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When Princess Anne drilled for gas in Great Yarmouth

PUBLISHED: 07:00 20 October 2019

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on Yarmouth quayside in 1985.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on Yarmouth quayside in 1985.

Archant

Popular opinion claims that good things come in threes. So, to underline the point, here is a trio - of coincidences!

Princess Anne, in protective clothing, has a feature pointed out to her by Amoco's Mitch Watt during her 1969 visit to the company's drilling rig off Yarmouth.Princess Anne, in protective clothing, has a feature pointed out to her by Amoco's Mitch Watt during her 1969 visit to the company's drilling rig off Yarmouth.

Recently we discussed the sculptured classic head above the door of the former Great Yarmouth telephone exchange on Hall Quay (now YMCA accommodation).

Regular correspondent Trevor Nicholls, who drew my attention to that long-established but little noticed feature, now points out that farther along Hall Quay there is another stony head, this one above the door of the long-closed Barclays Bank branch.

Trevor cannot identify the bearded character who, through sightless "eyes", has monitored everyone and all transport crossing the Haven Bridge opposite and shipping passing beneath it.

Against that background, I embarked on today's column marking the golden anniversary of Princess Anne making headlines by visiting a North Sea gas rig 40 miles off Yarmouth, the port from which it is serviced.

Prince Philip in the borough in 1979, possibly to open the new Pilot Station in Gorleston.Prince Philip in the borough in 1979, possibly to open the new Pilot Station in Gorleston.

As a memento of her trip to the platform, the Princess was given a novel keepsake - a five-inch likeness of herself carved in stone brought up through the drill pipe from 6,000ft beneath the sea-bed.

The Kent-based sculptor had the rare experience of working with halite, a greenish-gold crystalline rock.

It was presented to her during an American-style lunch in the rig's canteen.

And that completes the remarkable treble of stone likenesses in or linked to Yarmouth from where the Press party and others flew out from the Caister Road heliport.

The sculpted stone head above the closed Barclays Bank doorway on Hall Quay in Yarmouth.The sculpted stone head above the closed Barclays Bank doorway on Hall Quay in Yarmouth.

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Traditionally in that era, women were discouraged from drilling rigs and platforms - perhaps through superstition - but Amoco invited the Princess because the offshore giant thought she would find it exciting and stimulating to see such an installation in action.

She certainly did, and the Mercury reported: "She became possibly the first woman in the world - certainly the first princess - to operate a gas well drill."

The Princess flew to the platform in a Wessex helicopter of the Queen's Flight. She wore a flame-coloured trouser suit, but on reaching the platform she donned white protective clothing and swapped her hat for a safety helmet.

The VIP visitor was shown how to manipulate the drill by 34-year-old Texan Mr J Westlake, living in Firs Avenue, Ormesby. According to this newspaper: "He showed her how to operate the brake that controls the action of the drill string, and for a few seconds the bit was turning under her control."

The Texan explained to the visitors: "By releasing the brake, the Princess was letting the pipe down to the bottom of the well to start drilling a new section of the hole."

During a tour of the rig, the Royal visitor saw two sides of a highly complex activity.

On one platform she watched the drilling proceeding, then crossed a 100ft long catwalk with an open mesh floor - through which the waves could be seen 90 ft below - to the adjacent platform.

"Here gas hissing up from subterranean sands over a mile and a-half below the seabed was being treated for the removal of impurities before being despatched through a 30-inch pipe on its 38-mile journey to the Bacton terminal whence it is passed on to the houses and factories of London, the Midlands and the north of England," the Mercury informed its readers.

The experienced professionals also gave their royal guest a guided tour of the installation, but for Princess Anne - now the Princess Royal - the VIP party and the journalists and photographers, the memorable highlight was her visit to the drilling floor from which the last of 12 wells was being drilled to as depth of 7000ft.

Although the Princess never came to Yarmouth that day, we have enjoyed royal visits, the last beset by weather. In 1993 the Queen and Prince Philip arrived off here in the Royal Yacht Britannia but the barge ferrying them ashore had to negotiate choppy water causing them to disembark distinctly awkwardly.

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