Although for many people Aberdeen in Scotland is synonymous with the search for hydrocarbons in the UK, the rather smaller town of Great Yarmouth was the first place to experience the excitement of a North Sea ‘black gold rush’. The first discoveries on the UKCS were gas, and they were all in the Southern North Sea Basin, off the coast of eastern England. With its long seafaring history, Yarmouth (as it is usually known) was an obvious choice as a base to service these fields.
The Silver Harvest
Great Yarmouth, which lies about 175 km north-east of London, is built on a 5 km-long spit of sand, which separates the sea from the river Yare and results in a safe protected natural harbour, the source of the town’s prosperity since the Middle Ages, when it became the centre of the North Sea herring industry. For centuries huge shoals of these fish have migrated south from Scotland to arrive in the southern North Sea in the autumn, on their way to their breeding grounds off France – pursued by fishermen, and also by a large troop of shore-based, mostly female, packers and gutters, following the very lucrative ‘silver darlings’. Yarmouth was the final stop: home to a large fleet of herring ‘drifters’ and the site of the largest annual herring fair, where smoked, pickled and salted fish were sold and despatched all over Europe.
As well as fishing and ship building, in medieval times Great Yarmouth was an important trading centre due to its relative proximity to Holland and the rest of Europe. In the 13th and 14th century the burgeoning population was housed in ‘The Rows’: an unusual form of urban development built as a series of narrow parallel passages with houses which had only one room up and down. When more space was needed, extra rooms were added at the back, and the houses ended up so close that special narrow carts, known as ‘trolls’, had to be used to move goods around them. Sadly, Yarmouth’s position on the very eastern edge of England meant that it was heavily bombed in WWII, and all but a very few of these unique houses were destroyed, as were many merchant’s houses and much of the centre of the town, the majority of which dated back to the beginning of the 16th century.
Beaches and Broads
A predominantly rural and relatively isolated area, the countryside around Great Yarmouth is very distinctive and picturesque. The flat landscape is dotted with windmills and church spires, with pretty flint and timbered cottages and quiet villages, and dominated by the wide expanses of the Broads – a network of navigable rivers and lakes formed by the flooding of medieval peat workings.
In Victorian times Yarmouth began to develop as a popular tourist seaside destination. The arrival of the railway in 1844 made it easy for people in the rapidly industrialising Midlands, 300 km to the west, to reach the town and enjoy sea bathing on its very wide expanse of rather stoney beach. By the first half of the 20th century Yarmouth was in its holiday heyday, with its beach front hotels, lodging houses and, later, caravan parks full for most of the summer months. Two traditional piers were built and a range of seaside amusements and rides were constructed on the seafront for the entertainment of visitors.
By the 1960s the advent of cheap air travel made holidays in the – rather warmer – Mediterranean accessible to everyone, and the holiday industry in Yarmouth declined, although canal and sailing vacations on the Broads remain popular. But the future of the town was to turn out to still lie in the cold waters of the North Sea.
1913 was a record year for the herring industry in Yarmouth – 1,163 boats used the port and over 1,200 million fish were caught, with 6,000 seasonal workers staying in the town. But a combination of over-fishing, changing tastes and rising fuel prices meant that by the mid-1960s the once powerful industry was almost non-existent, with only a handful of fishing boats still eking out a living.
And then came oil and gas exploration. The first discovery in the UKCS, in 1965, was the West Sole field (see GEO ExPro, Vol. 14, No. 3) rapidly followed by others, including the giant Leman field, about 50 km north-west of Yarmouth, which was discovered in 1966 and came on production in 1968. The boom times were back: with supply ships, survey vessels, pilots and safety boats, the harbour at Great Yarmouth was soon buzzing again. Fabrication yards building platforms and rigs developed in the vicinity and a major gas terminal was built at Bacton, about 20 km north of Yarmouth. This quiet corner of England was for a short while the centre of the largest change to energy supply in the country for centuries, as power plants and homes were converted to North Sea gas.
Yarmouth became the main supply centre for the southern North Sea, and companies setting up there included drilling specialists, operations and maintenance service providers, logistics and safety experts and engineering firms. The boom lasted through the ’70s, but by the middle of the 1980s as the discoveries moved further north, so did many of the service companies, and Yarmouth slumped into relative obscurity and high levels of unemployment.
However, the turn of the century has seen a revival in the offshore industry in Great Yarmouth, fuelled not by fossil fuels, but by wind. Situated as it is on the edge of the very windy but relatively shallow North Sea, a number of windfarms have been built off Norfolk, including the UK’s first offshore wind farm at Scroby Sands, which began supplying power to the national grid in 2005. These are predominantly serviced from Yarmouth, while another growing industry revolves around the decommissioning of the offshore rigs and infrastructure built during the gas boom of the ’60s and ’70s. In 2015, 50 years after the first discovery of gas in the southern North Sea, more than 350 companies employing about 7,000 people in and around Great Yarmouth are still involved in the offshore industry.