The Waterways are Flowing Again

The First World War had not long ended, jobs were in short supply and men needed work. The country embarked on a programme of building parks and other attractions, cheering up the country in difficult times and providing paid employment for hundreds of thousands of people.

Gt Yarmouth was no exception to this, and in the 1920s work began on public pleasure gardens, a bowling green, yachting ponds and tennis courts on the land – more sand, really – between the new sea wall and the promenade. In 1928 work started on a Venetian-style water garden which had been designed by the borough engineer and provided relief work for the unemployed of the borough.

Between January and June of 1928, the channels were dug out by hand using shovels and wheelbarrows and some 6,600 tons of soil were brought in from nearby Caister to replace the sand. The scheme contained a boating lake and winding rivers for gondolas, paths through rock gardens leading to picturesque bridges over the water and several thatched shelters.

They opened to the public in August 1928 and were popular for many years. Some called them Docwra’s Docks, after the councillor who first suggested them, but most called them The Waterways.

The water was fresh, not salt, because the intention was to create an ice rink in winter and the gardens were illuminated by night, turning them into an enchanting fairyland. Music played as the decorated gondolas drifted gently through a landscape which changed over the years, from gardens to charming nursery-rhyme tableaux. There was even a volcano added at one time…

Despite surviving wartime bombings, time took its toll and The Waterways fell into disrepair. The boats stopped, the beautiful gardens were turned over to grass and gravel and the ornate bridges began to crumble – but those who remembered them at their peak still had hope.

Calls and plans were made to try to restore them, but cost was a major issue. Then, in 2017, a £1.7m lottery grant meant that work could begin to restore the now lack-lustre and worn out attraction to its former glory. Volunteers and local companies got stuck in, repairing the concrete, replanting the former award-winning gardens which had been hailed as ground-breaking when they were first designed, preserving the original animal heads which were once on the gondolas and returning the thatched buildings to their former glory.

It took a lot of work, but they got there, and the unique Grade II-listed site – which has national status as what is believed to be the last surviving purpose-build concrete boating lake in the country – reopened its gates at Easter so people could visit and admire the work so far.

This August the boating lake and the café – which is on an island in the middle of the lake – reopened, allowing boats and pedalos back for the first time in many years. This was the most ambitious part of the £2.7m, three year project and the one most people were waiting for.

At the moment the gondolas have not returned but this is not being ruled out at a later date and the iconic heads – swans, elephants, bulls and horses – which were added to the electric boats in 1956 – have been lovingly restored and are being put on display so they can be admired once again.

It’s well worth a visit, whether you keep your feet on dry land or take a trip on a boat or over to the thatched café in the centre of the lake.

We’re delighted to see them up and running again and look forward to see what will happen next.