Described by Charles Dickens’ character Peggotty in David Copperfield as the ‘finest place in the universe’, Great Yarmouth isn’t just about amusement arcades, thrilling rides and enormous beaches – it also has a rich and proud maritime heritage and its prosperous herring fishery made it one of the wealthiest towns in Britain in years gone by. As a result, there are lots of beautiful, ancient buildings, particularly Dutch and Flemish, to see in the town centre and around the historic South Quay at the confluence of the rivers Yare and Bure – as well as England’s second most complete medieval Town Wall.
On South Quay is the Nelson Museum, housed in a handsome Georgian mansion and telling the story of Norfolk’s (and England’s) greatest naval hero who spent time in the town before the Battle of Copenhagen. It was here that he first stepped ashore back in England after the Battle of the Nile and his time in Italy. The displays focus on the Admiral’s career, leadership skills – and love life. When the married commander returned from the Mediterranean, he brought with him Lady Hamilton!
Time & Tide Museum
Don’t leave without a visit to the magnificent award-winning Time and Tide Museum, housed in an old smokehouse – in fact, you can still smell it! The museum, the UK’s best-preserved Victorian herring curing works, tells a compelling story of Great Yarmouth’s history from its Ice Age origins, focusing on the town’s rick maritime heritage and popularity as a seaside resort. Look out for exhibits on smoking and curing, what life was like on board a drifter and a re-creation of a typical 1913 ‘Row’, complete with fishermen’s homes, and a 1950s fish wharf. Great Yarmouth still has three herring on its coat of arms, and it was famous for its own type of whole, salted, cold-smoked, or ‘bloated’, herring – known as bloaters (the nickname of the town’s football team).
The celebrated bloater dates from 1835 when a herring-curer called Bishop salted some left-over fish and put them overnight in his oak log-fuelled ‘smoke house’, to prevent them from being spoiled. It is said the next morning he was ‘both astonished and delighted with their appearance, aroma and flavour’. The town had its own entry in the epicurean encyclopaedia.
In 1913, 1,163 fishing boats were operating out of the port – and it’s said you could walk across the river boat-by-boat. On October 23, 1907 fishermen brought in nearly 80 million herring in one day. ONE DAY!
Upstairs there are exhibits on Great Yarmouth during the world wars and its history as a popular seaside resort. Great Yarmouth was one of the original seaside resorts where visitors would come to take the waters back in the late 1700s and even today you can see beautiful Victorian and Edwardian architecture along the seafront, mixed in with modern day buildings.
Heritage Quarter and Town Hall
Elizabethan House Museum
Nearby is the 16th century quayside Elizabethan House museum, a handsome 16th century home offers a glimpse into the lives the families who lived there, from Tudor through to Victorian times. A wander through the rooms gives you a real feel for day to day domestic life. There are rich period settings and evocative sounds and smells – especially in the kitchen.
In the Conspiracy Room, find out about a fascinating period in Great Yarmouth’s history when the town took sides with Cromwell and the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. Cromwell visited the house on several occasions and led a successful attack on Royalist Lowestoft, aided by Gt Yarmouth volunteers.
There are clothes to dress up in and children will enjoy the toy room which is packed with things to do.
Nelson is also commemorated by a tall Grade 1-listed pillar topped by Britannia in the South Denes – otherwise known as the Nelson Monument – and built as a memorial after the Battle of Trafalgar. It’s not Nelson’s Column! That’s the one in Trafalgar Square (in Norfolk we take quiet satisfaction from knowing that the ends of Whitehall are book-ended by statues of Norfolk heroes Nelson and Boudicca).
Ours’ is 144 feet high and was built in 1819, predating the London memorial by 21 years. There’s a 217-step staircase to the summit, and it’s open to the public occasionally. Don’t believe the story that the architect William Morris threw himself from the top after realising Britannia was incorrectly facing inland. It’s apocryphal. Britannia is actually facing towards Nelson’s birthplace, Burnham Thorpe, in the north of the county.
St Nicholas Minster
Nelson and Lady Hamilton joined in a celebratory service at the town’s St Nicholas church at the northern end of the Market Place, once the largest parish church in the country it is now a Minster. It was founded in 1101 by Bishop of Norwich Herbert de Losinga as a penance for an act of simony (Norwich Cathedral was included in that penance). The Black Death, the Reformation and the Nazis have all had a big say in its history.
It was here that Lord Nelson received the freedom of the borough. ‘Your right hand, my lord,’ said the Town Clerk, as he went to administer the oath and Nelson laid his left hand on the Bible. ‘That is at Tenerife,’ was the great sailor’s reply.
Close by on Church Plain is the part-timber house where Anna Sewell, writer of the classic Black Beauty, one of the best-read children’s stories in history and in the top ten most popular books ever written in English, was born on March 30, 1820.
Just off South Quay you will find the Great Yarmouth Row Houses and Old Merchant’s House. The Rows were a network of narrow alleyways where port workers lived in cramped tenement conditions.
Many Row Houses were bombed by second world war bombing and then demolished in post-war clearances, but there are two surviving properties.
Nearby is Greyfriars’ Cloisters, the remains of a 13th century friary of Franciscan ‘grey friars’ which were later convertged into Row dwellings.
St George’s Theatre
St. George’s Theatre at the edge of central St. Georges Park is a grade I listed building, commissioned in 1714 to be modelled on the church of St Clement Danes by Sir Christopher Wren. The result was a monumental design now recognised as one of the finest examples of Baroque Church architecture outside of London. The building has recently undergone a multi-million pound refurbishment and once inside the exposed roof beams indicate for all to see that the town’s forefathers were extremely skilled boat builders.
The Tolhouse Museum
The Tolhouse Museum is one of the UK’s oldest gaols and dates back to the 12th century. You can still see the original cells and get a sense of what it must have been like to be imprisoned there. There’s also an interesting re-creation of a modern prison cell so you can see how prison life has changed. This is where thieves, smugglers, witches, pirates and murderers were incarcerated!
Oh, and one more… The Hippodrome
The Historic Hippodrome is Britain’s only surviving total circus building, built in 1903 by the legendary circus showman George Gilbert.
Throughout the century the intimate arena has played host to an incredible variety of entertainment, from amazing water spectacles and stage variety shows to cinema and cine variety and even wartime use as a military practice shooting range.
And just outside Great Yarmouth… Caister Castle
Caister Castle was built in 1432 for Sir John Fastolf (of Shakespeare fame), who fought at Agincourt with Henry V and another Norfolk man Sir Thomas Erpingham, who lead the Welsh archers (yes, Welsh!).
The castle was built by way of ransom for a captured French knight and is one of the earliest buildings of importance in the country built of brick. The 90 foot tower remains intact and visitors can climb to the top for a magnificent view of the castle ruins and surrounding areas. The castle is home to the largest private collection of motor vehicles in Britain.
and Roman Burgh Castle
Burgh Castle was built by the Romans to protect Breydon Water at a time when the river Yare gave important access to Caistor St Edmund near Norwich and before Gt Yarmouth even existed (it’s on a sand spit that developed across the estuary mouth over centuries). Three flint and brick walls are still standing, and the site has great views across the marshes.