Thursday, 19 December 2013

Drayton: the ghost of a great poet

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IN the middle of a heath, an incongruous clump of pampas grass. Look closer and you might be able to see that the land is suspiciously flat between the pampas and the copse. It’s the site, the exact footprint, of the old David Rice Psychiatric Hospital. It was built in the late 30s of the last century and demolished in the mid-noughties of this one. Who would have thought that an ornamental plant would outlive the buildings it was designed to grace?

Now owned by The Lind Trust, this 33 acre site was going to be home to a massive new church. Plans fell through after an acrimonious row with many neighbours. Its future is still uncertain but in the meantime the Trust is more than happy for us walkers to explore its gentle contours. Locals can probably see it returning to nature almost month by month.

It’s been much in my mind this week after discovering a little bit more about the David Rice’s most famous patient. According to the experts, Francis Webb (1925-1973) was one of the best poets Australia has ever produced. But he suffered from terrible mental health problems, so much so that he spent many months here, accidentally getting to know the Wensum valley in the process.

Thanks to the good old Millennium Library I’ve now borrowed a 1969 collection of his poems (It’s an inter-library loan all the way from Bucks, smelling beautifully of second-hand book shops and complete with loan dates stretching back decades. Excellent.)

I thought it would be his poems on named Norfolk places which would get me, instead this vision of a lonely night inside the David Rice knocks you sideways with its raw, melancholic power:

“The side-room has sweated years and patience, rolls its one eye

Skyward, nightward; hours beyond sleep I lie;

And the fists of some ardent Plimsoll have laboured this wall

Clear of its plaster beside my chosen head.

Someone murmurs a little, dithers in bed,

Against that frail call

Are imminent the siege-works of a huge nightfall.”

There’s much more, but you get the idea and I better be careful of copyright. His great champion in this country is Cameron Self of Literary Norfolk fame. Cameron knows his stuff. Read his summary to get a proper idea of what a big name Webb is in Australia, but also how Norfolk should claim him as one of our own.

I found it slightly eerie walking across this site even before Bucks came up trumps. The demo guys have done such a thorough job that there is very little evidence left of the hospital. But nevertheless the odd drain cover – and pampas grass - means that you somehow feel the absence of a building.

Throw in the “siege-works of a huge nightfall” and it’s safe to say you probably won’t find me up here after dark.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Picture Post: Sunrise on the Wensum

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TOP tip for lazy photographers: don’t get up at 4am in the summer when you can get a good sunrise at just gone 8am during the winter. This is the Wensum at Drayton yesterday, looking south-east from the old railway bridge over Marriotts Way. Sunrise 051

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Drayton: Who was EBR at the DOL?

Drayton Old Lodge

THIS is Drayton Old Lodge, a lovely wedding venue overlooking the Wensum Valley in the village of Drayton. It was a nurses’ home until roughly the early 1990s and then spent a decade or so as a conference centre. Today I would call it a hotel, but the website fights shy of that term. So “venue” it is.DOL 026 sq I thought it had been built in 1914 as a purpose-built nurses’ home, but now I’m not so sure – and that’s where I need your help. Take a look at this crest. it doesn’t feel “corporate” to me. There’s some suggestion that the building didn’t become a Home till 1917. So I’m wondering if this was a posh old pile where perhaps the owner perished during the First World War. But that’s complete speculation at the moment.

It’s a great spot, one of many along the Wensum where I have the sacrilegious desire to chop down dozens of trees. Without the woods on the hillside, you would have a gorgeous view down onto the river valley below. But I digress. Who can EBR have been in Drayton in 1914? And how was he (she?) related to HR. If you can help, please email me at

December 15th update:

It probably closed as a nurses home in the 1970s rather than the 1990s. Documents at the Norfolk Record Office talk of it being the home of the Norwich Health Authority between 1975 and 1993. The NRO also has some great black and white photos of nurses at the home taken in the late 1930s. The photos of Sister Parr, Nurse Fincham and Nellie Burton were handed in anonymously in 2009. If that was you, do get in touch. Sadly though, the NRO had nothing to help me work out how the building started life.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The bloody legend of Bloods Dale

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I GET the impression that many people who live in Drayton don’t really see much of the River Wensum. Busy commuters could be forgiven for not  even realising it’s there, hidden beyond the Low Road while they take the High Road to Norwich. Perhaps the legend of the bloody battle of Bloods Dale can tempt them. Here’s my first draft:

The land climbs steadily from the Wensum between the Low Road and the High Road in Drayton. A footpath bisects the two roads and just to the north lies an idyllic spot at the centre of a grisly legend.

