Great Yarmouth, from frenzy to quality
I was inspired to write this article in response to the following phrases, which are the first things that certain people say when they happen to see, or do something they don’t enjoy about Great Yarmouth, and the probable reason why they feel that way:
** “Great Yarmouth isn’t what it used to be”. ** “Great Yarmouth is no longer great”. ** “There just isn’t the atmosphere in Great Yarmouth any longer”. **There’s nothing to do. **Great Yarmouth has gone downhill
These are some of the things I hear on a regular basis, not just in person, but also see on various social media sites, so just where is this coming from? I can’t talk about the current residents of Great Yarmouth, nor can I talk about housing, benefits or landlords, but I can talk about tourism which is what I see or hear these statements referring to:
Part one: Frenzy
So, as I was born in the 1960s, lets’ start there. Thousands of people would flock to Great Yarmouth via public transport (unless they had the luxury of owning their own vehicle), during their annual paid holiday times and each area of the UK had differing holiday times to other areas. Combined, these differing holiday times would create what’s called a season within which everybody who was coming to stay, or visit would come during this season, and this would probably be the only visit that year. (Outside of this season would see Great Yarmouth had very little entertainment to see other than the arcades, and of course, the beach).All accommodation businesses, attractions and eateries would be open and ready for passing visitors, the waterways and boating lake were both popular, as were the beach, market, the Hippodrome Circus and Gorleston Pavilion. A choice of more theatres would have big names appearing on stage during that season which was a big draw for the frenzy of people buzzing around. You could bump into Mike & Bernie Winters on Britannia Pier, or Morcambe & Wise on Wellington Pier, or spot Freddie and the Dreamers wandering up Regent Road, or you could stop and say hello to Peter Noone near the ABC Theatre, a whole host of stars of the time to tell your friends about the time you met them or saw them. This all created a fantastic atmosphere throughout the town with many an awesome tale to be told. Every eatery would be packed out through the day & night and boards were displayed outside to advertise their menus which mostly seemed standardised to anything with chips, a roast dinner of some sort, or an all- day breakfast, and they wanted it on the plate before they had a chance to sit down but that’s what people knew and all they expected back then. B&B accommodation was mostly basic and offered a full English breakfast or a variation of it along with a choice of concentrated fruit juice OR cereals, all of which had to be pre ordered. Small rooms which were a division of a once larger room and shared facilities, limited health & safety, and some allowed groups of people to ‘bunk up’ together in a crowded room, sleeping on the floor or in an empty bath. People didn’t mind, at least they had somewhere to stay the night. This also added to the excitement of having masses of people buzzing around the town & seafront. The quality of where they stayed or what they ate wasn’t a priority. John Sullivan summed it up in one of his classic sitcoms, in which groups of people walked up and down streets of a seaside town looking for somewhere to stay on a bank holiday, volunteering to sleep in the airing cupboard or on the landing because they had no vacancies. I remember booking into a place on Sandown Road for a couple of nights and when going to use the facilities, the toilet hadn’t been flushed or cleaned. Oh dear! Another recollection is my parents staying in a place called ‘Elstow’ which was above one of the seafront restaurants. The walls moved when you touched them, and the roof was leaking the overnight rain in. My parents slept in their rain macs. Shocking! People weren’t all that bothered about issues like these, they were just thankful they had somewhere to sleep, in fact they would often laugh and joke about things that weren’t right such as leaking roofs, inedible food, noisy neighbours, fierce land ladies etc. (Nowadays these places would be crucified by online reviews)
Part two: Drastic.
By the mid 1970s things started to change. More and more people owned cars which led to a greater freedom of where they could travel, often opting for a camping holiday or to stay somewhere on the outskirts, but the biggest change, thanks to Thomas Cook, came the rise in popularity of package holidays abroad. This led to many, many people deserting their traditional UK seaside resorts, including Great Yarmouth. These package holidays were advertised on tv programmes such as ‘wish you were here’ and enticed the viewer with promises of sunshine, cheap drinks and great food. For £50 you could have these things, spend a week in Majorca in hotels with balconies and en-suites to the rooms. A totally new, luxurious holiday. In fact, by 1979, Britons spent more money on overseas holidays than on holidays in the UK. The holiday camps here started to compete with the package holidays by offering more in the way of onsite facilities and entertainment to try and win people back. Obviously, with so many people now travelling abroad, and having the freedom to travel where they wanted by car, the demand for the traditional seaside holiday was drastically reduced and during the 1980’s many of the theatres in Great Yarmouth that once starred the much loved big names had closed their doors with some of the buildings being used for other things or just left to decline. The once popular waterways and boating lake were also showing signs of decline as less people would walk through or use the boats. The boats were eventually taken away. The beach wasn’t so busy, and the market & town also saw a sharp decline in custom. This led to more people shying away from a holiday in Great Yarmouth. The UK was also going through a nationwide recession at the time which didn’t help.
