Nick began his working life in his family’s holiday and marina businesses. After this, he worked many years for Brown and Root as an offshore hydrographic surveyor. While living in Thrigby, Nick discovered the remains of a historic mill, and spent years restoring the building.
I was born in Great Yarmouth just after the war and spent most of my young life in Yarmouth, right close to the seafront. The first school I went to was in Yarmouth, St. Mary’s Convent on Regent Road, with the nuns, and I learned to write on a slate with chalk. Both my parents came from the East End of London. It had been a tough life for them.
Father went into the navy at 18, and joined HMS Vernon down in Portsmouth. Dad had severe post-traumatic stress from being bombed on HMS Vernon. Then moved around to escape the Blitz and when they were living in Box Hill a doodle bug landed in the fields and trashed the house. They thought ‘Right, that’s it, we’re off. Go somewhere safe,’ and ended up in Yarmouth towards the end of the War.
The electrical business in Great Yarmouth
Father’s electrical shop was on Northgate Street, just opposite the church. In Yarmouth, He started by taking a few broken radios from a warehouse kept by Percy Laurie fixing them and selling them on, paying Percy and buying a few more, and that’s how his electrical business started out.
As an electrician, he was in involved getting some theatres on the Yarmouth seafront up and running, (like the Hippodrome). He designed and put up the sails for the Windmill Theatre, got them lit up and turning. I don’t think he had any training: no-one did in those days.
Somewhere about 1959 father bought the Broads Holidays business which was an agency like Blakes and Hoseasons. We would advertise boats and chalets and take bookings – we weren’t hands-on with the boats or the bungalows or anything. Looking back at the brochures, in those days it was just camping afloat, very basic, then gradually other agencies started to push up the quality of the holidays; they started to get flash things like hot water and showers!
When you were at school and had a family business you were expected to help. It was in the East End DNA – it was such a tough life and they worked to get out of it and make a better one.
But there were always boats and water in my life. It was always something going on whether it was my father just watching boats on the river, or being down on the fish wharf during the fishing season.
Father rented the Yarmouth Marina from the town. It was really the second yacht station at the top end of Yarmouth near where the Smiths Crisp factory used to be. It was dug out about ’66. That was in the last days of the steam dredging and May Gurney supplied the dredger. In another WISEArchive story Vic Gosling talks about John Fox and there are pictures of them and their steam dredger digging out the moorings for the totally new marina. There was a quayhead there already, and a flood wall, so they pulled the mud out from the river and dumped it ashore and built the bank up behind the flood wall.
I was running about half a mile of moorings, so I got left with that to look after during summer and loved every minute of it. We could pack the boats in – stick them in three deep ’til they squeaked. The boats came from all over the Broads. Most hire craft from the boatyards washed up at Yarmouth at some point.
These boats were owned by other people who were contracted to us to fill them with holidaymakers. And that job went on during the winter months, January, February, March, with the national advertising campaigns.
Then Father leased the Bure Hotel from Watneys – it was alongside the river and adjoining our yacht station and we lived there for a while.
Over the years the whole thing of the marina petered out. All that’s left there now is the shell of the old berthmaster’s office and the shop, and the office just off the main road is rented out I think.
Father had a brochure for Broads Holidays. He was keen on promoting the Broads. We had the Wherry Albion on the cover – Norwich Cathedral, all that iconic stuff. I found copies among his effects and put them in the Broads Museum. A lot of those boats are still afloat in private hands.
When I was about 23 I left home and worked around the Broads in boat repair, dealing with hire craft ’cause I knew people in the industry.
I was bumming around for a bit working on boats. sofa surfing, then a rough old caravan by the river until I got my act together and decided to get a roof over my head. At that time offshore oil and gas was really kicking in at Yarmouth. So I needed to get a slice of this and get myself a deposit for a house, it was the start of ’75. So, it’s Yarmouth Mercury time and everybody’s advertising… I get the Mercury on a Friday… sent letters off on the Friday, and got a phone call from Brown & Root Inc on the Monday morning…yeh, ‘What am I doing? Can I come down for an interview?’
The interview was classic. I met this guy – Ben McCabe – we got to know each other quite well after a while…rocked up at Brown and Root in Yarmouth later that morning and the questioning went something like…
‘Have you been offshore before?’
‘Have you used a computer?’