It’s a field, trapezoidal in shape, with the unlikely name of Bloods Dale. And local tradition maintains that this was the site of an epic battle between the Danes and the Saxons in the Dark Ages.

“In a plantation near the road are traces of an entrenchment; and at a short distance is Bloods dale, said to be the scene of a battle in the Saxon era,” wrote one Victorian chronicler.

Notice how we all say “said to be”. No-one has the remotest bit of evidence, but tantalisingly 13 skeletons were dug up a short distance from here by navvies digging the Midland & Great Northern railway line in the 19th century.

All that we can be sure of is that the “Bloods Dale” name has a long lineage. A 15th century document talks of land called “Blodeshille” and “Blodisdale” owned by a Walter Nich of nearby Taverham. The first edition of the OS map from 1884 shows it as a large field running from Low Road to the brow of the hill, while a 1913 edition adds the wood we still see today.

And look again at your current OS Explorer. Bloods Dale is picked out from among all the other dozens of field names the cartographers could have chosen in the area. Well done Ordnance Survey for helping to keep this faint historical whisper alive down the centuries.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Remembering Drayton Station

Drayton Station Archive 1

WHO’S old and lives in Drayton? I’m writing up Drayton Station and I could do with a bit of local knowledge. The station closed in the late 60s so I need someone with more than a few grey hairs,

If I’ve got things right, Station Road is to the immediate right of this photo, making the building to the right of the footbridge the station itself. It’s the left hand side of the tracks which I need help with. Were there sidings over there? And what are those white gates all about? Was this perhaps an area where cattle were kept before getting on cattle trucks? If you remember Drayton Station in its heyday please email me at or leave a comment below. Many thanks.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Low Down at Hellesdon

Low Road Hellesdon

ANOTHER conundrum courtesy of ebay. This is Low Road at Hellesdon, but where exactly? We’re looking north, but I can’t place this combination of gradient and curve of the river. Do email me at if you can help.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

King Street’s forgotten church

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HERE’S the last piece of my King Street jigsaw. The long shadows of early morning at the remains of St Peter Southgate just off King Street. The 12th century church was all but demolished in 1887. But these sturdy remains of a 15th century tower survive to look kindly over a children’s park.

It’s not easy to find. Southgate Lane is a tiny alley at the King Street end and not much broader up on Bracondale. It’s also the local park for Argyle Street residents - although it was a surprise to me to see that many houses there look set for demolition.

So King Street finished. Next stop Drayton.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

King Street: reflections of the past

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I’VE collected a shelf-full of local books over the last ten years or so. And a dark green hardback with a ripped dust jacket and a 16 shilling price tag is proving very useful for the King Street chapter.

If Stones Could Speak was written by R H Mottram. Mottram was a novelist and a First World War poet who loved the city of Norwich. He was its Lord Mayor in 1953 and was also a staunch defender of Mousehold Heath. If Stones… is a romp through the history of Norwich, but done geographically rather than historically. So Chapter VI, for example, is dedicated to King Street:

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“There is no doubt as to which of the Norwich streets is most connected with the sea. In King Street you find the signs of the Ship and the Old Barge, the Ferry Inn and the Keel and Wherry. One of its by-streets, descending the deep slope to the west of it, is Mariners Lane. Here is Waterman’s Yard and Swan Yard.

“For half its length, the long, straight, street leading due south from the old market-place on Tombland, into South Norfolk, runs parallel with the River Wensum.

“Here, at the continuous line of “staithes”, as they call a quay or landing place in Norfolk, are tied up the craft, mainly registered in London or north-west Europe, that bring to Norwich all varieties of bulky, non-perishable goods. Mills and breweries, engineering and constructional works line the banks, which, like so many things in Norwich, have never become entirely sacrificed to ruthless commerce”.

I’m going to quote at least that last paragraph in my book. It seems to sum up a 1950s King Street very nicely. A non-conformist, Mottram was buried in a beautiful spot within the Rosary Road cemetery. Forty two years after his death, all hail Ralph Hale Mottram.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

A viaduct across the Wensum

Wensum Viaduct3

THIS wonderful vision of an alternative future for the King Street riverside comes from possibly the most famous document the city council has ever produced.

City of Norwich Plan 1945 mapped out a 50-year blueprint across 135 pages of elegant prose. (When did council officials stop writing in plain English?)