Accommodation in Great Yarmouth was also going through turmoil through this time as new fire regulations with certain types of alarms were required along with regular servicing and tests, health and safety laws no longer allowed certain practices, licenses for this, licenses for that, food hygiene requirements became stricter and inspections more regular. It goes on. All these things cost a lot of money. Some businesses who were already struggling to keep things afloat now the visitors had dropped were close to being pushed over the edge.
Having said that, on one side of the coin, people who had been on a package holiday would still return to Great Yarmouth for a break from time to time, or for day trips but having experienced the luxuries of the overseas hotels, their expectations had gone up. No longer satisfied with shared facilities, they wanted somewhere NICE to stay rather than just somewhere to stay. Somewhere better than they remembered. On the other side of the coin, there were the people who always remained loyal to Great Yarmouth, never wanted to take part in the package holiday revolution and therefore hadn’t experienced the luxuries that others had. They wanted the comfort of what they always had which created a dilemma: Do accommodation owners spend money to update the rooms to include en-suites which would require larger rooms, resulting in dividing walls that split rooms in half having to come down therefore giving less rooms but of a better standard to sell, and room prices to rise which could deter these loyal guests, or do accommodations just stay as they are which could deter the guest with higher expectations? The truth is, both these options were taken up by the remainder of Great Yarmouth B&Bs so there was accommodation to suit everyone, there was just the unknown for the person looking to book a room. Back then, most people would knock on doors to ask for availability and some would ask to be shown the room before they decided to book it. If they stayed and didn’t enjoy it, they just wouldn’t return and if they did enjoy it, they would return and recommend. Sadly, as a result, many accommodations also closed their doors for the last time, especially the smaller B&B, selling to whoever wanted to take on the challenge on reconstructing all the rooms to make way for en-suites, or to develop the building into another type of accommodation (flats, apartments, hostels etc). This led to a loss of many bed spaces for visitors to Great Yarmouth.
Part three: Lost sheep
I’ve called this part ‘Lost sheep’ because Great Yarmouth is currently going through a transition period which includes a mix of visitors a.) Those who remember and enjoyed Great Yarmouth in the 1960s/1970s and b.) those who haven’t experienced the euphoria of that time but instead enjoy Great Yarmouth as it is now.
The phrases I started this article with obviously come from people in category a. who see noticeably less people walking around than there used to be, possibly none of the big names or shows on the theatres that they remember from that period, once popular buildings in decline, and just not the atmosphere they remember. I’ll start part three with this category.
Many visitors in this category still return to Great Yarmouth from time to time and, if they were old enough to see a big name show in the 1960’s, are possibly now retired or getting towards it. Some still stay for a week or 2, and numbers of late seem to be picking up again. Trouble is, many of the people who return after a while come to reminisce and walk up and down the seafront looking for a spark of what they remember only to return to their accommodation soon after with one or more of the phrases. It’s part of the accommodation’s role to recommend other areas to visit as well as the seafront but often we are met with blank faces. I have personally talked about museums etc to guests from this category who didn’t know Great Yarmouth even had a museum. They didn’t even know Great Yarmouth had a river, nor were interested! So, you see, it’s these visitors that the phrasescome from and this part I’ve called ‘Lost Sheep’ because of the way they don’t seem to know what to do with themselves when there isn’t a big name in town. They often don’t want to hear about other things to do in the area or other places to see, they want to spend the day enjoying the seafront, do some shopping then see a show just like they used to do, and no other theatre in their mind will be as good as the ones they used to visit. There are also people in the category who have always stayed in Great Yarmouth for the annual holiday since being a child themselves and introduce their families, who then introduce their own families and so on, so we sometimes see 3 or 4 generations of family members staying at the same time making the most of the seafront and beach. This is interesting to see because the older family members remember 1960’s Great Yarmouth, and the younger members know the current Great Yarmouth which creates a situation where every member of the family enjoys their time at the seaside with no time for the elders to reminisce.
Now I’ll move on to the people in category b:
The people in this category who visit and stay in Great Yarmouth have probably never experienced the excitement of seeing big names walking the streets, or them posing on the piers, and many wonder why there are so many empty iconic looking buildings which appear to be a ‘museum of an era gone by’, but undeterred by this, they are determined to enjoy the precious time they have away from the everyday routine back home. These people are more receptive to recommendations of what there is to do in the area, alternative theatres, entertainment, places to go, and are not held back by memories of what used to be. Also, they have never known a time when holidays from work were restricted to certain weeks (unless they have children), so visit (sometimes according to weather) at any time of year. They arrive with an already planned break in mind, what they want to do, want to see, where to go including places or attractions outside of Great Yarmouth etc, possibly influenced by social media and internet or want to return to carry on their previous agenda.
