About 100 miles north east of London or two hours by train from London or one hour by air from Amsterdam, on the River Wensum in England’s East Anglia, is the city of Norwich; England’s first UNESCO City of Literature and, prior to the industrial revolution, the second largest city in all of England. Founded in 924 as a market town, Norwich is the most complete medieval city in the United Kingdom.
We had a few days spare so we decided to visit Norwich and were lucky enough to find an apartment just a few minutes’ walk from the castle, at a very reasonable price.
Norwich is an interesting city, you could almost think of it as two cities in one. There is the old city with its twisting lanes, cobbled streets, Tudor buildings and loads of character and then there is a new section, by the river, between the railway station and the football stadium. The new section used to be decaying docks and warehouses but is now being redeveloped with shiny new apartments and restaurant chains springing up everywhere.
After we unpacked, our first job was to get some basic supplies, such as fruit, milk, eggs and breakfast cereal, so we took a walk through the redeveloped area to find a supermarket. We found a Morrison’s supermarket near the football stadium that was open. Everything was very socially distant with a separate entrance and exit, a one-way system up and down the aisles, plenty of hand gel dispensers and nobody gets in without a facemask. All very practical and we felt fairly safe shopping there.
On our way back to the flat we decided to take advantage of a half price meal deal and have dinner in a Weatherspoon pub near the supermarket. Big mistake! The meal was dreadful. Overcooked and dry, the food was almost inedible and the staff couldn’t have cared less. It was by far the worst pub meal we have had in a long time.
The next morning we took a walk into the old town via the castle which, unfortunately, was closed due to the coronavirus. Fortunately strolling through the area around the castle is still a very pleasant walk.
Underneath the castle is a shopping mall called, not surprisingly, Castle Mall. It is fairly typical of most multi storey shopping malls anywhere in the world with shops, a cinema complex and a food court but the idea of building a mall underneath an important heritage building without damaging it proves that with good engineers you can build almost anything almost anywhere.
Being over 1000 years old, Norwich has grown organically over the years. In other words there are lots of heritage listed buildings and little lanes and streets coming off other streets at odd angles. You can see that in days gone by Norwich was a very prosperous city with several department stores, Victorian arcades, fine jewellers and a bustling city market. We spent most of the morning exploring the shops up and down the little streets although we didn’t buy anything. We could see that the city is still mostly quite prosperous.
In contrast to the newer, redeveloped part of Norwich, a lot of the shops in the older part are independent owner operated businesses. There are a few chains but there is a healthy mix of franchised and independent establishments. In the redeveloped part however, independent businesses are conspicuous by their absence.
While exploring the shops we eventually arrived at the city market. Although reputed to be the oldest outdoor market in the UK, it is nothing like other markets we’ve seen and, to be honest, it was disappointing. It was remodelled in 2006 so that, instead of a collection of temporary and semi-permanent stalls, Norwich market is now a series of neat rows of concrete and steel retail pods. There are lots of different sellers selling different things but, with each stall being identical in size and shape to every other stall, the market doesn’t have a soul. There is almost no opportunity for a stall holder to stamp their personality on their stall so, unless you are looking for something specific, browsing is boring.
After visiting the market we walked through a nearby arcade to find a café for coffee and cake, before going back to our flat for lunch. While ordering our snack we were chatting to the café owner (as we do) and she told us about a secret garden hidden away in the heart of Norwich.
That night we went to a pub that was just around the corner from our flat for dinner called The Last Pub Standing. Conventional it is not, but in a good way. The wait staff wore interesting outfits that looked like they were trying out for a fringe theatre production, the beer was served in plastic cups and meals were served in cardboard takeaway boxes with bamboo knives and forks. That said, they made us feel really welcome, the beer was good and we had a delicious Caribbean goat curry. We should have gone there the previous night instead of that other place.
We mentioned to our waitress that we were visiting Norwich for a few days and she suggested that, since we had travelled this far, we should go a little bit further and visit Great Yarmouth. Great Yarmouth is only 20 miles from Norwich so we decided that we would visit it before we left.
After dinner we went for a walk along the river to explore Norwich by night. Starting from the railway station, a walk along the river bank can show you both the old and the new Norwich. Heading south-west towards the football stadium takes you through the redeveloped areas with shiny new apartment blocks and franchised theme restaurants. Although a big improvement on what used to be along the river, the new buildings still feel sterile and the lack of independent businesses is striking. However, if you like canned entertainment and mass produced reheated food then it’s probably fine.
If, instead of heading south-west from the railway station towards the football stadium, you head north-east along the river bank, you will find a peaceful walk that takes you past several historic landmarks such as Pull’s Ferry, a restored 15th century water gate and ferry house, Bishop Bridge and the Adam and Eve Pub; reputedly the oldest pub in Norwich.
The next day we took a drive to Great Yarmouth for the day; but that’s another story.
The day before we left Norwich we visited the secret garden that the owner of the coffee shop had told us about.
The secret garden’s real name is “The Plantation Garden” and it really is almost in the centre of Norwich. Next door to the Catholic Cathedral, it is only a short 15 minute walk and less than a mile from the city centre. If you didn’t know it was there you could walk past it and not even notice. Originally a chalk quarry, it was turned into a Victorian town garden when the chalk ran out, nearly 150 years ago.
The garden is the perfect place to relax and spend a few hours reading a book or just sitting, meditating and enjoying your surroundings. Heritage listed and spread across three acres, the gardens are maintained by an army of volunteers. Although they charge a £2 admission fee, it is an honour system with a coin box at the gate and on Sunday afternoons they serve afternoon tea for a small fee and sell homemade jars of jam. Personally we think that a person would have to be particularly mean spirited to not pay the £2 because the money raised, plus donations, sponsorship and occasional functions, goes towards maintaining the gardens.
We were chatting to one of the trust members and he said that before the lockdown they were struggling to find enough volunteers to keep the gardens maintained. Now they have a waiting list. It sounds like, while people want to stay safe and not spread the virus, they are also tired of being idle and really want to feel productive again.
We stayed in Norwich for nearly a week and generally speaking we enjoyed our visit. It wasn’t our first trip to Norwich and it won’t be our last because each time we visit Norwich we find something new. This time we found the Plantation Garden.
Looking back, we might have been a little harsh with our criticism of the redeveloped area by the river. There’s no doubt that the area needed redeveloping and in time it will settle down and become an integral part of the Norwich landscape. Our only real criticism is that we didn’t see any independent venues; all of the venues are franchised chains. Besides, just because we like old things doesn’t mean that everyone does. We like Norwich because, with its mix of little streets, old buildings, boutique shops and department stores, there is always something for us to find. Who knows what we will find when we visit Norwich next time.