Summer is nearly upon us, it’s May, a bank holiday weekend what better time than that for a lazy trip to Great Yarmouth for a wander with nothing particularly in mind. A stroll along the prom in the hazy sun would be nice, like a swearing breathing Martin Parr exhibition.
And being practically June, it’s no huge surprise whilst driving east just after the almost hallucinogenic weirdness and mess of the Postwick forever interchange to find yourself disappearing under a wedge of cloud as thick as a cheap rolled up Axminster pushing over from the North East bringing with it some especially sharp and tasty Scandinavian winds and the death of light.
Yarmouth is one of my favourite places, not least because the fierce memory of it paints bright and hot colours, the clamour of the Pleasure Beach, the squawks of visitors on rides and gulls, the chitter and crash of machines against the quiet hiss of the sea on the old beach that between the poop bags and plastic bottles has seen some history. If you are local born and raised, or grew up on the edges of the German Sea, Yarmouth was a treat a day playing tuppenny push in the arcades or not winning cheap wristwatches with hoops, bumper cars and the Scenic Railway. Heat and tarmac, spun sugar and sand. It fades as you get older, the wood is worn to proud grain, the layered paints peel, the rock will break teeth. But it’s still the same under all this, not that the eyes aren’t so young, more the understanding behind them has shifted, noticed something that was always the same.
In this weather it feels quite muted, the colours drawn back, but no one is going to let a bit of cloud get in the way of wearing shorts and t-shirts and Marine Parade is bustling away, an assault course of straggling families, pushchairs and the elderly. The half mile up to South Beach Parade if a full on orchestra of accents, Bank Holidays bring in the holiday makers. The pavement is littered with dropped /r/s and /h/s; Cockney, Mockney, Estuary and Essex. There’s Midlands; Brum and the Black Country searching out the Fittles, a scattering of Leicester and even a few Derby ducks, behind it all the locals still hev the loudest murmur, still here weaving through the crowd. We stop stand still on the edge of the stream, get some coffee, buy fresh doughnuts, crisp sugared softness, hot as hell, walk eating heading South.
The people thin outpast the noise and colour of the amusements. There’s just rows of cars parked against the dunes, drinks cans rolling in the wind. The Pleasure Beach loses its grip in the scrubs and marrams of the Denes, petering out to light industrial towards the port. Here the sand is winning, ridged up by tide and wind slapping against cheap brick and preformed concrete, the cheap charm dissipating into something different, the stunted tower of the power plant, listless side roads with salt busted brick and relentless factory facades grown up on the shifting spine of land between the river and the sea.
There’s something very out of place here. A thing that harks back to an entirely different time when this was grassy scrub south of port. It couldn’t feel more out of sync with its surroundings if it tried. The Norfolk Column or originally the Norfolk Naval Pillar, now known as the Britannia Monument. In the centre of all this is a tall quite elegant memorial to Horatio Nelson, 144 feet of stone pillar and more lately resin detailing. At the top is Britannia trident and olive branch in hand. She stands on a raised dais supported by six victories or caryatids or canephora (take your pick). The names of four of Nelson’s ships carved below their feet; the Vanguard, Elephant, Captain and Victory. At the base of the column the battles he fought in those vessels; The Nile, Copenhagen, St Vincent and Trafalgar. It was originally planned to commemorate Nelson’s Victory at the Nile, but times change and by the time it was funded Nelson had won other battles at Trafalgar on the 21st October 1805 he was felled by a single shot. It is alleged he was taken below deck by Able Seaman James Sharman.
Britannia faces inland. This could be a massive mistake, there is a story that the builder had a heart-attack when he realised, that’s a fallacy though as he had a heart attack because of all the steps apparently, I mean you’d notice it was facing the wrong way before it was finished. There is another story that she faces the Burnham Thorpe where Nelson was born, which she clearly doesn’t. Or is it deliberate – the threats from the sea behind her when viewed from the river, 200 years can change how we view our landscape as much as we can change the landscape, must have looked quite elegant looking across the mouth of the River Yare in 1842 when Finden made his engraving (right). Now here it stands upright against the cloud facing out over the asbestos and tarpaper roofs of the estate. Behind her lazy doughnuts drawn in rubber on the road, scattered mustard seed chipping through the concrete, little bursts of yellow, the surrounding agriculture leeching in still finding feet in the urban landscape and the sand and then the sea.
And so in 1819 this thing grows out of the sandy subsoils on some grassland to the South of town. It cost £10,000 in private donations, which in today’s money is somewhere in the region of three-quarters of a million pounds. This is a measure of the value Norfolk takes in the man, a man grew up and was educated in the county from a family whose surnames are familiar and have some resonance through the county and the country, the Sucklings, and the Walpoles. The Nelson family whilst moderately well to do or moderately properous, became far better known because of him.
And what of James Sharman, the man who carried him below deck. It appears he was press ganged into the Navy in the 1899 aged 14 whilst working in the Wrestlers Inn. He served under nelson and Hardy and continued to serve after Nelson died. He was eventually invalided out of the Navy and at Hardy’s suggestion made the keeper of the monument; living in a small cottage built nearby in the dunes. A small amount of pixel-digging reveals his children and grandchildren all carried Nelson as a middle name. What is most odd about this story in fact the most interesting bit of the whole thing is how his memory is carried on, And not just in the Blue Plaques which bear his name. He met a traveling writer who had read about him being involved in the rescue of the crew of a sinking ship off the Denes, his name was Charles Dickens. He taken with his stories he based Ham Pegotty on him, so Sharman survives not just in the winding threads of our own perceptions and interpretations of history, but in the concrete realised fiction of Dicken’s David Copperfield.