What’s the big idea?

One of England’s most important cities for much of its history, Norwich has always enjoyed a more European feel than many of its counterparts. A fascinating history – much of it still intact – an enviable location, and a really different attitude mark Norwich out as special, and well worth a visit.

Specifically, come to Norwich if you want to see the most complete mediaeval city in Britain, visit this country’s equivalent of the Everglades, and experience the most self-sufficient city in England.

The mediaeval city

So, just how mediaeval is it? Let’s start with the cathedral; it’s one of the greatest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe, houses one of the best mediaeval art treasures and has the largest cloisters in the country.

Then consider the castle, built for William the Conqueror in 1067 and one of the finest Norman secular buildings in Europe, it also boastsone of the largest Norman keeps in England (originally for a royal palace – now a museum and art gallery).
OK, now let’s look at the remains of the city walls, which can clearly be seen as you drive around the inner ring road: these encased what was then England’s second biggest city in two-and-a-half miles of 12-foot-high wall.  In fact, the area within the city walls was as large as London at the time – impressive stuff.
If that’s not enough, Norwich also has a jumble of mediaeval streets, a number of attractive half-timbered houses, a surviving mediaeval bridge, Bishop Bridge, and a large collection of mediaeval wells (and shrines in the surrounding area).
There simply isn’t another city in the country that can boast so much surviving architecture from this important period..

Fiercely independent

The thing you can’t ignore when you delve into Norwich and its history is how self-sufficient it’s always been. Given its historic bias towards trading with Europe, and the massive influx of Europeans into Norwich over the years (the local football team are nicknamed ‘the canaries’ after the Dutch who brought the birds over in the 16th century), it’s almost as if there’s been an expectation that if you cut the county off from England and allowed it to float into the North Sea, they’d be well prepared to look after themselves!

This self-sufficiency is also clear in the city’s long-term reputation as a centre of healing (especially of bladder stones, if you’re interested). Consider this: Henry VIII’s personal physician was from the city and was the first medical man to be knighted; the first industrial nurse in the world worked here; Norwich archives show the second earliest reference to a surgeon in the country; it was the first place to give patients a single room (told you they were private); and the first innovative use of chloroform in patient care was recorded here.

Oh, and the world’s first insurance policy came from the Norwich Union, and, if things got really bad, citizens could take advantage of the world’s first private cemetery. Self-sufficiency is clearly the watchword in Norwich.
But the independent streak doesn’t stop there: Norwich was the first city outside London to print its own newspaper (indeed, the current Eastern Daily Press is the best-selling regional newspaper in England), the first British city to set up its own library; the first to build a turn pike road, and; interestingly, was the last major city to be connected to the main railway system..

The Broads

South America has the Pantanal, Florida has the Everglades, and England has the Broads, a member of the national park family, which reaches right into Norwich with the River Wensum.
The Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and is home to some of the rarest plants and animals in the country. It’s nearly 120 square miles in size, with 200km of lock-free navigable rivers, lakes, fens and wild woodland – it really is a magical water land with so much to do from boating, attractions or simply marvelling at its sheer scale.
And, coming back to the healing theme, one local naturalist refers to the Broads as the ‘breathing space for the cure of souls’. And it’s no surprise, as the variety of flora and fauna, the stunning scenery – which is partly due to its envious climate – and the wide skies here make it a truly uplifting place to be.

The essence

This mediaeval city is wonderful to discover, but it’s the attitude that makes Norwich so special. The true soul of this city is healthily independent

Who’s it for/ how can it make you feel?

Well, that’s easy: independent, European, and, quite possibly, healthy. Coming to Norwich can be the equivalent of a restorative break away from England, but you have to soak up the history, see the area, and ponder the rather unique nature of the place to get the full benefit.
It’s ideal for artists, given the scenery and the abundance of studios and workshops for photographers, painters and sculptors – and also great for those who simply want some me-time.


If If we go back to when the Romans ruled the country, we can get an early glimpse of Norwich’s independent spirit. In those days, the Iceni tribe (ruled by Queen Boudicca) lived in the Norfolk area; when the all-conquering Romans tried to push them too far, the whole tribe rose up and took Colchester, St Albans and London before finally being subdued – that should give you some clue of a proud people.

Later on, in the rule of kings like Canute, it’s important to remember that England was part of an empire which focused on the North Sea, hence towns like Norwich would have benefitted hugely from its position on the east coast, and would have had its focus clearly facing east towards Europe and away from the rest of England.

This helped shape the development of Norwich, as it attracted traders and adventurers from the earliest times. As an early mediaeval poem put it, ‘for metals is Exeter famous, and York for her broad wooded plains, while Chester is proud of her Frenchman, Norwich boasts of her Irish Danes’. OK, maybe it’s not the catchiest poem, but you get the idea. 

