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Passage to Yarmouth: reflecting on bygone days

Mike Sparkes, Archivist and Skipper with the Norfolk Wherry Trust contributed this article, reflecting on planning a passage to Yarmouth by sea. It is based on his experiences in handling the wherry ‘Albion’, the last remaining working wherry still sailing and extensive research into the maritime history of the Broads.

Great Yarmouth, 1865

Going to Yarmouth by road or rail can often be relaxing and fast (usually  from Norwich it takes no more than thirty minutes). The only downfall is that summer traffic queues into Yarmouth by road or Autumn leaves or snow causes cancellations by rail! A passage to Yarmouth by boat is a totally different affair, it gives the participator a sense of adventure. The trip requires careful planning with accurate tide tables, get the times wrong and the adventure goes up another gear. Over many years I have collected many photos of wherries and seen many pictures of yachts around Yarmouth Harbour and the yacht station, often portraying a serene and somewhat calm scene with a rowing boat gliding across in the foreground. Strangely in my many trips through Yarmouth I have never witnessed this scene of calm and serenity nor have I seen the rowing boat!

My first trip through as a skipper was a precarious event. So eager was I to achieve my goal I went through on low tide instead of waiting the one and a half hours for the slack on the Bure. My trip up the lower Bure was made at one mile an hour against a strong ebb tide with a 9.5 hp outboard on Albion’s tender. As we passed the Yacht Station on ‘Albion’s starboard I was horrified to see a hire cruiser coming down drifting sideways to the stream. Onboard was a group of young lads who thought their situation was highly amusing, to make matters worse they were giving their worried  skipper a lot of rib for not being able to get the boat round to face the tide. With some hefty manoeuvres on ‘Albion’s tiller, firstly to steer away to port to avoid the cruiser hitting the stem post followed by a hefty heave the opposite way to pull our stern sideways to get the tender over and away the hire boat passed no more than inches from the tender.

After that trip I decided the subject of Yarmouth tides and especially Breydon Water needed more research! So what has changed from the serene waters of bygone days to the  muddy fast flowing tides we see today An interesting article “Jacob A Man Like Noah” (Norfolk Fair) written by Christopher R. Elliott gives some clues. Christopher was a descendant of Jacob Elliott, a marsh-man and farmer who died in 1896, aged 83, one of a line of marsh-men of the Haddiscoe District of Norfolk going back in family notes to at least 1695. On January 9th 1895 Jacob completed a manuscript headed “An Old Mans Thoughts”. In this manuscript Jacob had put pen to paper to try and get something done about the ongoing flooding of the marsh. Jacob in his notes went on to say that around 1770 his father William began to drain the the Haddiscoe Marshes by means of horsepower and afterwards sluices were used until about the year 1794. Jacob’s father said Mr H Grimes’ grandfather built the wind drainage mill that stood till the steam drainage mill at Haddiscoe was erected. However the old windmill was built to drain 300 Acres but its benefit was so great in a few years it had drained around 700 acres.  

Jacob recalled that he had been told by old men of the district that salt tides were unheard of before the early years of the 1800s. In 1827 Jacob began to work the mill with his father and after a few years the salt tides began to flow over the water lane door of the old mill. A new door was erected 9 to 10 inches above the old one. Jacob remember the millwright saying “you will not be troubled with salt tides running over that”. But in a few years the salt tides rose several inches above it. When the corporation of Norwich were about to make the new cut at Haddiscoe, they employed Jacob and his father  to keep a tide mark. This was done for about 10 months from early morning, till 9 or 10 o’clock at night, recording every hour the rise and fall, the points of the wind, strong or light and the age of the moon. The recording were made half a mile above St Olaves Bridge. Jacob observed over the 10 months from lowest to highest was about 3 feet but from that time he said “we soon found  the tides fell quicker and lower, rose quicker and higher and every strong North West wind increased the salt tides doing indescribable damage”. After the floods of the December 23rd 1894 which surpassed all previous floods Jacob decided to put pen to paper once more to bring to the attention the need for urgent action. Jacob stated the only remedy was to fit lock gates at Yarmouth to stop the salt tide push up, but to fit sluices to allow the fresh water to flow out.  

The conclusion as to why the tides in Yarmouth now run faster stems from the build up of Breydon especially on the North side. This restricts the tides to a narrow deep channel, the slack now seem non-existent today unlike that of Arthur Patterson’s time in Yarmouth. Also noticeable  these days is that the flood tide (salt) pushes in with the fresh water still ebbing on the surface which can be misleading for people in boats coming from the Waveney or the Yare. Another problem with the salt flood coming in along the deep channel is that it deposits the silt coming down in the ebbing  fresh water on to the banks of the rivers. This is now very noticeable along the lower Bure and Waveney where reed seems to be growing out of the water in some places about ten to fifteen feet from the main bank. When sailing ‘Albion’ along these reaches it pays to stay well out as one touch and she will turn right round and head off to Yarmouth backwards and  trying to turn her back is a mighty task!

Like Jacob Elliot’s idea of fitting lock gates at the harbour entrance Arthur Patterson did make the same judgement that the only way  to stop the salt surges destroying Broadland was the fitting of gates at Yarmouth. The reason salt tides were not noticeable before the early 1800s was because of the sand bar at the entrance to the Harbour which like Wells held a lot of the tide back. But as Breydon built up the ebbing tide squeezed into a narrow channel scoured the sand away and deepened the channel and removed the sand bar exposing Broadland to the full surge of each salt tide, Patterson recalls this by a surge of flounders and dabs being caught on Breydon water around the 1870s. What of the future? Well tides around Yarmouth will strengthen with the salt floods encroaching further into the Broadland system on a more regular basis. In the current climate the schemes imagined by Elliot and Patterson are most unlikely to see the light of day so the situation can only worsen!