I understand that the medieval walls of Great Yarmouth are the second most complete in the country. I could not tell you off-hand which place has the most extensive walls, but it will be either York or Chester. These two northern cities are well-known for retaining their ancient defences, which both date back to Roman times. York’s walls retain little Roman stonework, but in the north-western section of Chester’s walls you will see Roman ashlar in the lower courses. Yarmouth town walls date from well after the Roman period; nearby Caister and Burgh Castle have the ruins of Roman walls, but Great Yarmoth was little more than a sand spit at the time. Yarmouth has always had special relationship with Norwich since the town was first formed at the mouth of the river Yare. Norwich too has medieval walls, although less extensive than the other cities mentioned.
The river Yare is the thing which both unites and divides the two Norfolk communities. It provided quick and easy communication when the roads were slow and difficult; but although goods could pass between Norwich and the various places on the river banks between Norwich and Yarmouth without let or hindrance, any goods being brought in from the sea had to first pass the port of Yarmouth. The town could not resist the temptation to impose excessive harbour dues on goods passing upstream to Norwich. This state of affairs continued until the Port of Norwich was established by Act of Parliament in 1827. With a flourishing trade in sea-going vessels, the Norwich City Guild found the imposition of Yarmouth’s harbour dues intolerable. They drove a canal from the river Yare at Reedham to the river Waveney; with the opening of the dam at Mutford (literally mud-ford) to provide a lock to Lake Lothing at Lowestoft, sea-going vessels could journey to Norwich avoiding Yarmouth altogether.
From Yarmouth’s point of view the loss of trade was a disaster, and immediately all toll were lifted. With the straight-forward route to the sea now passable without the payment of excessive dues, the New Cut was almost redundant from its first opening, but in a way it had been a necessary (but hugely expensive) undertaking. Although not much used in the 19th century, it had freed Norwich from Yarmouth’s tyrany. Today the Port of Norwich has been completely taken over by leisure craft, and these make more use of the New Cut than ever commercial shipping did.
As I pointed out, the towns of Norwich and Yarmouth were inextricably linked by the river. At Norwich the river became an essential part of the city’s defences. The wall still marches down Carrow Hill, and where it meets the river two boom towers stood. A study chain was passed between the towers to prevent ships of war entering the city. The river became the defensive alternative to the wall for about a mile. until Norwich-over-the-Water need walls to defend it. They were continued to enclose Fishergate and Coslany. At Bishops Bridge, where access across the river was possible, this was heavily defended by a gate house.
These walls were built in warlike times, when the threat of civil war, if not of invasion, was very real. The Wars of the Roses was the most violent of these civil wars, but although it produced numerous attacks on country manor houses, the towns remained unscathed. The walls were never used in anger, but they served a useful purpose in protecting the townspeople from the depredations of nefarious night-time prowlers from the countryside. The gates were locked at dusk and the walled towns and cities became relatively safe places to sleep the night.
The picture above shows a section of Yarmouth’s walls. In an imaginative development this ancient tower on the town walls has been sympathetically converted into a home for holiday makers. This had been made possible by the fact that 300 years ago some Georgian windows had been inserted on the tower. Modern necessities like a kitchen and bathroom have been included, but the flint walls retain the authentic medieval flavour of the holiday home. If it were not spread out over five floors I would almost be tempted to stay there myself. This picture was taken over forty years ago, and you can see from the fact that a tree was sprouting from the roof that the tower was then in a derelict state.
As you can see, there is much more to Great Yarmouth than hot dogs and sand castles. It a place that has a great history.