Grey and damp on Breydon this morning. A low mist turned to steady rain as I headed out along the south wall. I should probably have stayed at home. Earlier – in the warm and dry – I’d been watching seals from the study window. Yesterday it was a small group of Gannets diving like missiles off the Outer Harbour. But not today. Today it was walking and weather.
There was little bird life to be seen from the boardwalk. In the shadow of the Roman wall I looked out across the reedbeds to Haddiscoe Island hoping for bearded tits. (Not this time.) There were godwits and peewits on the exposed mud, a few wood pigeons in the air and thrushes in among the hawthorn berries. But pretty soon my glasses were rained on and the scope and binoculars too – so my already limited ID skills were quickly exhausted. But it was still perversely pleasurable walking.
Diggers had been at work clearing the dykes behind the wall, the spoil piled neatly on the grazing marsh. New fencing too.
I walked as far as the Tide Jetty, the remains just visible above the water in the mist and rain. Rehearsals start in February. Meeting with composer Chris Warner in a week or so. We need to find a way of bottling some of this Breydon atmosphere.
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.
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.
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.