One of England’s more distinctive cities is Norwich, county town of Norfolk. It has a population of around 130,000, and is the centre of an area of 280,000 people. Unlike most English cities, it’s not a product of the Industrial Revolution, but has a long history, which is visible in its architecture. Its castle and cathedral both date back to the time of the Norman Conquest; it has been a cathedral city since 1094. It was a trading centre under Viking rule “before rising rapidly to become a major town, in a way that still lacks explanation”, according to the Oxford Companion to British History, and by 1066 was one of the most important towns in England. Around the castle, the Normans built a “French borough”, including the city market, which survives to the present day.
Norwich thrived in the Middle Ages, becoming rich on the wool trade, which made it the richest English city outside London and fi nanced the construction of the city’s many medieval churches – more than in any other city in Western Europe north of the Alps. From the 1140s to 1200, it was home to a sizeable Jewish population, but in 1190 a massacre destroyed the community and only a few of its members survived. The wool trade led to commercial connections with many parts of Europe. Norwich had a Hanseatic warehouse and, because of its links to the Low Countries, became a centre for immigration, attracting skilled workers. Flemish weavers helped the textile industry to develop and become the main source of the city’s prosperity until the eighteenth century. Waves of Flemish and Walloon Protestants, fl eeing Catholic persecution, settled in the city and infl uenced its culture, establishing traditions of radical politics and religious reform. The Flemings also brought with them their pet canaries, which became associated with Norwich; this explains why Norwich City Football Club are nicknamed “The Canaries” and have team colours of yellow and green.
By the eighteenth century, Norwich was a prosperous city with a sophisticated political culture, a lively cultural life and high numbers of skilled and literate workers. Yet, at the end of that century, the city faced competition from the growing textile industries of the North of England, and lost its continental markets after Britain went to war with France. Norwich’s geographical isolation was also a disadvantage; until the railways arrived in the 1840s, it was said that it was faster to travel by boat to Amsterdam than by road to London. The city had enough industrial diversity to survive these blows, but from being the main city in England’s most populous county, it declined into a regional capital in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and was sometimes seen as a backwater – with the people of Norwich, and Norfolk, becoming the butt of jokes which portrayed them as slow-witted country bumpkins. Even today, Alan Partridge, the socially inept and obnoxious radio presenter created and portrayed on TV and fi lm by the comedian Steve Coogan, works at a fi ctional radio station in Norwich, as if that’s where you’d expect to fi nd such a character. But, fortunately, there’s far more to modern Norwich than that. The insurance company Aviva, formerly Norwich Union, grew from a small local “mutual” to one of Britain’s largest in its fi eld. In 1963, the University of East Anglia opened and is now one of the most successful of the “new” universities of the 1960s. It was designed as a “modern” university both in the architecture of its campus and in its interdisciplinary and internationalist approach, establishing overseas connections through courses in American Studies and European languages and culture. Norwich has a long tradition as a centre of literature and publishing, so it’s fi tting that the University’s best-known department is its creative writing centre, founded by the novelists Sir Malcolm Bradbury and Sir Angus Wilson. It was the fi rst of its kind in Britain, and despite the sceptics who claimed that creativity couldn’t be “taught”, its graduates include novelists such as Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Enright. The German writer W.G. Sebald taught German literature for 25 years at UEA, before achieving international recognition as a major European novelist.
Norwich is once again a growing city, even if the locals sometimes complain about modern housing developments and the arrival of yet another branch of Tesco. But the strong student presence makes modern Norwich a lively cultural centre, particularly the medieval streets which are now full of activity; as well as the old churches, some of which have been adapted to more modern uses, there are plenty of pubs and cafes. The city has become a popular place for weekend breaks, and there is no shortage of things to see and do.
For more please see:
The Tour Norfolk website, which has an impressive picture guide at
and a long and well-researched Wikipedia article at