A fair on the beach, and forts built by the Romans and Normans
This stretch of coast spans almost 2,000 years of history, from the remains of Caister’s Roman town to the booming port of Great Yarmouth, once a major fishing centre and now one of the main bases for the North Sea oil industry. Except for Great Yarmouth itself and its quieter neighbour Gorleston-on-Sea, the coast with its long sandy beaches is largely given over to seaside holidaymaking, with lines of caravans, chalet villages and holiday camps.
The road from the village leads down past amusement arcades to a wide sandy beach, with limited parking behind the dunes. Swimming is safe.
Newport Beach, a little way to the south, can be reached only by a footpath leading off the road which runs east out of Hemsby. Parking at the end of the road is extremely limited.
Named after the pub that stands at the top of a steep track’leading down to the beach, California consists mainly of holiday villages and caravan parks. The beach is sandy, scattered with shingle, and is backed by low cliffs which are liable to falls.
The name comes from the Latin castra, meaning a ‘camp’ or ‘fortress’, and the substantial remains of a Roman town can be seen on the north side of the road leading westwards out of the town towards Filby. Caister was founded in the 2nd century AD and was one of the chief towns of the Iceni, the East Anglian people ruled earlier by Queen Boudicca. The remains of Caister’s 3rd-century Roman defences include part of the town wall and buildings of the main street, and a section of wide cobbled road, with a drain down the middle.
Caister’s wide sandy beach, with dunes behind, is reached down Beach Road, where there is a large car park. Bathing is generally safe, but the beach shelves steeply in places, and there are signs warning the unwary against strong tides, and deep water.
Caister Castle, down a by-road 2 miles west of the village, is a magnificent ruin. It was built in the 1430s by Sir John Fastolf (1378-1459), who commanded the English archers at Agincourt in 1415, and whose name was almost certainly the basis for Shakespeare’s Falstaff. However, the original Fastolf, unlike Shakespeare’s fat knight, was certainly not a coward.
Caister Castle has the added bonus of a motor museum, whose exhibits include a steam-powered car made in 1904, and a car used in the film Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.
Yarmouth has achieved a peaceful coexistence between its spacious seafront, which runs for nearly 4 miles from the North Beach down to the South Beach, and its busy commercial harbour, which stretches for more than 2 miles along the River Yare, almost parallel to the seashore.
The town takes its name from the Yare, which after meandering across low-lying meadows east of Norwich, widens out into the expanse of Breydon Water, and then turns sharply south, creating the peninsula on which Yarmouth is built. The old town and port grew up along the east bank of the Yare, turning its back on the sea, then spread along the west bank into an area confusingly called Southtown. There are two bridges across the river, though there is a foot-passenger ferry further down the river below Southtown.
By the time of Domesday book in 1086 Yarmouth merited a mention, and it grew steadily throughout the Middle Ages as a harbour and shipbuilding centre. A good deal of the town wall still survives. Between the wall and the river the houses were squeezed together into 145 narrow lanes known as ‘Rows’, one of them only 30 in. wide. A few of them can still be seen. Another relic of those early times is the splendid 13th-century Tolhouse, one of the oldest municipal buildings in England, with sinister dungeons below ground level.
During the Middle Ages and after, Yarmouth grew rich from the herring industry. coming into conflict first with the Cinque Ports of the south coast, which claimed control over all North Sea fishing rights, and later with the Dutch, who were far more serious rivals. Yarmouth’s Free Herring Fair, held every autumn, was one of the greatest of the medieval trade fairs. The heyday of the herring trade came just before the First World War when over 1,100 drifters fished out of Yarmouth; but subsequent overfishing led to a decline, and the last Yarmouth drifter was sold in 1963. Yarmouth was saved from stagnation by the discovery of North Sea oil, when the town became the first base for oil and gas exploration.
