One of the five largest cities in Norman England, NORWICH once served a vast hinterland of East Anglian cloth producers, whose work was brought here by river and then exported elsewhere. Its isolated position beyond the Fens meant that it enjoyed closer links with the Low Countries than with the rest of England and, by 1700, Norwich was the second richest city in the country after London. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, however, Norwich lost ground to the northern manufacturing towns – the city’s famous mustard company, Colman’s, is one of its few industrial success stories – and this has helped preserve much of the ancient street plan and many of the city’s older buildings. Pride of place goes to the beautiful cathedral and the sterling castle, but the city’s hallmark is its medieval churches, thirty or so squat flintstone structures with sturdy towers and sinuous stone tracery round the windows. Many are no longer in regular use and are now in the care of the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, whose website describes each church in precise detail.
Norwich’s relative isolation has also meant that the population has never swelled to any great extent and today, with just 140,000 inhabitants, it remains an easy and enjoyable city. Yet Norwich is no provincial backwater. In the 1960s, the foundation of the University of East Anglia (UEA) made it more cosmopolitan and bolstered its arts scene, while in the 1980s it attracted new high-tech companies, who created something of a mini-boom, making the city one of England’s wealthiest. As East Anglia’s unofficial capital, Norwich also lies at the hub of the region’s transport network, serving as a useful base for visiting the Broads and as a springboard for the north Norfolk coast.Read More
The CathedralOf all the medieval buildings in Norwich, it’s the Cathedral that fires the imagination: a mighty, sand-coloured structure finessed by its prickly octagonal spire, it rises to a height of 315ft, second only to Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire. Entered via the Hostry, a glassy, well-proportioned visitor centre, the interior is pleasantly light thanks to a creamy tint in the stone and the clear glass windows of much of the nave, where the thick pillars are a powerful legacy of the Norman builders who began the cathedral in 1096. The nave’s architectural highlight is the ceiling, a finely crafted affair whose delicate and geometrically precise fan vaulting is adorned by several dozen roof bosses. Pushing on down the south (right) side of the ambulatory, you soon reach St Luke’s Chapel and the cathedral’s finest work of art, the Despenser Reredos, a superb painted panel commissioned to celebrate the crushing of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Accessible from the south aisle of the nave are the cathedral’s unique cloisters. Built between 1297 and 1450, and the only two-storey cloisters left standing in England, they contain a remarkable set of sculpted bosses, similar to the ones in the main nave, but here they are close enough to be scrutinized without binoculars. The dominant theme of the fabulously intricate carving is the Apocalypse, but look out also for the bosses depicting green men, originally pagan fertility symbols.
The cathedral precincts
Outside, in front of the main entrance, stands the medieval Canary Chapel. This is the original building of Norwich School, whose blue-blazered pupils are often visible during term time – the rambling school buildings are adjacent. A statue of the school’s most famous boy, Horatio Nelson, faces the chapel, standing on the green of the Upper Close, which is guarded by two ornate and imposing medieval gates, Erpingham and, a few yards to the south, Ethelbert. Beside the Erpingham gate is a memorial to Edith Cavell, a local woman who was a nurse in occupied Brussels during World War I. She was shot by the Germans in 1915 for helping allied prisoners to escape, a fate that made her an instant folk hero; her grave is outside the cathedral ambulatory. Both gates lead onto the old Saxon marketplace, Tombland, a wide and busy thoroughfare whose name derives from the Saxon word for an open space.
The Market Place
The Market Place
From Blackfriars Hall, it’s a short walk through to the city’s Market Place, site of one of the country’s largest open-air markets (closed Sun), with stalls selling everything from bargain-basement clothes to local mussels and whelks. Four very different but equally distinctive buildings oversee the market’s stripy awnings, the oldest of them being the fifteenth-century Guildhall, a capacious flint and stone structure begun in 1407. Opposite, commanding the heights of the marketplace, are the austere City Hall, a lumbering brick pile with a landmark clocktower that was built in the 1930s in a Scandinavian style, and The Forum, a large and flashy, glassy structure completed in 2001. The latter is home to the city’s main library and the tourist office. On the south side of Market Place is the finest of the four buildings, St Peter Mancroft, whose long and graceful nave leads to a mighty stone tower, an intricately carved affair surmounted by a spiky little spire.
Back outside and just below the church is Gentlemen’s Walk, the town’s main promenade, which runs along the bottom of the marketplace and abuts the Royal Arcade, an Art Nouveau extravagance from 1899. The arcade has been beautifully restored to reveal the swirling tiling, ironwork and stained glass.