Days out: A trawl through Norfolk history

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For an intriguing, educational insight into a community closely knit by its links with the fishing trade, visit a living museum in King's Lynn says Louise Duffield.

There's nothing like reality for bringing history alive. And when you step through the doors into the two remaining cottages of King's Lynn's last fishing yard you can't fail to be thankful that we live in the 1990s, Each cottage is a tiny one-up-one-down home - with rooms no bigger than 12 feet by 9 feet.

You can almost hear young visitors gasp when they are told that nine children - sleeping top to toe - shared one bed, while mum and dad slept on the floor. And when they realise there is no running water, no bath and no toilet ... well, it really hits them how difficult times were. True's Yard is a fascinating insight into how the fishing community of King's Lynn lived and worked for centuries. It's all the more remarkable since the great majority of "staff" are volunteers.

Once there were hundreds of tiny cottages crammed into yards in the tightly- knit community known as the North End. The fishing families seldom married outside the community and rarely left the area under the shadow of the medieval chapel of St Nicholas, except to put to sea. But with the 1930s came Slum Clearance Acts, demolition and the loss of the fishermen's yards.

That was until a few years ago when a campaign to save the last two remaining cottages was launched. The complex of True's Yard, with its carefully restored adjoining homes, is the result of a successful mission to save part of King's Lynn's nautical history. True's Yard fishing museum has a wealth of memorabilia from the days of fishing under sail, models of old fishing smacks and hand-knitted "ganseys" - the distinctive woollen sweaters worn by the fishermen and usually knitted by their wives from patterns handed down verbally through the generations.

Visitors can also see a samphire cart which has been hawked around King's Lynn by five generations of one family. A typical Lynn fishing boat, known as a smack, is currently being fully restored.

A 15-minute video charts the history of the town's fishing, and photographs and exhibits bring the community alive. All displays in the museum have been donated by North End families, some of whom act as guides to give a realistic insight into what life was once like in this close-knit area.

More than anything else, though, the cottages form the focal point of the museum - one furnished in the period around 1850 and the other in 1920s style. They illustrate just how spartan life was for the fishing folk. Each has a yellow brick floor on to which the homecoming fisherman would shoot his catch of shellfish ready for sorting by his family. And each has a rag rug, always with the colour red featured in it to ward off the devil should he look down the chimney.

The museum, with the help of lottery money, has expanded recently and has added a "hands-on" room specifically for children. Water experiments will be featured soon.

The visitors

Anne Powles, a school teacher, went to True's Yard, with her daughters Kathryn, 11, and Victoria, seven.

Anne: We got an awful lot more out of the visit by having a guide who was a descendant of one of the old North End fishing families. He had a wealth of information and could answer any questions we asked. The enthusiasm of the volunteers - some of them just teenagers - for their heritage really came over strongly.

To think that so many people lived in those tiny cottages is amazing. They must never have had any privacy. Their lack of belongings really hit me. I was also fascinated by the many wallpaper samples which have been uncovered in the cottages.

Everything at the museum was very nicely finished off and the plants and flowers gave an added touch. The cafe was clean and the gift shop spacious.

I think the museum gave good value for money. When you go out you don't like to feel you are being fleeced, but this is a place where you would be quite happy to stop for drinks and a cake. Usually you tend not to go and have a look at things on your doorstep, but I imagine True's Yard would appeal to a lot of local people as well as tourists.

Kathryn: I liked the cottages best because it was really interesting to see how people used to live. I thought the writing in the school book on display was very neat. I thought it was funny when we were told that the children in the old school photo had all been given smart collars to wear by the photographer, who then took them away to be used in his next school photo session. This trip helped me with my history at school. I want to go back when all the water experiments have been set up. I think the fishermen must have been very brave. I wouldn't have liked to have lived in those days,

Victoria: I liked walking through the whale's mouth into the activity room. I also liked the stones on the wall near the shrimps. They were fossils. I thought the model of the fisherman with his big boots near him was good. I also liked the cottages but I wouldn't have wanted to share a bed with so many brothers and sisters.

The deal

True's Yard is in North Street, King's Lynn, Norfolk (01553 770479). Opening times: daily, except Christmas Day, 9.30am-4.30pm, with last admission to the museum at 3.45pm.

Admission: pounds l.90 adults, pounds l.50 concessions, pounds l for children, under fives free.

Access: Accessible by wheelchair and for pushchairs everywhere, except the upstairs rooms of the cottages. Signing guides and touch tours for hearing and vision impaired visitors are available most of the time by arrangement.

Toilets and babychange facilities: Clean, several of them, plus a roomy toilet for the disabled.

Catering: A tea room, open all day, with homemade cakes, snacks, teas and coffees on the menu.

Shop: Spacious and well-stocked .

Education: National Curriculum-based tours for schools. A variety of events from rag rug-making and talks on tracing your family tree. Local history courses.