Forty-two intrepid members set off on the six hours’ coach journey to faraway Norwich.
Our first stop was a short visit to Belvoir Castle. Perched high on a craggy hill it has views over the surrounding countryside. The surrounding countryside looks up at its Gothic towers, reminiscent of Windsor Castle.
It was an early nineteenth century medieval concoction. Elizabeth Howard, who had spent much of her young life at Castle Howard, married into the Manners family. No doubt sick of her Yorkshire Baroque roots and now in possession of yet another seventeenth century mansion, she decided to embrace the new. Neither fires nor the death of her architect, James Wyatt, were to deter her. She carried on by herself to create the present house.
That evening Vicky Manthorpe of the Norwich Society spoke to us. Their society was formed in 1923 by the local archaeological society and some of the city’s architects to protect the ancient buildings of the city that were at risk from redevelopment. They have saved and cared for 45 heritage buildings since then. They are actively involved in many areas of the city’s life: new good design, traffic difficulties, Conservation Design Awards, publications on local designers, open spaces and river walks and the conservation of specific areas.
The next day we had a tour of the medieval city centre. Norwich was founded by the Normans and their original Guildhall, market and parish church still form the middle of the town. The town claims to have the largest surviving medieval street pattern and the most medieval undercrofts in England. It certainly does have the most surviving medieval churches in northern Europe.
Many of the houses, which we saw, appeared to be Georgian. As in Chester this is deceptive. In the old lanes they are likely to have timber framing under their Georgian exterior.
One of the real joys of these early buildings is the flint work. The Guildhall has chequered flint work to indicate its financial involvements. The churches have flint insets. Flint working has many varieties, such as random knapped and galletted, but the queen of them is flush work. One merchant and mayor of the city, Suckling, had whole walls done in this style. His house is now part of an Art cinema.
Norwich has more modern buildings. In many cities the Victorian era produced local architects of note. Norwich produced George Skipper. It was he who created the luscious Art Nouveau Royal Arcade. Plate glass shop fronts and Doulton architectural tiles make the narrow mall shimmer. Peacocks abound. It has recently been restored.
Over a hundred architects competed to design the Civic Hall in the early 1930s. London architects C. H. James and S.R. Pierce gained the commission. They built a controversial Art Deco building with a Scandinavian influenced high clock tower. Internally the building has retained much of its original deco furnishings.
Opposite the Civic Centre in its own garden is one of Lutyens’ eight war memorials.
In the afternoon we visited the cathedral. It was begun in 1096 and also formed part of a Benedictine monastery. The tower is the tallest Romanesque one in England, and is topped by a stone spire of 1492. After Salisbury this is the tallest spire in the country. The stonework is a mellow Caen limestone. This was transported to Norwich from France when the church was being constructed. It dresses the cruder underlying local stone.
A particular feature of the cathedral is the huge number of bosses, decorating the nave, chancel and cloisters. They do include green men and other strange creatures, but they principally illustrate the Biblical history of the world from the creation to the end of the New Testament.
Our final visit in Norwich was to the Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury donated their personal art collection to the university in 1973 on the condition that it should be kept intact. They built a huge personal relationship with the young Norman Foster. Not only did he design the building, but the internal fittings.
At either end of the building full height windows light the space. The side walls are louvered to regulate the light. The walls are a double layer to contain service elements.
Modern and ethnographic works are displayed side by side to create new understandings and perceptions of each.
All was dwarfed by Denys Lasdun’s mid-1960s university architecture. His nine huge concrete ziggurats loom over the green sward fronting them, which reaches to the river.
Behind them is his angled Teaching Wall of seminar and lecture rooms: might and majesty.
On the journey home we were hosted by the Market Harborough Civic Society. Unlike the Norwich Society it was not founded until 1977, and the impetus behind its formation was the local Rotary Club. Although small in numbers it has a highly active caucus, who are consulted by the District Council on all planning issues.
The group told us about recent developments in the town and awards won by this popular small location. At the present time it has 21,000 inhabitants. We then visited some of its sites – the church of St Dionysius and the lovely local amateur theatre developed from an old factory bicycle shed. We all finished up at the former Symington and Co factory. This is now the home of the library, a small café, a local museum and Harborough District Council. Symington’s factory was famous for its corsets and liberty bodices. Some members of the group just had to have their photographs taken with ceramic reproductions of these items.
The group particularly enjoyed the meals on this visit. The Belgian Monk and Last Wine Bar in Norwich were very popular.
Account of visit written by Karen McKay