Thursday, 16 December 2010

Great Yarmouth Wellbeing History Tour

I am currently planning a new 'tour' of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk which will incorporate mental health best practice - ie the Five Ways to Wellbeing (Connect, Be active, Take notice, Keep learning and Give) lightly embedded within a discovery/appreciation of the town's history. Here are my notes as I prepare this...

For generations, shoals of 'silver darlings' (herring)
were landed here

Now, this tour presents something of a challenge to me. I'm going to have to learn quickly, as my knowledge of Yarmouth history (and geography) isn't anything like as deep as, say, my understanding of Norwich. I've just bought a copy of Frank Meere's excellent book, 'A History of Great Yarmouth', and I already have some other sources to look at. I'm also due to meet with Clive Wilkins-Jones, the librarian at the Norfolk Heritage Centre in the Millenium library in Norwich, this Friday. Clive has agreed to sort some interesting relevant material which I can copy and use.

However, not knowing too much can really present an interpretative opportunity in my opinion. For instance, as I walked the route last week with my colleague and friend, Ozberto, I was able to be more open and imaginative than I might otherwise have been...

Romantic ruin

Being something of a romantic ruin myself, entering the churchyard of St Nicholas church my eye was immediately drawn to the ivy-clad doorway of the old priory. This would have once been the site of the prior's hall. The shape of the arch would suggest that this is a fourteenth century doorway. However, I allow my mind to wonder/wander beyond evidence and facts...

  • Who, I wonder, was the last person to walk through this door? 
  • If we can't imagine what they were like, I wonder what they would have made of us and our ways? 
  • Did the Benedictine monks who once served here use the Five Ways as an implicit part of their daily culture? 

Being an historical interpreter I enjoy thinking of ways to stretch our historical imagination.

The gravestone of George Beloe

As we entered the churchyard, Ozberto pointed out the grave of a nine-year-old boy, George Beloe. At the head of the stone, there is a depiction of a collapsing bridge. Along with 79 others, young George drowned after the bridge fell on May 2nd 1845. Presumably as a publicity stunt, on the afternoon of this day, a clown from 'Mr Cooke's Circus' was passing down the river in a tub drawn by four geese. Drawn to this surreal spectacle, the people of Yarmouth gathered to see him go by. Tragically, the weight of the spectators gathered on one of the walkways on the side of the bridge caused the supporting rods to snap, plunging several hundred folk into the river below. Out of 79 people who died, most were young, with, for instance, 33 being ten or under. In addition to this, 29 of the deceased had lived within 150 yards of the bridge. We can't imagine the emotional impact of this tragedy to the Yarmouth community. 

Mindful that this is intended to be an experience which enhances the wellbeing of the group, I approach the tragic story of George Beloe with some caution. However, my view is that his clearly heartbroken parents wanted to memorialise their son, and we, in our time, are able to pay our own tribute to his memory. I will lay some token on his grave on the day as a mark of respect.

It is also true that, on that tragic day there were also some stories of amazing resourcefulness. For instance, in the words of the Norwich Mercury, reporting the enquiry into the disaster:
"One woman, of the name of Gillings, the wife of a carpenter, was on the Bridge with her child; when she was hurled into the water, with extraordinary presence of mind she seized her child's clothes with her teeth - thus preventing the rush of water, and paddled herself to a place of safety."

Tracy Island meets Medieval town wall!

Great Yarmouth was granted permission to build a wall and ditch in 1261; not being completed until 1391. Despite the tendency of some to denigrate the town, it has - among other things - one of the most impressive stretches of medieval civic wall in Britain (see, in particular, the section along Blackfriars Road). As well as the obvious defensive purposes, in the medieval period a wall was also a reflection of the status of a settlement. It would seem that local people quite literally bought into this idea, as Frank Meeres notes that many Yarmouth citizens chose to leave money for its' construction in their wills.

As the photograph (above) shows, due to some rather heavy-handed planning, the juxtaposition of old and new in some areas of the town centre is... startling! However, at least the wall still stands...

As we made our way through the town, I was watchful, looking out for the quirky, the curious and the unusual (all words which describe Ozberto, incidently!). At this point I would like to make a point about how I feel we can enhance our wellbeing in urban environments. First of all, in any busy town or city setting there will be quiet corners or places where you can go to take some time for yourself. There will also be beautiful spaces where you can slow down and/or stop and just be (mindfulness). Another way to apply 'Take Notice' is to actively engage with the environment around you...

If empty bottles could speak...

For instance, by going a little off the main routes we found a section of the town wall, which had obviously undergone quite recent restoration. As you can see, the builders decided to recycle some empty wine bottles, using them to fix a hole. For me there is an echo here: just as many folk in medieval Yarmouth left money in their wills for the construction of the wall, people are still making history in small ways today. 

Ball in the wall...

In that same section of wall, looking up, we noticed a small yellow ball curiously lodged near the top of the wall. How on earth did it get there? The shrub on the top of the wall also brings me to another point. There is a widely held view that nature resides in rural spaces and not in urban ones. This is not true. In fact, given the mono-culture in much of the contemporary British countryside, there is often more eco-diversity in towns and cities - and not least in old walls. Lichen, plants, insects, birds - the nature of these spaces is often very diverse and, for me, interesting. Let's put it this way - we're not the only ones scurrying around. 

Fragile heritage

Walking down an uninviting alley, I happened upon an unloved nineteenth century structure, which had been built onto the frontage of one of the town walls. Looking inside, I could see some rubbish and rags, and the smell was none too pleasant. However, I was captivated by the pattern and silvery shimmer of the shattered glass window as it reflected the bright low sun of this splendid winter day. If I could freeze-frame this little structure and cacoon it for a thousand years, archaelogists of the future would swoon. So much evidence; a snap-shot of this present-day. The value of things changes, and survival may make the most unexpected of things into heritage...

An official ruin: the remains of Yarmouth Greyfriars

... Strange, then, to think that the people profiting from the dissolution of wonderful buildings such as the Yarmouth friary, saw their value only in terms of pounds, shillings and pence. Deprived of its function by wider events, the friary was eyed covetously in terms of the lead and timber and dressed stone. How different the ruined cloisters appear to us now. Unique in having the only wall paintings of any friary in England, this is a beautiful and poignant space. I do hope my unloved structure with its silvery shattered window doesn't develop a significant development value; or that, in the name of 'place-marketing' it isn't sanitised and tidied away...

'Growing Together' totem pole outside Yarmouth library

Towards the end of our walk Ozberto and I were delighted to find a new piece of public art and a community garden under construction outside Yarmouth library. As part of a project - 'Growing Together' - local sculpture Jason Parr carved this 4.5 metre high totem pole. As you can see, it features (from bottom to top) waves and rays of sun, with racks of bloaters (smoked herring) at the summit - a fitting tribute to a town founded on the silver from the sea.

On the lower levels of the 'totem' volunteers involved in the project were invited to connect with their town's history and memorialise themselves by carving their names into the timber. It is great to see communities coming together and getting involved in marking their history and making their present-day richer and more meaningful. I look forward to early summer 2011, when the flowers in this garden have burst their buds and the vegetables begin to grow. We are but a stone's throw away from the Greyfriars  site, where there was once a garden with mulberry trees and a strawberry yard. It is lovely to see a new garden bloom.

~ Esotericus ~

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