An inner ring road and an outer ring road would converge on this tall viaduct “carrying a high-level road from Bracondale to the railway bridge at the junction of Carrow Road and Clarence Road.” It would be, they claimed, “a light and elegant structure of great beauty, and would command a wonderful view of the old city from which it would be seen as a terminating feature and a break between it and the commercial and industrial zone further down the river valley”.

The conventional 21st century wisdom is to say thank goodness it was never built – to be fair it was controversial from the start. But I’m not so sure. In fact I can’t argue with a word of the authors’ comments. And even if you do, remember that the inner ring road is still not complete some 70 years later. To this day traffic still crawls down King Street and across Carrow Bridge to get to Thorpe St Andrew.

The 1945 masterplan is worth quoting elsewhere – particularly with regard to the river:

“While Norwich has turned her back to the Wensum, industry has helped herself. At present the river is looked upon chiefly as a commercial utility providing a cheap form of transport; but unfortunately whilst rendering this old established service, it has encouraged the evil of an ugly spread of unsightly buildings and ramshackle sheds along its banks as well as the defilement of its waters by effluent from various factories…

“Except for short stretches of its course, the Wensum is at present overshadowed by grim walls, hidden by ugly barriers and inaccessible to the public as an amenity within the city: the potential attractions of the river are almost lost. We propose that its banks should be cleaned wherever possible and opened up for the public to enjoy the pleasures of the river which is one of the largest open spaces in the city.”

We’ve come a long way haven’t we? Nice work messrs C H Jones FRIBA, S Rowland Pierce FRIBA and H C Rowley, City Engineer.

* More on the viaduct from Nick J Stone here.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Welcome to the Wensum Way

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NORFOLK gets a new footpath tomorrow – or at least it’s officially unveiled tomorrow. Twelve miles of decent track close to the River Wensum sounds good enough to me, but the council is keen to let us know that it completes a missing link as well.

The Wensum Way runs from Gressenhall to Lenwade. And in doing so it creates a mammoth 96 mile walk by linking the Nar Valley Way to Marriotts Way. Now it’s possible to walk from King’s Lynn right across to Great Yarmouth without those pesky internal combustion engines getting in the way.

What follows comes direct from the council:

“The Wensum Way passes close to 26 county wildlife sites and four Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Even the River Wensum itself is a
designated European Special Area of Conservation. Over 270 species have been recorded in the river valley, from plants, butterflies and moths, 18 recorded species of dragonfly and damselfly to otters, water voles and eight types of bat.

“Keen-eyed birdwatchers can glimpse over 200 species of birds including bitterns and marsh harriers. Surfaces, signposting and furniture on the Wensum Way is the same standard as the UK's prestigious National Trails. Work to upgrade 1200 miles-worth of designated countryside paths to this high standard has been systematically carried out by the County Council across the network to create the portfolio of footpaths known as the Norfolk Trails.”

A portfolio of footpaths? Please no. But how many Norfolk trails are there? And how many Norfolk pub quiz teams would get a full house? Here goes:

Angles Way, Boudicca Way, Cross-Norfolk Trail, Marriotts Way, Nar Valley Way, Norfolk Coast Path, Paston Way, Peddars Way, Weavers Way and the Wherryman’s Way.

More details here:

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Dragon Hall’s mysterious neighbour

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I SHOULD be writing up Dragon Hall, but I’ve been diverted by its mysterious neighbour. Dragon Hall is to the left of this picture. It’s a 15th century trading hall, built by the wealthy merchant Robert Toppes and now open to the public as a museum.

But what’s next door? A medieval first floor along quite a stretch of King Street, curiously suspended on 20th century pillars. Everything is boarded up at all levels and no-one seems to know who owns it or what their plans might be. I vaguely remember it being home to the electrical retailers Bennetts, but that was years ago wasn’t it?

So what next for 125-127 King Street? Do get in touch if you’ve got any info about this remarkable survivor.

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Monday, 7 October 2013

King Street: the new and the old


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I DON’T think I’ve walked down King Street at any time in the last 20-odd years and not seen signs of life in some quarters and old-fashioned decay in others. The road vies with Colegate for the tag of most interesting street in Norwich, but blimey, the promised gentrification is slow coming.

So while there are trendy designers at Nether Conesford in the top picture, the lower one shows the old Utting’s garage supplies shop now in urgent need of some TLC. The writing scrawled over the gaffer tape on the red front door reads “no mail please, house subject to court order”. Enough said. Elsewhere on King Street the combination of scaffolding and boarded up wasteland must make it harder for Dragon Hall to pull in the punters.

