Norwich is my home city, quite why I’ve never written about her is a mystery to me. So here it is, what to see in Norwich – an insider’s guide. Come with me to discover a city with more medieval churches than anywhere else north of the Alps, fine Victorian buildings and a sleek modern museum.
WHAT TO SEE IN NORWICH
Norwich is a fine city, it is the most complete medieval city in England, when I was growing up we used to say that there was a church for every week and a pub for every day of the year. Norwich is easy to get to, perfect for a weekend break or as a base to explore more that Norfolk has to offer.
For my money, Norwich Cathedral is the best Cathedral anywhere. I confess that when I was growing up I only had York and Ely to compare it with but now I’ve seen too many to count, all over the world. It is the yardstick by which I judge every ecclesiastical building that I visit. It is the most complete Norman Cathedral in England. The tall and graceful spire is the second tallest in England, the cloisters are second only to Salisbury in size and the surrounding Cathedral Close is one of the largest in Europe and has more people actually living in it than any other.
Inside, the main nave is lofty and light. That glowing white limestone is not Norfolk stone but from Caen, shipped here from William the Conqueror’s home city. There are magnifying mirrors in the nave, make sure you use them to check out the amazing roof bosses. There are more than 1,000 of them telling stories from the bible. You can even download a Norwich Cathedral Roof Boss app!
My journey to and from school allowed me time in between buses to explore. I have spent many hours wandering around the Cloisters of Norwich Cathedral channelling my inner medieval monk. They are a wonderful calm space with great views up to the spire. Look up and you will see more intricately carved bosses. See if you can find the Green Man one.
Pull’s Ferry can be found at the river end of the Cathedral Close, although you can’t actually go in it. This medieval flint building was once a watergate. It was the way that limestone used to build the Cathedral was brought in. In the 11th century a canal flowed from the river up to the Cathedral. The name comes from the ferryman John Pull who used to run the ferry across the river Wensum in the early 19th century.
Go out of the main door of the Cathedral, turn right and right again and you will find yourself at the foot of Elm Hill. A cobbled road winds its way up the hill (yes, a hill – don’t let anybody tell you that Norfolk is flat) edged with fine medieval buildings leaning in. Once you’ve made it to the top, pop into the fine Tudor building at the top that has housed the Briton’s Arms tearooms for as long as I can remember.
ST ANDREW’S AND BLACKFRIARS’ HALLS
As you sit in the Briton’s Arms take a look at the huge flint building opposite. These are the St Andrew’s and Blackfriars’ Halls. When I was growing up they were the venue for concerts, plant shows (my father was a horticulturist, we went to a lot of plant shows) and the like and they still are. What I didn’t know then was that they are the most complete medieval priory complex to survive in the UK.
NORWICH MARKET PLACE
Sitting in the heart of the city of Norwich is a market. Stalls selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, food, fish and chips and clothes under brightly coloured awnings open six days a week and have done since the 11th century.
Right next to the market place is the magnificent flint Guildhall. It is one of the oldest and most ornate in the country and was the seat of city governance until 1930 when the new City Hall opened up behind it.
THE ASSEMBLY HOUSE
Norwich isn’t all Norman and medieval. The Assembly House is all Georgian splendour. It was designed in 1754 by Thomas Ivory as a venue for concerts and dances, the place for Norfolk Elizabeth Bennetts to meet their Darcys. When I was growing up it housed tea rooms and a cinema and was the venue small art shows. Nowadays the cinema is long gone but the tea rooms remain and it has become a small hotel.
It was in Norwich that my love of museums was kindled. Norwich has history oozing out of every street corner but it was in the museums that I learnt to love the stories and they are among my favourite places to visit in Norwich.
Norwich Castle is a proper Norman castle, just like the drawings of motte and bailey castles that you drew at school. It stands proudly on its mound, four square with proper crenellations. It was built on the instructions of the William the Conqueror soon after 1066. In the 13th century it became a prison, which it remained until 19th century. Then it was decided to turn the castle into a museum and art gallery, the man chosen for the job was Edward Boardman ….. of whom more later.
If you hanker after finding out Queen Boudica (local girl) and her Iceni tribe or seeing magnificent golden Anglo Saxon torcs found locally, this is the place to come. The art gallery has a fine selection of Norwich School artists like John Sell Cotman and John Crome as well as the beguiling painting of the Paston Treasure.
When I was a child it was dungeons, dragons and ramparts that were the main attraction for me. Dragons were an important medieval symbol in Norwich, Snapdragons were made to take part in public processions, the last of these hung suspended in the main keep. Tours are available of dungeons and ramparts, in the 70s they turned the lights out for the full medieval prisoner experience.
- Norwich Castle Museum, Castle Hill, Norwich
- Open: Monday to Saturday 10am-4.30pm, Sunday 1pm-4.30pm
- Admission: Adult £9.50, children £8.10, family tickets available
Strangers’ Hall dates back to the 14th century it has been home to some of Norwich’s most important families. The Strangers’ name dates back to Elizabethan times when England welcomed religious refugees from Europe. Skilled weavers were encouraged to settle in Norwich and were lodged here. Nowadays it is a museum dedicated to showing how Norwich homes would have looked over time. Great Tudor would have been held in the Great Hall, each room is laid out in one particular period and tells the story of both the time and occupant. Stories swirl around, you get a keen sense of the people that made Norwich.
