Mississippi river boats, Italian gondolas and other quirky ideas for Great Yarmouth's holidaymakers
PUBLISHED: 11:08 07 March 2014 | UPDATED: 10:06 10 March 2014
They were simple summer pleasures, once enjoyed by holidaymakers, day-trippers and locals alike. Few folk ever envisaged that one day they would be consigned to seaside history, falling out of favour, victims of changing tastes and mounting maintenance and overheads as visitors sought more sophisticated ways of passing their days in Great Yarmouth.
The delights of quietly cruising through our picturesque and novel Venetian Waterways in their novel craft – never remotely resembling a traditional Italian gondola – were popular when the attraction opened in 1928, a major feature of a North Drive redevelopment scheme which included boating lake, tennis courts and bowling greens.
They continued to appeal postwar but gradually declined when overshadowed by the razzmatazz and bright lights of the money-spinning Golden Mile. The water features on North Drive look forlorn nowadays and have incurred public criticism. The Britannia Pier marks the great divide between the chalk-and-cheese twin cultures of our seaside home town.
Yet Marine Parade – or, at least, its seaward side - does still retain a surprising amount of open spaces although most are occupied by commercial enterprises and not gardens and places for the public to sit idly, watching the summer world pass by.
One spot popular with yesteryear’s visitors was the Nelson Gardens, between the Wellington Pier and Pleasure Beach, an amenity I had almost forgotten until recently when I received an e-mail from ex-Gorlestonian Chris Wright attaching a 1927 picture postcard showing the boating lake.
Its receipt generated another rush of nostalgia, recollections of days that once were.
Writes Chris, who has long been resident in Oxfordshire: “I thought your readers might be interested in a postcard I found in an antiques shop recently. It was posted to an address in London in 1927, presumably by a holidaymaker, and depicts a long gone scene – the model yacht pond in Nelson Gardens.
“The Wellington Pier, Winter Gardens and Pavilion Theatre are clearly visible in the background. The postcard writer remarks that the ‘weather has not been very good’ but that she had been dancing the Charleston and the Black Bottom.”
Despite the “yacht pond” description I can spot no model yachts in the colour photograph, but folk have taken to the water in hired rowing boats. There are plenty of people on the path along the side, watching the leisurely activity.
If I recall correctly, at the other end of the promenade the North Drive boating lake also doubled as a model yacht pond.
The provision of the Nelson Gardens with their yacht pond and boating lake has long passed its centenary – they were created in 1906, with a short-lived switch-back railway added three years later.
According to John McBride’s A Diary of Great Yarmouth, in 1970 Pleasure Beach operator Botton Brothers “built a mock Mississippi river boat between the boating lakes at Nelson Gardens” and, in 1984, the company erected an Alpen Blitz ride in the southern boating lake.
Nowadays the Nelson Gardens are securely fenced off and almost entirely given over to commercial enterprises like adventure golf, although the tea rooms, a permanent building beside the sea wall, are still open for business in summer.
As for the twin one-time boating lakes, well, one is the splash-down landing area for a Pleasure Beach thrill ride. The other was empty when I looked recently, and I could not decide whether it would be water-filled this summer or remain empty so the floor could be used for a dry-land activity.
Wandering along there reminded me that at one time there was another exciting project mooted for the Nelson Gardens: a genuine redundant airliner converted into a cafe!
That was in 1974 when ex-Yarmouthian Mike Varney, a former Metropolitan Police officer who was a bodyguard of Prince Charles during his Cambridge University studies, floated the innovative scheme following considerable research into its practicality and viability.
After various objections, the innovative idea crash-landed when Yarmouth councillors refused to grant it planning consent.
I assumed that had the air traffic controllers in our town hall given entreprenurial Mike Varney permission to take off, as it were, he would have served conventional meals and snacks in normal portions, not the miniscule dinners usually given in-flight to passengers.
It never fails to surprise me how filling those airline diddy dinners can be.
Harking back to the Waterways, Yarmouth borough council revamped the attraction, perhaps in the Seventies, erecting a high neon sign above the southern entrance: “WATERWAY’S”. My predecessor as a Mercury columnist, the outspoken Scout (chief reporter Ralph Sherwin-White) was almost apopletic when he saw this high-visibility grammatically erroneous sign, lambasting the council in print for the unnecessary possessive singular apostrophe in a straightforward plural word.
It was swiftly removed.
As for the word Venetian, only old-timers like me continue to call the Waterways by that original name. Perhaps Venice had registered the word under copyright laws and we were forbidden to continue to use it...
This coming summer will see a long-familiar name missing from the Golden Mile’s open-air outdoor pursuits, for the Arnold Palmer miniature golf putting course has been renamed Castaway; I do not know if its long-standing format will change.
The Arnold Palmer venture was formed in 1971 on a redundant bowling green, and years ago in this column I mused whimsically as to whether the great American golfing maestro (now a multi-millionaire octogenarian) knew he had a comparatively miniscule financial interest in little old Great Yarmouth far across the North Atlantic.
I assume it was a franchise based on the use of his name.
Harking back to Chris Wright, he sent me not only the Nelson Gardens boating lake picture but added: “I also thought you might be interested to see a photograph of the Yarmouth South Town station signs I acquired at an auction of railway memorabilia. They are now mounted on my garage wall.
“Back in the day, these signs would have told holidaymakers on the dozen or more trains that ran from London’s Liverpool Street to Yarmouth that they had reached their destination.
“They were discovered mounted to a fence beneath overgrown hedging in a garden in Norwich. I imagine that a previous owner of the house acquired them when the station closed in May 1970.”