Located in the far east ‘bulge’ of England, Norwich is a city you might not know to visit unless you have a reason to go there. Even though I have lived in ‘East Anglia’ my entire life, albeit, in the west of it, I have never visited Norwich, and have only been to Norfolk (the county) once!
My friend Hannah from university, who has been living in Australia for more years than I would like, is from Norwich and so this Christmas, when she flew back to England for a couple of weeks, seemed the perfect time to take that drive.
I had heard horror stories about ‘that drive’… “there are no dual carriageways in Norfolk” I have been told many times. But I would like to squash this rumour, it is simply untrue. In fact, the A11 from Cambridge was a dream, barely a car on the road and dual carriageway the whole way! So please, if you have been put off visiting because you are worried about the drive, let your worries float away. I live in Hertfordshire, a few miles north of the M25 and it took around 1 hour 45 minutes to drive there. I know for my friends across the pond in the US and Canada might think a 1 hour 45-minute drive is nothing, but trust me, in a country as compact as England we class that as a long journey!
Heading through the outskirts of Norwich I instantly thought that it was a place that I could live. Not only is there a large hospital and university to provide a decent amount of jobs, but the city is also one of the largest in eastern England. Located 100 miles from London, Norwich is the county town of Norfolk, a predominantly rural part of the country with a fabulous coastline. Norwich itself is just 20 miles from the nearest coastline which stretches 84 miles. This makes the city perfect for a quick weekend break or part of a longer holiday to Norfolk.
Although it isn’t the most well-known settlement in the UK, it used to be one of the biggest, from the Middle Ages up until the Industrial Revolution it was the largest city in England after London. Today it is the most complete Medieval city in the country and you can expect to find many cobbled streets lined with half-timbered buildings. In fact, Elm Hill is frequently voted as being one of the prettiest streets in England, and rightly so.
Elm Hill is a classic olde English street flanked by Tudor buildings dating back to the 1500s. The street itself is thought to date back to the 1200s, possibly further. Sadly there was a terrible fire in 1507 that destroyed 700 houses in the area which is why the buildings standing today do not predate this. However, there is one exception. The Briton Arms miraculously survived the fire, it was built in 1420 and remains the most imposing building on the street. The Briton Arms serves delicious meals (including afternoon tea!) using local and seasonal produce, and whilst the official date of the building is 1420, there is evidence to suggest it was actually constructed in 1347. The plan and layout of the building are untypical of the age, whilst the style relates more closely to the buildings of the Netherlands, reflecting the strong links which Norwich had with the continent.
Today Elm Hill is around a 5-minute walk from the centre of Norwich, whilst there are a few shops and a hotel along the street, there is not a huge reason to walk through unless you want to visit. It was once an important thoroughfare which ran alongside the river. I do think it is a blessing in disguise that this isn’t as busy as it once was, I almost had the place to myself and it was wonderful, I imagine it’s a different story in summer though… Elm Hill declined rapidly in the 19th century due to the increased quietness in the once thriving wool industry, becoming a slum by the end of the century. The houses were left neglected and decaying. Thankfully, in 1927 the Norwich Society put the argument forward to the council, proving the historic importance of the street, stating that it could become an area of interest if it was cleared up. Luckily the council listened and renovation and restoration started in 1927, meaning we can all enjoy the beauty of Elm Hill today!
There are other areas of historical importance in Norwich. The Cathedral Quarter located to the east of the city centre surrounds Norwich Cathedral itself which dates back to 1096. By 1094, Norwich had firmly marked its status as the urban centre of East Anglia and an impressive castle was built in order to exercise royal power. The Bishop’s seat which was originally held in nearby Thetford was moved to Norwich, where a new cathedral and monastery were set to be built. In doing this the Bishop was following William the Conqueror’s practice of consolidating both secular and religious power in one place.
In 1272 an argument broke out between the prior of the cathedral and the people of Norwich when the prior wanted to collect tolls for a fair. The escalating argument led to violence with the prior leading a band of armed men through the city. The townsfolk fought back, throwing burning brands onto the roof of the cathedral and the monastic buildings, leading to a destructive fire. Thankfully, the Lady Chapel roof remained untouched by the fire, however, the rest of the cathedral and monastery were left roofless. The city paid a heavy fine which was then used to rebuild the church.
The Cathedral Quarter itself is now largely inhabited by Norwich Cathedral School, one of the oldest schools in the country with a traceable history to 1096! The school now educates over 1000 pupils but at its founding was instructed to teach 90 sons of Norwich citizens.
Opposite the cathedral, you can find Tombland Alley, but blink and you’ll miss it. Upon entering the alley I mentioned to my friend it gave me the spooks, it definitely felt like there could be a ghost lurking in the shadows. I later looked up the history and was not surprised to find out that it is in fact supposedly haunted!
The most recognisable building here is Augustine Steward House, dating back to 1549. Augustine Steward was a wealthy merchant, Member of Parliament and three times mayor of Norwich. His house was willingly used as the headquarters for the Earl of Warwick’s army during the suppression in 1549 of Kett’s Rebellion, a revolt against the enclosure of common land by rich landowners, leaving peasants with no place to graze their animals. Legend says the occupants died from an outbreak of the plague in 1578 so the house was boarded up and sealed. Sadly though, one girl was still alive but subsequently starved to death as she couldn’t escape. Rumour has it she continues to haunt the house and alleyway with her legs fading away below the knees.
Whilst Norwich is full of historic gems, it is important to note the modern day city offers a lot to visitors. The city centre offers a good selection of well-known shops as well as independent businesses, plenty of places to eat and drink, and a fantastic covered market. For those wanting a delicious afternoon tea, head to the Assembly House, they offer a traditional afternoon tea but they also regularly offer themed afternoon teas too! For coffee lovers, head to Strangers, supposedly the best coffee in the city, I wouldn’t know though as I am not a coffee drinker; Alchemista Coffee Co also has a superb array of coffees and hot drinks. For those who want something a little more substantial, Benedicts offer fantastic local dishes. Not only is the food fantastic, but they cater for those with many different dietary requirements.
That’s all from me for this city, I am heading back up there in just over a week for my birthday though, so perhaps there will be more to come on Norfolk in the coming weeks…