Julie Kirkham filling Norfolk with glorious glass creations

Deep blues, rich oranges and sunshine yellows-vibrant colours are once again streaming into a Yarmouth pier and it's all down to the exquisite handiwork of one Norfolk craftsman, as Abigail Saltmarsh reports.

Glorious glass

Deep blues, rich oranges and sunshine yellows – vibrant colours are once again streaming into a Yarmouth pier and it’s all down to the exquisite handiwork of one Norfolk craftsman, as Abigail Saltmarsh reports.

Pictures: Andy Darnell and Colin Finch

Standing beneath the great, stained glass window of the Wellington Pier, Julie Kirkham allows herself a brief moment of pride at the monumental task she has accomplished.Above her, Norfolk light streams through a spectrum of jewel-coloured pieces of glass, bringing to life the mammoth window she has single-handedly restored, redesigned and brought back to life.

Here in Yarmouth, the three segments of the picture window now work together once again to present an image to all those who visit the famous pier. No-one appears to know whether Julie’s work of art mirrors the one that graced the seaside building decades ago – but all who look at it agree it has reinstated something of the pier’s lustrous and splendid past.

“I have to admit it did bring a lump to my throat the first time I went to see it in place,” admits Julie, 48, from Taverham. “Before that I hadn’t seen the whole thing, I’d only ever seen it in smaller sections. “Looking up at it was something of a shock. I could see just how immense the window was for the first time – and that did give me a real sense of achievement.”Julie, who is now based at a studio at the Taverham Garden and Crafts Centre, first started working with stained glass more than 20 years ago.

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She studied Fine Art in Norwich and Exeter, before moving into synthetic stained glass design, working with a double-glazing company.“I had always loved working with glass and that job gave me the opportunity to get into the traditional side of stained glass as well,” she explains.“I started working for myself and then went back to college to get a diploma so I could teach. Stained glass is a dying craft and I wanted to have the skills to be able to pass on my knowledge.”

Julie runs workshops from her studio in traditional leaded stained glass and copper foil. She sells a wide variety of her own glass pieces, as well as those designed and made by other craftspeople.“Glass is very popular at the moment, both for inside and outside the home. Sometimes it’s a case of repairing an old Victorian window – or making something completely new for the house. But I’m also making a lot of pieces at the moment for people to put outside in their gardens,” she says.

It was towards the beginning of last year that she was first approached about working on the stained glass window at the Wellington Pier after remains of the original piece were discovered during renovation work. “When they first said they had a window to repair, I thought they meant a normal-sized one – to begin with I had no idea it would be 50ft wide and 10ft high!” she remembers.But, undaunted, Julie agreed to take on the project and soon piles of old glass were being delivered to her former studio at Alby Crafts in north Norfolk.“The first challenge was to try to find out what the original window had looked like – all I had were pieces of glass,” she says. “The pier was built in 1853 and the window was probably put in then, but I just couldn’t find a picture to show it. I searched archives and put out a newspaper appeal but no-one came forward with any ideas.

“I think it’s possible they boarded it up before the war to prevent bomb damage. Afterwards, the pier changed from somewhere people went for afternoon tea to become more of a theatre and perhaps the window didn’t really seem suitable.”By skilfully piecing together the old glass, Julie began to make out ship-like forms and eventually came to the conclusion that the old window had displayed images of clipper boats sailing into Yarmouth. After much thought, and with no original designs, she decided to create the new window along similar lines.

“Some of the glass was damaged or missing, but I managed to use about 80pc of what was originally there. The rest is antique English glass from a cathedral,” she explains.Section by section, Julie began working on the window, cleaning each piece of blackened glass to see the beautiful colours and exquisite textures emerge – and then carefully putting them together.

She’d originally suggested it would take eight months to finish the project, but when the deadline was suddenly brought forward as the relaunch of the new-look pier loomed, she found herself with just half that time.“I worked on it from 9am to 6pm, seven days a week – it was a challenge, but then again I love a challenge!” Special double-gazed units were made for the heavy, leaded windows and the sections of coloured glass were carefully hoisted into place. And when Julie saw it back where it belonged, it was an emotional moment.“I did have a tear in my eye. I think it’s wonderful a company like that asked a local craftsman to take on the project – and for me it was a fantastic window to work on,” she says, adding: “It’s amazing to think that now it will be there for posterity. Windows like that really do come along once in a lifetime.”

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