The new developments on the site of the old Morgans Brewery (Polypin Yard, Fuggles Yard etc) were meant to be the trigger for regeneration, so too the new bridges across the Wensum. Both have played a part, together with the lively Kings Community Church where the Lads Club once flourished. But we’re not there yet. Will it be another 20 years before it’s job done?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Eaton: What no Waitrose?

Yare from Cringleford Bridge
THIS picture gets better the more you look at it. It’s taken from Cringleford Bridge with Eaton church in the background. It slowly dawns on you (thanks Pete and Jon) that we must be looking roughly across the current Waitrose car park.

Closer inspection from Katy W and Google Maps reveals that there is still marshland between the bridge and the church. So the Waitrose land would only cover the extreme left of the picture.

The huge increase in the number of trees makes it very difficult to get a modern day shot which bears any relation to this one.  Unless anyone knows different?

This canoe-view shot taken a few years ago is the nearest I've got, but I was downstream looking north on to the other side of the church. It's a beautiful spot for a paddle.

Masterpieces: our art, right here

Copyright The Munnings Collection at The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

THE University of East Anglia is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. And a new exhibition at The Sainsbury Centre is doing its bit to put the EA into UEA. Some 270 exhibits from 65 collections have been brought together to celebrate the varied art produced and inspired by Norfolk and Suffolk over the centuries. And they do cover every inch from Sizewell to Holbrook to King’s Lynn. From the Halesworth heiress on her deathbed to a John Piper painting of tiny Hales Church near Loddon. If nothing else Masterpieces gives the lie to any notion that Big Art is about Big Cities.

We’re lured in by “Faces of East Anglia”, with exhibits ranging from a copper alloy head of the Emperor Claudius found in the River Alde, to a bronze bust of Albert Einstein. Immediately it’s clear that we’re not just dealing with paintings. The Team Lotus Formula One car might be a bit of a gimmick, but throughout the exhibition curator Ian Collins gives books, clothing and maps equal billing with more traditional artwork

Broads fans will be glad to see the 19th century classic “On English Lagoons” artfully left open at the beginning of a chapter.

“A miserable day. Of all the melancholy joys of life, perhaps a wet day afloat is the worst,” writes PH Emerson.

We skip lightly through both centuries and themes. Collins delights in unusual juxtapositions. A flint handaxe from 700,000 years ago found on Happisburgh beach, sits next to the similarly-sized “Reclining Figure” by the sculptor Henry Moore. Constable paintings hang next to those of John Crome, a landscape painter of the Norwich School. A storm scene on Yarmouth beach by Crome’s colleague John Sell Cotman is the neighbour of a more famous storm painted off the same coast by JMW Turner.

The 20th century is well-represented. I love John Piper’s dark paintings of churches, but Edward Burra was a new name to me. Look out for Sugar Beet with its ghostly, transparent figures. Why so? “Don’t you find as you get older, you start seeing through everything?” he’s quoted as saying in the accompanying blurb.

Good blurbs are important for us rank amateurs. These ones are good. I particularly enjoyed the guest writers. We have the former Norwich MP Charles Clarke on an 18th century “Prospect of Norwich”, while the thoughts of the Dean of St Edmundsbury sit well next to a modern crucifixion piece by Elizabeth Frink.

I could go on. but you’ll find your own favourites. A Suffolk Horse Fair, Lavenham (pictured) by Mendham-born Alfred Munnings perhaps, or a portrayal of the Battle of Sole Bay by the Dutchman Willem van de Velde.

But just finally, remember “A History of the World in 100 objects” at the British Museum and on Radio 4? Well Masterpieces takes 270 exhibits just for our small corner. But nevertheless it has a similar breadth, depth and sheer ambition. Get along while you can.

* Masterpieces, The Sainsbury Centre at the UEA until February 24th, 2014. Adults £8, family ticket £20.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Picture Post: The Wensum warehouse

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ONTO King Street now and does anyone know who owns this warehouse  and what it’s used for? To help you get your bearings the top photo is taken from the Riverside development side of the Wensum, with the red-brick building to the right being the Waterfront. This is virtually the last “old school” building left on the Riverside now. Baltic Wharf, Albion Mill and Cannon Wharf survive only as the names of plush new apartment blocks. I feel I should do justice to the only really wharfish thing left along this stretch. Apart from anything else, how long will it survive?

