Visiting Norwich in Norfolk, England: Cathedral, Castle, Dragons and More
Apart from being the county town of Norfolk in East Anglia, Norwich is classed as a city because it has a cathedral, my favourite in England. Lying on the River Wensum, it is a thriving city with that atmosphere and buzz only a university community can create; young and vibrant with lots to do and see and plenty of places for social gatherings, including eating houses, cafés and drinking holes. I visited a few years back and enjoyed a pleasant lunchtime, sitting on a triangle of grass near the centre, munching a sandwich and watching the world go by.
Norwich is pretty, boasting many mediaeval buildings, intriguing lanes which lure you into exploring them all and an impressive Norman castle high on a mound above the city centre. It also has a 'dragon' connection!
Allow me to be your tour guide!
Norwich Cathedral, Close and Green
Approach the pretty heart of the city, which houses the cathedral, via one of two gates within the ancient city walls, and you will arrive in The Close, a large verdant area opening out before you. A cathedral close usually includes church buildings such as the cloisters, as well as historical houses for notaries and residents.
This close is not only one of the largest in England but also in Europe. More people live in it than in any other close. A statue of Horatio Nelson also stands there, close to the cathedral. Nelson, famous for his rôle in the British Navy - particularly for trouncing the Spanish Armada - was born in Norfolk and loved the area.
In a similar style to Salisbury, though smaller, the elegant structure of Norwich Cathedral sits at the edge of the close, where it is shown off to perfection. Dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity, it is the cathedral church for the Church of England Diocese of Norwich and also one of 12 heritage sites in the city.
Construction of Norwich Cathedral
This Norman cathedral was begun in 1096 and constructed out of flint and mortar. It was faced with cream-coloured Caen limestone (from France) and completed in 1145 with a feature that can still be seen today, a Norman tower. At that time it was topped with a wooden spire covered in lead. The present stone spire was erected in 1480 and is the second tallest in England despite having been struck by lightning in 1169, which set the building on fire.
Cloisters and Cathedral Interior
The large cloister - the second largest in England next to Salisbury Cathedral's - has over 1,000 bosses (one at the centre of each vault), including several hundred carved and ornately painted ones.
With its pale, serene, cream stone, the interior of this perfectly proportioned building echoes the exterior, soothes the eye and invites us to explore, onward and upward. The intricate, delicate decoration of both stone and wood lifts the soul and calms the spirit.
Pastels and warm woods echo that calm. Light pours in, refreshing and invigorating. It is my favourite cathedral, though several come a close second.
We go now towards the edifice that dominates the town; the square, defiant, immovable Norwich Castle. Its imposing position high above the city centre makes it a focal point and provides an opportunity for vigorous exercise with its steep access. The climb is well worth the effort for the panoramic view from its walls.
Norwich Castle is a mediaeval royal fortification in the city. It was founded in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of England when William the Conqueror (1066–1087) ordered its construction. It was his only castle in East Anglia and is another of the 12 heritage sites in Norwich.
The cream stone of its square, obstinate construction belies its warring purpose, appearing to offer a warm welcome.
'Snap' the Dragon
According to Norwich Museum,
Snap was part of a well-established civic ceremonial which continued, though modified, until the early 20th century. It included the snapdragon as the herald of the grand annual Guild Day procession held at the inauguration of the new Mayor. The cavorting dragon was an obvious source of amusement and entertainment for the crowds watching the procession, but in earlier times it had a religious significance as part of a pageant performed by the Guild and Fraternity of St. George of Norwich.
The history of the snapdragon is linked to that of the Guild of St George (1385-1548), whose aims were religious, charitable and social. These aims were
- to honour St. George and keep his feast day,
- to pray for its members past and present and
- to offer alms to the poor and needy within the Guild.
As we know, it was St George who killed the mythical dragon.
Stranger's Hall Museum
Strangers' Hall is a museum of domestic history in Norwich. It is a Grade I listed building, a Tudor house which has been occupied by many of the city’s prestigious citizens, such as merchants and mayors, since the 14th century. At the time, it was owned by Thomas Sotherton, a grocer, mayor and entrepreneur.
The hall got its name from its subsequent constant flow of visitors - or strangers - from far and wide. The eastern areas of England had, and still do have, a strong connection with Holland, and the first ‘strangers’ were Dutch, Walloon and Flemish refugee weavers who fled in the 16th century when the Dutch Calvinists were persecuted by the Catholics. Elizabeth I’s Protestant England welcomed them, and judges regularly came in 1748 to hear court cases.
The hall became derelict by the 1890s. Luckily, Leonard Bolingbroke, a local solicitor, bought it, saved it from demolition and furnished the house with his antiques. In May 1900, he opened it to the public as a folk museum. In 1922 he gave both museum and contents to the City. It is now managed by the Norfolk Museums Service.
Dragon Hall and the National Centre for Writing
Dragon Hall is a Grade I listed mediaeval merchants' trading hall located in King Street, Norwich, close to the River Wensum. Since 2015 it has been home to 'The National Centre for Writing, Norwich' (Norwich is a UNESCO City of Literature).
The hall is thought to be unique as the only such trading hall in Northern Europe owned by one man. The building stands close to the River Wensum on King Street, the main road through the city in the 15th century, with river transport links via Yarmouth to the Netherlands and the Germanic countries. Dragon Hall is now acknowledged as one of Norwich’s mediaeval architectural gems and an iconic building in the city.
The National Centre for Writing’s mission is ‘to put literature at the heart of contemporary culture. Through pioneering and collaborative projects we explore the artistic and social power of creative writing and literary translation.’
Norwich's Inspiration for Writers
When I visited in 2015, there were statues of dragons placed at locations in and around the centre, as part of a regular fundraising scheme, which enthralled and delighted at every turn. With the National Centre for Writing and the city’s mediaeval ‘Snap’ Dragon, as well as its modern statues, it seems that Norwich is as much an inspiration to writers as are its dragons.
I am grateful to Norwich for taking me on a tour which taught me about history, geography, architecture, mythology and art.
Have you visited any of these places in the East of England?
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Ann Carr