Exploring subterranean Norwich to reveal some of the city's hidden treasures

By Ivan Stoyanov | 07 May 2010
a photograph of a winding staircase leading down to a wooden door

The Guildhall undercroft. © Culture24

Bringing together the UK’s largest collection of undercrofts, subterranean Norwich reveals legends of the secret passageways where unspeakable deeds are said to have taken place. According to folklore, many of them are said to link the city's historic buildings - but what is the real truth behind them?

Culture24 reporter Ivan Stoyanov delves deep into Norwich’s rich history to reveal some of the city’s hidden historical treasures.

Venture down some wooden stairs to discover the city's key underground treasure - the Guildhall undercroft.

Hidden beneath England's most elaborate provincial medieval city hall, this crypt contained facilities for accounting and tax collection, accommodation for civic officials and storage space for records, money and civic regalia.

We may well be in the 21st century, but the impressive carpentry of the doorway takes the visitor back to medieval times only to highlight some of the primary uses of the chamber.

Several carvings decorate the east wall where their deep lines merge to depict the shackles in which prisoners had been transported to the undercroft.

Under the warm glow of spotlights, the truly magnificent foundations of a Norman court are revealed before the visitor’s eyes.

Tucked away in the very right-hand corner, there even lurks a tiny chamber that once served as a mortuary during the medieval age.

Hundreds of years ago this cellar would have housed barrels of wine for all the affluent gentry as well as other essential goods below the exquisite semi-circular vaulted ceiling

a photograph of a wooden door with heavu metal bolts

Entering the Guildhall undercroft. © Culture24

From Guildhall make your way to King Street and the Norfolk City Council Adult Education Center at Wensum Lodge houses an atmospheric undercroft dating back to the middle of 12th century.

Built with the intention of being able to house the entourage of a small fortress, Jurnet’s house has no door onto the street but a stone porch and entrance at the side, with a small courtyard behind.

The ground floor – now a clubroom – would have been at the street level and consists of two large rooms, what used to be a shop and a storeroom.

Creep along a darkened narrow corridor and let this vast underground hollowness suck you into an amazing twist of space and time.

A space that once acted as the the sleeping quarters of a Jewish family is now home to a pool table surrounded by a few comfy couches. It comes as a surprise to discover the buzzing atmosphere of the bar that now operates on these historic premises.

Find out more fascinating stories about the undercroft and its past over a pint of your fav beverage or a good chat around the pool table in the regal splendour of this architectural legacy.

In fact, Jurnet’s House is the only surviving example of Norman twelfth century domestic architecture. Phone 01603 306606 and book your place on a Blue Badge tour at the Hodge in time as there will be a guide to lead you around the rest of the buildings.

a photograph of a bar area in a cellar

Jurnet's Bar at Wensum Lodge. © Culture24

Some couple of hundred meters north, St Andrews Street takes us to a favourite place to eat and drink in Norwich city centre. 14-16 Lower Goat Lane is certainly ready to dish on closely-guarded secrets to pub-goers.

Originally the main building appears to have been a large 15th century house, with a shop on Tombland, a hall behind and a great chamber over the shop.

The rear block of the building was replaced in around 1600 and the remnants of a historic past are now being treasured by one of the biggest undercrofts in Norwich.

The intervention of the vaulted undercroft causes substantial change in the ground floor between the front and rear blocks.

The undercroft is both wide and high, with flint rubble and brick ribs of two orders. The vaults are relatively low in profile with the springing point kept well above the floor.

Rapidly passing through several hands, various tenants of the crypt included a cooper, a ‘china-man’, woolcomber, a gentleman baker and a wine merchant. Nowadays, the latter seems to dominate the premises.

Packed with dark beats and a lot of enigmatic moments registered in the poor-lit crypt corners, many people find the site a perfect harbour for winding down over the a glass of wine.

a photograph of a bar area in a cellar

The twelfth century undercroft at Wensum Lodge. © Culture24

Drop by Take 5 Bar which now occupies the building on 14-16 Lower Goat Lane,St Andrews Street, or take a look at other undercrofts that might grab your attention:

  • Bedfords, 21 Bedford Street – late C14th date and fine example. Open to the public as part of a bar
  • Blackfriars Crypt – imposing C13th structure. Used at time of publication (2009) as a café therefore accessible during daytime
  • Bridewell – the largest undercroft in Norwich dating from the C14th. Closed for renovation until at least 2012
  • Dragon Hall – C14th vaulting. Open regularly as part of Dragon Hall
  • Strangers Hall – dating from 1320. Open as part of the Museum

    To arrange a visit please contact Norwich‘s Tourist Information Centre for more details of the latest tours available on 01603 727927, email tourism@norwich.gov.uk or go to www.visitnorwich.co.uk

    Alternatively, you could always give Norwich HEART a buzz on 01603 305575 or drop a quick e-mail to info@heritagecity.org.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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