‘Okay, do you know anything about navigation at sea?’
‘Well… I’ve heard of Decca Main Chain.’
‘Ah. Okay, that sounds good. Can you be on the boat for Wednesday lunchtime? There’s the “Arctic Moon” or something leaving Yarmouth. Go see this guy over here and he’ll teach you how to use a scale rule and read a map.’
And that was me – I was a junior surveyor, quite a lowly job.
Money wise, if I worked a big week in the boatyards – seven days, all the hours I could stand, I would end up with about £23 in my pocket. Went to Brown and Root and I got…it was something like £45 a week for being at home on leave, and it was £150ish for actually being offshore. The American crews discovered I could draw… ‘Lookeee here! Damn the boy can draw!’ So a bit more was added to my house fund…
The trips away were quite long, money was good and you needed the cash so you do it. So you’re looking at seven or eight weeks each trip at least.
You lived on the barges at sea. I was involved at first burying pipelines, that was along the Ekofisk gas line to Germany. You’d jump on the supply boat at Yarmouth and it’d be… three quarters of a day, a day and half, trip out to the barge in the middle of the North Sea. Regardless of weather.
And if the weather was too bad to get onboard you’d just kick about till it eased back a bit. The supply boat would approach, big earth mover tyres on the barge, big earth mover tyres on the supply boat, chains, bang, crash, jumping around. We went alongside then you’d see them briefly settle and they would dip and rise together… that was your chance to jump over the handrail, across the big wet tyres, then over the handrail onto the barge. But we had a big breakthrough, a bit of technology, we had this bit of knotted rope and they would swing it across Tarzan-style. As soon as you got a hold of the rope, you were on the barge basically, the barge crew have hold of the bottom end of it and they swing you aboard.
If the weather was too rough you’d just wait… you’d wait until the seas backed off a bit, before you made the jump. Sometimes you could kick about for days waiting for the thing to come down.
Because of Board of Trade regs you were limited to 12 passengers and so, there’d be 12 of us waiting to jump and there’d be 12 on the barge to jump back. But…yes, the accommodation on the supply boats was basic basic. We might all be in one room actually, just bunks in three tiers. You’d slide yourself in one of them, quite often smelling of sick.
Barge sizes varied, the little ones would be about 150 foot by about 80, 90 foot wide, something like that, nothing fancy, they were old material barges out of the States and they’d cut the middles out and put machinery and accommodation down below deck, so you’d got winches and big cranes above, on the deck itself.
The living accommodation on the barges was very basic, four-man cabins with painted steel bunks, painted concrete floors, asbestos cement deck head and that sort of thing, so yeh just painted blue and grey, red floor.
The barges were American run… big radios and loud voices.
The company was Brown and Root Inc, their marine construction division, they were part of Halliburton which at the time was one of the world’s biggest construction companies, I believe.
There were other were companies out there, this is the start of the North Sea, so everybody with heavy construction experience and equipment came here, came to the North Sea. So you’d got Santa Fe, McDermott’s, Brown and Root, then Italians started to come in, Saipem and the Dutch with Heerema’s heavy lift barges.
Days offshore were split into two shifts – there was midnight to noon, and noon to midnight, so you were doing 12 hour days, seven days a week… up to two months at a time on the barge, but it was home, it was home and good food.
My job out there was navigation, I was a hydrographic surveyor, helping them keep on track, find pipelines, help lay anchors that didn’t tear everything up on the seabed. The dredge barge I was on had a big sled on the stern which weighed anything up to 200 tonnes. We used to lower that over the pipeline and then pump high pressure water and air to cut a trench and drag it along the pipeline by chains… and the barge was pulled by its anchors.
There were always casualties. It was a dangerous part of the world…and we’d learned safety was your own concern. We just kept an eye on what was going on around us.
The main risk was getting something dropped on you, bits of pipe, wires, containers being spun around. It was all hurry, hurry, hurry… a year or two before I joined there was a survey boat lost off I think it’s Ekofisk area, no, Frigg, they were doing some of the early work out there alone and they’d be overwhelmed… and because there wasn’t the need to log in every day (and this is part of the change in the attitudes out there) it could’ve been best part of a week, before they realised this boat had gone. It gradually got safer and safer as the years went on.
Time off? You’d…sometimes you’d be just a couple of weeks at home. You’d get the call and then go out again for another couple of months.
