While most followers of inNorfolk will be well aware that am a total and utter foodie, it’s probably less obvious that I am a bit of a history geek as well.
I don’t have a particular period that I am obsessed with, or even an area (although I do feel a particular fondness for Norfolk), I just want to know about what happened to get us to this point. Who lived here before? What did they do? What were their lives like? Now that I think about it, I’m just plain nosy.
With such high levels of historical nosiness, I am naturally a massive fan of Heritage Open Days. Once a year, the historical and cultural buildings of Norwich and Norfolk throw open their doors and invite people in, free of charge, often allowing access behind the scenes, to bring history alive.
And every year The Bestie and I try to book onto a bunch of free tours and visit lots of historical buildings – drinking gallons of tea en route.
Unfortunately neither of us managed to get booked onto any of the talks that this year. But thankfully, after a somewhat formal strategy meeting at The Forum, we plotted out a route that took in a number of different drop-in sessions and we managed to have a very educational Saturday.
Here’s our pick from this year…
I have often walked past this building on St Giles Street on my way into and out of Norwich, but I’ve never really paid it much attention. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much.
However, when we went for a visit this weekend, we were told that the Norwich Salvation Army actually had the space converted from a former bike yard in the 1890s. They had formerly been housed in the Ice Skating Rink (now Country & Eastern) further up the road, but the roof was leaking so badly that they had to move out!
As adjacent buildings became available, the organisation expanded down the street, eventually taking over Mortimer’s Hotel on St Giles Street – the building that is visible from the road today. It’s a real hotchpotch of buildings and extensions, with a labyrinth of corridors leading to day centres and even a rather lovely tea room, which I had never noticed before.
The actual church is a lovely room, totally unlike any other that I have ever been in – all light and airy, with a big stage and period features. I recommend popping your nose in if you get the chance, because it’s unlike anywhere else I know in Norwich.
I will confess that I have never been to the Maddermarket Theatre before this weekend. Don’t ask me how, but I hadn’t.
That said, I had always presumed that it was a really old building, based on the site of an old church. Except that it’s not.
The truth is that the auditorium, a former chapel, dates from the eighteenth century but was converted into a theatre in 1921. Since then, bits have been added and extended, with a mock-Tudor frontage added too.
The tour was fascinating, exploring backstage, especially going into the wardrobe department. I have never seen so many clothes in my life – and I used to work for M&S! Conservative estimates put the collection at nearly 20,000 items and I am aching to spend a day playing in there, trying on frocks and gowns and hats and wigs and… I should probably move on…
It’s interesting to see how the building has extended and grown over the years, with a new studio theatre, decor and entrance. The only disappointing part of the tour was that our guide had never seen the ghost that’s apparently been spotted by people working at the theatre.
The Bear Shop garden
The Bear Shop on Elm Hill is something of a Norwich institution – with its windows filled with beautiful teddies and toys – but most of people don’t realise that there’s a beautiful garden hidden away behind it.
It has been landscaped down to the river, with scented roses, cheerful dahlias and box hedges. I was particularly taken with the goldfish pond, which although small, was complete with waterlilies and lots of brightly coloured fish. It was a tranquil spot to contemplate the age of the building and all of the people that have tended this garden over the years (while resting my aching feet).
If I was more green-fingered, I’d have been tempted to buy some of the plants on sale. Alas, although I was inspired, I lack the time and patience to tend a garden and know that it would not be anywhere near as nice as this one!
St John the Baptist Cathedral
Somewhat surprisingly, having lived in Norwich for nearly half my life, I have never once been to the Roman Catholic Cathedral at the top of Unthank Road. As someone that loves history, it is a bit odd.
I suppose the thing that surprised me the most was that it’s not as old as it looks. It’s not actually medieval, but mock-gothic, dating from the beginning of the twentieth century. Yep, that’s right, construction wasn’t actually completed until 1910.
As someone who loves Italy and has frequented an inordinate amount of historical Catholic churches, I was surprised by how unostentatious it is. It’s actually quite plain inside, with lots of grey stone and very little gold – it’s not such an assault on the senses.
The Bestie and I managed to get onto the Hidden Places Tour, which was very popular, heading behind the scenes, exploring beneath the buttresses and down in the basement. I had no idea that there was a state of the art biomass boiler underneath all that building, keeping it warm in the winter.
If you have time, head over there to explore. It’s free to go in all year round and the Narthex has a rather charming little cafe and a garden, so it’s a great place to kick back and unwind if you don’t fancy heading into Norwich.
Did you take part in this year’s Heritage Open Days events? What would you recommend that I try next year?