Steam drifter Lydia Eva to open to the public

Visitors will be able to go aboard the restored steam drifter Lydia Eva - listed alongside the Cutty Sark as one of Britain's 60 most important ships by the National Historic Ships' Unit - from next week.

Slipping quietly up river guided by a tug, the poignancy of the old lady's return to Yarmouth was almost lost amid the brouhaha of outer harbour activity.

But for the volunteers who battled for two decades to save the Lydia Eva, the very last in a long line of steam drifters, her mooring in front of the town hall is the realisation of a dream.

Built in 1930 for Gorleston fisherman Harry Eastick, and named after his daughter, she has finally come home as a floating museum expected to attract up to 15,000 visitors in her first season.

From next weekend, visitors will be able to go aboard the vessel - listed alongside the Cutty Sark as one of Britain's 60 most important ships by the National Historic Ships' Unit - at no charge.

The fish hold, which on one day in 1937 held a season's record catch of 220,000 herring, has been converted into a display area with panels telling the story of the ship and the herring industry.

Visitors will also be able to see the tiny galley and living quarters that served the 10-strong crew and the engine room housing one of the biggest steam engines ever built by the Yarmouth firm Crabtree.

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Chris Monkhouse, treasurer of the Lydia Eva and Mincarlo Trust, which has overseen the restoration of the vessel at the cost of more than �1m, confessed that a happy ending had not always looked so likely.

'For several years, while we were waiting for grant funding, she was moored at Lowestoft and only kept afloat by automatic pumps that kicked in whenever she started leaking,' she said.

'When she was built, there were thousands of steam drifters that thronged Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Now she is the last one left so we think it has been quite an achievement to save her.'

When the herring fishing industry collapsed spectacularly at the end of the 1930s, the Lydia Eva passed into the ownership of the RAF and then the Marine Services Division of the Royal Navy before finally being laid up for sale, surplus to requirements, at Milford Haven in 1969.

She was bought by the Maritime Trust but her future again became uncertain in 1986 when its Historic Ships Collection at St Katherine's Dock, London, was closed due to prohibitive costs.

Mrs Monkhouse said: 'The Lydia Eva Trust was founded by a group of local people in 1989 to bring her back and she went on display in Yarmouth and Lowestoft until 1999 when she was no longer safe to go on board.'

Since then, the trust has battled tirelessly for funding, including a �839,000 grant from the National Lottery in 2007.

She has been rebuilt at Small and Co's yard in Lowestoft with all the woodwork restoration being undertaken by the town's International Boatbuilding Training College.

The next major landmark in the ship's story will be when her steam engine is restored to full working order next winter.

Mrs Monkhouse said: 'We have already had smoke coming out of the funnel and the engine turning over very slowly. We will carry out trials on Lake Lothing over the winter and she will be steaming by next summer.'

From next year, the trust plans to alternate displays with its other ship, the trawler Mincarlo, each spending part of the season in Yarmouth and part in Lowestoft.

Initially, it is planned to open the Lydia Eva from 10.30am to 3.30pm, Saturdays to Thursdays - that will extend to seven days a week if more volunteers can be found. Opening time details can be checked at Yarmouth tourist office.

People wishing to volunteer and schools wishing to book tours are asked to ring Bernadette Bidmead on 01502-713286.