We also see an increasing number of people in this category who have never visited Great Yarmouth before, who, with some guidance on the abundance of things to see and do, return 2, 3 or 4 times a year.
Part four: Dilemma
Because of this transition, Great Yarmouth is right now, facing a dilemma, a sort of ‘catch 22’:
- Many attractions, eateries and accommodations remain faithful to the seasons where visitors only came during set times of the year, and as a result, they only open at these times. The problem is, people now have flexibility in when they can take a break from work, or, if they are retired, will very often visit at any time throughout the year. They arrive to find a limited selection on offer in Great Yarmouth itself which may possibly deter further visits.
- On the flip side of this, some attractions and eateries see less footfall and consider that it’s not worth opening. This goes a long way towards deterring people to return out of season. (Obviously, some of the attractions such as the Pleasure Beach and Joyland are very much determined by weather conditions). ‘By reacting to less footfall today, they are creating less footfall tomorrow’
If people visited and found an abundance of things to do and places to eat all year round, they are more likely to return at that time of year and tell others too. Something has to give: Either things stay as they are with less choice out of season which could deter all year visitors, or more eateries and attractions open for longer, and at times between festivals, which will eventually attract more and more people to visit all through the year. This is the dilemma.
Part five: What today’s visitors enjoy
Many people that stay in Great Yarmouth today, don’t do so with the intention of spending all their time here. They actually ‘visit Norfolk and use Great Yarmouth as their base’. Maybe this is the way forward. The fact that most people nowadays have their own transport and the public transport is greatly improved, access to fantastic attractions and places to see around the surrounding areas are very easily accessible to all from Great Yarmouth, and using Great Yarmouth as their base is a great idea as we are spoilt for choice with amazing restaurants of different cuisines from at least 10 parts of the world which don’t all come with chips, the Hippodrome now has five spectacular shows per year as opposed to one, St. George’s Theatre has shows or events on throughout the year, Britannia Theatre still has some of today’s big names appearing through the season, Gorleston Pavilion has shows on throughout the year, the freshly refurbished waterways & boating lake look fantastic, we are host to some awe inspiring festivals at varying times of the year such as the Out There Festival, the Maritime Festival, the Wheels Festival, the Arts Festival, we also have the Festival of Bowls, Festival of Racing, Greyhound Derby, spectacular Stock Car shows, Gorleston Cliff Top Festival, Beer Festivals, Scarecrow Festival, our rich history is showcased through guided heritage walks, and heritage open days which allow free access to museums and other historical sites, Sealife Centre, fantastic beach plus lots more. Accommodation in Great Yarmouth is vastly improved with modern facilities, attentive service, clean rooms and great quality, freshly cooked breakfasts. Approachable owners always at hand to offer advice & guidance to suit your every desire. A massive step up from earlier times.
The county of Norfolk has a vast array of attractions and places to see that are all very easy to get to when using Great Yarmouth as a base. The roads are very easy to navigate, and the public transport has access to most areas. You can find fantastic zoos, splendid gardens, steam trains & railways, the awesome Norfolk Broads, stately homes, animal sanctuaries, museums, wineries & distillery, superb villages with traditional shops, other quaint seaside towns, the city of Norwich which is Norfolk’s capital plus an abundance of other things I could list. I know some of you will say these things have always been there, and you would be right, but people staying in Great Yarmouth 50+ years ago wouldn’t have even considered them because of transport problems possibly not having their own vehicle or public transport was restricted or their agenda just didn’t include them.
To sum up
So, in answer to the phrases I started this article with, you are partly correct. Great Yarmouth indeed isn’t what it used to be, in fact, it’s far better in terms of being able to fill your days with the delights of not only Great Yarmouth, but of all the surrounding areas too. You now have better transport. You now have an amazing choice of places to eat some fabulous food and you now have somewhere to stay that meets or goes beyond your expectations. All in all, Great Yarmouth has so much to offer and more will be discovered by visitors if they stop thinking about the ‘good old days’ as they sit there in a comfortable chair in a clean, well facilitated hotel/ Guest House or B&B En-Suite room after eating a delicious, freshly cooked meal in a friendly, well run eatery after a thoroughly enjoyable day, I doubt they would really like things the way they were. What do you think?
Agreed, there needs to be something done with the empty buildings that are on the tourist routes but on the whole you can’t help but love Great Yarmouth and surrounding areas for everything they offer all visitors. You never know, with the rise of these ‘business machines’ in the form of chain hotels, the bed spaces in Great Yarmouth may increase to previous levels which in turn may see more people stay and the likes of Ant & Dec getting ready to rumble in the market place, Romesh Rangnathan telling jokes in the Tombstone Brewery & Saloon Bar or Ellie Goulding chatting to the public outside St. George’s Theatre.
Loved writing this one, stay tuned for my next.
Thank you, Gary Smith