Journalist and author of the blog And So She Thinks, Francesca Baker recently spent a culture packed weekend in the city of Norwich. Here she shares her tips on the must-see places to visit in this historic Norfolk city.
Two nights in Norwich simply wasn’t enough to explore all the art, culture and history that this city has to offer. Staying in The Maid’s Head hotel, the longest running site of hospitality in the country, built on the site of the palace of the early Norman Bishops, and drinking in its oak-lined Jacobean bar, before heading for bed in the Tudor Rooms (where Queen Elizabeth I also stayed) was a heritage-fuelled delight in itself, but there’s so much more to see in this fascinating city, as I discovered…
Standing over the rainbow-coloured market is Norwich City Hall, a grand Art Deco building which opened in 1938. Apparently earmarked by Hitler as the location for his headquarters should victory be his, it was consequently saved from bombing. The balcony may be the longest in England (at 111 metres long), the clock bell the largest in the United Kingdom, and the lions flanking the entrance are the most iconic, while the six bronze doors designed by James Woodford are revelatory with the 18 roundels describing the history and industry of Norwich.
No trip is complete without a visit to Norwich Castle. Built by the Normans as a royal palace over 900 years ago, it has been a strategic and important point of defence ever since. The Stone Keep, Great Hall and Dungeons are all available to be explored, and fascinating exhibits tell the story of the fortification from its early days as a grand home to more recent years as a prison. As well as being beautiful itself, built from the finest limestone shipped all the way from Caen in Normandy, and housing the Colman Art Galleries, its situation high up on Castle Mound makes it the perfect spot to enjoy the glorious views over the city.
With grand Norman arches, medieval flying buttresses, vibrant stained glass and the Saxon bishop’s throne, the striking Romanesque architecture of Norwich Cathedral is rightly considered to be one of the most glorious in Europe. Started in 1096 by Herbert de Losinga, first bishop of Norwich, the limestone building was not consecrated until 1278, although operated as a Benedictine monastery in the meantime – the tranquil cloisters are the largest in England.
From afar the spires dominate the skyline, a soothing piece of punctuation in the sky, and inside the chapels, choirs and calm nature make this an inspiring place. The whole area spans 44 acres and includes 88 listed buildings, and is a perfect place to while away an afternoon.
It may seem slightly frivolous to include condiments with culture, but food is an important part of any society. Colman’s Mustard was first made in Norfolk 200 years ago, and the Colman’s Mustard Shop & Museum which is a careful replica of the original Victorian trade premises, housed in the historic art nouveau Royal Arcade near Norwich Market, is now a key tourist attraction.
Wandering along the banks of the river, you might be surprised to see what looks like very detailed graffiti on the walls of an old mill. The former Eastern Electricity Board site at Duke’s Wharf, was painted by local artist Rory Macbeth with the words of his favourite novel for the EASTinternational 2006 contemporary art exhibition. He said his reason for painting the text of Thomas More’s Utopia onto the building is that the novel is “as valid now as it was when it was written”. A transformational of the derelict into a piece of social comment.
Noteworthy if only for housing the UK’s busiest library The Forum a public arts and events space, was a £65million project by Sir Michael Hopkins built to mark the millennium in the East of England. A glass façade and horseshoe shape indicate the modern and forward looking nature of this vibrant city, whilst its circulation of the Gothic church tower of St Peter Mancroft and location on a pre conquest settlement hints at the strong heritage of Norfolk.
Norwich was once one of the country’s most important trade and commercial hubs, and today is home to both big brands and individual independent stores. Award winning Jarrold’s is a family department store set up in 1823, and is situated in the Norwich Lanes, an area of narrow alleys and quirky buildings that house interesting independent shops and cafes. This historic quarter has been a busy and bustling area since its medieval roots, and continues to attract locals and visitors.
Also on the commercial theme is the 247 foot Art Nouveau Royal Arcade located between Gentleman’s Walk and Castle Street. Built in 1899 but renovated to full glory in the 1980s, the tiled floor, floral motifed walls (designed by W.J. Neatby whom was also responsible for the tiles in Harrod’s Food Hall) glass lanterns and wrought iron balustrades are the perfect location for the luxurious shops housed within. Once the site of the Angel Inn, and then the Royal Hotel, it’s one of many spots in Norfolk with a dense and fascinating history.
Built in around 1325, by one of the of the city’s richest merchants, Geoffrey de Salle, the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell is one of only eighteen late-medieval, secular houses to have survived in the city. The large suite of vaulted cellars, grand stone arch, and stunning courtyard have been everything from a grand home to a women and beggar’s prison, and now are the site of the city museum, with exhibits and installations that tell the story of people and places in this fascinating city.
Dating from around 1430, the medieval Dragon Hall appears modest from the outside, but belies a stunning Great Hall, complete with carved dragon and imposing roof. Throughout the ages it has been a home, warehouse, pubs and offices, and now the Grade 1 listed building is a museum which tells the story of its founder and builder Robert Toppes, medieval trade and civic life in fifteenth century Norwich. The structure itself and tales held within are further testimony to the importance of commerce to Norwich, and Norwich to commerce.
Planning a visit to Norwich?
Find out more… For more information take a look at the Visit Norwich website.
Where to stay… Situated in the Norwich Cathedral quarter, The Maid’s Head Hotel has a special Historic Norwich promotion running which includes dinner, bed and breakfast and tickets to Norwich Castle, starting at £79.50 per person, per night.
How to get there… Norwich is easily accessible by train on http://www.abelliogreateranglia.co.uk
Photo credits: Visit Norwich, Jcqueline Wyatt, Melanie March.