Our work was right across the North Sea, up as far as Shetlands and down as far as Yarmouth. That’s where it all started, but…later on I got involved in the worldwide thing – we had one or two down turns in the North Sea then a big Brown and Root project in India which was one of my first foreign projects – and gradually followed them around the world.
I was offshore until a few years ago, I had about 40 years tramping steel decks in all.
Company pension? No…No, that was all down to you. The first few years I was on staff and then they’d sack you and put you on freelance, and then put you back on staff and eventually I went back on full freelance and popped across from being a poacher to being a gamekeeper… instead of being on the contractor side I was on the oil company side. But being pure freelance we used to say ‘You’re only as good as your last job.’
The tinnitus I now suffer from goes back to the start of all this…the old dredge barges. They were using high pressure, high volume water to bury the pipelines. To get that they had locomotive engines up to 50-60,000 hp. So you’re looking at quadruple V20 Alcos or Peilsticks with 20 stage water pumps, so it was the noise, yeh, because we all lived together with the engines below deck. Although they did have sound proofing you couldn’t hold a conversation in the cabins. You’d have to go in to the mess. But you’re young, and you’re immortal when you’re that age…yeh, making your money, getting your house together, but paid the price later on.
Those days there was very little health and safety…the UK were also keen to get oil and gas ashore. The economy was such a mess, so you chuck the rules out the window and just get it done.
Work along the Norfolk coast was mainly around Bacton… that was where a lot of the pipe lines were coming ashore and we did quite a few pipe pulls up onto the beach and into the terminal. A little further up the next area was Easington, and we laid the second pipe going in there. We used to get lifts ashore, the B&R shore crew had couple of DUKWs…second world war jobbies, amphibious things, so… if the weather weren’t too bad we’d get a lift on a DUKW from the barge and go ashore for a pint and a phone call, then wait for the next one and go back onto the barge again.
We rarely got helicopters on our bit of the job, unless you’d been injured. Well, we had the “Brown & Root helicopter” which was a big basket – there’s a photograph here and it shows a big conical rope basket with a ring probably about twelve foot down from the bottom hanging on the end of the barge crane. That would swing across and onto the boat, and you’d hop on, stand on the ring, lock your arms on the ropes, someone would throw your bags in the middle of it and whisk you off the boat and drop you on the barge. That was interesting, especially on a platform when the helideck is sitting there about 120 foot above you.
Health and Safety didn’t have the high profile that it’s got today. We were there to get the job done and we knew it was dangerous, we didn’t need hand-holding on that one. Certainly those early American ways of working were…yeh…dare I use the word “cowboy” but it was down to you to look after yourself and look after your mates around you.
The Mill in Thrigby
In the meantime my wife and I bought a house with a bit of land at Thrigby. It was a good place for kids to grow up; they could shoot air rifles, build bonfires, hide, climb trees, make as much noise as they wanted and it didn’t matter.
In the grounds was what looked like a cut-down tower mill. It was the roundhouse and remains of the trestle of a postmill, which were the earliest types of mill, going back to the 1200s. This one went back to the 1700s. The mill then was just an outbuilding, riddled with deathwatch.
The roundhouse itself was about 25ft in diameter and the trestle sat on four big piers. It turned out that the roundhouse had been put on afterwards. You could see where carts had been up underneath the trestle and had damaged the piers. As the predominant wind was from the west, the eastern side had been hit over the years.
My wife and I found a photograph in the Record Office in Norwich and that started it all off. It was taken around 1880 just before the mill was pulled down. Just a tiny picture with the miller and his brother, the miller’s wife and the baby. The mill is in full sail, it’s got a pair of commons which were just plain canvas sails, and a pair of double shuttered patents.
It was just a flour mill, used for local farms. There must have been a mill there for hundreds of years. It was on this little hill where you would catch every breath of wind coming up the rise. There were quite a few of these mills about at one point, maps show some on Yarmouth seafront. But when I bought it there was only one other in Norfolk which was at Garboldisham on the Suffolk border.
John Lawn, the millwright from Caston, had been involved in it with the previous owner and knew a little bit about it. He donated the windshaft, which I used, from Tottenhill postmill just outside King’s Lynn. He’d grabbed it just as the scrap merchants were demolishing it.
