Heritage Open Days 2005: Norwich Great And Good

By Jayna Makwana | 05 September 2005
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Founded by the Normans between 1066 and 1075, Norwich Castle eventually became a museum in 1894. Photo courtesy Norwich City Council

Jayna Makwana revisits Norwich’s 12 best buildings as Heritage Open Days, running from September 8-11 2005, gets set to open the doors of many of the city's unique buildings for the public to enjoy.

The Normans founded Norwich Castle between 1066 and 1075 to help protect their newly acquired kingdom. After stints as a Royal Palace and, from the 13th century, a prison, it became a museum in 1894.

As one of Norfolk’s largest museums, it includes diverse exhibits, from the largest collection of works from the Norwich School of Artists to the world’s biggest collection of ceramic teapots.

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Ceiling of St Helen's chapel at the Great Hospital, adorned with some 250 eagles to honour St Anne of Bohmeia in 1383. Photo Jayna Makwana

Today the castle keep has touch screens and computer animation to explain Norman life and examine the castle’s role as a prison. Graffiti made by the prisoners is still visible today.

Norwich Shirehall is linked to the castle by the passage used to take prisoners from their cells to the courtroom. The Heritage Open Days team have been working closely with the Norfolk Regimental Museum, which is housed at the Shirehall, to open the tunnels for the HODs weekend.

Since its formation in 1685, the Royal Norfolk Regiment has been involved in campaigns all across the world and the museum displays many of the fascinating artefacts it has gathered.

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Founded in 1249, the Great Hospital has cared for the citizens of Norwich ever since. Photo Jayna Makwana

Another building affected by war throughout its history is the Great Hospital, one of Norwich’s oldest and most distinguished buildings. Founded in 1249 by Bishop Walter de Suffield, the Great Hospital has cared for the citizens of Norwich ever since.

The Great Hospital boasts a wealth of historic and architectural interest. It contains the smallest monastic cloister in England, a fine medieval refectory, an 18th century swan pit where cygnets were raised for the table and a Victorian Hall, all of which will be open to the public during the Heritage Open Days.

The internal appearance of the hospital’s church was radically altered in the 16th century when the east and west ends were partitioned off and divided into two wards. The central area of the church was retained for worship and is still used today as the parish church of St Helen’s.

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Norwich Cathedral - one of the city's best-loved landmarks. Photo courtesy Norwich City Council

The magnificent chancel ceiling of St Helen’s is lavishly decorated with some 250 panels individually decorated with black eagles. The significance of the eagles is uncertain but it is known that the chancel was built in 1383 to honour Anne of Bohemia, queen to England’s Richard II.

The residents’ quarters in the Victorian Hall are fitted with period furniture. These tiny rooms would have been where they slept, ate and spent most of their time - they made me feel grateful for the size of my own bedroom.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw many improvements in these living conditions and today it serves as sheltered accommodation for the elderly and is a truly grand place to live a quiet and peaceful life.

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The cathedral is an imposing reminder of the city's Norman heritage. Photo courtesy Norwich City Council

While exploring the beautiful grounds of the Great Hospital it's difficult not to be drawn towards another very prominent building on the skyline, undoubtedly one of Norwich’s finest.

The magnificent Cathedral is one of Norwich’s most famous and recognisable landmarks. Begun in 1096 and mostly complete by 1145, it boasts the second tallest spire and largest cloister in England, along with the largest collection of decorative roof bosses in Europe.

There are many reasons why so many people come to see this great Cathedral – they are either drawn to seek solace and spirituality, to witness the its breathtaking magnificence, or to learn about its history.

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Steeped in history, the cathedral's medieval cloisters are the largest in England. Photo courtesy Norwich City Council

It certainly provides a tangible link with the past and wandering round this ancient building it is hard to not feel the Normans’ presence still lingering, and to gain an appreciation of their contribution to the development of Norwich.

The next building, the St Andrew’s and Blackfriars’ Hall complex, appears on almost all guides to Norwich and is a firm city favourite. The grand St Andrew’s Hall is truly overwhelming and projects an aura of authority within the community. It has been central to any Royal or Civic occasion in the city and boasts a huge concert organ at its east end, taking up the whole wall with its 2,967 pipes.

Luckily enough I visited the building while the organist was practicing and the great hall trembled through the force of the thousands of powerful pipes resonating with a beautiful tune.

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St Andrew's and Blackfriars Hall has been central to any royal or civic occassion in the city. Photo Jayna Makwana

It would be hard to feel lonely in the neighbouring Blackfriars’ Hall as it contains hundreds of portraits of the former mayors of Norwich and is part of the largest collection of civic portraits in the country.

One of the buildings’ most interesting features lies outside the halls, however, where the remains of an anchorage or cell can be found. Here a woman, thought to be named either Katherine Foster or Mann, was walled up at her own request to devote her life to God and to give spiritual counselling. The remains show the cell to be very small, just big enough for a woman to lie down.

In 1404 Norwich was one of the first towns to earn the right to elect a mayor, to collect their own taxes, hold their own Courts of Law and enjoy the full status of a city. The need to accommodate such aspects of civic government led to the building of the splendid Guildhall between 1407 and 1424.

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The concert organ at St Andrew's Hall has 2,967 pipes. Photo Jayna Makwana

It was by far the largest and most elaborate medieval City Hall built outside London and still stands today, prominent as ever, as a reminder of the first generation of Norwich’s independent citizens.

Normally most parts of this building are closed to the public, however it will be open during the Heritage Open Days for people to explore for themselves.

