Norwich is the principal and only city of the county of Norfolk, and the focal point of all local roads and the rail network. (Like Rome, all roads lead here, unless they're going to Thetford and King's Lynn)
Like London, Manchester and other British cities, it has a ring road system which was designed to relieve traffic congestion and get vehicles flowing smoothly. Locals consider this to be a huge joke, as at peak times the Outer Ring Road1 becomes a sea of standing traffic. The best way of getting around is a cycle and a working knowledge of the city's streets: Norwich has a largely efficient and well-planned network of cycle lanes (although these suffer from the failings of having been planned, in the main, by people who go to work in cars)
The visitor by car will note, as they enter Norwich, that at every main road at the city limits there is a sign proclaiming "NORWICH - A Fine City". Several hundred yards on there is invariably a second and slightly less prominent sign saying "WARNING - Police Accident Blackspot". Suggestions that the City Council cuts its signage costs by combining the two as "NORWICH - a Fine Police Accident Blackspot" are usually met by glares, and the implication that the suggestion is Not Helpful and the person making it is not a Team Player.
From above, the inner and outer ring roads can be viewed as forming an oddly-shaped dartboard, segmented by radial roads connecting Norwich to the Norfolk hinterland. East Anglian people are prosaic in their road-names: they go exactly where the name says. Dereham Road and Earlham Road lead out to the West, one to the suburb of Earlham and the UEA, the other to Dereham, and then ultimately connecting to Peterborough and linking to the rest of England.
The A47 (Dereham Road in the west, and Yarmouth Road to the coast) is, in fact, the nearest thing you will get to the motorway that Norfolk resolutely refuses to have, thenk'ew...
Cromer Road drives north by north-east to Cromer and Sheringham, via the town of Holt; Newmarket Road due South to Newmarket (Suffolk), and its twin Ipswich Road, leading ultimately to London (via Ipswich and Colchester). Looking down from above, the eastwrd continuation of the A47 appears to be a long, straight, blessedly straight, A-road which drives due east to Great Yarmouth. This is locally known as "the Acle Straight", partly because its first port of call is the town of Acle, lying halfway between Norwich and Yarmouth.
However, that seemingly arrow-straight Yarmouth Road has a peculiarity that is not immediately apparent to riders of high-powered motorbikes and fast cars who see it leaping out of the map at them, seductively whispering something like "Hi, I'm a long straight road, and you have a 1000cc motorbike. Why don't the two of us get together sometime?"
Just beyond Acle, there is a very slight but very significant little bend in the road. It may only be one or two degrees from true, but this becomes a very important issue and comes as something of a surprise when travelling at 150mph. The Norfolk Constabulary, alas, have become used to retrieving wreckage scattered up to three hundred yards away from the point where the vehicle left the road....
Like Liverpool, Norwich has two cathedrals, one Anglican and one R.C.
Also like Liverpool, the traveller will realise they are on one of the "edges" of England when they contemplate the railway station and realise it's set out as The End Of The Line, the terminus. As with Liverpool, nothing goes "through" Norwich. Trains come in and other trains pull out: but everything stops here at Thorpe Railway Station. This sensation - of being right out on the fringe - is one which is only ever encountered in places like Liverpool and Stranraer, although in either of those places you have the option of crossing to a ferry and voyaging to a different country. 2
From Thorpe Station, turning left and walking west down Prince Of Wales Road will take you to the city centre. Turning right outside the rail station, the visitor will discover Carrow Road, the home ground of Norwich City Football Club, but this is the last point of interest before the long road that ultimately reaches Yarmouth, thirty odd miles away.
Surrey Street also houses Norwich's main bus station. Many people will remember a forlorn and dusty time-forgotten halt which was like stepping backwards into the 1950's. The same people will be astonished to see how the bus station now no longer resembles the main street of a one-horse town, but has been jolted into the early years of the 21st century as a fully integrated interchange between City and County buses. It's bigger, it's brasher, certainly cleaner and more efficient, and to those who remember the old ways, arouses a definite feeling of something having intangibly been lost from Norfolk's character...
A walking tour of Norwich city centre
Walking out onto Surrey Street towards the town centre, the visitor will pass the main offices of the city's largest employer, Norwich Union Insurance. This one employer, until fairly recently, was the biggest single employer of maths, accountancy, and computing grads from the UEA, and was responsible for up to 15,000 employees in Norwich alone. (Although recent moves to cut staff have diminished this figure somewhat). The Norwich Union offices are an imposing Victorian edifice in white stone and stretch for a goodly length along Surrey Street and St Stephen's. The Norwich Union is so well established locally that it even has its own Freemasonic Lodge: this is incorporated into the main Surrey Street buildings.
