An insider's guide to the county's best kept secrets
Our fine city of Norwich is one of the UK’s top ten shopping destinations. Chapelfields indoor retail centre and the endless pubs and restaurants of the redeveloped riverside compete with larger cities’ modern amenities but in my opinion Norwich makes its mark because it’s both current and bathed in history. A city breaks that brings you more than 1500 historic buildings and a labyrinth of medieval streets, lanes and alleys; a mix of independent retailers and chain stores housed in the remains of its 14th century city walls.
A walk from Carrow Hill, through Kings Street (passing the music house, Norwich’s oldest domestic dwelling) will bring you to Tombland (meaning open space), a site of the city’s Saxon origins, leading onto the cobbled streets of Elm Hill, dating back to A.D 1200. These old lanes still contain a range of medieval to Georgian buildings and provide an excellent opportunity to browse history with independent old school shopping.
History of Norwich – the Castle
A visit to historical Norwich must first begin with its impressive castle, a now a museum and art gallery. Founded by William the Conqueror between 1066 and 1075, it is one of only 48 castles mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086. During this time Norwich was the largest city in England after London. Today the castle’s museum still contains many of its first exhibits including costumes, textiles and jewellery plus an art gallery of work from the 17th to 20th century. You can take a tour of the castle, dungeon and battlement and there’s a vibrant events schedule of workshops, exhibitions and clubs to get involved in throughout the year.
Norwich Cathedral and Tombland
Norwich cathedral began life in 1096 and was completed in 1145 with the Norman tower still seen today. The cathedral grounds can be entered via Ethelbert Gate in Tombland. Directly opposite this entrance are streets and alleys of beautiful historical architecture. Tombland bookshop for instance, has a remarkable timber frame dating back to 1450 and is unusual since its gable faces onto the street. It used to be Harvey’s the game dealers but is now an established second hand bookshop.
Tombland Antiques & Collectables is another historic 1541 building now home to the Grey Lady, a ghost thought to have been accidentally locked in during the plague when they sectioned off areas to restrain the outbreak. The area was once the location of a fierce battle too, Kett’s Rebellion, where 20,000 men determined to overthrow the local government took on the Earl of Warwick. The narrow lanes and alleys put the unfamiliar troops at a disadvantage though and Kett’s men were eventually driven from the city. Walking around these untouched streets gives pause for thought of times gone by and you get a real sense of just how old Norwich really is.
Elm Hill is my favourite place to wander in the sunshine; the cobbled winding streets are a delight as are the independent retailers. Wealthy merchants used to live here in their grand abodes hundreds of years ago with their factories at the rear and their employees between them and the river. As the weaving industry declined in the 19th century however, the area slowly degenerated into a slum but it was renovated in the 1920s when it was thankfully recognised for its historical and architectural value.
Briton’s Arms is a must see; a 15th century thatched building that was the only house to escape the fire of 1507. Originally a ‘Beguinage’ it was home to a group of single women who devoted their lives to prayer and charitable work. In 1760 it became an ale house and there is a record of a conviction in 1937 of selling alcohol out of hours – the proprietor was fined £1. It is now an enjoyable coffee shop and the Norwich Preservation Trust are busy raising funds for re-thatching repair work which is underway.
There’s a good selection of specialist independent shops here ranging from antiques and curiosities to bookshops, stamp shops and even an old school teddy bear store. Elm Hill Craft Shop was one of the first proper craft shops to emerge from the arts movement, and the age of William Morris inspired Doris Jewson and Joyce Wilkinson to sell handmade woven rugs which they made upstairs. Christina Morris has run it for the past 35 years and now sells traditional toys, dolls house miniatures, stationary and gifts. Elm Hill Collectables is another fascinating building, again a 15th century merchant’s house of the Pettus family. Much of its original timber work remains and the first floor still has the extended joists which jut out over the pavement, a common devise in Tudor times to gain more floor space without buying more land.
This unison of shopping through the ages – historical architectural buildings and nostalgic specialist retailers – forms a refreshing contrast to the modern development of the city. I urge you to open your mind to retail therapy as you know it and step into the past and present combined.
This article was written for Norfolk on my Mind magazine's June 2014 issue: www.norfolkonmymind.co.uk