Great Yarmouth: mixing Victorian seaside charm with a renewable outlook

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If Brexit gave Britain’s seaside towns a momentary pulse, then Covid might have got them back on the dancefloor. These long-dormant resorts have seemingly risen up, like tacky krakens, ready to swallow the entire UK tourist population this summer.

Enter: Great Yarmouth, the once- illustrious fishing port, turned postwar holiday camp heaven, turned post-Brexit hi-de-hell-hole. Full disclosure – this is not the first time I’ve been to GY, as the cool kids call it. I grew up down the road in the now semi-gentrified Gorleston-on-Sea, a town made famous by its patron saint, Danny Boyle. His bootleg 2019 Beatles film Yesterday put our premier beach on the big screen.

It’s understandable, then, that as the bus rolls into town on a humid Friday night in June, it’s like bumping into an old flame long after the dust has settled. Great Yarmouth, like a half-baked Naples, is a town of two halves: an Upper, and an Under-world. Simultaneously high- and low-brow. Naturally, I made sure to book a place to stay on the “high” side. The four-star Imperial Hotel is set within a long line of cake-like Victorian guesthouses that look out over bowling greens, grassy dunes and, out in the North Sea, hypnotic windfarms.

The Great Yarmouth Giant Wheel.
The Great Yarmouth Giant Wheel

Having had a lick of lockdown paint, the Imperial offers comfortable rooms that are contemporary enough, without sacrificing its knobbly-knee charm that has been thrust back into vogue this summer season. Its superb Terrace restaurant, with retractable roof, serves the kind of good food you never knew existed this far east, all duck confit and local asparagus.

Yet it’s when I take an after-dinner constitutional around the restored Venetian Waterways – a seafront garden with “canals” hand dug by unemployed men in the 1920s – that I get a first glimpse of the town’s major regeneration project.

A third bridge over the River Yare is on the way, along with a sophisticated seafront leisure centre and a remodelled marketplace. The economy has been given a boost by renewables, or so I’m continually told by proud locals. Last month, a 50-metre ferris wheel was erected, and drolly christened the Yarmouth Eye. The view from the top reveals the scope of the truly colossal beach, which is roomy enough for a socially distanced sunbathe no matter how packed the promenade is.

Joyland fun park in Great Yarmouth
Joyland fun park. Photograph: Alamy

As if that weren’t enough development for one summer, some of the town’s historic buildings are in line for an upgrade. Come July, the Grade II-listed, long boarded-up Empire Cinema will house a street food and craft beer “experience”. A raft of rundown high-street shops have been cleverly handed over to local artists and galleries. Local collective Original Projects has transformed the former Debenhams into Primeyarc, a free public gallery and workshop space that has already hosted a touring portrait show from the National Gallery. The day I visited it was running a free four-hour fermentation workshop.

By this point, my old haunt’s burgeoning, met-elite fortunes were beginning to overwhelm. It was time to step into the shadows and head south to the other side of town, the aforementioned, unavoidable “low”.

The waxen-faced Jimmy Carr staring down from a theatre billboard, as he has done for years, acts as the gatekeeper of the neon-lit golden mile. This end of town is an acquired taste, or maybe even a guilty pleasure – with a candy floss bucket in one hand and carrier bag of 2p coins in the other. Fluorescent doughnuts, a round of pirate golf and a ride on local legend The Snails at the Joyland theme park. Do it for the kids. They’ll love it. And after the year we’ve all had, so will you.

Accommodation was provided by the Imperial Hotel (doubles from £110)