The Guildhall’s Sword Room or Assembly Chamber is where medieval council meetings would have taken place and was also used for sessions of the Sheriff’s Court. This is a very eerie room where the tension between crime and justice is still palpable. It is even said that criminals had been left to die there.

photo a medieval stone faced building with a large gothic arched doorway

The Guildhall, built between 1407 and 1424, was the largest and most elaborate city hall outside London. Photo Jayna Makwana

Another story recounts why the stairs leading to this room, which at first glance appear to be unremarkable, in fact have some deeper and more crooked steps than others. It is thought that they were specifically designed to be uneven so that if prisoners decided to make an escape it would be impossible for them to run up or down the stairs without falling down.

Many people have tried to disprove this and failed so whether it was designed like this or not, it certainly seems to have been effective.

Another set of stairs are the narrow, winding ones leading down to the dungeon. A thick oak door studded with nails and a tiny airshaft in the wall indicate that the most dangerous prisoners were kept here.

A street of medieval buildings

Medieval King Street in the heart of the city is home to Dragon Hall. Photo Jayna Makwana

It is also possible to see the individual cells; they are just large enough for a person to lie down and are reminiscent of the anchorage at Blackfriars’ Hall.

Moving over to King Street, Dragon Hall is a magnificent example of an early 15th century merchant’s trading hall. This timber-framed hall is 27-metres long and topped with a crown post roof structure that dates all the way back to 1427.

Dragon Hall is currently undertaking some refurbishment so unfortunately the hall will be closed during the Heritage Open Days. The Dragon Hall team will be taking guided walks along King Street, however, providing a history of one of the oldest roads in Norwich.

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Assembly House started life in 1754 as a fashionable meeting place and features some of the finest decorative plasterwork in Norfolk. Photo courtesy Norwich City Council

Not all of Norwich’s greatest buildings originated in medieval times; Thomas Ivory built the Assembly House in 1754 as a fashionable meeting place on the site of a medieval priest’s college. Restored in the 1950s, it has since functioned as an arts and social centre. Despite suffering a serious fire in 1995 it was re-opened in 1997.

The building has a number of rooms with very different functions. The Noverre Suite is a ballroom, there is a Georgian restaurant and Tea Rooms, there are exhibition rooms hosting displays of arts, crafts and local artists and the Music Room holds various concerts, receptions and antique fairs.

Some of the finest decorative plasterwork in Norfolk can be found in the Music Room and in 1840 it held a concert by the renowned Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, although it is reported that at the time it was poorly received by the local audience.

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St James's Mill helped to briefly revive Norwich's textile industry. Photo courtesy Norwich City Council

According to Mike Loveday, Chief Executive of HEART (Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust), it was in the Assembly House that venison was introduced to Norwich during a breakfast held for the Earl of Surrey.

Although the monumental buildings of the industrial revolution are most commonly associated with the north and midlands, Norwich had been a major textile centre in the middle ages and this became significant again in the 19th century.

Norwich began to develop its own mills and built St James’s Mill in 1839. However, a lack of coal for steam power led to Norwich’s newly revived textile industry going back into decline. The building has now been taken over by Jarrold’s printing company, the owners of a well-known Norwich department store.

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The Cathedral of St John the Baptist is the largest provincial Catholic church in the country. Photo courtesy Norwich City Council

Another fantastic building is the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, which will be hosting a feast of events during Heritage Open Days with tours of the superb tower, exhibitions and various workshops.

This spectacular building is sometimes over-shadowed by the famous Anglican Cathedral, but is in fact the largest provincial Catholic Church in the country. Home to some of the most beautiful Victorian stained glass windows in Europe, it was completed in 1910 and made a cathedral in 1976 by an edict of Pope Paul VI.

This is a breathtaking building surrounded by some beautiful greenery, a perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Shows a photo of a grey stone cathedral building surrounded by trees and greenery

St John the Baptist's was made a cathedral in 1976 by Pope Paul VI. Photo courtesy Norwich City Council

Moving away from the spiritual to the commercial, the Marble Hall on Surrey Street is a stunning piece of early 20th century design and uses vast quantities of 15 types of marble. It was built between 1900 and 1904 and now houses the offices of Norwich Union insurance.

The marble for the 40 columns of its Main Hall was originally going to be used at Westminster Cathedral, but due to logistical problems had to be sold at a discount and the hall’s architect George Skipper managed to get the lot for a budget price.

Unfortunately, due to the building’s corporate use, the Marble Hall will not be open during the Heritage Open Days.

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The City Hall is Norwich's foremost inter-war building and has the longest balcony in England and the largest clock bell in the UK. Photo courtesy Norwich City Council

One of Norwich’s most well-known public buildings is the City Hall. Built in the 1930s it is the city's foremost interwar building. It boasts the longest balcony in England and the largest clock bell in the UK with the deepest sound in East Anglia that tears through the building each hour.

The front doors illustrate the city’s history and it is said that during the Second World War Hitler admired the building so much that it would have been a potential seat of regional government had his invasion plans succeeded.

Last but not least, next door to the City Hall is the new cutting-edge Forum, housing the World War Two Memorial Library, a 180-degree cinema and a 30-metre long media wall.

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The Forum is a recent addition to the city's civic building and has become a popular attraction. Photo courtesy Norwich City Council

The Forum also contains Origins, a multi-media attraction that educates people about the history of Norwich and Norfolk, along with the Tourist Information Centre, the local BBC centre and a restaurant.

It also displays exhibitions in its foyer and even the building’s steps have proved to be a popular meeting place in the summer sun. In the colder winter months the space outside is used as a popular ice rink.

You will be surprised how such a small city can home such monumental buildings and the Heritage Open Days will help to introduce new people to them.

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Jayna Makwana is the 24 Hour Museum/Norwich HEART Student Writer in Norwich. Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust is the groundbreaking initiative to regenerate, manage and promote one of the most remarkable heritage resources in the UK and in Europe.

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