Passing onto St Stephens / Red Lion Street (a shopping area largely - and calamitously - rebuilt in the 1960's, following WW2 bombing)the traveller will come to Castle Meadow, sweeping in a wide semi-circle around the base of the castle's motte. If feeling athletic, it is worth the long steep walk up to the castle (only the Norman keep remains, although this was "rebuilt" by the Victorians to suit their notion of what a castle should properly look like)to look around the museum. The museum occupies several inner floors of the keep and has a magnificent collection of antique armour and weapons, including Japanese samurai clothing and swords. There is also a grisly display of exhumed human bones, graphically demonstrating what mediaeval weaponry could do for the complexion, on top of what just being alive in the mediaeval period could do for one's posture and good health.
If the visitor is not feeling sufficiently athletic for the Castle, a left turn off Castle Meadow down the delightfully named Rampant Horse Street onto Gentleman's Walk will open up the marketplace for inspection. The market is usually in session Monday-Saturday, and is bordered on one side by the stately St Peter Mancroft church and the Garnet Wolsey pub. On the far side is the Stalinist edifice of the City Hall, built in the 1930's and resembling a little bit of Leningrad plonked down in Norwich. London Street borders the third side of the market, and is a wide alleyway, rather than a street, twisting and turning along with some neat shops.
Moving swiftly on past the Lubyanka of City Hall, you are on Theatre Street and the Theatre Royal will soon display itself to you in its full glory.
But assuming you've been to the Castle and come back down the hill again: Castle Meadow also serves as a second bus station for those wanting to get out to the suburbs (Surrey Street tends to serve those wanting to come and go from Norwich into wider Norfolk and beyond). All buses to the University, for instance, leave from here.
At the far end of Castle Meadow is (or maybe in these days of "ITV 1", perhaps now was)the base of Anglia Television, in a finely portico'd yellow-stone Georgian building. Classic TV such as "Sale of the Century" was made here, and if ever there is a call for a statue of Nicholas Parsons, it should stand here, at the bottom of Castle Meadow, facing the old Anglia TV headquarters. (The BBC is now in the multi-agency Forum building next to City Hall, housing local press, and the renewed City Library rising phoenix-like fromn a destructive fire.) Anglia TV is still here, but much diminished from its glory days, and acting only as an East Anglian feed into the monolithic and impersonal "ITV-1" machine. Indeed, it was discovered that what were formerly signature programmes for Anglia, like the morning hill-billy fight between trailer-trash factions masquerading as debate, are now no longer made in Norwich, but are created in Manchester...
From Castle Meadow and Anglia TV, the visitor can stroll round to either of the Cathedrals, as both are about a quarter of a mile away. St John's (the Catholic Cathedral) is however a quarter of a mile uphill: this involves a short athletic burst up Cow Hill, the steepest street in Norwich. While the Cathedral was built in the early years of the twentieth century and lacks the historical depth of the Anglican edifice, this is a grand and fine building which has weight and splendour of its own.
Classically built in ashlar limestone with a central tower that dominates the skyline, St John's is definitely worth a visit if the visitor is on the Church Tour. Try to get on the sort of tour that includes a trip up into the roof and up the tower. The view is spectacular.
The Catholic Cathedral is at the top of Grapes Hill, where Unthank Road meets Earlham Road. One aspect of building a Cathedral at the top of Grapes Hill, which worries the Roman Catholic establishment a lot more than it will admit in public, emerged in March 1988. A bus to the university was pootling along Earlham Road, close to the Cathedral, when all of a suddent the earth opened up before it and it pitched, nose-first, into a very deep hole. The archives of the Eastern Evening News, and indeed h2g2 itself,contain a picture of The Bus That Uncovered a Norwich Chalk Mine, half-buried in what turned out to be a collapsed mine working, dating back several hundred years.The uneasy truth has since emerged that Grapes Hill has more holes in it than than an Emmenthaler cheese and further subsidence is not just probable, it is very likely, especially with a couple of hundred thousand tons of Cathedral perched on the top. Watch this space....
