Nelson Monument a high tribute to a hero

Nelson's Monument in Great Yarmouth was completed in 1819 and is now a Grade I listed monument. It also offers fantastic views for those with a head for heights. ROWAN MANTELL climbs its 217 steps.

Les Cole never tires of the view from the top of the Norfolk Nelson's column. He has been known to climb the 217 steps to the top several times a day – and still have the breath to regale groups of visitors with facts, figures and ghost stories.

Les, 54, who is custodian of Yarmouth's Britannia Monument, has lived within sight of the tower all his life, but had never climbed it until he volunteered to become a guide after its 2004/5 restoration.

He had become fascinated by Nelson while helping out as a volunteer in the town's museums.

For many years the monument was closed to the public, unsafe and on the Buildings at Risk register. Today it soars triumphantly over Yarmouth once again, and for eight weekends a year, visitors can climb to the top and enjoy, with Les, fantastic views far out across dunes and marshes, townscape and sea, inland mills and drainage pumps and offshore wind turbines.

'They say you can see as far as Norwich Cathedral on a really clear day,' said Les. He is not sure that he has ever picked out the iconic spire on the horizon – but he often takes his binoculars up to watch seals on Scroby Sands.

High above Yarmouth, he says the tower even has its own weather. 'It's almost always blowing a gale up there. I've only been up there once when it's been still!'

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He said the wide spiral staircase makes it surprisingly easy to climb and the view from the top is always worth the five minute ascent.

There are the usual health warnings for people with heart, lung or mobility problems, and children need to be tall enough to see over the 1.3m parapet at the top.

Alongside the already thrilling story of Nelson's heroics, Les likes to add in some of the more grisly moments of the monument's history. In fact, just three deaths are associated with the tower, although things did not start well as the first was its superintendent of works, Thomas Sutton.

Legend had it that he threw himself from the top because the statue of Britannia was facing the wrong way – but Les said the statue was always intended to face the route Nelson's victory parade took after he landed on Gorleston beach in 1800, and the unfortunate engineer suffered a heart attack.

A girl was strangled with her own shoelace at the bottom of the tower in a notorious unsolved murder from 1912. And a showman who climbed on to the more than twice life-size statue of Britannia and gave a short performance overbalanced.

One of his most frequently asked questions is why the tower was built in the middle of an industrial estate.

'But of course it wasn't!' laughs Les. In Nelson's time, the South Denes was an open, grassy area between the beach and the river used for cattle grazing and as a military parade ground.

By the mid-20th century the Monument was in urgent need of repair. A �1m restoration project saw it reopened to the public in the year of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

t Nelson's Monument will be open for tours on May 28 and 29 and June 11 and 12, �6, 01493 5069,