The view from South Town Station

AS the train rattled along the line between London and Yarmouth South Town Station, one passenger in particular excitedly watched the views from the window as her journey neared its end.

Then the train arrived in the terminus, and she alighted with a mixture of relief, satisfaction and anticipation, walking along the platform and out into the parking area fronting the ever-busy Southtown Road.

This was 1962, exactly half a century ago, and it was her first visit. Needing help and advice in the unfamiliar surroundings, the traveller – a South American – was relieved to spot the perfect person to give her guidance: a British policeman, and she walked towards him in expectation.

Waving a hand towards the Haven Bridge, she asked the constable: “Is that Yarmouth over there?”

“Yes, madam,” he replied, to which she inquired: “Where is the ferry?”

Although in 1962 the ferry was still operating across the River Yare between Yarmouth South Denes and Gorleston, a mile from Southtown Station, the officer assured her that she did not need a ferry to get into Yarmouth but just had to cross the bridge.

To his astonishment, and suppressed amusement, she demanded to know: “Well, then: how do I get to the Isle of Wight?”

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According to the Yarmouth Mercury: “It was then realised that by some unfortunate chance, she had come to the wrong Yarmouth. Undeterred, she told the policeman that she would ‘look around the town just the same’.”

One can only imagine the amount of tact, diplomacy and patience involved when the officer explained that she was confusing Great Yarmouth in Norfolk on the East Coast with Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight off the South Coast. I suppose a visitor from South America 7000 miles away could easily muddle up the two Yarmouths.

While preparing today’s column, I light-heartedly asked a long-retired Yarmouth police inspector if he was the man involved. He was not, but recalled a similar incident when he was a sergeant patrolling the sea-front. A car drew up containing a husband, wife and two children seeking directions to a certain hotel.

As the policeman did not recognise the name, he contacted his control room which in turn telephoned the tourism office, all without success, so he asked the car driver if he could have a look at the hotel’s letter.

Yes, you’ve guessed it: the family had made a reservation at a hotel...in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight! As it was evening, the sergeant advised the family to seek overnight accommodation before heading for the island ferry 200 miles away.

In 2008 Mrs Peggotty and I made a point of visiting Yarmouth during a holiday on the Isle of Wight, and found it a delightful little place, one of the smallest towns in the United Kingdom with a population of only about 800.

I have mentioned before in this column that there are other Yarmouths across the Atlantic Ocean, two in the United States and one in Canada. Decades ago Michael Carttiss, of Filby, a former local schoolteacher who became a prominent figure in our public life, visited them during a transatlantic holiday and established links between them and us.

Yarmouth, in Massachusetts, New England, with a population of 25,000, is renowned for its shopping and tourism, and is named after Great Yarmouth. Yarmouth in Maine is the home of 8,300 folk. As for Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (Canada), it has 6,700 citizens, and is primarily a fishing port.

But to my surprise, when I “Googled” Yarmouth, a fourth showed up, in Iowa in the United States. It was described as “an unincorporated community in Des Moines County.” By a tenuous and unconnected link, this took me back to a column I penned a decade ago, one that had a remarkable outcome.

One of Des Moines’ most celebrated former residents is the best-selling author Bill Bryson, whose good-natured travel books and other works have rightly earned him a massive readership. In 2002 I greatly enjoyed his The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, chronicling a 14,000 mile meander by car off the beaten track in the United States, ignoring major routes and stopping in little motels while seeking out interesting and friendly country communities.

Recalling a visit to Macon, Georgia, he wrote that he “stopped at a bank for money and was served by a lady from Great Yarmouth, something that brought a little excitement to both of us” before he got back in his car and drove across the Otis Redding Memorial Bridge, named after the singer.

In this column I gently upbraided Bill Bryson, a former newspaper journalist, for ignoring his basic reporter training by not telling his readers the name of the bank teller – who presumably volunteered the information about her Yarmouth roots as she handled his transaction – and leaving his readers with questions to be asked.

For example, why was a Yarmouth girl in a small town in Georgia working in a bank 5,000 miles from home? Why and when did she emigrate to the United States? Were her parents still in Yarmouth?

So I was thrilled, and surprised, to receive a letter from that very bank employee, explaining all! Kay Scheuneman, daughter of nonagenarians Joseph and Marjorie Spandler, of Falcon Court (built on the old Lacon’s site on Brewery Plain in Yarmouth town centre), went to live in the US in 1964 when she married a US airman stationed at the Sculthorpe base near Fakenham.

A former Greenacre School pupil, she worked at Erie Resistor, as did her sister, Pamela, who was also to emigrate to the States. Mrs Scheuneman had two children – Carl, born before she left for America, and Andrea – and had retired after 21 years working in the bank there.

Another correspondent was Barbara Mingay, of Upton, a regular visitor to the United States, who told me that two years earlier she had changed travellers cheques in a bank in Warner Robbins and was served by the former Kay Spandler, of Yarmouth. Warner Robins, where Kay and her family lived, is a few miles from Macon.

Bill Bryson, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, now lives in Norfolk – but not, unfortunately, in the Mercury circulation area, so I doubt if he will read about himself in today’s column.