The UK was once home to dozens of thriving coastal resorts, which grew rapidly in popularity following the construction of rail links from inland cities during the 19th century. Urban workers flocked to the seaside in huge numbers, establishing new traditions such as donkey rides on the beach, the building of sandcastles and the devouring of huge globs of ice cream. Alongside the sandy beaches, man-made attractions such as games arcades, theatres and amusement parks sprang up to take advantage of the booming market.
The emergence of low-cost air travel in the late 1950s put warmer climates within British holidaymakers’ reach, triggering a terminal decline for many of the country’s seaside towns. Today, the options for those looking for a taste of a traditional break by the sea are more limited, but Norfolk’s Great Yarmouth retains many of the features of its glory days and is well worth a visit.
Those looking to stretch out or take a dip in the ocean are well served by a number of wide, sandy beaches. Central Beach is the focal point, attracting the majority of families and becoming quite busy during hot summer days. Those looking for a quieter time should head to the North or South beaches, which are ideal for walking but still conveniently close to Great Yarmouth’s other attractions.
The main tourist area running alongside the beaches is known as the “Golden Mile”, and hosts no fewer than 12 amusement arcades. Fans of Las Vegas will be familiar with some of the names in use here (“The Flamingo” and “Circus Circus”, in particular), although Great Yarmouth’s gambling facilities are currently much more limited. Instead, the arcades attract families hoping to win a soft toy or to spend a few hours frittering a way a big pile of 2 pence coins. For information on a career in the travel and tourism industry, look into online universities.
Two piers stretch out into the sea along the Golden Mile. Wellington Pier was among the first to be constructed in the UK, and has recently undergone a major refurbishment. Its traditional theatre was demolished as part of that work, and replaced by a ten-pin bowling alley and an amusement arcade. The Britannia Pier’s theatre, however, is still going strong and hosts well-known variety acts throughout the summer season. The performers may not be to everyone’s taste, but the theatre is still well worth a look as it is one of the last pier-end venues remaining in the UK.
While many coastal amusement parks have been closed for decades, Great Yarmouth still manages to support two. The first, Joyland, is a small park aimed at children. Although unlikely to offer more than an hour or two of fun, it’s worth dropping in to take a look at the on-rails Snails ride, as well as the Virginia Reel-style Tubs which spin as they slalom down a roller coaster circuit. Both were first opened in 1949.
The second amusement park, Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach, is frequently overshadowed by its more famous namesake in Blackpool. However, it is one of the finest historic amusement parks in the UK and an essential element of any visit to the resort. While kids and teens will enjoy the selection of modern thrill rides, the highlight is the 1932 Scenic Railway Roller Coaster, the last of its type currently in operation in the UK. Still worth the £3 fee to ride, the coaster’s most unique feature is the brakeman who sits in the train and is responsible for bringing it to a stop.
The long-term future of Great Yarmouth’s attractions remains unclear, although the town does stand to benefit from “staycationers” who choose to remain local during the global economic downturn. For visitors to the UK, it’s a resort that offers a glimpse at times gone by. Those staying in London can reach Great Yarmouth by train or car in around 2.5 hours, potentially fitting in a visit to nearby Norwich during the same trip. Many of the town’s attractions are closed outside of the summer season – aim for a bright, sunny day between May and September if at all possible.
Nick Sim is the editor of Theme Park Tourist, which features all the latest news and reviews from UK theme parks. He can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.