“Where are you going in England?” all my friends asked me as I planned my trip. “London,” I said and they nodded. “Bath, Cambridge, Stratford-Upon-Avon,” to more nods and grins. “Norwich,” I told them. This time, the looks were more puzzled. I mentioned that my cousin Anisa (of Two Traveling Texans fame) lived there, and the puzzled looks improved. Slightly.
The truth is, I didn’t know what to expect from my visit to Norwich, a small city of about 200,000 people a couple of hours to the northeast of London. What I found was a city that truly matters in the history of England, and is a worthy visit for anyone eager to learn about those earlier times.
Norwich was founded as Northwic in the year 43, but from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution, the seat of power in Norfolk was the second largest city in England (after London) and perhaps one of the most important. Norwich owes its status to one thing: wool. Norfolk was sheep country, and the city’s location on the River Wensum and proximity to the North Sea made it the primary point of trade in wool and cloth. Norwich is actually closer to the Netherlands than to London, so Flemish-made cloths were brought in here. Later, cloth makers themselves were imported, Protestant “Strangers” fleeing Catholic persecution in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands, and Norwich became a huge production center as well.
Norwich’s place among the river made it a shipping hub
In 1549, Norwich was the scene of one of the largest rebellions in Tudor times, Kett’s Rebellion. A sort of champagne socialist, Robert Kett was a wealthy man upset at changes being made that disadvantaged the peasants, namely the enclosing of what had been public land, leaving the poor no place to graze their animals. After actually managing to take the walled city, the rebellion was put down and Kett was hanged from the city’s castle, but reforms were eventually made, and Norwich became the first city to institute mandatory payments for a civic program for poor relief, the basis of which became the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1597-98.
Today a fairly sleepy town (other then when its football team – currently in the Premier League – plays), Norwich claims one of the largest collections of medieval buildings of any English city, showing visitors remnants of its past importance. A breathtakingly large number of medieval churches survives. Norwich was said to have a church for every Sunday and a pub for every day, and these mostly identical stone cross shaped buildings with a tower at one end are absolutely everywhere. Some maintain their identities as churches; others are antique stores or have other uses.
Likewise, remnants of the walls and fortifications survive and can be seen, plus a myriad of other medieval buildings still in use, like the spectacular flint guildhall from 1413. Norwich is known for the quality of its flint stonework, and this building exemplifies that more than any other I saw.
An old tower randomly come across
The true architectural highlight of Norwich, though, is its cathedral. Norwich Cathedral was begun in 1096, and completed roughly 50 years later, a remarkably short time for such an immense undertaking. As one of the docents at the Cathedral put it, when overhearing me amazed at the short span, “Saxon labor was plentiful and cheap.” Norman conquerors destroyed the existing Saxon church on this spot, and used Saxon peasant-slaves for labor to construct their new cathedral, although they did build a new Saxon church near town. This cathedral is Anglican today – there is also a
Outside and inside of the Norwich Cathedral
Roman Catholic cathedral in the city – and has been since the Reformation. If you look carefully at some of the carved stone images, you’ll notice heads missing. During the Reformation – and again during the English Civil War – images of people were desecrated as they were considered blasphemous.
Regardless, the Cathedral is a must-see, and is free in a country that likes to charge admission for many of its religious sites. The main chapel is bright and airy, the ceiling magnificent, the stained glass a mixture of old and modern, and the neighboring cloisters fantastic. Give yourself at least an hour to explore and take it all in.
If you get sick of medieval architecture, Norwich also claims the largest permanently covered market in England, and food stalls here can be a big bargain. Or check out the city hall, a building purposefully spared by Nazi bombings since Hitler liked the balcony.
Using Norwich as a base, you can also consider a trip into the countryside. The Suffolk burial mounds at Sutton Hoo were the discovery place of the most complete Anglo-Saxon royal burial, the artifacts of which are on display at the British Museum. Or try a coastal town. Anisa and I failed at catching the famous crabs in Cromer, but it was a blast to try, and we learned about the most decorated life boatsman in English history. Like castles? Baconsthorpe was lovely, quiet, and powerful, but there are many more I didn’t get to see.
Crabbing off the Cromer pier was fun even though we didn’t catch any
(I’d like to add a note here. Not everyone is as lucky as I am to have an incredible travel blogger plan my itinerary here. But if you follow Two Traveling Texans, you can still gain the benefit of her experience.)
Norwich may today be a small, out of the way city, but its historical significance cannot be denied. I thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and would recommend the experience. Even today, Norwich matters!
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