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BTW these photos were taken before 7am yesterday. Hard as it to get out of bed at 6am on a day off, the quality of pictures is just so much better. No wind, a still river and beautiful soft sunlight.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Thorpe Hamlet: Fledglings at The Nest

The Nestx

ANOTHER great photo courtesy of Picture Norfolk’s ever-growing Flickr collection. This shows youngsters at The Nest - Norwich City’s ground between 1908-1935.The gasometer in the top left, gives you a sense of perspective. It survives close to the Lollards Pit pub. The ground itself was off Rosary Road in Thorpe Hamlet. Picture Norfolk wants someone to help them with when the photo might have been taken. Contact them via this link. And let me know too.

I’ve written my entry on The Nest. And I’ve had a bit of a result when it comes to finding a fan. I’ve found a regular at Carrow Road who can also remember the last few seasons at The Nest. That must make him City’s most dedicated supporter. But you’ll have to wait till the book comes out for the full story……

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Thorpe Hamlet: an old priory

St Leonard's Priory 1906

ONCE upon a hill in Thorpe Hamlet there was a priory. It was built by the Normans and from there the first monks had a great view of the cathedral emerging in the meadows across the Wensum.

The priory sat on the corner of what is now Gas Hill and St Leonard’s Road. Like countless other religious buildings it was sacked in the aftermath of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. And like countless others it was then taken over by a toff – Earl Surrey in this case. The history gets a bit complicated after that because Kett’s rebels occupied the building during the summer of 1549. And after that its fortunes waxed and waned according to whether the Surreys were in or out of favour with the relevant monarch. St Leonard's sale particulars

Picture-wise we’ve skipped forward to 1906. This shot is taken from sale particulars which nevertheless talk about “the ruins of the Norman Priory” still existing in the house’s substantial gardens. Apparently they included parts of a gate tower, a church and a precinct well. Mary Ash’s excellent history of Thorpe Hamlet quotes a lady called Lorna Hewitt who was born in the house. (I guess her parents might even been the ones who bought it in 1906.) She remembers her grandmother seeing a ghost in the cellar and an incredibly deep well in the garden - 200ft she reckoned. 

This building was demolished in the 1970s. Now two modern buildings share the site. But are there any remains left today? Any ghosts too? I wonder.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The secret views from Thorpe Hamlet

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IT’S been a dodgy old spring. So when there is the promise of soft, evening sunlight, you simply have to seize the moment. I’ve been rooting around in Thorpe Hamlet for a while now, researching what I think is one of Norwich’s most under-rated suburbs. Take Beatrice Road (pictured below) for  example, it ain’t this leafy in the Golden Triangle.

Beatrice Road

But its great secret is the view (see main picture). Perched on the only high ground, many lucky residents have stunning panoramas of the cathedral and the city beneath them.

And then there are the very un-Norwich like gradients. The steep slopes put off the developers until the mid-19th century. Until then much of the land was part of a much broader Mousehold Heath. Even the name “Thorpe Hamlet” didn’t exist. But when a gas works was built on one end of the escarpment and a railway station arrived at the foot of the other end, things changed quickly.

Hamlet Houses

In the words of the Hamlet’s historian Geoffrey Goreham, the builders “saw in the chalk slopes and tree-covered valleys a challenge for their ingenuity.” For the most part those terraced houses endure one hundred years later.

Just finally on Beatrice Road. How many residents know that Beatrice, Florence, Ethel, Ella, Marion and Primrose Roads were named after the six daughters of a wealthy solicitor Isaac Bugg Coaks who bought this land in the late 19th century? After a supposedly worthy career he was struck off in the 1890s for defrauding his clients.

The reputation of his houses has lasted rather longer.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Wanted: memories of Boulton & Paul


PICTURE the scene. It’s 1997 and a young reporter for Anglia TV is covering plans to revive a rundown part of Norwich with new flats, pubs and a cinema. The land is so contaminated that the media have to wear steel toe-capped boots, voluminous yellow overalls and safety glasses. It’s this particular reporter’s debut “piece to camera” and he looks suitably awkward, not to say ridiculous, as a result.

The soil on the site ran thick with the waste of several decades of heavy industrial use, some of it from the railway, much more from a famous Norwich name – the manufacturers Boulton & Paul. Thousands worked here over the decades. The contaminated land would become the Riverside development (pictured above) and guess who the young reporter was? The yellow uniform meant it would take me months to shake off the “tellytubby” nickname in the newsroom.

