Tolhouse opens hidden room

A hidden part of one of Great Yarmouth's oldest buildings can be visited for the first time this weekend - for free.The Tolhouse is throwing its doors open for nothing as part of the National Heritage Open Days scheme, set up to boost public interest in heritage.

A hidden part of one of Great Yarmouth's oldest buildings can be visited for the first time this weekend - for free.

The Tolhouse is throwing its doors open for nothing as part of the National Heritage Open Days scheme, set up to boost public interest in heritage.

And this year, Great Yarmouth Museums is allowing access to the Hold - two rooms in the town gaol into which people had to be lowered by rope.

James Steward, area museums officer, said: “The Tolhouse is one of the most important historic buildings in Norfolk. This year we decided to afford public access to the basement area that was the Hold.

“This area, which has never been open to the public before, is accessed via a hatch in the floor that is normally sealed for safety reasons. The Hold comprises two rooms that separated the debtors and felons, although men, women and children could all be kept together. The Tolhouse became the town gaol in 1262 and the Hold was used until the mid 16th century. Prisoners were lowered into the Hold via a rope but visitors today will enjoy the privilege of a staircase. Prisoners were kept in the Hold while they awaited trial and sentencing. This could be for as long as 10 years. Debtors would remain in the Hold until someone paid to release them. Many felons convicted at the Tolhouse were hanged on Yarmouth Denes, although it is thought some were hanged at the gaol itself.”

Les Cole, historian and visitor service assistant at the Tolhouse, will be on hand during the free open days - today, tomorrow and Sunday - to provide visitors with the grisly history of this unique and hidden part of Great Yarmouth's heritage.

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As the former home to the Admiralty Court, the Tolhouse is one of the most important maritime buildings in the region. It was also the home of the civil government in Great Yarmouth for nearly six centuries and is one of the oldest gaols in the UK.

The Tolhouse Museum is just off South Quay next to the Central Library. It is open today, 10am to 5pm, and tomorrow and Sunday, 1.15pm to 5pm.

English Heritage's Row 111 House and the Old Merchant's House are both open for free tomorrow and Sunday, midday to 5pm. There is an activity trail for children and 10pc off purchases in the shop, excluding refreshments.