Norwich: England’s Forgotten Medieval Gem

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“Norwich?! What made you decide to go up there?” Such was the reaction of most of my friends, once I told them that LBJ and I had decided to visit it on a day-trip. I had always been curious about Norfolk, and Norwich in particular, after living in Cambridge for a year without ever having had the money to explore East Anglia properly. If I am honest, it was one of the few places in England that neither of us had been to before.

Although it is barely more than a hundred miles from London, the relatively long rail journey (almost two hours) and lack of motorways had hitherto rendered it just beyond my reach. It was not that getting there involved significant hardship, but more that there were plenty of other places that could be visited more conveniently, that shouted louder and that boasted prettier countryside, in the unlikely event that I decided to actually leave the capital.

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First impressions were not entirely positive: Norwich may be famous for its medieval lanes and enormous cathedral, but there was precious little evidence of this on the walk into town from the station. We crossed the Wensum, to be faced with an enormous Premier Inn and a series of ugly modernist buildings, followed by dowdy Victorian terraced houses. The contrast with nearby Cambridge was marked – Norwich lies slightly too far from the orbit of London to enjoy the same prosperity that is so evident in the former. However, this malaise was dispelled, upon reaching the castle – a stout Norman keep, a near-perfect cube that squats menacingly over the city centre from its artificial mound. The interior houses exhibits ranging from Iceni gold to Viking weaponry, paintings by Hogarth and one of the world’s largest teapot collections.

We walked past the inevitable high-street chains and down to the scruffy market area, where Fish and Chips can be procured for refreshingly low prices (you certainly cannot find whitebait and chips for £3 in Cambridge, let alone deep-fried mince pies). The enormous parish church of St. Peter Mancroft stands proudly at one end, as if facing-down the 15th Century flint-clad guildhall, crouching at the other. The Art Deco City Council building and the vast, glassy Forum shopping centre complete the ensemble.

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Norwich was once England’s second-largest city. It boasts an impressive array of medieval churches, most of which were expanded and rebuilt during the wool boom of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when its flourishing trade with Flanders and the Hanseatic ports led it to eclipse York in size and wealth. The result is an unrivalled collection of vernacular architecture, with churches and civic buildings typically using flint cladding, whilst many pubs and houses boast Flemish gables. As in York, many of the streets boast the suffix ‘-gate’ (from the old Norse word gaata, meaning ‘street’) and blond hair does seem to be very common here. The brightly-coloured houses of Elm Hill, perhaps the city’s most beautiful street, could easily blend into Lund, Ribe or Aarhus.

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Despite this, Norwich is no Bruges – its narrow lanes are occasionally interrupted by post-modern, red-brick structures from the 1980s and the city still retains a slightly raffish air. The disused 14th-century St. Stephen’s Church has been turned into an antiques market, with its features being protected by the Norwich Historic Churches Trust (NHCT). Whilst I have mixed feelings about such a beautiful building being used in this way, the selection of goods was impressive and the prices were a fraction of anything you will find in London.

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Having worked up a thirst, we decided to stop for tea. I rather liked the look of the Britons Arms, housed in an absurdly pretty medieval house on Elm Hill, however it was LBJ’s birthday, so we ended up heading to the somewhat shinier Harriet’s Tea Room, instead. This institution, seemingly inspired by Betty’s Tea Room in York, was a wonderful place to people-watch and eavesdrop on Norwich’s ladies-that-lunch (in truth, ‘more grannies-wot-eat-scones’), offered an enormous Celebration Afternoon Tea, with a glass of champagne. We ended up chatting to a lovely older couple who simply didn’t believe that two relatively slender people would be able to finish the vast portions of finger-sandwiches, macaroons, scones and cake included in our menu. Not wanting to admit defeat, LBJ and I soldiered on gamely until they left and we could safely ask for a doggy bag.

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Given the shortness of the midwinter daytime, we decided to go and see the celebrated cathedral whilst we still could. We headed down, through the narrow lanes towards the magnificent stone spire that soared from amidst the low-slung buildings of the old town. We crossed through the lofty Erpingham Gate, into the cathedral close, with its huddled houses, before entering the vast stone edifice. Unlike in York, where you will pay £10 to visit the Minster, Norwich Cathedral is completely free and merely suggests a donation of £5.

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We skirted around the delicately-sculpted cloisters, where the pale northern light gave the Caen limestone an almost translucent quality, as the vast bulk of the nave loomed over us like an enormous gothic battleship. As we stepped inside, the vertiginous walls reverberated with the sounds of a choir rehearsing and I squinted upwards at the brightly-painted stone carvings that adorn the roof bosses, depicting biblical scenes and several images of the Green Man. We walked around, admiring the surviving Romanesque columns, the bulk of the Norman original having been destroyed in a 13th-century riot, as well as the myriad side-chapels. Outside, we stumbled across the memorial to Edith Cavell, the Norfolk-born nurse who was executed by the occupying German forces in Belgium, during the First World War, when it emerged that she had helped over 200 allied servicemen escape to safety in the Netherlands.

As the sun finally set, we made our way across to the wonderful Tombland Bookshop, with its excellent antiquarian collection, set amidst the contorted timbers of a 15th-century building. We headed back up the hill towards the Belgian Monk, an atmospheric pub with a young-ish crowd, offering an interesting range of beers and Brancaster mussels, served in a variety of different ways, as well as  dishes such as gehaktballekes and kroketten.

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By night, the Norwich’s charm grows even greater. The light reflects off the flint-clad towers of the city’s many churches, its narrow streets all but deserted. We got lost and eventually found ourselves facing the hulking Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, perched above an unlovely traffic roundabout. We then wandered down to Shiki, an izakaya-inspired Japanese restaurant, where we shared a few otsumame (small dishes), but steered clear of the pricey bento boxes. I will confess to having had low expectations of Japanese food in Norfolk, but although this place won’t have the owner of Eat Tokyo exactly shaking in their geta, I was pleasantly surprised.

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With the time of our train back rapidly encroaching on us, we decided to go for a quick drink at the Adam and Eve, the city’s oldest pub. We carefully navigated our way through the somnolent alleys behind the cathedral, until we came to a tiny brick building with Dutch gables, not unlike the gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel. Upon stepping inside, the pub’s modest proportions became fully apparent – there was just a one small room open, which we shared with a grand total of two other people. Whilst its exterior would suggest 17th-century origins, there has been a pub here since at least 1249 and it is located on the site of an Anglo-Saxon well. Admittedly, it was winter, but there was none of the touristy nonsense that you might find in places like the Turf Tavern in Oxford, which has a similar secretive charm to it.

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Having finished our beers, we hurtled towards the station, sad to have to leave so soon – although it was now quite late. I will definitely return to Norwich, probably in the summer, so that I can make the most of its beautiful riverside and perhaps take in the panorama from Mousehold Heath. Ideally, I would time it to coincide with an interesting exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, but I could equally visit the medieval Great Hospital or the Julian Centre – which tells the story of St. Julian of Norwich, a remarkable female mystic writer and anchoress, who lived there in the 14th Century.

 

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