Boulton and Paul

This photo from Norlink shows how huge the site was. I’ve written a short potted history of the company, but I could really do with the memories of an employee. The last guys left in 1986 so I’m hoping there are plenty of B&P pensioners out there. If you can help please email me at

In the meantime, here’s my first draft:

The company grew from a small ironmonger’s shop set up in Cockey Street (now London Street I think…) in 1797. By the late 1860s it had passed through several owners to come under the control of William Boulton and Dawson Paul.

A wire-netting machine on a factory in Rose Lane was one of its early innovations. It was said that the complicated equipment had to be kept going day and night simply to keep up with world-wide demand. You can see a similar machine in the Bridewell Museum in Norwich.

Boulton & Paul took the Riverside site in 1915, having been asked to build aircraft for the government during the First World War. Amid today’s bars and apartments it’s strange to think that more than 1,500 Sopwith Camels were built here. Not a bad name for one of today’s Riverside pubs I’d have thought. …Beats Norwegian Blue for sure.

After the war the company diversified into more domestic but equally bulky items – everything from chicken houses to cricket pavilions. Those posh greenhouses you see in the grounds of stately homes will normally have a small Boulton & Paul sign embossed in the wrought iron somewhere. And because Riverside had more space, the company soon abandoned Rose Lane to concentrate its efforts on the banks of the Wensum. They even helped build the doomed R101 airship. Famously, the airship crashed over France in 1930, and all hopes for airships as the transport of the future died with her. B&P was always keen to stress that no blame was attached to any of the parts made in Norwich.

The Second World War saw the company employed to make everything from factories to air raid shelters. According to historian Joyce Gurney-Read they made about £13million worth of goods for the war effort. They were also bombed by the Luftwaffe on several occasions.

The post-war years saw a slow but steady downturn which gathered pace from the late 1960s. The last workers were made redundant in 1986. The site lay unused until the late 1990s when the blueprint for today’s mix of shops, pubs and flats slowly emerged. Many of us were sniffy about the warehouse bars and the could-be-anywhere design. But, truth be told, we’re probably slowly being won round. Millions were spent both decontaminating the soil and raising the ground to avoid flood risks. What was once a miserable wasteland now hosts a supermarket, a swimming pool, a cinema and more than 200 apartments, The city council argues that it has fought off the out-of-town threat as a result. And, crucially, we can walk alongside the river from the station right down to the football ground. If that walk ever continued to Whitlingham it really would be “job done”.

* Much more on the always-authoritative HEART heritage site here.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Ferry Boat: Backpack or Backtrack?


SO it’s seven years and counting now for the old Ferry Boat on the banks of the Wensum in Norwich. The last of the King Street pubs closed its doors in 2006. Since then it’s been false dawn after false dawn.

Greene King promised a £1million refurb in 2008 but changed its mind, presumably as a result of the looming recession. Then the father and son team behind the Deepdale Farm hostel on the North Norfolk coast came up with a plan to transform it into a “Norwich Backpackers” hostel.

Alister and Jason Borthwick proposed a new building for the car park linked to the original Ferry Boat which would have included some sort of micropub. With the promise of bikes and canoes to hire this seemed a novel way of exploiting the pub’s waterside location. But again there were delays.

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And now? Well now Jason Borthwick tells me that costs soared for the grey building we see on those plans. He continues:

“We approached the council to build a smaller building, keep the ferry boat building exactly as in our original plans, but with a smaller new build on the car park.  Their reaction was that we would need to start the entire process again, from scratch, basically without any reference to the original plans, while saying that a smaller building would have been preferable from day one (not something they told us).  All in all we are far from enamoured with the Norwich City Council planning department and haven't decided a way forward as yet.”

The council says it’s keen to get the site developed having given the original  scheme permission in July 2011.

“Since then, we have advised the applicant on a number of occasions what would be needed to take a revised scheme forward. The latest draft scheme is significantly different from the one approved and so cannot be built under his current consents - this is clear under planning law, which we are bound by.”

So for now we’re back to square one. Whatever the rights and wrongs, I fear a key riverside property will continue to look unloved for a few more years yet.

* Why a King Street pub is so important here.

* More on the 2011 Norwich Backpackers scheme here.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Kett’s Heights: Norwich from on high.

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I FINALLY made it up to Kett’s Heights last week, and instantly felt embarrassed that I’d never made the effort before. For a start there’s this excellent panoramic view over Norwich. Second, a wonderful sense of peace and quiet. And third, well if you’ve got a historical bone in your body, then Kett’s Rebellion of 1549 simply makes more sense from up here. Robert Kett’s massive rag-tag army of rebels were ranged across the high ground from Mousehold Heath to what we now call Thorpe Hamlet. From here, it’s easy to imagine them making camp. From here they held the high ground. From here, in their thousands, I can imagine them feeling pretty invincible.