If the visitor is so minded, a brisk half-hour walk or a hop on any bus along Earlham Rd will take them to the University of East Anglia, the local centre of higher education. This, however, is the westward edge of the city centre with nothing else of unique interest to see. The Inner Ring Road (here, by St John's, Barn Road-Grapes Hill - Chapelfield Road) closely follows the line of the old City Walls, parts of which are preserved at the roadside. Keep on walking around the ring road, and you would once have found the Rowntree's chocolate factory, in its day a big local employer, and a source of casual work income (plus as much chocolate as can be stolen) for successive generations of University students. When the wind was in the right direction, Rowntree's was smellable from a long way accross town. Alas, the factory closed in the late 1990's and the love-it-or-hate-it smell of cooking chocolate settling like a blanket accross the city is now a thing of memory only. Today, the Rowntrees site is another shopping mall.
From St John's, the visitor should walk down Grapes Hill and turn right at the bottom, where St Benedict's Gate is still partially preserved, along with a length of the mediaeval city walls. St Benedict's Street is (or was) a trail of appealing small shops and nice pubs, such as the Ten Bells. More recent destruction is here too, in the shape of St Gregory's Church; destroyed, except for its tower, by a Luftwaffe raid in 1942.
St Benedict's and St Andrews lead back to Princes' Street, where the choice is to turn left to Elm Hill3 (second steepest hill in Norwich) and thence to Tombland and the Anglican Cathedral.
Tombland is an old and pleasant part of central Norwich, which among many other points of interest contains the former Edith Cavell (now called "Coles") and the jaw-droppingly renamed Louis Marchesi (now a trendy wine bar called "Take Five"), drinking dens known and loved - under their old names - by generations of UEA students. (It also contains the Bell Hotel, a "locals' pub" with a reputation for lively incident, where students are at best tolerated)
On a more spiritual level, the open square is where the early Methodists ranted against the corruption of the Anglican Church: Wesley himself preached one of his first sermons here. Tombland is an apt place for a Nonconformist to rant against the Church of England's institutional excesses, as the Bishop's Palace and the Anglican Cathedral (established 1060 and rebuilt several times into its current form) are right across the way. Possibly as a legacy of Wesley's early preaching, Norwich has a thriving Methodist circuit of fine churches and chapels: a visitor interested in churches is reccomended to visit St Peter's, Park Lane (off Unthank Road), which is the principal Methodist church in the area, and in its 1930's art-deco functionality is as near to a cathedral as a Noncomformist denomination is likely to have.
Magdelen Street4 takes you North towards the Magdelen Gate and the road to the Northern suburbs. Any older UEA graduate reading this might recall the Fifer's Lane Pub Crawl route, beginning at the Edith Cavell and taking in all thirteen pubs on the walk back to the Fifer's Lane Student Residences in Catton, which are, alas,no more.Magpie Lane, then Aylsham Road...
Magdalen Street, for those interested in such things, is the area where tacky nightclubs such as Ritzy's may be found. (Monday night was student night at Ritzy's: this was viewed as a cheap place to carry on drinking after the pubs closed at eleven) Sic transit gloria... the portico for Ritzy's survives, with its Gog and Magog primitive caveman statues framing the doorway - old Monday nighters will recall even more frightening primitive human bouncers in the lee of the statues - but the interior is now being gutted and rebuilt as a yuppie housing and shopping development.
The three features described above - from West to East, the tower of the Catholic Cathedral, the high square keep of the Castle and the spire of the Anglican Cathedral - are the three enduring landmarks of the Norwich skyline. Wherever you are in the city centre (and indeed in the wider town), you may be sure to see at least two of these, and use them to orientate yourself. This is a good navigational trick for newcomers to the City.
Norfolk life (and pondlife)
A word about the wider Norwich outside the city centre. As with any other British town or city, there are "chav zones" which should be approached with caution by one who patently doesn't belong there or whose accent is not a native one. The most notorious council estate is Mile Cross (north-central) although West Earlham (around the university) deserves a dishonourable mention, as does Heartsease. Try to avoid these areas.
By contrast, the "Golden Triangle" is the name for the district in between Earlham Road and Unthank Road, centred on Bury Street, which is exclusively populated by UEA students in their "living-out" year. Demand for a student house in the Triangle always exceeds supply, and the unlucky ones can find themselves living in relative social isolation out towards Dereham Road (if they're lucky: this is what an enterprising estate agent might call "Triangle Borders", or perhaps the "Silver Triangle", for those who had to accept second-best). Others will have to make do with Sprowston Road, or as far out as Lakenham or Costessey. (These are, or were, pleasant little villages that had an independent life as the Norfolk villages nearest to Norwich: urban sprawl is now incorporating them into the City and has largely eaten the open green fields that seperated them from Norwich)