Gulling Around

Gulls are tricky buggers. Their plumage goes through several different stages as they age, which to the inexperienced eye, mine for example, can make them seem like four different species. They’re basically white, narrow-winged and ubiquitous. Something which allows normal people – that is to say, non-birders – to side-step the identification process altogether, and simply class them all as seagulls. Job done.

It’s not just the non-birders who duck the id question. There are many experienced bird-lovers who can tell the difference between a Meadow Pipit and a Rock Pipit at 50 paces who will tell you they simply “don’t do gulls.” They understand that Yellow Legged Gulls or Second winter Caspians are out there somewhere but identifying them is a bridge too far. Mind you, as soon as classification starts to get difficult you can be sure there are others whose eyes light up. Larophiles revel in the sort of distinctions among gulls that to the rest of us are largely invisible.

There’s a picture of a gull on the waste bins on Yarmouth sea front. It’s hard to be sure about the species. The Lone Ranger mask and stripy vest don’t help. Watch out, it says, in bold letters. There’s a thief about. The Yarmouth gulls find an easy living among the discarded take-away wrappers. They are opportunists. They will sidle up to a bench where people are eating their lunch brazenly weighing up their chances. This looks like straightforward larceny rather than intelligence. Being looked in the eye by a Herring Gull is very different from being looked in the eye by a Crow. Gulls will steal your last chip but they don’t give the impression – the way corvids do – that what they’re really after is your keys and pin number.

A flock of gulls is an untidy thing. Each bird moves independently in its own scrap of sky. Not like the neat chevrons of Cormorants heading inland to roost from Scroby Sands. Or the high skeins of geese over the Halvergate marshes, where every bird has its wingman, conserving energy, riding the slipstream of its neighbour. Gulls seem to tumble through the air in the same general direction. Perhaps because they have an agility the Cormorants and geese can’t match, they don’t need to steady themselves with geometry.

I’m surrounded by gulls. They are in the air and on the rooftops every time I look out of my window. On the river, on the warehouses by the Outer Harbour, weaving among the cranes on the docks. For three months of the year I sleep in the middle of a colony as the Lessser Black-backs and Herring gulls nest among the chimneys of the terrace where I live. I’d love to say you get used to the noise, but you don’t. By the end of July the first clumsy fledgling will have stumbled down among the houses and found itself trapped in my narrow yard from where it has to be guided out through the back gate and into the lane while the adults do their best to strafe me into submission. So I have skin in the game.

Mediterranean Gull trying to look inconspicuous

I’ve even learned to identify – given good views and long enough – a Mediterranean Gull. So I was feeling smug when I photographed one in a line up of Black Headed Gulls on the Gorleston promenade. I was smugger still when I realised by enlarging the photo I could read the ring on its leg. Here was my chance to contribute to science and at the same time put some detail on the random movements of the ocean wanderers I saw every day. I turned to the internet and started researching. During the course of the next few days I discovered a good deal about the ringing process, the coloured rings and codes. I spoke to ringing groups up and down the country – who all seemed pleased to hear from me but invariably came back with no, not one of ours, why don’t you try Nick (or Dave or Will) it’s probably one of his. It took almost a month, but I eventually found the right person and discovered where the bird (I had by now begun to think of it as my, own personal Mediterraean Gull) had been ringed. Great Yarmouth. About 200 yards from where I photographed it perched on a handrail. It may have been recuperating after its arduous journey.

The Tide Jetty

There are two tide jetties on Breydon Water.  The first, built in the 1830s,  stands at the entrance to The Narrows on the North Wall. It was built to deflect the outgoing tide into the main channel in the hope that the scouring action of the water would help keep the channel clear.  You can see what it looked like in Frederick Sandys painting Breydon Water, Norfolk. Originally two lines of posts with timber sheeters holding  a loose fill of stones, today the structure is a ruin,  only visible as a line of rotting posts at low tide. The jetty is knows locally as the Dickey Works, a name which seems to stem from the original contractor who used a donkey-driven engine to drive the piles.

The second is the turntide jetty at the mouth of the river Yare. This is a more substantial structure and has recently been rebuilt by the Broads Authority.  The original – built in the 1860s – had fallen into disrepair and become a navigational hazard.

