Thursday, 30 April 2009

How to run a pub: Ask Sonia at Surlingham

THE PUBS along the Wherryman's Way aren't good enough. There, I've said it. Not all of them of course and I'm certainly not going to name names, but I have seen a lack of friendliness, a lack of service and a lack of atmosphere. It's been my biggest disappointment since I started this project four year ago.

So it was great to pop in to The Ferry House, Surlingham this evening for a swift one on the way home from work. For 7pm on a Thursday the place was rocking. Fellas were playing darts, couples were eating good-looking meals and several more people were outside enjoying the beautiful views across the river. Unlike so many boozers, it had a heartbeat.

New - or relatively new - landlady Sonia Cox is clearly doing something right. In between some good-natured grief from drinkers at the bar, she told me how the locals had rallied round since she'd taken over. One regular is creating a website; another has taken some great photos of local scenes. A walking group will all be round for lunch tomorrow; they'll park at the pub and be allowed to use her loo before they start. It's not rocket science this. It's about giving people what they want, when they want it and having a bit of personality. Oh and food, all day every day. That's crucial too.

Pubs are closing down by the dozen at the moment and I feared that another bad summer might push a Yare pub under. It might yet happen. But the Ferry House will be alright. Why? 'Cos Sonia's got it sussed.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Yarmouth's forgotten ferries

ONE of the great things about writing a book is that you have got an excuse to go up to complete strangers and get talking.

Which is why I found myself deep in conversation at the bar of Ye Olde Ferry Boat in Gorleston the other week. I wanted to know about just that - ye olde ferry boats across the River Yare. Amazingly virtually nothing is written about the ferries in the Yarmouth history books - I guess they were taken for granted.

There used to be two. The Upper Ferry ran from Southtown to South Quay and stopped in 1954. The Lower Ferry ran from Ye Olde... to South Denes Road. Amazingly this one survived till as late as 1997. Armed with lots of good new information from the landlord and his regulars I found this great picture on the internet dating back to 1954 - the year the ferrymen swapped oars for a motor. The photographer Jack Harrison has very kindly allowed me to use it in my book.
If anyone has any memories of either ferry do let me know. Post a reply before May 31st and you might even sneak into the book too....

*See more of Jack Harrison's photos here

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Rockland Broad gym - free membership

ROCKLAND Broad was as tranquil as I've ever seen it yesterday evening. Just me, my canoe and some great crested grebes who bobbed underwater when I got too close.

After crossing the broad, I headed down Short Dyke and into the sturdier waters of the River Yare. The idea was to paddle up as far as the deserted steam pumping station at Buckenham and then return along Fleet Dyke (pictured) to the Broad itself.

A hundred and thirty years ago I would have been spoilt for choice. Writing in the 1880s, PH Emerson wrote that “the Broad debouches into the river by seven mouths, locally called Fleet Dyke, Rockland Dyke, Black Dyke, Big Sallow Bush Dyke, Little Sallow Bush Dyke, Jerrymarsh Dyke and Short Dyke.” Today just Fleet and Short remain.

All in all, it was a good upper-body workout. An outdoor gym complete with overflying herons and the ghostly remains of wherries as added attractions.

Monday, 6 April 2009

The sweet smell of Cantley Sugar Works

THE SICKLY-SWEET perfume of molasses drifting in on the wind has been a sure harbinger of autumn for the people of the Yare Valley for almost a century.

The smell comes from the sugar works at Cantley of course - a vast industrial giant in the middle of an otherwise pristine broads landscape. Ever since the factory was built in 1912 the sugar beet season (known as "the campaign") has started sometime in September and ended early in the new year.

No longer. British Sugar has been given permission to work all the year round. So it's sugar beet in the autumn and winter followed by imported sugar cane presumably in the spring and summer. And intriguingly the company has promised to investigate the possibility of the cane being brought in by boat along the Yare, rather than by road. Because of course that is why the factory is where it is. In 1912 the Yare was Norfolk's main artery for trade. The vast majority of beet arrived by river.

Retired farmers I've spoken to all testify to the importance of the beet harvest in this part of the world. For a start, the factory provided valuable employment during the campaign. Many workers from the south side of the river travelled via a long-defunct ferry at the Langley Round House. Farmers had their own staithes to unload the beet onto the ubiquitous wherries. One parish even had a bizarre narrow gauge railway for its crop. But you'll have to buy the book to read the details of that one...

*Read the news story here

Friday, 3 April 2009

The Yare Valley's mysterious deserted churches

FOLLOWING on from Monday's post on the ruins of St Saviour's Church, Surlingham, the obvious question is why? Why does Surlingham have two churches? And why did St Mary's prosper while St Saviour's perished?

St Mary the Virgin (pictured) is actually the older church in the village, dating back to 900 or 1000AD, while St Saviour's is probably 12th century.

Surlingham's late historian Jack Points suggests two possible answers - the Black Death of 1348 or a "Great Flood" of 1607. The Black Death killed one in three people in this part of the world and had a huge impact. Perhaps there were two villages and St Saviour's was hit hardest, leaving the survivors to regroup in one parish? Perhaps the 1607 flood washed away low-lying houses surrounding St Saviour's, again leading to a slow abandoment? The honest answer is that no-one really knows.
But intriguingly Surlingham is far from alone in this regard - even along the Wherryman's Way. St Andrew's Whitlingham has been mentioned in an earlier post while upriver from here, Kirby Bedon has two churches almost opposite each other - one intact the other in ruins. Downriver, the remains of St Margaret's Rockland lie in the very churchyard of Rockland St Mary. When it comes to churches, the Yare Valley holds a lot of secrets which History seems unwilling to relinquish.

* For more on Norfolk's ruined churches - click here and follow the links.