The initial plan was conventional shopping but first we found a few heritage plaques, then two gourmet boutiques and thirdly a treasure house of an art and design studio. Job done in less than half a mile, we had no need to do more than tour some of the leisurely delights of Norwich. That presented just one problem: how much can you cram in before hunger, cultural overload or exhaustion takes over?
First seen first: the plaques began as Pottergate turned towards St Giles. An architect, commemorated on a house of his own design, then George Borrow the novelist with, still in a sense literary, the former school attended by Sir John Mills, whose abiding memory of it was taking down the form bully. Mills was already an adult by the time they filmed “John Brown’s Schooldays” but it would be enjoyable to think he could have acted as technical adviser to the child star Freddie Bartholomew in his dealings with Flashman. However much he hated it, the school building is now a beautiful house, directly opposite the gourmet and arts outlets to return later.
Upper St Giles Street leads past the eponymous church, with an interesting use of brick in contrast to flint in the mouldings, into its more conventionally commercial and longer namesake descending to the Market Place. There are chain restaurants and the more individual St Giles House, Waffle House and Paolo. Along the way is the site of a former theatre where one Archibald Leach made his stage appearances before a debut in film and name-change to Cary Grant.
A couple of alleys lead from Lower St Giles into Pottergate where a former church has daily antique and collectable sales close to where the Huguenot refugees settled in what is now Strangers Court with its medieval hall and museum. Norwich is still more welcoming to incomers than our national government. The museum, Strangers Hall, was for many years the favoured residence of the mayors of Norwich. Nearby is also the Quaker Meeting House attended by Elizabeth Fry. Further on in Tombeland is where the somewhat eccentric Father Ignatius founded a short-lived nineteenth century monastic settlement. Its site is opposite one of the oldest buildings in town: Britons Arms, having survived the Tombeland fire of 1507, is now a coffee house..
Along a typically irregular medieval thoroughfare is one of the last remaining courts of the kind made notorious in London settings by Dickens. No longer inhabited by the indigent and diseased it offers crafts and more antiques. Across the lane is Paston House, one of several belonging to the famous letter-writing family who quarrelled with the Fastolfs, with a later Sir John subject to character-assassination and a slight name-change by Shakespeare. One notable the Bard did not lampoon was “good old Sir Thomas Erpingham” who fought with Henry V at Agincourt. He paid for the building of the nave at what is now St Andrews Church, adjacent to the Art School.
Beyond the art school views from the bridge show Norwich cathedral, where art is a vital changing element of the experience to visitors and worshippers. Appropriately a late sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, not local of course, has a nearby garden setting where the road follows the line of a defensive ditch put in place by Vikings, who gave names like Hepworth to our language.
Cultural overload was setting in, not to mention hunger for the wonderful mincemeat whirls we’d bought at the artisan bakery at the start of our walk. We still had a meal and what was to be a heart-ending and unusually musical (as opposed to histrionic) rendition of “Madama Butterfly” in the evening. If the three lead singers of that, a Glyndebourne touring production, don’t have commemorative plaques of their own one day I’ll be amazed.
So it has be the shops now. Two artisan bakeries, almost side by side and offering wonderful value breakfasts, not to mention those pastries, must be close to a record. The art house – literally, because they live there – belongs to a couple named Lake. She designs fabrics and he is an art dealer. Their home is a work of art in itself with a courtyard garden no larger than a galley kitchen but a wonderland of plant life. Many times the price of even an artisan loaf, the dress scarf we bought there was just as enticing.
Who knows what we’ll find on our next visit to Norwich? One thing is for sure, we’ll see the inside of Strangers Hall and we hope Dragon Hall on the other side of town. No need to argue that it will be worthwhile.