These two jetties lie at the heart of a new play commissioned by Eastern Angles as part of the Broads Authority’s Water, Mills and Marshes  project.  This play is a development of the Breydon Crowther musical which opened the Great Yarmouth Arts Festival in 2016. (The link will take you to a copy of the original script.) This featured a cast of 5 professional actors and a 15 strong community choir. The new show will be touring to 50 venues in East Anglia so the logistics – not to mention the cost – have inevitable ruled out the choir. The challenge is to tell a convincing story of life on a Broadland Estuary with forces that  can fit in the Eastern Angles van. The Tide Jetty will inhabit the same landscape as Breydon Crowther and will once again be a collaboration with composer Chris Warner.

The writing is under way. Watch this space for updates on progress.


It’s June, and on Blackwall Reach there is a gauntlet to be run.  Gulls are nesting in the corrugations of the low asbestos roof fronting the house. Over the last few weeks I’ve watched from my study window as the Lesser Black Backs make their untidy nests, canoodle and mate.    There is a pair of Herring Gulls further along but so far they are happy to co-exist with their more bolshy neighbours. The parent gulls seem oblivious to the foot traffic in the street until the moment the eggs hatch and the first downy grey bundles begin stumbling about on the roof. Then things can get tricky.

It’s extraordinary quite how much guano can come out of a gull when it’s cross. The street looks as if it’s been intensively strafed. There are white scars several feet long criss-crossing the tarmac. A gull on a sortie will swoop noisily on the target, open its cloaca, and turn away while its chalky cargo complete the mission. Caught against the fence with a cup of coffee on the patio I suffered a direct hit.  I had to wash my hair, my shirt and my trousers. There was still plenty left over to mark the birds approach on the flagstones.

Already the first feathers are starting to appear on the chicks. They grow larger day by day, gathering round the returning parents and pecking at their bills to encourage them to regurgitate the next meal. As the chicks become bolder and wander further across the rooftops, the parent birds become more anxious. So do the pedestrians.


The Captain and The Admiral

Downham Market is proud of its connection to Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronte KB. There are plenty of people who will tell you he  went to school on Bridge Street. There’s even a green plaque marking the spot.


There’s more evidence for the Nelson/Downham connection in the distinguished pages of the Dictionary of National Biography. The entry for Captain G.W.Manby FRS – Gorleston resident and inventor of the breeches buoy – asserts that Manby and Nelson “formed a close intimacy” as school fellows in Downham. It points to the Preface to Manby’s own Description of the Nelson Museum as evidence. The detail is impressive.  Manby recalls their teachers, a distinctive jacket the young Nelson wore, as well as games at the pump in the Market Place.

But there’s a problem here. Nelson was 7 years older than Manby. Nelson went to sea at the age of 12. So the close intimacy which developed between them must – on this account – have come to an end when Manby was 5. The window for their friendship shrinks even more when you allow for the fact that Nelson was at school in Norwich and North Walsham before he went to sea. And while Manby has a good deal to say about their friendship Nelson has nothing to say about it at all.

Both had strong connections to Great Yarmouth. In 1801 Nelson returned to Yarmouth in triumph after his success at the battle of Copenhagen. Manby was Barrack Master in Yarmouth – but not until 1803. Manby is in the right place to have become familiar with our national hero, but at the wrong time.

Manby was clearly obsessed with Nelson. You get a flavour in the full title of his guide to the Nelson Museum: A Description of the Nelson Museum formed at Pedestal House, Southtown, Great Yarmouth with historic remarks on the subject: to commemorate the glorious deeds and ever-to-be-lamented death of that heroic British Naval Chief Nelson and Bronte.

In fact the Manby’s Description is little more than a pamphlet and its Preface appears to be the sole source for the story of Nelson’s Downham connection:

Of all men now living I alone can claim the honour of his school and play-fellow-hood – we were friends in youth, born in the same county, our early instruction  received at the same time, at the same school in Downham Market, kept by Thomas Nooks and William Chatham. Nooks for the elder children where Nelson was – Chatham for younger where I was.  Well do I remember his pea-green coatee; and how he used to accompany me to my home in Denver from Saturday to the Monday following. Well do I remember his nautical sports at the pump in the market place, launching paper boats in the surface stream, and his commanding authority amongst the Boys to make way for them….

