Great Yarmouth’s seafront to be transformed in the next five years

Marine Parade in Great Yarmouth.Picture: James Bass

Marine Parade in Great Yarmouth.Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2015

From pleasure gardens to waterways, crystal palaces to palm trees, Great Yarmouth's seafront is set for a nostalgic makeover.

The Winter Gardens in Great Yarmouth. Picture: James Bass

The Winter Gardens in Great Yarmouth. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2015

Amid the kiss-me-quick glitz of one of Britain's best-loved seaside resorts there are echoes of past glories that recall the glamour of a town that once boasted five cinemas and theatres on one glorious golden mile.

Great Yarmouth has the finest collection of Edwardian entertainment architecture in the country, much of which is hidden by the winking lights of arcades and restaurants, offering a veritable architectural treasure hunt.

The buildings that dominated the seafront in the early 1900s were complemented by an open-air swimming pool – now the site of the Marina Centre – and sprawling pleasure gardens and waterways complete with a boating lake and serpentine river system where visitors could enjoy a leisurely punt.

And the glittering jewel in the Golden Mile was the Winter Gardens, Yarmouth's own Crystal Palace, which shone like a beacon thanks to the plethora of electric lightbulbs sparkling within.

The Tourism Office in Great Yarmouth.Picture: James Bass

The Tourism Office in Great Yarmouth.Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2015

Great Yarmouth Borough Council's plans for the seafront have a definite flavour of nostalgia to them: there are plans to bring the Waterways back to their former glory and also to breathe new life into the town's Winter Gardens, which has stood forlornly on the front for many years, waiting for the necessary cash injection needed to give it a glittering future.

Around 170ft long and 83ft high, the granddaddy of greenhouses has graced the seafront for more than 110 years since the borough bought it from its rival resort of Torquay in 1905 for the princely sum of £1,300. It cost £1,115 and ten shillings to transport the Winter Gardens 350 miles by boat and then reassemble it in Yarmouth: legend has it that not one pane of glass was smashed in transit.

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Dismantled in sections, transported by barge and rebuilt at the entrance of the Wellington Pier in 1904, council surveyor JW Cockrill added a brick-arched entrance porch as a cloakroom and a maple floor for roller-skating in 1909 which has survived for more than 100 years.

The interior was filled with flower beds, trailing plants and floral displays in hanging baskets and showcased plants and trees from across the world in an exotic exhibition which delighted tourists and locals alike.

The Empire Theatre in Great Yarmouth.Picture: James Bass

The Empire Theatre in Great Yarmouth.Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2015

A year after it opened, it was the setting for a huge celebration of the centenary of Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. No fewer than 3,000 raised the roof, figuratively speaking, with their rendition of Hearts of Oak accompanied by the Band of the Prince of Wales' Own Norfolk Artillery, interspersed with readings and addresses.

In 1908, it again attracted large crowds when a three-day Imperial Bazaar filled the spacious building to raise money for Anglican churches in the town and in the 1960s it was transformed in summer seasons into a Tyrolean Biergarten, a bit of land-locked Austrian kitsch complete with chalet-style décor, barmaids and waitresses in traditional Alpine costume and Josef Hofer and his oompah-style band wearing lederhosen.

During its history, the glasshouse has also been host to dances, concerts, skating, beauty competitions, conferences and has also been a particularly transparent electoral polling station – at one end locals cast their votes, at the other dancers rehearsed for a show being staged later that evening.

Darren Barker, the council's conservation officer, said that the opening of the Winter Gardens had been huge for the town.

The former Windmill Theatre in Great Yarmouth.Picture: James Bass

The former Windmill Theatre in Great Yarmouth.Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2015

'It was a real case of the shock of the new,' he said, 'A real alien image of the future, completely lit up with electric lamps, beaming across the seafront like a glass cathedral. It must have looked absolutely awesome.

'At the same time, you had people going to the cinema for the very first time and being so immersed in what they were seeing that when they saw a train on the screen, they thought it was coming straight at them and got up ready to run!

'They were amazing times for Great Yarmouth, times when everything seemed possible. To bring back some of that excitement and awe is what we want to do with our plans for the seafront and by restoring the Waterways and Winter Gardens, I think we will bring back some of the glamour that used to fill the town.'

Over a century, the ravages of time and exposure to salty air have wreaked havoc on the majestic cast-iron Winter Gardens which now requires repairs that are likely to cost up to £3million. The council is working in partnership with the Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust and the Prince's Regeneration Trust to work on a business plan.

Plans will include restoring the building, including replacing the wooden frames which house the glazing, and bringing it back into use as a botanical garden, complete with exotic plants, mezzanine floors and viewing platforms – the theme will be 'Victorian Explorer'.

'We're hoping that, when completed, the Winter Gardens will be a national draw. For us, it's not just about repair, it's about finding the right operator for the building because it needs to be sustainable in the future,' said Mr Barker.

Work developing the business plan started in spring and is likely to be finished by the end of 2015. Once completed, the plan will inform a bid or bids to external grant funders, including the Heritage Lottery Fund. The total amount of cash required is thought to be £4million - £3 million for structural repairs and £1million for fit-out.

'By 2020 we hope that the seafront will be transformed,' said Mr Barker, 'by looking back to what Yarmouth used to have, we're also looking forward to the future when we hope to welcome even more visitors to the town.'

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