Norwich – not just an amazing cathedral

Norwich is a lovely city, once the second largest in England, which had a huge number of both pubs and churches, many of which survive – though not all are used for their original purpose. It also has one of the great Gothic cathedrals, which is just as described in the guidebooks and needs no help from me.

The town is dominated by the keep of the Norman castle, one of the finest and most unspoiled remaining (only that of Falaise is comparable) – although the façade of Bath stone was in fact added in 1834-9. It became the city’s museum and art gallery in 1894 (following the museum in Nottingham Castle, opened in 1878) – nowadays the keep is a striking but under-used three-storey space, and the galleries are arranged around the Rotunda, created in 1969 by filling in a courtyard. Over the next two years a major project will reinstate the floor inside the keep and recreate the Great Hall (see below for more on the museum). Until then the basement and Prison Stories gallery are closed.

The city has an interesting history that’s relevant to our own times – it became wealthy and populous through trading with continental Europe, but was also the site of the first blood libel in 1144, when the Jewish community (French-speaking, and closely linked to the Norman rulers) was accused of killing a boy in what was alleged to be a ritual murder. From Norwich this evil notion spread across Europe and has been commonly rolled out in outbreaks of antisemitism.

Rather more uplifting is the story of Julian of Norwich (c1342–c1416), a nun who had mystical visions and whose Revelations of Divine Love is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman (yep, Julian, not Julia). In about 1414 she was visited by another female mystic, Margery Kempe (c1373 – after 1438)  from Kings Lynn, who dictated The Book of Margery Kempe, possibly the first autobiography in the English language, telling of her many pilgrimages as well as her mystical conversations with God.

Norwich also received many Protestant refugees from the Low Countries, known as the Strangers, who revitalised the city’s weaving industry with modern know-how, and introduced printing and brewing with hops (until then, English beer was just a safer alternative to water). They also brought canaries with them, hence the nickname of the city’s football team. Alas, the city, already badly hit by the Black Death, lost a third of its population to plague in 1579, including many of the Strangers, but they were reinforced by Huguenots, exiled from France, and the city was effectively tri-lingual (English, French and Dutch) for some time.

Dutch influence in Norwich

Even in the eighteenth century the city had not expanded beyond its medieval walls. It did grow to around 37,000 by 1800, but other cities were growing much faster. However, the Norwich School of Artists (a club more than a teaching establishment), founded in 1803, was the first such body outside London, and benefitted from the area’s historic links with the Netherlands (and the similarity in their landscapes) – many of the local nobs owned paintings by the great Dutch artists. Their fresh realism was striking, but the finest of the Norwich artists, John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) became increasingly impressionist and indeed Turneresque (alas, he was forgotten by the time of his death, and there were no obituaries). In 1814 Colman’s of Norwich was founded and its mustard is still England’s best known – Jeremiah James Colman (1830–98) bought many paintings by the Norwich School’s leading artists, and donated them to the Norwich Castle Museum.

As well as the Norwich School, the museum has odd works by Jacob van Ruisdael, Hobbema, Aert van der Neer and Gainsborough, as well as a Hogarth of a drunken friend vomiting (painted at the wife’s request), a big double portrait by Zoffany and Gilpin of a couple with horses, a Van Loo of Horatio Walpole (younger brother of Sir Robert and a Norfolk MP for 54 years), a David Roberts of Jerusalem and a Burne-Jones Annunciation. There’s also a limited amount of twentieth-century art, notably pieces by Gwen John, Marie Laurencin, Bridget Riley, Maggi Hambling, Sandra Blow, Ana Maria Pacheco and Mary Potter. For some reason the art galleries are also home to Nelson’s hat from the Battle of the Nile and a Spanish admiral’s sword captured at the Battle of Cape St Vincent- there’s no doubt that he was very aware of his image and indeed took care to promote his brand as far as possible.

Other galleries cover natural history, decorative arts, and history, from ancient Egypt via the Snettisham Treasure, Boudica and the Iceni, Roman settlements such as Venta Icenorum (now Caistor St Edmund, three and a half miles south of Norwich) and the Saxon and Viking invasions, to the arrival of the Normans and the foundation of Norwich. It seems to end there, except that, like most of the city museums I’ve visited recently, the local regimental museum has been incorporated, covering the twentieth-century campaigns of what is now the Royal Anglian Regiment. I was interested to learn of the regimental almshouses built in Norwich and Kings Lynn after both world wars, which are still in use.

