Norwich is a maze of streets, lanes and alleyways with the largest intact medieval street pattern in Europe and is the most complete medieval city in England. A visit here is an adventure for the historian, a journey for the dreamer. There are more than 1,500 significant buildings within the city walls: a castle, two cathedrals, 36 churches and hundreds of half-timbered Tudor houses, shops and restaurants.
Norwich Castle, constructed between 1095 and 1110, dominates the heart of the city. Its construction was ordered by William the Conqueror in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of England. Although the castle was designed as a royal palace rather than a fortification, no king ever lived in it. The only time Henry I is known to have stayed here was for Christmas 1121.
Stepping into the keep, the sheer size of the room is incredible. Originally the upper floor, now a balcony, was divided into two sections. On the north side was the great hall, and on the south side were the royal quarters including a large parlor, bedrooms and a private chapel, which is still intact. Within the outer walls is a walkway where soldiers could patrol the building.
From the 14th through the 19th centuries, the keep was used as a prison. In 1883, when the prison was moved, work began on converting the building into a museum to feature local history, artifacts and art.
Norwich Cathedral is set within a 44-acre compound and is the most complete Norman cathedral in the United Kingdom. Construction began in 1096 and was completed in 1145.
A tour of the sanctuary and cloisters is impressive. Because of its sheer size and the exceptional collection of art and objects, visitors should budget at least an hour to fully appreciate the cathedral.
Nearby is Adam & Eve pub, built to quench the thirst of stonemasons building the cathedral. It is the oldest pub in Norwich; perhaps England.
The pub is tiny, adding to its charm. Painted stone walls with small candle cubbies once used to light the tavern, along with beamed ceilings, allow guests to imagine centuries of workmen and locals settling in for a pint or a hot meal.
Also serving the cathedral in its early history was Maids Head Hotel, built around 1100 to house bishops traveling to the area as well as noble men and influential individuals of the time including Queen Elizabeth I in 1587. It is said to be the oldest hotel in England.
Touring the hotel’s public rooms is a history lesson in and of itself. Bar windows face out to what was once a passageway where carriages delivered their passengers for a night at the hotel, a meal, or a drink at the bar. The area is now part of the restaurant.
Edward the Black Prince, the oldest son of King Edward III, stayed here in 1350 when he came to the city to attend a jousting competition. Cardinal Wolsey and Queen Catherine of Aragon stayed here in 1520 while Catherine sought council from the Bishop of Norwich on how to conceive a boy for Henry VIII.
Five years later, during the Kett’s Rebellion, William Parr, the Marquis of Northampton and brother to Catherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s six wives, came to Norwich with an army to bring the rebellion to an end. He had breakfast at Maids Head before joining the battle where he was overwhelmed and forced to retreat.
Elm Hill is the city’s most famous medieval street, looking much the way it did when it was rebuilt after a major fire in 1507. In the 16th century it was home to prosperous merchants, craftsmen and civic dignitaries. Strolling along the cobbled street past specialty shops and cafes is like being dropped into a centuries-old painting.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Elm Hill and the River Wensum were important commercial thoroughfares and many weavers, dyers, goldsmiths and other skilled craftsmen settled in the area.
A few blocks away is Dragon Hall, an outstanding Grade 1 listed medieval trading hall dating from around 1430. It is renowned for its spectacular great hall, which has an impressive timber crown-post roof, and intricately carved and painted dragon.
Built by merchant Robert Toppes, the hall was at the heart of his international trading empire. In its heyday it would have been filled with wool, cloth, timber, spices, pottery and other items. Today it’s a museum telling the story of Toppes, medieval trade and 15th-century Norwich.
This is the only trading hall built by a single person to have survived in England and probably Europe. It is easy to imagine bustling activity in the hall; walls hung with tapestries and tables laden with trade goods from all over Europe.
A popular annual event here is the Medieval Christmas Market. The building is filled with traders in medieval dress selling their wares.
What was is in Norwich. The past is respected, admired and can be visited anytime someone wants to take a journey back in time.
If you go:
For more information about other medieval attractions check the website.