By Darren Barker from Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust
Great Yarmouth Winter Gardens is a people’s palace of glass and steel, a seafront cathedral of light, the shock of the new, the future washed up on a Norfolk beach.
First built in Torquay in 1878, a failed business venture, it was bought by Great Yarmouth Borough Council, dismantled and shipped around the coast to be re-erected on Yarmouth’s Golden Mile in 1903. The logic being that failure on the sophisticated English Riviera wouldn’t necessarily result in failure in an archetypical working class seaside town, sat on the North Sea coast. That and the building was going cheap too.
A landmark structure gleaming and brilliant in the hot Norfolk summers and complimenting huge East Anglian skies. At night the building was flooded with electric light which beamed out across the seafront and reflected back on the sea. As radical and unnerving as the new moving picture houses springing along the parade.
In 1903 this must have been powerful stuff, a new century and an indication of how we would all live our lives in the future. Strangely modern and with the building stuff full of exotic plants, a theatre of botany, which allowed the paying public the chance to see glimpses of faraway places, through an eclectic collection of plants from all corners of a flagging empire and beyond.
For the millions of holiday makers, packing the resort in the early decades of the twentieth century, escaping for a few days from the factories and the daily grind, the Winter Gardens was an unexpected paradise. As much part of the experience as the sticks of Docwra rock, the pleasure beach rides and “sands of finest brown sugar”.
The success couldn’t last, and with the decline of the English seaside town and changing notions of entertainment the Winter Gardens was put to other uses. Through the rest of the century it acted as an amusement arcade, roller skating rink, a venue for concerts and an over hot – over cold bar. Nothing compared to the thrill and seduction of the first use and nothing lasted long. The building gradually strained under budget cuts and indifference and by the twenty first century had become at risk and a dangerous structure.
A wasted heritage asset, an iconic seafront building, in need of substantial repair and above all an appropriate and viable new use.
The new use should of course reflect its original use, a purpose built glass house, which could respond to changing notions of values and entertainment and education. An alternative offer to the razzamatazz of the seafront and yet as exciting and captivating as it was in 1903. Once again crammed full of plants and acting as a beacon for the seafront regeneration and the aspirations of the town.
The next blog post will cover future plans for the Winter Gardens.