Our Local Heritage
Nowadays, visitors tend to see Great Yarmouth just as a seaside resort. The Pleasure Beach, amusements, theatres and other attractions which make it such a fun place for a holiday.
But there are many stories and events from long before the bright lights were first turned on along the Golden Mile – things many visitors (and even locals) don’t know.
The town of Great Yarmouth was built on a three mile sand spit between the Roman settlement at Caister and the fort at Burgh Castle. Both these can be visited, and Burgh Castle in particular is a bleak yet stunning sight, with its flint walls set against a backdrop of the estuary.
The current estuary, Breydon Water, was much larger back then and, as it silted up, the sandbank became more able to support buildings and a settlement rose up. The name Great Yarmouth set it apart from Little Yarmouth, which was the other side of the river. It was still only a few feet above sea level and prone to flooding, but by the time of the Domesday Book, in 1086, Great Yarmouth had grown into a town with a population of a few hundred with an important industry catching and smoking herring – a vital source of food in medieval times.
In 1209, King John gave Great Yarmouth a royal charter, granting certain rights including self-government, which helped the town to thrive in the face of growing competition along the coastline. At one point, it was the fifth highest tax-paying provincial town in medieval Britain and outranked Norwich in terms of wealth by the mid 14th century.
The rivers continued to silt up and the town continued to grow – ironically, the very thing that enabled the town to expand also caused major headaches. Harbours, essential for trade and fishing, also silted up, and new ones had to be dug. Harbour digging was practically a full time job back in those times. The current harbour dates from the early 17th century, and the deep water outer harbour was added in 2010.
In the late 13th century, stone walls were built around the town – it now boasts the the second most complete medieval town wall in England, with 11 out of the original 16 towers still standing and well worth a visit.
Many of the town’s old buildings are open on the heritage weekends (this year’s are on September 6 to 9 and 13 to 16) where there is a chance to have a rare peep inside buildings such as the dungeons at the Tollhouse (said to be the oldest civic building in Britain), Elizabethan House and the Fisherman’s Hospital.
If your stay does not coincide with one of these events there are regular heritage walks around the walls and through the town’s unique Rows.
Building land was at a premium in the town’s early years so these narrow alleys, sometimes just inches wide, were where hundreds of people lived and worked for centuries. Originally 145 in number, they suffered along with the rest of the town during the second world war bombings or were pulled down to make way for later developments, but there are some left. Most are now just shortcuts and you would never know they used to be vibrant communities, but some have been preserved and there are plaques to show where they were, so keep an eye out as you wander around the town.
The first ‘holidaymakers’ arrived in the town at the end of the 18th century, attracted by the belief that bathing in the sea was good for your health. Spending time at the seaside became fashionable among the well off, and they flocked to Great Yarmouth.
Hotels and guesthouses sprung up along the seafront, and when the railway reached the town in 1844 it made it even easier for visitors to come and enjoy the sea air and pleasure gardens.
We hope to give you a taste of some of the things our area has to offer in our regular blogs and we hope to focus more closely on some more of its stories and historic events in later features. Meanwhile, wander away from the bright lights, venture down the alleyways and keep an eye out for small signs showing the way to some hidden treasure and make your own discoveries.