- Strangers’ Hall, Charing Cross, Norwich
- Open: Wednesday 10am–4pm, Sunday 1–4.30pm
- Admission: Adults £5.20, Children £4, family tickets available
MUSEUM OF NORWICH AT THE BRIDEWELL
Norwich was a busy industrial centre, textiles, shoes, mustard, chocolate, crackers and areoplanes were all made here when I was a child. The Bridewell museum tells the story of Norwich and her industries. Colman’s Mustard, Jarrolds printers, Caley’s chocolate and Boulton and Paul Aeroplanes. Norwich Union insurance was founded here. The Bridewell tells the story of these industries and the people who worked for them.
- Bridewell Museum, Bridewell Alley, Norwich
- Open: Tuesday – Saturday – 10am-4.30pm
- Admission: Adults £5.95, Children £5, family tickets available
SAINSBURY CENTRE FOR VISUAL ARTS
Norwich is not all medieval. Head out to the University which is pure sixties brutalist. Denys Lasdun, the man who designed the National Theatre in London, is the architect of the concrete buildings. Right on the edge of the campus is what looks like an aircraft hanger but is in fact an art gallery designed by Norman Foster. It houses the Sainsbury family collection of art, click on the blue words to read my post about the Sainsbury Centre.
- Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UEA, Norwich
- Open: Tuesday – Friday 10am-6pm, Saturday – Sunday 10am-5pm
- Admission: Free except special exhibitions
EDWARD BOARDMAN, NORWICH ARCHITECT
As you wander around Norwich you will see many fine Victorian buildings. In the main they are designed either by George Skipper or Edward Boardman. Edward Boardman is my great, great grandfather and so I’m going to write about him! One of his first buildings was the Princes Street Congregational church, nowadays the old school house houses the school of architecture of the Norwich School of the Arts and is called Boardman House. He designed the huge Royal Hotel on Agricultural Plain, in its day it was the most luxurious hotel and now a business centre. If you pop into Jack Wills, take a look at the building, Edward Boardman designed it. As previously mentioned he oversaw the conversion of the castle from a gaol to a museum.
WHERE IS NORWICH?
I’m always stunned when I’m asked this question! Simply put, Norwich is the capital of Norfolk which is the top of the bump that sticks out on the right of England. Norwich is further north than Birmingham, this is a fact that I trot out when Midlanders accuse me of being a Southerner. To get to Norwich from Birmingham head east on the A14 and then the A11, trains from Birmingham are direct but stop everywhere. From London, trains take 2 hours from Liverpool Street Station, if you want to drive you can either head up the M11 and then the A11 or up the A12 and then the A140.
WHERE TO STAY IN NORWICH
I confess that I usually stay with my mother when I visit Norfolk, so here are places that I have either stayed in, visited or know well.
The Maids Head has culture oozing out the brickwork, it is the oldest hotel in England. It is in Tombland, just outside the Cathedral and handy for Elm Hill. If you are a fan of CJ Samson’s Shardlake series of novels, the Maids Head features in Tombland, the latest novel, with Shardlake staying here.
My teenage, Jane Austen driven, dreams of taking rooms at the Assembly House can now come true. Eleven rooms are now available, some with private gardens! Be still my beating heart.
Not an hotel and not in Norwich. The Vine House is in the village I grew up in overlooking a vineyard, sleeps six in three bedrooms. Bergh Apton is about 8 miles outside Norwich and public transport is patchy, so you will need a car if you stay here.
WHERE TO EAT IN NORWCH
Afternoon tea under the twinkling chandeliers of the Assembly House is as fine an afternoon tea experience as you can hope to have. They also do good coffee and lunch.
- Assembly House, Theatre Street, Norwich
- Open: Daily 8am-7pm
Possibly my favourite restaurant in the whole wide world. I concede that this rating is all wrapped up in many, many fond memories but here you can eat savoury waffles topped with savoury things, my choice would be garlic mushrooms with cheese sauce. For pudding I would select sweet waffle with bananas and ice cream, I would also carefully fill each waffle square with maple syrup before consuming.
- Waffle House, 39 St Giles Street, Norwich
- Open: Monday – Saturday 10am-10pm, Sunday 10am-9pm
If the Assembly House is for tea, then the Britons Arms is for morning coffee. The Britons Arms is housed in a tudor house at the top of Elm Hill, its floors and ceiling all slope in a suitably aged manner that make you feel as if you are on a ship. If the day is fine wend your way upstairs to the tiny garden.
- Britons Arms, 9 Elm Hill, Norwich
- Open: Monday – Saturday 9.30am-5pm
If Gin is your thing that the Ten Bells is for you, it is home to Norwich’s first gin distillery. If you want to know how your gin was made they run distillery tours too.
- Ten Bells, 74-78 St Benedicts Street, Norwich
- Open: Daily from noon
SHOPPING IN NORWICH
If you are after brands and big department stores then Norwich can supply them. It is with independent retailers that Norwich truly sparkles. You have the market, of course. Jarrolds, on the corner of Gentleman’s Walk and the market place, is a family owned department store with a fine food hall. At the back of Jarrolds you can find the area dubbed Norwich Lanes, there are hundreds of small shops selling all sorts of things tucked into Pottergate, St Benedicts and St Giles Streets. My favourite is Country and Eastern which is housed in a Victorian roller skating rink and sells furniture and textiles from the Far East. Grandest of all shopping venues is the Art Nouveau Arcade designed by George Skipper.
Where is your home town? Do you still live there or have you moved away?
If you are tempted to explore Norfolk a bit more check out my posts about Seal Watching at Horsey, Crabbing at Wells next the Sea, Beachcombing at Cley and Sculpture at Houghton Hall or discover Quiet Norfolk off the beaten track.