecil Hewitt and his Trio (the Cecilians), augmented by saxophonist George Adam, played the music, his presence an unusual wedding gift from a friend. Cecil Hewitt was also a member of the band that accompanied the skating at the short-lived Gorleston Rollerdrome postwar, another recent topic here.

Roller-skating? Well, 2008 marks the centenary of the opening of the rink at the Wellington Pier Winter Gardens, and it endured on and off for many decades, being particularly popular just before and after the addition of the open-air rink where the skating club staged weekly shows in summer that attracted large holiday audiences.

I was browsing through a Mercury from 1933 - three-quarters of a century ago - that included various snippets about skating. For example, the Mercury roller-skating cup for the half-mile speed championship at the Winter Gardens rink, restricted to members of the club based there, was won by A Eagle who beat the holder, D Nutman, in a close final from a field of seven.

And the United Lads skate football team won their sixth cup at the Winter Gardens rink. Skate football! That was a new one on me, for roller-hockey was the only one of which I was aware.

But 2008 is not the 100th anniversary of the start of roller-skating in the borough, for the recreational pasttime began as far back as 1877 when a rooftop rink was part of the Royal Aquarium plan, an ambitious project for a huge and elaborate building that was dogged by money problems and ended as the comparatively small cinema complex still there today.

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