The huge Market Place is the heart of the city’s commercial core – unusually, it’s filled by a tightly-packed grid of semi-permanent booths, many serving food, and almost all seemingly claiming to be ‘bohemian’ – it’s obvious that anything that claims to be bohemian cannot actually be so. Anyway, it’s dominated by the massive City Hall, a classic Deco block completed in 1938, and on the south side by the church of St Peter Mancroft, the largest of the 32 medieval churches within the city’s walls – it’s known for its superb Perpendicular architecture and 15th-century stained glass (above all in the east window), and also as the burial place of Sir Thomas Browne, who was a doctor in Norwich from 1637 until his death in 1682 and is occasionally remembered as the author of some remarkably polymathic books in majestic but melancholic Baroque prose. The most obviously relevant to Norwich is Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial, a meditation on death, burial practices and the ephemerality of fame, inspired by the discovery in Norfolk of some Bronze Age burials in earthenware vessels. Browne was perhaps the favourite author of another adopted Norfolk writer, WG Sebald, who taught at the University of East Anglia until his death in a car-crash in 2001.

On the north side of the Market Place, the Guildhall (1407-24) was the seat of the city’s civic bodies until the City Hall was built; it looks a bit like a church, with its flint-coated walls. In the maze of largely pedestrianised streets behind the Guildhall are other medieval buildings, such as St Andrew’s Hall, completed in 1449 as the nave of the Blackfriars’ church and used as a public hall ever since the Reformation, and the fifteenth-century church of St John Maddermarket, now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust and open three days a week, its interior crowded with monuments, Georgian woodwork and Victorian stained glass. Almost as central is the Strangers’ Hall, with its Tudor Great Hall atop a fourteenth-century undercroft – its name comes from the immigrants who were put up there in the sixteenth century. The magnificent staircase and its window and the Walnut Room were added in 1627; it’s now a museum of domestic history, open two to four days a week. Finally, the Dragon Hall, a medieval trading hall built in 1427-30 and known for its spectacular crown-post wooden roof, is now home (the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust having been wound up in 2015) to the National Centre for Writing, but is open roughly monthly for volunteer-led tours. Known as Writer’s Centre Norwich until its relaunch this year, this led the drive for Norwich to become England’s first UNESCO City of Literature in 2012, and now supports both writers and readers in many ways. Of course Norwich’s contemporary literary fame is based on the University of East Anglia’s creative writing courses, established by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson back in 1970.

Speaking of the university, do not fail to make the pilgrimage out west to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a superb building (built by Norman Foster in 1976, one of the best of the high-tech buildings of that period) housing a simply amazing collection in which art from British Columbia and Alaska, Ecuador, Egypt, Mesoamaerica, the Cook Islands and the Marquesas and Africa (for instance) is displayed alongside paintings by Soutine, Modigliani, Giacometti, Moore, Degas and above all Picasso and Bacon, as well as a few oddities by the likes of Zoran Mušič, Edmund de Waal and Mark Gertler. Labels tell of a ‘production place’ rather than a nationality, putting all the artefacts on a level playing field.

And finally… the pubs

There’s only one pub that you have to visit in Norwich – no, I’ll rephrase that, there’s only one pub in Norwich that I own a share in, but it is a goodie. The White Lion has real ales from Milton and elsewhere, but it’s even better as a cider pub, with 19 varieties available when I was last in, and it just feels like a great local pub. It’s just north of the river from the centre, in the area where most of the Strangers settled – known as ‘Over-the-Water’, this is still a slightly odd area, within the walls but still semi-detached from the main part of the city. Nine of its seventeen churches still stand – it’s remarkable that so many of them have been taken over by theatrical or musical groups.

I’ve also enjoyed visiting the King’s Head, which has at least a dozen real ales on tap (and mild is always available, but keg isn’t), and the Vine, right in the centre, which is the city’s smallest pub and serves good beers and better Thai food. For something totally different, the Belgian Monk offers a wide range of, yes, Belgian beers and food (mussels and all that) – it’s more restaurant than pub, but still, pretty authentic and not bad value.

As you’ll recall from my post on Cambridge’s pubs, the dominant breweries in East Anglia are Greene King and Adnams, but there are a couple of smaller ones in the Norwich area. Lacons in Yarmouth was founded in 1760 and closed in 1968; it reopened in 2013, with the original yeast strain retrieved from deep-freeze in the Norwich-based National Collection of Yeast Cultures. I’ve also enjoyed the Weizen (wheat beer) from the Grain Brewery, not in the Isle of Grain but a few miles south of Norwich.

