One of my earliest memories is of lying in my parents’ bed, very ill withsomething I can’t remember, gazing at the coloured glass in the fanlights of the window. Another is of being rowed out to a yacht owned by my uncle’s business partner John Gantlett which was moored at the south entrance to Wroxham Broad. It was the summer of 1939 when I was two − I can point to the exact spot now. John served as a petty-officer in the war and, on his return, gave me his white-topped peaked cap to add to my collection of navy, army and RAF headgear.The River Yare at Thorpe St Andrew and Whitlingham, too, remains clearly etched on my mind, a stretch of water a mile from our house at the top of Thunder Lane and over the footbridge at Whitlingham Station.
In the 1940s its grassy banks still retained something of the idyllic landscape recorded in old paintings and photographs, some of which showed the Colman family boat dyke and sheds on the bend at the west end, and the old thatched rowing club shed. The Yare was still a commercial waterway in my childhood, carrying sea-going ships into the heart of Norwich (the Thames Barge, the Will Everard, an occasional sight) and, on an unforgettable day in the summer of 1951, a procession of 38 motor yachts from all over Europe, led by a Royal Navy motor torpedo boat. It was the assembly for the first time in England of the Pavilion d’Or*. In humbler vein the river also carried steam-powered tugs with hinged funnels, towing lighters heaped with coal to the two gas works within or close to the city walls. (Coal for the power station was ferried in larger vessels.) Unbelievable as it may seem today, one of the gas works was in St Martin’s Palace Plain, a stone’s throw from the Cathedral − it is not surprising that, when we repaired the spire in 1962, we found the stonework caked in soot.
On the north bank of Whitlingham Reach, between two bends both called Thorpe Short Reach, was a little community for which I can find no name, or (except for a brief mention in Hamilton’s “Broads Navigation”) trace any record, its low single-storey wooden houses screened by willow trees and unseen except by river travellers.
Separated from the village of Thorpe St Andrew by marshland and a low bridge and level crossing carrying the railway lines from Norwich to Yarmouth and Cromer, it was reached from the main road down Bungalow Lane at one end, and along a narrow lane that ran from the Griffin public house behind the Mental Hospital wall at the other. Typical of the kind of riverside development that sprang up close to villages after the First World War in other parts of the Broads, this unsung diminutive hamlet stretched from Nobby Clarke’s house at the upstream end to Hobro’s yard at the other, where the foreman, John Fox, lived in a green-painted corrugated-iron Gothic bungalow surrounded by a fleet of steam dredgers, decrepit motor wherries, battered steel barges, and rusting war-time relics patiently awaiting restoration, among which a few moored pleasure craft took their chance.
With tousled white hair and a baggy grease-spattered boiler suit, John was one of those endearing characters who never seemed to age or stray from the wharves, lolloping along from one job to the next. He was totally unaffected by the weather and the mud that invariably caked the dredgers and barges he steered up and down the river at all hours − indeed, by anything or anybody else around him.
He inhabited a world of steel, steam, oil, water and mud. Nobby Clarke – or as often as not his pinafore-clad wife – was the ferryman who would row you over the river to the Whitlingham side, a magical place for a child with its chalk tunnels and ruined church in the trees on the hill, and the cottage where the distinguished American biologist, Dr Hubert Catchpole, was brought up before the First World War.
Halfway between John’s and Nobby’s houses lived George Thetford and his wife, first in a wooden shack like everyone else, later in the steel hull of a requisitioned landing craft in which he built a comfortable home with a bay window overlooking the water. George, like John, was an institution who habitually wore a black beret and a green oilskin jacket, smoked a short pipe stuffed with an evil smelling shag, and rode a bicycle to and from the village with bags of shopping on the handlebars. He hired out flat-bottomed lugsail dinghies, and it was in one of these that I learned to sail − guided, when it was blowing hard, by George’s frantic instructions and curses, bellowed from the bank. It was on George’s quay-heading that the Platt family moored their beautiful sailing cruiser, the Luna, and it was from there that I launched the plywood flattie I built as a teenager and, a few years later, our first serious racing dinghy, a Wyche and Coppock-built Graduate that we managed to capsize on its first outing − in the depths of winter.
Today you are afforded a bird’s eye view of Hobro’s Yard − later owned by May Gurney − as you drive heading east over the bridge that crosses the river on the Southern Bypass. Upstream, the interest the reach held for painters and for late-Victorian and Edwardian day-trippers has shifted to Whitlingham Country Park and its newly created Great and Little Broads half a mile to the west, although the Yare at Thorpe is still the setting for the waterborne activities of the Norwich Rowing Club, the Yare Rowing Club and the Norwich Frostbite Sailing Club. Sadly for the onlooker, their races are no longer enlivened by the passage of sea-going ships.
*The Pavilion d’Or; a competition for motor boats first held in 1936 by the Yacht Club de Paris Moteur.