The Nelson Museum isn’t quite what you might expect either. It was Manby’s own house, a modest cottage on Gorleston High Road. Its exhibits were made up of Manby’s own collection of Nelson memorabilia.

Manby’s Nelson Museum


It looks as if Manby’s obsession with Nelson led him  to embellish if not to entirely fabricate an acquaintance with the great man. This obsession seems to have grown rather than diminished with age. He spent his last years surrounded by his curios in Pedestal House looking out on the Nelson Monument and the North Sea. When he publishes the Description in 1849  by which time he is 84 and Nelson has been dead for 44 years Manby, in a remarkable non sequitur, is still straining to establish a connection:

If my great prototype, Nelson, achieved such glories by the expenditure of human life (including his own), shall it not be said of me by posterity that I achieved some valuable glories for the human race, by establishing amongst the nations of the earth a mode of saving human life?

There is something desperately sad in the modest little book held in the Colman Collection of the Norwich Millennium Library and its assertion on the final page:

I cannot conclude without expressing a religious hope, that having devotedly collected memorials to illustrate the glorious deeds of Nelson, it may tend to associate my name with that of our Norfolk Hero, and thereby preserve it from obscurity

Manby had his own distinguished career. His invention of the Manby mortar and breeches buoy was responsible for saving hundreds of lives. He can also claim to have invented one of the first fire extinguishers – the extincteur – and to have been instrumental in founding the precursors of both the RNLI and the Fire Brigade. He didn’t need the reflected glory of Nelson to earn his place in history.


The Nelson Monument from Pedestal House today


The White Swan

A hundred years ago tonight the collier SS White Swan dropped anchor off Gorleston beach to ride out a storm. She’d left Hartlepool 24 hours before  with a cargo of coal bound for Liverpool. During the night her anchors dragged and she came ashore on Gorleston beach, side-on to the waves, where she still lies today. Though they probably didn’t know it her crew of 22 had reason to thank an earlier Gorleston resident, Captain William Manby, whose house on the High Street is marked by a blue plaque provided by the local history society.


Captain Manby  had an inventive turn of mind.  He was responsible for the ‘Jumping Sheet’ a blanket to catch people leaping from high windows, an unsinkable whaler, a lifeboat made of wicker designed for the rescue of sailors trapped below the ice, and – of more interest to the crew aboard the White Swan – the Manby Mortar. Examples of this squat little cannon were manned by local rocket crews up and down the coast. On the night of the 17th November the Gorleston rocket crew were quickly summoned.  They managed to get a line to the vessel and after 13 hours in atrocious conditions the entire crew were rescued by breeches buoy. The White Swan was the only vessel operated by the Swan Line and with her loss the company duly went into liquidation.

Today the wreck of the White Swan is a hotspot for local fishermen. Beach casters can almost reach her from the shore and kayaks are able to pick their way through the pieces of her superstructure occasionally visible above the waves.


Curiously in its anniversary year the vessel was the subject of another rescue. On the 21st April the coastguard were called out to a report of something in the water off Gorleston beach. It turned out to be the wreck of the White Swan revealed by the falling tide.

Breydon Crowther

A script-in-in-hand performance of Breydon Crowther, our new musical opened the Great Yarmouth Arts Festival in June this year within sight of Breydon Water where the story is set.

We had hoped for funding from the Arts Council and after they’d turned us down twice we were left with a difficult decision.  We had a handful of songs, a community choir enthusiastic about the material, and a belief that we had a good story to tell. Actually, it wasn’t a difficult decision at all. Composer Chris Warner and I had a brief discussion which lasted all of two minutes and decided to carry on. Essentially, we were going to write an entire musical on spec.

We approached various funding bodies, Eastern Angles and The Broads Authority and managed to raise enough money to fund five actors for a week and a professional director in the shape of Tim Bell (currently touring with his one man show Dame Nature – The Magnificent Bearded Lady). Then we set to work.

The resulting performance went better than we dared hope. A full house with everyone on their feet at the final curtain. The representative from the Broads Authority left with a smile on his face.

