Early April in Norwich. It’s cool but the sky is blue and daffodils are glistening in Wordsworthian tribute to the bright spring sunshine. What better then than a morning stroll through the city along the banks of the River Wensum?
Like many cities – even London – these days, Norwich has largely turned its back on the river that runs through its centre. Once essential for transport and industry, the River Wensum that meanders through the city now seems to have little use other than as a backdrop for attractive new riverside apartments. Look a little closer though and you will still find plenty of reminders of Norwich’s medieval past along its course.
Hard to imagine now, but Norwich once held second city status in England and the banks of the River Wensum that dissect the city are still littered with traces of that period – medieval churches, priories, old bridges and defensive walls – as well as reminders of the city’s half-hearted dabble with Victorian industrialisation.
We begin our walk on St Benedict’s Street at St Lawrence’s Church. From the alley at the side of the church’s western gable you can see a little stone plaque set in the flint that depicts St Lawrence strapped to a grid iron, the means of his subsequent martyrdom. Understandably, he doesn’t look too happy about this but is blissfully unaware (well, perhaps not blissfully) that he will go on to become one of the earliest Christian martyr saints; indeed, the patron saint of comedians and chefs no less (and butchers and librarians too, apparently).
Descending the steps to cross Westlegate we pass the swish apartment block that in a previous incarnation used to be the Anchor Brewery. An enormous brick chimney once scraped the sky here – I still have a black and white photograph of it somewhere. As recently as thirty years ago Norwich used to be redolent of malt and hops (and chocolate too, from Rowntree’s, now Chapefield Shopping Centre) but its source did not originate from here as the Bullards brewery closed back in the 1960s.
We cross Coslany Bridge over the Wensum and follow the pedestrian access along the river’s north bank. Across the water stands the disused warehouse where the entire text of Thomas Moore’s Utopia is scrawled in white paint across the brickwork as if it were the work of a hyperactive 16th-century graffitti artist with a taste for political philosophy.
Crossing Duke Street by means of Dukes Palace Bridge, a brief detour via Colegate is necessary in order to reach Blackfriars Bridge by the Norwich School of Art before we arrive at Fye Bridge and Fishergate. Whitefriars Bridge comes next and the eponymous friary once stood on the site of the large edifice that looms before us: the Jarrolds Printing Works, built n 1834 and formerly a mill owned by the Norwich Yarn Company – a tall stately bulding with brickwork elegantly draped with Virginia Creeper and wisteria. Looking back, the clocktower on Norwich City Hall, which to my mind resembles a cut-price Marrakech minaret, rises into view beyond the weeping willows, newly in leaf, that sway dreamily over the torpid water beneath.
Beyond the printing works, a renga – a word map created by means of an ancient Japanese tradition of shared writing – strings a snake of words and phrases along green hoardings beside the river. A Renga for St James was created here on site in 2009 and utilises the local Norwich vernacular and reference points. Someone – a well-educated graffitist, who clearly understands the renga ethos – has scrawled ‘Perfidious’ above the word ‘Albion’, which in this instance refers to one of the few remaining wherries that used to ply East Anglia’s rivers.
Continuing east the new bridge soon comes into sight. Peter’s Bridge, named after a former Jarrold’s chairman, has only been open a few months and, surprisingly, not a lot of people seem to know about it. Most of the Wensum’s bridges are so ancient that they are firmly embedded in the city’s psyche but there have been three new footbridges so far this millennium: this one, the 2009 Lady Julian Bridge close to the railway station, and the Novi Sad Friendship Bridge, opened by the Yugoslav ambassador in 2001, near Carrow Bridge (ironic, then, that NATO bombed and destroyed the far more substantial and economically important bridges of Norwich’s twinned Serbian city just two years earlier).
Walking across this graceful, J (for Jarrold’s)-shaped footbridge, our riverside walk continues past Cow Tower towards Pull’s Ferry but before reaching this we pass what looks like a sluice leading into the river. This is, in fact, a rare 18th-century example of a swan pit, a tidal pool in which wild cygnets were kept and fattened for the table after having their wings clipped and beaks marked by their owners.
At Bishops Bridge, we leave the river behind to head for Cathedral Close and Tombland. A place called ‘Tombland’ next to a great church might reasonably be expected to be a place of the dead. But no, Tombland is Old English for ’empty land’ and this was the site of Norwich’s Anglo-Saxon market before the Normans came and shifted it to its present position next to St Peter Mancroft Church. Norwich Market has been operating there for over 900 years now and is still going strong, six days a week. Mind you, it did have a bit of an overhaul a few years back.