King’s Lynn – still a town with potential

It’s easy to think of King’s Lynn simply as a port that has lost much of its trade, and may lose more after Brexit – but it has a wealth of medieval and Georgian architecture and some interesting cultural offerings too. Unlike, say, Boston in Lincolnshire, it seems to have been enhanced by migration from Eastern Europe, with Polish and Lithuanian shops that are not just places for the homesick to buy sausages and pickles, but offer new and interesting products – there’s a really good butchers, apparently, and a bar. The splendid Majestic Cinema, built in 1928, was saved from demolition in 2001 by being listed (after a dogged campaign) and continues to offer interesting films, and the King’s Lynn Festival is excellent and well supported. All in all, the town has some rough edges but plenty of heart.

Its name comes from the Celtic word linn, meaning pool (as in Dublin or black pool), and North, South and West Lena were all salt-making settlements where sand was separated from brine and used to reclaim land, creating three islands between the four fleets or streams running west into what is now the Ouse (until around 1220 this flowed into the Wash just to the west near Wisbech).

In 1101 the first (Norman) Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, laid out a town with a church and priory, and a market held on Saturdays beside it. By 1146 this site was already too constrained, and the third Bishop of Norwich, William de Turbe, extended it to the north beyond the Purfleet, with a new church (technically a chapel) and a huge square for markets on Tuesdays. Bishop’s Lynn was granted a charter by King John in 1204, when it was the fourth biggest port in England; in October 1216 John set out from here and famously lost his baggage train in the Wash, struggling onwards to die in Newark. From around 1270 the port had strong links with the Hanseatic League ports and in particular with Hamburg and Bremen, which led to a trade boom; in the fourteenth century this was England’s main port. (There’s still a Hanse Bulk Terminal in the port, and in 2006 Lynn became the first British member of the new Hanse Network, which now includes 190 cities in 16 countries; appropriately the community organisation, founded in 2013, that works to integrate Eastern Europeans here is called the Hanseatic Union.)

The Trinity Guildhall

By the 1280s the market by the original St Margaret’s church was being held every day except Tuesdays, and the town was extended to the south to the River Nar, beyond what is now the park known as The Walks. As well as two marketplaces, the town also had two guildhalls, and all of them have survived to this day. On the Saturday Market Place, the Trinity Guildhall was built in 1421 and is the largest surviving medieval guildhall in England; its chequered stone and flint flushwork front is very striking, and behind are the assembly rooms, added in 1766. It became the town hall, and now houses the Stories of Lynn museum and café, which allows access on Tuesdays and Sundays to the town hall, where you can see the town’s charters and regalia (notably a fourteenth-century cup of enamelled silver and a sword) as well as ceremonial silver that testifies to the town’s seventeenth-century royalist bias, almost unique among East Anglian towns. The other guildhall, to the north, contains a rare example of an Elizabethan theatre (Shakespeare’s company played here, although there’s no proof that Will himself was in town); owned by the National Trust, it’s now the King’s Lynn Arts Centre. The town actually became Lynn Regis in 1537 when Henry VIII changed its name, as part of his undermining of the Church, and this was soon anglicised as King’s Lynn (the apostrophe can go astray).

Vancouver and the Custom House

The town’s most striking building is the Custom House, built by the Purfleet in 1683, and now housing the tourist information centre. Beside it is a statue of Lynn’s most famous son, Captain George Vancouver (1757-98), who sailed on Cook’s second and third voyages and led his own expedition in 1791-5, most notably surveying every inlet of the Pacific North West coast, including the island and the future city that now bear his name (see these posts), and north past the Lynn Canal as far as what is now Anchorage in Alaska. His father was Deputy Collector of Customs, but the family had arrived from Coevorden (then spelled Coeverden – hence Van Coeverden) in the eastern Netherlands in the late 17th century, following Cornelius Vermuyden, the great Dutch engineer who drained the Fens and straightened their rivers.

Georgian houses stand on land reclaimed from the river (Nelson, King and Queen Streets mark the original waterfront), and some grand Victorian buildings were added, notably the neoclassical Corn Exchange (1854) on Tuesday Market Place. The drainage of the fens led to the growth of agriculture in the area, but Lynn was losing its importance as a port as trade shifted to the west coast, for access to the Atlantic. Modern development began with a Campbells Soup factory in the 1950s, followed by designation as a London overflow in 1962 and predictably unfortunate town centre redevelopment. Trade with the EU picked up in the 1970s, but in the 21st century the best hopes for regeneration seem to be pinned largely on developments by Sainsbury and Tesco.