However, it was the Norman Conquest in the 12th century that drastically altered the town of Norwich, and led to the building of its massive castle, the stunning cathedral and the city walls. At this time it was the second biggest city in the country.
As Norwich grew in the late 13th century, Norfolk weavers put the large sheep population in Norfolk to good use by developing a lightweight cloth known as worsted; this was to be the basis for a boom in trade with Europe, and provided much of the inward wealth for the city.

Over time, Norwich gained another feature that made it unique from other cities: the number of ‘strangers’ it housed: in the 16th century, a third of its population was made up of continental Europeans, a much higher percentage than any other city in England at the time (this also worked the other way, mind; Abraham Lincoln’s predecessor Samuel left Norwich to settle in America).

In the 17th century, visitors to the city would have been impressed by its scale, the shopping facilities and the gardens. In fact, Norwich was well known for this latter aspect – and given the numbers coming to the city from Holland over the years it’s hardly surprising as the Dutch are pretty famous as gardeners.

In Georgian times Norwich was still the country’s second city, with much of its wealth built on wool, and was still holding huge markets, especially for much of the meat and produce from the surrounding area.

In the 18th century cultural activities came to the fore in the city, with Norwich boasting some of the leading writers and musicians in England. The Pleasure Gardens were built, the city’s first theatre was established and the art and music scenes were expanding. In fact, every city in the country would hold its own version of the ‘mystery plays’, but Norwich’s versions were deemed so good they were given the title ‘Norwich plays’, which became an indication of a better standard of performance.
Moving into the 19th century, the population was growing, but not at the rate of the midlands and northern cities. Wool had ceased to be the biggest industry, and was replaced with the boot and shoe industry. Food and drink manufacture was taking off, with Colman’s winning awards for its mustards, and Norwich becoming a major brewing centre.

The Victorian era saw the establishment of two fabulous parks, the recently renovated Victorian Plantation Garden, and the 200-acre Mousehold Heath, and the reputation of having a church for every Sunday and a pub for each day of the year (Norwich has the highest number of churches of any city north of the Alps).

And today Norwich continues on its self-sufficient way: proud, healthy and truly independent (remember; there’s still not a mile of motorway in the whole of Norfolk).

How to experience Norwich at its best

Why not start in the north east of the city at Mousehold Heath; one of the highest points gives a cracking view of Norwich.
From there work your way down into the city. First thing, buy a copy of the local paper – you’ll fit in better (regionally it even outsells the top-selling national The Sun).

Then visit the cathedral: the real treat here is the collection of 250 carved stone roof bosses, which tell the story of the Bible. Look out also for the ‘green men’ and the carving of the ‘defecating man’ (this is by the passage down which the monks went towards the toilet!), and for the effects of the 1272 fire which can still be seen in the pinkish colour of the old cornerstones of the Ethelbert Gate. There are also some stunning new buildings adjacent to the cathedral.  

After this, head along Upper King Street, turn at Castle Meadow, and you’ll see the castle, now a museum and art gallery, where you can discover decorative art displays, learn the history of the Iceni tribe and Norwich over the years. You can even marvel at one of the country’s finest butterfly displays (just behind here is The Mall, Norwich’s five-floor shopping centre; along the road from there is anothershopping mall called Chapelfield, which is home to over 80 shops, 15 cafes/restaurants and the only House of Fraser in the region).

If you love shopping, make sure you visit the Jarrold department store, twice voted the best independent (surprise, surprise) department store in the country, near to the castle in the centre of the city (or pop out to nearby Wroxham, where you can spend time at Roy’s, the largest village store in the world).

You’re now in the central shopping area, with some wonderful little streets and side streets to browse. Elm Hill is a famous mediaeval street with a good selection of antiques, wines and even teddies, while the Norwich Lanes are great for independent stores. For a more modern selection, look out for the art nouveau Royal Arcade, including the Colman’s Mustard Shop and Museum.

You’ll also find yourself drawn to Norwich Market, right in the centre of the city: some 200 stalls with brightly coloured striped roofs make this both a riot of colour and the biggest six-day open-air market in England.
After perusing the stalls, there’s the glorious Georgian architecture of the Assembly House nearby, one of the best examples in the country, contrasting with the modern Forum, the millennium home to Fusion, a digital exhibition, the Tourist Information Centre and the BBC.

For arts and entertainment Norwich can boast more cultural activity per head than anywhere else in the UK. However, the real jewel in the crown is for visual arts. As the home of the Norwich School of Painters (Norwich was the first city in Britain to have a school named after it), there are some cracking exhibitions. Head on out past the second cathedral in Norwich, the Gothic Cathedral of St John the Baptist (a very peaceful place), and you’ll find the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, with exhibitions from around the world (on the way why not enjoy a pleasant Victorian diversion in the restored Victorian Plantation Gardens?).
Now, how to experience the Broads?

There’s really only one way: by boat. Either hire a cruiser, take a day boat or go the whole hog and charter a Norfolk Wherry yacht (complete with crew), and explore this vast wetland. Ideal for bird-watching or simply experiencing the vast open skies, this place is as relaxing as it gets.

When to visit

City pics