Words and wanderings

“What a grand, higgledy-piggledy, sensible old place Norwich is!”

That was the verdict of writer J B Priestley in his English Journey of 1933, after he stayed at the Maid’s Head Hotel – said to be the oldest hotel in England.

My own tour of Norwich may have been 84 years after Priestley’s but the verdict remains pretty much the same.

Our guide, Rod Spokes (pictured), took us on a fascinating ‘Words and Wanderings’ tour to mark English Tourism Week and uncover the city’s links with literature.

Norwich became Unesco’s first City of Literature in England in 2012, to recognise its rich literary heritage – which has seen Visit Norwich develop the ‘City of Stories’ brand.

We met outside the Forum, which houses the city’s library – the most used library in the country, and home to several specialist libraries.

Most notable is the American library, established by families of US airmen based in Norfolk during the Second World War.

The most famous pilot based in the region was Hollywood star James Stewart, who flew on 22 missions.

In the shadow of the Forum is St Peter Mancroft, the largest of the 31 medieval parish churches in Norwich – which has the highest density of medieval churches in the world.

It was visited by Parson James Woodforde (1740–1803), an English clergyman, best known as the author of The Diary of a Country Parson.

Next to the Forum is the City Hall, an Art Deco building, opened in 1938 by George VI and the future Queen Mother.

Rod told us she then opened the local hospital’s maternity block while the king went to see Norwich City play a match – and lose.

He took us to see the back of the building with three statues that most Norwich folk have probably never seen.

They were originally planned to overlook an ornamental square that was never built, thanks to the outbreak of the Second World War.

The statues represent recreation, wisdom and education – and the high ideals about the role of local government.

Nearby is a redbrick building that once housed the Norfolk Daily Standard newspaper.

Built by celebrated local architect George Skipper, the building is decorated with brickwork portraits of the first English printer, William Caxton, and Daniel Defoe – author of Robinson Crusoe, who visited Norwich in 1717 while writing A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain.

Nearby is The Library, now a restaurant but originally a subscription library, founded in 1886 by Philip Meadows Martineau – uncle of Harriet Martineau, a prolific writer and traveller.

Opposite is the Guildhall, built in the 15th Century to house the mayor and aldermen. In front of the Guildhall were scriveners’ booths, where illiterate citizens could dictate the wording of documents they needed.

Over the road is the family-owned Jarrold department store, which started as a stationer and printing business.

The façade features plaques about Victorian authors including Mary Sewell, mother of Anna Sewell, whose Black Beauty was published by Jarrold in 1878.

We learnt more about the city’s history and architecture in the Royal Arcade – home to the Colman’s Mustard museum (pictured), and a Jamie Oliver restaurant, giving Rod a chance to mention the fact that local cookery celebrity Delia Smith has sold 24 million cookery books.

Amelia Opie – a less well known author, and friend of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry – is celebrated with a statue in Opie Street, opposite the erstwhile premises of Eastern Counties Newspapers.

Next on the tour is St Andrew’s Hall and Blackfriars’ Hall, a Grade I listed set of friary church and convent buildings, where Charles Dickens once performed readings of his novels.

Rod also regaled us with tales about the quirky, cobbled street of Elm Hill, home to the Paston family of landowners and lawyers.

Their letters from the time of the Wars of the Roses have survived, and feature in Blood and Roses by historian Helen Castor.

Elm Hill leads to Tombland – site of the Anglo-Saxon market place, and the Maid’s Head Hotel, where J B Priestley stayed in the 1930s.

Our final stop is the Norman cathedral, with statues of Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, St Benedict and the intriguing character of Julian of Norwich.

She wrote Revelations of Divine Love in around 1395 and is believed to be the first woman in print in English.

Most of my fellow tour group were from Norwich and Norfolk, but Rod said he often takes tours with overseas visitors, especially from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

He also has student groups from Europe and the Norwich Institute of Language Education, and increasing numbers of Chinese teachers of English.

It’s good to know the higgledy-piggledy history of Norwich is being spread so far and wide.

Further info:
Walking tours start at the Forum, Millennium Plain, and take about 90 minutes.
Pre-booking is advisable.
Adult £5, child £1.50.
Private tours can be arranged.
Themes include: City of Centuries; Victorian Norwich; Passageways through the Past; Cathedral Quarter; Over the Water; Wharves & Waterside; Footsteps of Nelson; Protestants, Martyrs & Rebels.