At the time I had an old 1600e Cortina. We reckoned the windshaft weighed about a tonne, the weight of a fully armoured stock car so we found a car trailer and early one Sunday morning got it loaded. Oh oh, the trailer bent, we got it just balanced behind the car and set off down the road. Had to keep to about 20ish to maintain control all the way from Caston to Thrigby. It started to break the back of the car which was rusty anyway, but I made it.
Restoring the mill
The time came to get the damaged windshaft to Dennis Burrell who was in charge of Burrells Engineering at Yarmouth. I made the mistake of telling him I wasn’t in a hurry for it and we forgot all about it. About three or four years later I went around to see them and they started work on it. They used their early Victorian lathe that had make prop shafts for drifters and ships. Next door was Fellows, the shipyard. The lathe faceplate was a monster and apparently, the story goes, they’d used it to turn the turrets of Churchill tanks during the War.
John Lawn at Caston was very helpful, very enthusiastic and I made a model of the proposed postmill. Worked out the rough size of it from dimensions of the roundhouse and the old photo.
I had help from Richard Seago, and the expert Vincent Pargeter who was with Essex County Council and had been involved with postmill restoration. I altered the model to incorporate Vincent’s ideas. Then took that around, Vincent had a good look over it, and put me right on a few things, and then I ordered timber and got started.
The bulk of funds came from my earnings but I did get to know Stephen Earl at Norfolk County Council. Very enthusiastic. He helped me with some money towards restoration of the roundhouse and the little conical roof which sat on top. He could not help financially with the buck because it was a new build.
A postmill sits on a trestle which is two big bits of timber in a cross sitting on the piers with diagonal props about 20 foot long, that come up into the main post.
The buck is the body of the mill that sits on top of the main post. There are three storeys: the bottom is the sack floor where the flour comes into the sacks; the middle floor with the grindstones is known as the stone floor, and the top bit is where the brake wheel and the bins are, where the corn goes into.
The post in the middle is known as the main post, I’d say about 20 foot long, two foot square, built of oak, out of one piece of timber, one tree. Most trees of that size have been cut down, but we found one down at South Cove in Suffolk and got that back to Derby’s at Beccles where they milled it into a square and got it back to Thrigby.
A lot of lifting was involved. To get a crane in those days was pretty straightforward. You would be hard pushed to do the same job on that site today because of high voltage lines running past and they’d want big hardcore slabs put down. No such problems in those days.
I did most of the practical work, chopping out joints and getting it ready to put together, testing the joints for fit… and come the day that I wanted some help I just whistled up friends from the village.
All this went on when I came home from offshore but it was a long-term project. (I would try and focus on the house when it was required rather than the mill.)
The whole ethos of Thrigby was, I wanted it to look like the mill towards the end of its life, so there was nothing fancy to it. It was just a sawn finish, picked-up timber that fitted, a make do. Except for where it really counted, which is on the trestle and the framing for the buck. I wanted a place that was 19th century with unguarded machinery, flat belts and no glass in it, just wooden shutters.
The mill itself never did get finished. I got it to the point where the sails were on, and they were turning, and they were safe with the big brake wheel on… and the tail pole was on so you could pull it in to wind. The next stage would have been to put in the grinding machinery, all the stuff to produce the flour… but that never did happen.
My aim was to put something back into the landscape, something that had been there, now missing, it’s kind of a museum piece I suppose, what life was like in the 1800s. Hopefully somebody somewhere will pick up the gauntlet at some point.
We often got visitors. At one point, the big ladder I built up into the tail was getting in quite poor condition. I heard these little voices one day saying ‘It must be safe because there’s no signs and there’s no barriers around it’. I thought, ‘What have we done to our young generation?’ If we’d have seen it as kids: ‘Bloody hell, we’re not going up that – it’s dangerous’.
Projects – one tongue in cheek?
I left Thrigby in 2007 and came to Potter Heigham.
Nowadays I still have projects on the go. I’m working on finishing a broads yacht and the other project on the go is a Volvo Amazon. And I volunteer at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust up at Hickling Broad so we get to see bits of the Broads off the beaten track.
Another project at the back of my mind is a loft conversation on this place with a boat landing at first floor level… something you can feed the seals from when they start coming up due to global warming!
Nick Prior (b. 1948) talking to WISEArchive on 3rd October 2019 at Potter Heigham
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