Major step forward in bid to bring back one of Great Yarmouth’s most magical seafront attractions
A conservation project to bring back one of Great Yarmouth's most magical seafront attractions has taken a major step forward thanks to a cash injection which will help fund a more detailed bid for £1.3million to transform the town's Waterways. Stacia Briggs looks back at the history of Yarmouth's watery wonderland.
Fairy lights glittered in the serpentine channel which wound its way through drifts of flowers, under rustic bridges and past quaint thatched shelters where many young romantics shared their first dates.
Great Yarmouth's Venetian-style water gardens were part of a wider scheme to transform reclaimed land between a major new sea wall built in the 1920s and the promenade into public pleasure gardens to entice more visitors to the seaside resort.
There were bowling greens, yachting ponds, tennis courts and, in 1926, a boating lake was opened on the northern end of the promenade.
A proposal was then put forward for Venetian-style water gardens, which were designed by SP Thompson, the Borough's engineer, and constructed between January and June 1928 as part of relief work for the unemployed, most of whom had fought in the First World War.
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The Waterways were the brainchild of Councillor Docwra, of the town's rock and sweet family, and locals dubbed them 'Docwra's Docks'.
Grand plans to turn the waterways into Yarmouth's very own Venice hit the rocks when it was discovered that in order to build bridges tall enough to accommodate gondolas passing beneath them, the bridges themselves would become so steep that they would be perilous to cross.
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Back at the drawing board, the plans were amended to include somewhat more stumpy bridges and boats that looked more like barges than graceful gondolas, although said boats were later adapted with brightly-coloured animal heads to make them more magical: one could travel the water on either a swan, an elephant, a horse a bull or a fish.
Each boat, specially-built for purpose by JW Brooke and Co from Lowestoft, was named after a Broadland river – the Yare, Ant, Bure, Waveney and Thurne, and each had a designated boatman who wore a jersey bearing the name of his boat.
The channels for the waterways were dug out by hand using shovels and wheelbarrows and 6,639 tonnes of soil were brought from nearby Caister to replace the sand. The scheme boasted a mile of winding rivers for boats, paths through rock gardens that led to picturesque bridges over the water and thatched shelters.
The seven acres of gardens and waterways opened to the public on August 2 1928. In later years, the Waterways were developed to include illuminations, the replacement of salt water with fresh water so the canals could become ice rinks in winter, the addition of amplified music and the construction of a model of HMS Nelson in the central pool.
There was slight bomb damage during the war, but not enough to prevent the attraction opening as usual for the 1946 season. During the 1950s, a series of nursery rhyme tableaux were placed around the sides of the waterways which were illuminated at night for exciting trips in the dark.
One visitor recalls: 'We visited the Waterways on our annual Sunday School outing from Pakefield church. The lighting system was such that it led us to believe that the illuminated animals were really hopping through the grass. It was a magical experience for us young children.'
At other times, there have been pergolas and statues in the gardens and a large 'volcano' in the water: all have since disappeared.
Boat rides along Yarmouth's (almost) homage to Venice have long since ended and the planting scheme that once enchanted thousands of visitors has been covered with grass and gravel – but owners Great Yarmouth Borough Council and the charity Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust are working together to return the Waterways and Boating Lake to their former glory.
The project aims to restore the Grade II-listed heritage asset, boost the local economy by providing yet another reason to visit the borough throughout the year, and to involve volunteers to develop a local team with gardening and building conservation skills.
With a grant of £45,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund from its Parks for People programme, the team will shortly be submitting a detailed application to support its bid for a total of £1,020,800 with remaining funds being sought from the council and the private sector.
The project would see volunteers working alongside experienced professionals to faithfully reinstate the original flower beds and planting in a design which was exhibited at the 1928 Royal Horticultural Society's International Exhibition of Garden Design where it was hailed as being 'bold' for moving away from familiar seaside bedding and instead using perennials and annuals in colourful drifts.
Volunteers would also help to repair the thatched shelters and bridges which gave the attraction its rustic charm, replacing bridges that have been lost over time. A private operator would be sought to run boat trips and a Friends of the Waterways group would be put in place to help maintain the attraction for future generations.
Council leader Graham Plant said: 'The Waterways are one of Great Yarmouth's many unique heritage gems and bringing them back into use would safeguard this special landmark, attract more tourists and support the local economy, while helping to develop horticultural skills and much-needed building conservation skills.
'This partnership project also reflects the results of the recent public Transformation Consultation, which highlight the need to regenerate areas, promote and upgrade the tourism offer and promote the heritage and cultural offer.'
Darren Barker, the council's conservation officer, said that the Waterways was an important part of Yarmouth's history and would be preserved to become a new tourist attraction.
'The Waterways used to be a vibrant place which was full of really cutting-edge planting and vibrant colours and we intend to bring that back and create something really special at this end of the town,' he said.
'Bridges will be repaired and replaced, roofs will be re-thatched, the boating lake repaired and refilled and the island café refurbished. It will transform a large stretch of the seafront which has needed help for some years.
'I think people will love to take boat trips in the Waterways when they've been brought back to their former glory – it's a very exciting time for Yarmouth.'