* Full details on Kett’s Rebellion here.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Wanted on the Wensum: a nickname


IT DOESN’T feel like Norwich does it? But this is the view that greets you just downstream of Carrow Bridge these days. Anyone know if these flats have got an official name yet? Like The Shard or The Gherkin, the building needs a nickname too. The air-conditioning unit? The silver something?

The first decent day of the year meant the Wensum was just crying out to be canoed upon. I did the old “ride & hide” trick to paddle from New Mills down to Trowse and then bike back to the car. I’m out of shape. The shoulder muscles are killing me.

But the weather got warmer, the sky got bluer, the grey wagtails got yellower. After a long cold winter, it was great to be out on the river again.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Cow Tower: Zak to the future


I’M A big fan of Cow Tower in Norwich, but here’s how not to take a photo of it.

It’s a late 14th century “artillery blockhouse”. In other words a free-standing tower which used to be full of soldiers and guns. But the trouble with taking a photo from here is that you have no idea why such a defence would have been needed in this part of the city.

The answer – of course – is location, location, location. Just beyond this photo lies the River Wensum. And while much of the rest of medieval Norwich is protected by walls, the river was pressed into service as a natural moat in this north east corner …with Cow Tower providing a bit of belt and braces. So the best place to take a photo is from the other side of the river to put the whole thing in context.

cow tower zaksWhich is why it’s so disappointing to walk round to Barrack Street to discover that the town planners didn’t quite have their historical heads on, when they gave Zaks planning permission. Incidentally this whole section of Norwich is dripping in medieval history, most notably due to its connections with Kett’s Rebellion of 1549. The rebels swarmed down from Mousehold Heath. At one point during that crazy destructive summer Cow Tower took direct hits. If Zaks wasn’t there you would be able to see the damage. In the future we will look after vistas like this a bit better. Won’t we?

083So we try a bit higher. There must be a good shot from the lower slopes of Mousehold Heath. After all its height is why they had to build the tower so high in the first place. But no, the Zaks roofline ruins that angle as well. You still can’t see the Wensum. So in the end the only way to get a photo with a proper sense of history is to head down to Petch’s Corner and look straight ahead.CT for desktop

You’ve lost the height, which is a shame. But at last you can see the Wensum and appreciate the tower’s strategic position on a bend.

So it’s this final shot you’ll get to see in the book. …But I just wanted to let you know that I had thought about it first.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

A fine village in a fine city - but no pub


I’VE MOVED on now to the tricky subject of Norwich Cathedral. Tricky in that people write massive tomes on this magnificent building and I don’t think I can justify more than about 700 words.

There’s an impressive amount of proper history here of course. A humdinger of a city versus monks row culminating in a 1272 riot which saw at least 13 people die. The dissolution of the priory in 1538, the ejection of the bishop during the Civil War and a near escape during the WW2 bombings.


I think the key is to see it as part of The Close ..which of course runs down to my all-important river. The sheer ambition of its founder Herbert de Losinga all those years ago is impressive. He set out to appropriate a truly massive site – 42 acres in all. Nine hundred years later it survives in its entirety.

So as a close you’ve got a cathedral, a school, and a community. (“A Fine Village in a Fine City” said the Dean back in 1976. Thanks for that Mr Very Reverend.)  Pull’s Ferry used to protect a canal which ran up to the cathedral. And I’ve just been reading some stuff on how The Close used to be full of dodgy alehouses. But by the mid 18th century there were just the five. The Ferry House, The Gate House, The Black Jack, The Three Cranes and the Garden House. There’s a challenge for CAMRA. Reinstating a boozer into the genteel world of The Close …and calling it traditional.

Friday, 1 February 2013

St Andrews–more than just a hall

St Andrews2
I’VE JUST completed my “Over the Water” chapter, meaning that I’ve moved south of the river for the first time into the heart of Norwich. My first job here is a potted history of the buildings around St Andrews Hall. I’ve probably got a bit carried away – 700 words and counting. Here goes:

Up in Yorkshire at Rievaulx Abbey and over in Wales at Tintern, tourists flock to see the splendid ruins of buildings destroyed by the aftermath of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Here in Norwich we have a set of very similar buildings which survived that same 16th century trauma. But because the St Andrews Hall complex comes complete with roof and windows, very few people seem to realise its importance.