Which was good news as they have just won a £2.6 million Heritage Lottery Grant for a project they’ve called Water, Mills and Marshes which is focussed on the exact geographical area where Crowther is set. They wanted some drama input as part of the delivery of this project and put this element out to tender. Eastern Angles put in a strong pitch with Crowther as its centrepiece and got the gig.

So it looks as if our original decision to go ahead without funding has been vindicated. Breydon Crowther will get a full production. The downside is that the project won’t be delivered until 2020, which is not the sort of deadline I like. And there will have to be a deadline because the show will have to be substantially re-written. The show will have to tour. Realistically this couldn’t happen with our orginal forces of 5 actors plus 15 singers and Chris on accordion.  The  new version will be for 5 actor/musicians and a set that can fit in the Eastern Angles van


Boats heading for the outer harbour come in on a course which lines up with the window where I work.  If it wasn’t for the intervening docks and the river the same course would bring them through the front door and up the stairs. If they’re heading for the river entrance – and most of them are – they approach from the north east instead before disappearing behind the warehouses on the opposite bank of the Yare.  They average some 80m in length and for the most part with their steel hulls, high-tech navigation equipment and powerful diesel engines seem impervious to wind and weather.

Last week I looked up to see something  very different making an approach –  a wooden ketch, twin masted, with a lengthy bowsprit on a course for the river mouth under lashing sails.  It was grey and overcast. A strong wind was whipping up the sea and sending waves crashing onto Scroby Sands. The ship was being flung about by the waves as it struggled towards the shelter of the harbour. It was a scene from the 19th century which had unaccountably surfaced in the 21st.

The Marine traffic website identified the vessel as the Bonawentura an elegant 16m ketch from Poland.  And the Bonawentura was in trouble. She was getting closer to the shore, but was failing to make headway.  I didn’t know it at the time but she’d suffered engine failure and was in the process of being driven onto the rocks that made up the enclosing arm of the Outer Harbour. Before I’d managed to work out just how much trouble she was in – I could see she wasn’t going to make the river on her current course – the Gorleston all-weather lifeboat Sarmarbeta arrived at high speed.

From here on it was a race against time. After some tricky manoeuvering the crew managed to get a line on board and with very little room to spare hauled the Bonawentura backwards away from the rocks. With the immediate danger over they managed to fix up a more orthodox tow and bring the vessel home. Andrew Wilson’s Marine Traffic photo catches her arrival off Gorleston.



SW Scroby

At night, from my upstairs window, I can see the flashing light of the SW Scroby buoy. Throughout the hours of darkness its green eye blinks unwaveringly every 2.5 seconds. To my right – partially obscured this evening by the superstructure of a wind farm service vessel – is the next buoy in the chain  marking the edge of the channel formed by Yarmouth Roads and Gorleston Roads:  the  W Corton buoy.  The W Corton buoy has a green light too, but it’s easy to tell them apart. Instead of SW Scroby’s regular pulse, W Corton flashes three times in bursts ten seconds apart.

Beyond the channel lie the shifting hazards of Scroby and Corton Sands. Maritime charts of these waters carry a warning. Charted depths are not to be trusted.  A 2011 survey revealed that waters whose charted depths were 12 m were now showing a drying height of 0.3m.  Or to put it another way, where there ought to have been enough water to take the 148,000 tonnes of the Queen Mary 2 a foot of dry sand was showing above the waves.

The view was a surprise. At ground level the tiny terraced house looks out on to the blank brick wall of an industrial unit. The street narrows to 6’6″ at the far end but here is just wide enough to take a line of parked cars straddling the narrow pavement and pressing against the chain link fence. At first floor level you are above the corrugated asbestos of the adjacent roof. From here you can see the river and the quayside that makes up part of the port of Great Yarmouth. At times it’s lined with service and general cargo vessels, at others it’s deserted. Beyond the quay are warehouses, South Denes Road, and finally, the sea.   I can watch waves breaking on Scroby Sands and the occasional vessel making its way into the Outer Harbour.

This was my new world. Or at least the portion visible from the window of what inevitably became my study.

This, I remember thinking, this is going to be ok.