Some old buildings

St Margaret’s church (which became King’s Lynn Minster in 2011) is superb, but it’s not the town’s oldest building – this title goes to All Saints church, which may have some pre-Norman components, although it was rebuilt in the fifteenth century. The oldest secular buildings are 28-32 King St, where a timber-framed house was built c1300 over the remains of a stone house dating from c1200; the next oldest are the remains of St Margaret’s Priory, built in the fourteenth century and now private houses on the south side of the church. But for me, the town’s most striking building is the Chapel of St Nicholas, bigger than most churches, which was built in 1146 and rebuilt after 1380 in Perpendicular style with huge windows (their stained glass was destroyed in 1941, so the chapel is now very light). It’s known for the memorial slabs (near the font) to a couple of local men called Robinson Cruso, which may have been seen by Daniel Defoe. It became redundant in 1989, but is beautifully maintained and open five days a week.

28-32 King Street

Opposite the Minster is the vicarage, which was home to the organist and historian of English music Dr Charles Burney – his children included the novelist Fanny (born here in 1752), who wrote in her diaries about Lynn life, and James, who also sailed with Captain Cook (and witnessed his death) and became an admiral. Just south is a fine Georgian mansion known as St Margaret’s House, fashioned in 1755 for the brewer and mayor Edward Everard from the rear of the Hanse House; dating from 1475, this is the only surviving hanseatic warehouse building in England, and now houses the Rathskeller restaurant. Just north on the waterfront is Marriott’s Warehouse, built around 1580, which also houses an attractive restaurant, as well as the Green Quay Wash Interpretation Centre, explaining the geography and biology of the estuary/bay between Norfolk and Lincolnshire.

Hanse House
A couple of museums

Just north of the Chapel of St Nicholas (the patron saint of sailors, of course) is True’s Yard, a lovely little museum created out of a couple of fishermen’s cottages, which maintains the memory of the tight little North End community, where almost everyone was known by a nickname; Ralph Vaughan-Williams came here in 1905 and collected various folk songs, the best-known being The Captain’s Apprentice.
The main Lynn Museum is housed in the old Union Chapel next to the bus station; the main hall is full of good local history, but its main claim to fame is the recreation of one half of the so-called Seahenge (obviously it was on dry land when it was erected). Fifteen to 20 oak trees were felled in 2049 BC, yielding 55 oak posts up to 3m high which were raised in a 6.6m-diameter circle around an inverted stump, on which the body of some important figure may have been placed for what the Tibetans call ‘sky burial’.

And the public transport bit

It was a bit of a surprise that the railway north from Cambridge and Ely not only survived the Beeching cuts but was electrified in 1993 – but this was at the cost of reducing some of the line to single track, and providing a strong enough power supply (and long enough platforms) only for four-carriage trains. In our hypermobile present age people are popping up to London all the time and commuting to Cambridge and beyond, so the aim is to double the train service to Kings Cross to two per hour – but this depends on re-doubling the line through Ely North Junction, and the money isn’t currently there. Being Britain, where all rail projects are far more complex and expensive than on the continent, the government has simply commissioned another study.

And finally, North Norfolk

It’s not far (a couple of hours by bike, an hour and 20 minutes by the twice-hourly Coasthopper bus) to Burnham Market, centre of a group of villages on the North Norfolk coast that are all associated with the childhood of Admiral Lord Nelson, and all have pubs named after him (the Nelson, the Hero) or one of his protegés, such as William Hoste. Burnham Market has become known as Chelsea-on-Sea (though it’s not actually on the coast) and is totally clogged with visiting 4X4s in summer; the other Burnhams (Thorpe, Overy etc) are as lovely but don’t have the Humble Pie deli, the Tuscan Farm Shop, Gun Hill Clothing Co. or Gurney’s fish shop. Fortunately, a new 186-space village car park was opened in 2016, which should help. At the attractive little (largely 14th-century) church of St Mary the Virgin I found that Nelson’s daughter Horatia, who lived here with her widowed uncle, was engaged to one curate but ended up marrying his replacement in this church in 1822 – so Jane Austen wasn’t making this stuff up!

Burnham Overy Staithe

The coastal wetlands are very popular with birdwatchers and others who like bracing walks to welcoming pubs, but this area always reminds me of one of my favourite films, Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the equally fab original novel, studied creative writing at UEA in Norwich, and it’s to Cromer that they go on a day trip (though it’s Clevedon pier in the film). At the end the doomed lovers go to a stranded boat, which is on Holkham beach, rather more famous for the closing scene of Shakespeare in Love.