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29 October 2014
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Coast: Walks


The Windmill started life as a cinema.
The Windmill started life as a cinema

Point 2 - Windmill Theatre

As a seaside resort, Great Yarmouth is proud of both its entertainment and maritime heritage. The town is home to the country's first electric picture house and also erected its Nelson's Column 24 years before Trafalgar Square raised its monument.


Great Yarmouth’s adrenaline-pumping funfair rides, traditional seaside shows along with its sweeping stretches of sand and sea lure thousands of holiday-makers each season.

The town is the UK’s third most popular resort after Blackpool and Torquay, and its Golden Mile is the first place visitors head to soak up the thrills and spills of the attractions which dress the seafront.

The Windmill when it first opened as the Gem.
The Gem was later re-named the Windmill

But it was health concerns rather than fun-seeking which originally attracted visitors to the town in the 18th century.

‘Taking the waters’ became fashionable for those who could afford to boost their well-being by heading to the coast to drink and soak in the salt water, after a doctor wrote a pamphlet hailing it as a cure for a range of illnesses.

The bathhouse

From 1759, the well-heeled started to travel to Great Yarmouth to drink the water and would pay to relax in its bathhouse rather than enjoy a dip in the sea for free.

The seawater was piped across the road into the building, which is now the Flamingo Amusement Arcade, and to spare any teasing glimpses of naked flesh, ladies and gentlemen bathed in separate areas.

The bathhouse attracted the educated with its reading room where people could pore over the daily London papers which it sold.

Holiday-makers didn’t start flocking to the destination though until the launch of the Yarmouth to Norwich railway in 1844 when industrialisation opened up travel for the masses.

The beach offered a change of scenery from smoky land-locked industrial towns, but visitors started to want more excitement than just being able to feel the sand between their toes.

Windmill Theatre

The Windmill was one of five cinemas and theatres which dotted the seafront.

The Hippodrome in its early years.
The Hippodrome in its early years

It was called The Gem when it opened in 1908 and it became the country’s first electric picture house after plans to turn it into a menagerie were abandoned when locals complained about the possible stink.

While today’s films cost millions of pounds to make, at the turn of the century moving pictures were so engrossing that the cinema only had to show views out of trains to pack its 1,000-plus seats.

Owner and one-time West End producer CB Cochran used to stand outside the theatre barking (shouting into a megaphone) to entice people in, so the council banned barking from cinemas and it’s still a byelaw today.

As in the bathhouse, men and women weren’t allowed to mix in case they enjoyed a secret fumble in the dark auditorium, so they had to sit on opposite sides.

In 1945, local impresario Jack Jay took over the cinema and re-opened it as a theatre, which hosted the stars of the day including George Formby and Tommy Steele.

Partly inspired by Paris’ Moulin Rouge and partly influenced by the string of windmills which used to line the seafront, Jack fixed a set of sails to the front of the building.

The Hippodrome

The Jays have been steeped in the town’s entertainment scene ever since and the family still owns the theatre, as well as the Royalty – formerly the Aquarium (point 8) - and the Hippodrome.

The Hippodrome Circus is tucked behind the Flamingo Amusement Arcade and artists have been somersaulting, juggling and leaping across its sunken ring since 1903.

The Winter Gardens was shipped from Torquay.
The Winter Gardens came from Torquay

The terracotta building is one of just three purpose-built indoor circuses in the world with a floor that lowers and fills with water.

Charlie Chaplin, Houdini and even John Major’s parents, Tommy and Kitty, have made the audiences cheer at the Hippodrome.

More or less opposite the Windmill is the elegant cast iron-framed Winter Gardens. The glass structure was shipped by barge from Torquay to the town in 1903 without a single pane smashing and then re-erected next to the Wellington Pier.

The Grade I building has been used variously as a ballroom, roller-skating rink and beer garden. In the 1990s comedian Jim Davidson took over the lease and converted it into a nightclub.

Today, the Winter Gardens is run by a Felixstowe-based firm as a family leisure venue but its future is under threat due to the cost of repairs to the framework.

Nelson's Column

If you continue along the seafront to South Denes, off the route of this walk, you will see the town’s Nelson’s Column. The 144-ft tall monument was erected in 1819, 24 years before the one in London’s Trafalgar Square was raised.

Nelson's Column in Great Yarmouth.
Nelson's Column in Great Yarmouth

Fund-raising for the pillar started in Nelson’s lifetime to mark his victory at the Nile and his return to Norfolk. However, it took a long time to raise the £10,000 to cover the building costs by which time the seafaring hero had died. Instead of being dedicated to the battle, it became a memorial to the Lord Admiral.

The column is topped by a statue of Britannia, which was originally made of a reconstituted stone called Coade stone, before being replaced by fibreglass in 1982.

Inside the hollow pillar are more than 200 steps which is where the town surveyor, Thomas Sutton, died of a heart attack while overseeing the work.

But the local folklore was that he jumped off the top of the column when he discovered Britannia was facing inland instead of out to sea.

However, it is said that Britannia had no need to look out over the ocean after Nelson's successful defence, although its architect never left any documentation detailing the way he intended the statue to face.

The direction in which Britannia points is open to interpretation. While some people argue that it faces Burnham Thorpe, the Admiral's birthplace, others say it points to the port to mark Nelson's ties to the town including his arrival after the Battle of the Nile.

It wasn't until two and a half years after that battle that Nelson stepped back on to British soil at Gorleston.

After recuperating in Naples where he met Lady Hamilton, the embarrassed British establishment let the war hero make his own way back aboard a mail packet from Cruxhaven.

Despite being due to disembark at the Jetty, Nelson stepped off the boat at Gorleston, which was counted as part of Suffolk in 1800.

The horrified town mayor sent a carriage to pick up the Admiral and as it drew up from Gorleston to the bridge, some well-wishers unleashed the horses and pulled the carriage across into Yarmouth.

The pillar, which has just undergone a £1m restoration programme, will be a focus of celebrations in October to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

The next stop is the town wall. From the Windmill keep going straight down the seafront to the Hotel Elizabeth, turn right and head along Camperdown. At the top of Camperdown, go right and immediately left up Malakoff Street. Head straight until you reach the town wall, then turn right until you are near a children’s playground.

Archive pictures published with kind permission from Peter Jay.

last updated: 05/12/05
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Great Yarmouth
walking man Introduction
Welcome to our walk
walking man Stage 1
The Jetty
walking man Stage 3
Town Wall
walking man Stage 4
Row 114
walking man Stage 5
The Tolhouse
walking man Stage 6
South Quay
walking man Stage 7
Market Place

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