OK so the busy city centre location in Norwich doesn’t quite compare to the desolate splendour of Tintern et al, but nevertheless my main point holds: while the vast majority of monasteries and friaries were plundered and pillaged after Henry VIII made his fateful decision, the clever burghers of Norwich managed to buy these buildings en bloc for the city. And as a result St Andrews offers historians the most complete remains of a friary in the country.
As many as 60 Dominican friars once lived here. Pre-reformation, these so-called Blackfriars were just one of a a number of monastic orders in the city. Elsewhere the Carmelites, the Franciscans, the Benedictines and the Augustinians also enjoyed huge influence. But with the exception of the Benedictines at the cathedral, don’t think of them as monks hidden in cloisters. Most were “mendicant friars”. In other words people who preached their faith and begged for alms on the streets. This is Terry Adkin’s summary from the Norwich HEART website:

“As well as teaching the local people the friars also had schools for educating their own members, preparing them for ordination to the priesthood.  Many of the friars attended the universities at Oxford and Cambridge, whilst some studied at universities on mainland Europe.  Their schools in Norwich were of a very high standard and attracted scholars from other parts of the country and Europe.  A future pope, Alexander V, himself a Franciscan, attended the Norwich Greyfriars‘ school before going on to Oxford.  The friaries had extensive libraries, and many of the Norwich friars became authors of international repute.”
That whole religious and cultural landscape was shattered in the 1530s when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. Within a generation many grand buildings simply disappeared; the land re-used by new owners, the stone re-used by new builders.
So all the more credit to the city fathers who saw the way the wind was blowing and moved quickly . Specifically quoting the importance of the Blackfriars’ city centre location, they asked Henry VIII for permission to buy it to 'make the churche a fayer and large halle, well pathed, for the mayor and his bretherne... for their common assemblyes...” The king agreed and the rest is civic history.
The nave of the friars’ vast church became The New Hall, a venue for feasts and courts. Now called St Andrew’s Hall, it is best known for its music and beer festivals. The chancel of the church at first became a municipal chapel. Now called Blackfriars Hall it’s used for concerts, conferences and banquets.
The buildings which survive today sprang up from the remains of a fire in 1413. By then, as historian Helen Sutermeister says, “it is clear that the furnishings of the church had departed far from the austerity advocated by St Dominic himself.”
To the north of the nave lay a cloister with the full panoply of monastic buildings; a kitchen, a chapter house, a frater (refectory) and dorters (sleeping quarters). Many of those buildings survive within the Norwich University of the Arts campus.
A central tower above the old nave and chancel fell down in 1712. According to Sutermeister it was “octagonal, crocketed, faced with freestone and decorated with armorial bearings …the most elaborate part of the whole building.”
It’s a strange but wonderful building to wander around in today. (And remarkably you still can normally wander around it, even if it isn’t formally “open”.) Mostly civic, with a whiff of the spiritual it is a strange amalgam. But take your pint at a beer festival or your seat at music festival and it really does come alive. St Andrews is one of the buildings that truly makes Norwich special.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Blue-sky thinking in Costessey

Cost in snow 015

FINALLY the combination of snow, a blue sky and a day off. IMHO no coffee table book is complete without a couple of snowy pictures. Hence a short trudge - and a gentle trespass - through the snow to revisit the remains of Costessey Hall.

Maybe it’s because I’ve just finished reading the excellent Wolf Hall, but this building felt a lot more historic amid the snow than when I last got my camera out here some eighteen months ago.

This used to be a truly fairy-tale castle. It ended up being demolished shortly after the First World War. It traces its history back to the days of the Catholic Queen Mary, who had to struggle to secure the throne after the death of her Protestant half-brother Edward VI.

Cost in snow 027

One of the people who helped her was Sir Henry Jernegan. His prize was the manor of Costessey here on the banks of the River Tud.

Elsewhere the photos weren’t so easy to come by. The Wensum behind the houses at Costessey (left) was just about worth the walk, while St Edmund’s Church at Taverham (below) is tricky, whatever the weather.

Who allowed trees to be planted there …and there? Cost in snow 031

Story-wise I discovered the Taverham Mill Fishery in an elbow of the Wensum south of the village. There are plans afoot there for a proper nature reserve. …Which all sounds like it’s going to need to be reflected in the Taverham chapter. 

Finally thanks to the man from Anglian Water who helped dig my car out of a slippery, snowy rut with a combination of grit and a shove. Would a free coffee-table book in a couple of years time be a good enough “thank you”, do you think?