Summer is nearly upon us, it’s May, a bank holiday weekend. What better time for a lazy trip to Great Yarmouth for a mindless wander along the prom and up to the strange outland of the Denes, even hazy sun is nice, in this 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 rolling 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 childhood it paints in bright and hot colours. The clamour of the Pleasure Beach, the squawks of visitors on rides and gulls in the air, the chitter and crash of entry-level gambling addiction against the quiet hiss of the sea on the old beach which 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, the burnt ozone of the bumper cars and the rickety wood of the Scenic Railway. Heat and tarmac, spun sugar and sand.
It fades with age, 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 a vest. 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, the Bank Holidays bring in the holiday-makers, pavements 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, eat them heading South.
The people thin out past 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, 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 phallus and more lately resin detailing. At the top sits 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.
The monument was originally planned to commemorate Nelson’s Victory at the Nile, but circumstances change and by the time it was fully funded Nelson had won at Trafalgar, and on the 21st October 1805 was felled by a single shot. It is alleged he was taken below deck by Able Seaman James Sharman a local man.
Britannia faces inland. This could be a massive mistake, there is a story that the builder had a heart-attack when he realised, a fallacy, though if anything 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.
It looked quite elegant from across the mouth of the River Yare when Finden made his engraving in 1842 (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 roots in the cracks of the urban landscape in the drifts of sand near 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, one who 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 while working at 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; lived 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 perhaps 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. Sharman met a traveling writer who had read about him being involved in the rescue of the crew of a sinking ship off the Denes, the writer’s name was Charles Dickens. It appears he was so taken with Sharman’s tales he based Ham Pegotty on him. 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.