Of 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.