The changer of politics

LOVE her or loathe her, nobody can deny that Margaret Thatcher was a single-minded Prime Minister who brought great changes to the political and industrial landscape of this nation during her 11 years in 10 Downing Street.

LOVE her or loathe her, nobody can deny that Margaret Thatcher was a single-minded Prime Minister who brought great changes to the political and industrial landscape of this nation during her 11 years in 10 Downing Street. It is 30 years this month since she became Prime Minister in 1979, determined to halt the decline in the economy.

She remains the only woman to be not only Prime Minister but also leader of the Conservative Party (1975-90). Two other “firsts” for Mrs Thatcher were in June 1978 when she was still Leader of the Opposition: her first visit to Great Yarmouth, and her first ship launch.

With husband Denis, she flew into the borough by helicopter and was driven to Richards Shipyard on Southtown Road to be the launching mistress of the stern trawler Boston Sea Stallion, owned by a Lowestoft company. On arrival she was greeted by crowds of sightseers but given a hostile reception by workers displaying “Vote Labour” stickers.

As television and still cameras recorded every moment, she mingled with the onlookers, many of whom were wives and families of shipyard workers, and joshed with the men urging people to “Vote Labour”, good-naturedly peeling off their stickers.

After the Boston Sea Stallion slid gracefully into the River Yare when she smashed the traditional bottle of Champagne across her bow, Mrs Thatcher received the traditional bouquet from the yard's youngest apprentice, 16-year-old trainee joiner Garth Hunt.

Then we all adjourned to the Star Hotel where, in an after-lunch address, she vowed that if she became Prime Minister, she would not be content to preside over Britain's relative decline. All income groups must have a fair chance and fair incentive and, given those, would respond magnificently to reverse that decline.

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“We must concentrate on creating wealth,” she told the diners. “You don't create prosperity by stimulating economies but by stimulating people!”

Her drive back to the heliport included an unscheduled stop to chat to pupils, parents and staff at the Northgate St Andrew's Infant School.

And now, from politics to pleasure, and I was interested to read a national newspaper report recently that “the once-thriving town of Bognor Regis was the first English resort created specially for the 18th century craze of bathing.” Bognor is investing �1 billion on improvements to halt its decline in tourist numbers and its descent into the image of candy-floss and kiss-me-quick hats, aiming to profit from people wanting to holiday in Britain during the recession rather than travelling abroad.

Yarmouth has also been upgrading its image, with millions spent on the Golden Mile, and is also conscious that more Britons will be enjoying UK vacations in 2009.

But one statement in particular caught my eye: “Seawater was regarded as a medicinal cure for diseases in Georgian England. Bognor's first bath house was opened in 1824, charging two shillings (10p) for a hot bath and one shilling for a cold bath.”

1824? Well, that was more than six decades after Yarmouth! For in 1760 one of our local newspapers reported: “On Monday, 19 May, will be opened in Great Yarmouth two commodious sea baths, supplied every morning from the sea.” The new bath house would have two large plunge baths, one for men and the other for women, each surrounded by dressing rooms.

Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopaedia, confirms that “Yarmouth has been a seaside resort since 1760.”

Patrons travelled from other parts of the country, eager to take the waters, and were conveyed from their lodgings to the baths by a brightly coloured small horse-drawn coach or, if they wished, in a four-wheel two-seater carriage drawn by two men!

According to Caister-based historian and author Colin Tooke in his 2001 book Great Yarmouth and Gorleston: Beside the Sea, “As the popularity (of the bath house) increased, a large public room was added and by 1788 daily newspapers were available for the patrons. Here they could also enjoy 'the salubrious sea breezes'.

“From the end of May until the middle of October the 'genteel company' would assemble in the evenings to listen to music, play billiards and, on occasion, partake of balls, tea parties and public breakfasts, all probably to the great amusement of the local fishing community.

“The business of entertaining people at the seaside had begun.”

The Yarmouth bath house occupied the seafront site where the Flamingo amusement arcade now stands.

Bathing machines - changing huts on wheels trundled into the sea for discreet dips - became popular, and in 1899 our council approved mixed bathing south of the Wellington Pier. The stipulation was that men's bathing machines had to be at least 20 yards from those used by women, presumably to preserve modesty and prevent hanky-panky.

Moreover, to further that same end, every man bather had to wear a costume covering him from neck to knee.

But ten years later a letter to the press complained that three prominent townsmen - a doctor, lawyer and secretary - were bathing nude from the beach opposite the end of Salisbury Road at 8am “to the disgust of some ladies walking on the shore.”

However, a follow-up letter in the newspaper suggested that far from being outraged and embarrassed, certain women made a practice of talking along the beach among these bathers as part of their holiday enjoyment.

Nowadays, there has been an officially designated nudist beach at Gunton between Corton and Lowestoft for years, clothes-optional so the two cultures could mix harmoniously. That concession is currently under threat because Waveney council claims erosion has so reduced the area available for families from a big holiday park on the cliff that the beach needs to be conventionally “textile”, as naturists term it.

Back in the Seventies, probably when the Gunton beach near Lowestoft became legally available to naturists, there was a similar suggestion for the Yarmouth area. I was at a borough council committee meeting when the idea was broached, with suggested sites being the dunes of our North Denes or the Scratby-Hemsby area.

The predictable reaction from councillors was one of shock-horror and warnings about perverts and danger to children. Yet Gunton has been trouble-free from the outset.

If Gunton - the only official clothes-optional beach between Holkham and Essex - reverts to textile, perhaps the naturist movement will seek to persuade Yarmouth to find it an area along its 15 miles of sands...