The resort side of Yarmouth has all the fun of the fair, with a giant roller-coaster, amusement arcades, two piers, and a Marina Leisure Centre Complex, which has an indoor swimming pool and every kind of sporting facility. The Maritime Museum for East Anglia on Marine Parade was built as a home for shipwrecked sailors in 1861, and now contains exhibits covering all aspects of maritime history, including the herring fisheries, lifesaving and shipbuilding. Behind the South Beach is the Norfolk Pillar -the figure of Britannia on a 144 ft column, built in honour of Nelson in 1819. It can be climbed, in July and August only, by those willing to scale 217 steps. Nelson landed at Yarmouth after his victories at the Battles of the Nile (1798) and Copenhagen (1801), and there is a fine portrait of him in the Town Hall.
The main swimming beach, patrolled in summer by lifeguards, is between the two piers. Swimming is safe, except near the piers and the jetty between them, and off the
FLOWER FROM MACEDONIA
In early spring, roadsides loading to the sea are often fringed by alexanders, a member of the parsley and carrot family. It comes from Macedonia, the country of Alexander the Great. The dark-green shiny leaves are brightened in summer by vellowish-green flowers which develop into large black fruits. The young stems are edible and taste of celery. sand-dunes of North Denes, where currents sweep close inshore. There is fishing from the piers and jetty. A street market is held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and on Fridays in summer. Museums include the Anna Sewell House, birthplace of the author of Black Beauty, on Church Plain; and the Elizabethan House Museum, a fine house built in 15%, on South Quay. Boat trips on the river and Broads start from Haven Bridge.
Yarmouth merges imperceptibly into Gorleston about halfway along the harbour. Though officially part of Great Yarmouth, it is quieter in character, and centres on the South Pier, which forms the southern arm of the harbour entrance and has amusements and a large open-air swimming pool. From the pier, there are attractive views of the colour-washed houses and disused lighthouse of old Gorleston, and southwards along the coast towards Lowestoft. Fishermen from the pier catch dab, sole, cod, whiting, bass, and the occasional poison-spined weever.
Swimming is safe, except between the breakwater guarding the South Pier and the model yacht pond. The sandy beach is protected by frequent groynes. Behind it is an esplanade, backed by a steep bank leading up to a wide expanse of grass, with neat seafront houses along the upper esplanade.
Three massive flint walls, banded with narrow layers of brick, survive from this mighty fortress, the Roman Gariannonum. It was one of the Forts of the Saxon Shore, built during the 3rd century at a time when the coasts of Britain were under remorseless attack from Saxon marauders sailing across the North Sea. Though it is now stranded more than 3 miles inland, it would at the time it was built have commanded access by water to the heart oi East Anglia, and it seems likely that a fleet of warships was based there.
In the 7th century an early Christian community was founded inside the walls, and in Norman times a motte, or mound, was heaped up in one corner, probably with a timber-built stronghold on top. Now the inside of the fort is covered in summer by a waving crop of barley, and there are spacious views from the unwalled west side across the upper reaches of Breydon Water.
This beautiful lake, about 2 miles long, forms the main part of a country park just south of the A143. The lake is believed to have been formed by medieval peat-cutting and became noted for its duck decoys – long, tunnel-shaped nets along which wild duck were lured before being killed. Decoy nets have not been used since 1960.
Boats can be hired from the jetty below the main building complex, and visitors can see a wide variety of wildfowl.
HOPTON ON SEA
Yet another ruined church stands outside this holiday-camp village. Several footpaths lead from the village down to the beach, which is shingly sand, and safe for swimming. South of the village the main road runs through half a mile of attractive woodland. Beyond this a footpath leads inland to Gunton’s medieval church of St Peter.
Past Hopton’s ruined church, on the south side of the village, Beach Road ends at a concrete ramp leading down to a sandy beach, with limited parking. Notices warn that the low cliffs are crumbling and are dangerous to walk over. Holiday camps and caravan parks extend to north and south.